Freedom of expression: FAQ

Freedom of expression: FAQ

Our vision for a secular democracy is underpinned by the right to free speech. Without this, democracy cannot exist. Therefore, religion must not be returned to a place of special protection, where it cannot be satirised, ridiculed or criticised. This would amount to a return of blasphemy laws.

Such restrictions on free expression are increasingly called for under the guise of protecting 'community cohesion' or 'community relations,' and many religious figures and political leaders (including Pope Francis and former President Obama) have argued that free expression should only be exercised where it will not aggravate religious sensibilities.

This argument must be rejected emphatically; free expression is a fundamental principle of a free, democratic, secular society, and we must not return, through the backdoor, to the type of society where religion is exempt from criticism, ridicule and satire.

There is often confusion between respect for individuals and respect for beliefs. While respect for the rights of the individual is enshrined in law, beliefs and organisations do not and should not automatically command respect in a democracy. The weapon of taking offence is increasingly being used against freedom of expression, along with claims of bias or persecution, partly because it is hard to challenge such a subjective response. People or groups who claim the right not to be offended often demand the right to offend others in the expression of their beliefs, moral values and so on.

As well as being subjective, offence is also mutable. As the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe points out: "What is likely to cause substantial offence to persons of a particular religious persuasion will vary significantly from time to time and from place to place".

It also states that: "The Assembly is of the opinion that freedom of expression (...) should not be further restricted to meet increasing sensitivities of certain religious groups".

Importantly, claiming offence and demanding respect cannot be acceptable when claims are made by cultures that violate basic human rights.

The European Court of Human Rights' guide to the implementation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states: "Those who choose to exercise the freedom to manifest their religion, irrespective of whether they do so as members of a religious majority or a minority, cannot reasonably expect to be exempt from all criticism. They must tolerate and accept the denial by others of their religious beliefs and even the propagation by others of doctrines hostile to their faith."

The necessary limits to freedom of expression are well understood in international law but attempts to further limit this freedom beyond a prohibition on incitement to hatred and violence run counter to the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In addition, the European Court of Human Rights states that there are no grounds for affording better protection to the institutions than to individuals.

Freedom from discrimination or censorship, and freedom to communicate, are vital in a democracy. Media organisations must have the liberty to publish material as they see fit. But self-censorship under the threat of violence is not an exercise of free choice.

The state should fully commit itself to defending those who make use of their fundamental human rights to free expression and speech, regardless of whether individuals' substantive use of their right is seen by some as 'inflammatory' or 'provocative'. These arguments amount to blaming victims for violence directed at them. The state must defend these individuals.

Unfortunately, we have seen art exhibitions cancelled after the police made unreasonable demands for financial compensation for security. The state must incur the financial cost of defending free speech, as it does unequivocally in France.

Death threats against Salman Rushdie after he published The Satanic Verses in 1988 are widely seen as the start of the current malaise in the UK. Those responsible were allowed to go unpunished while Rushdie was castigated and vilified – which eventually lead to him receiving life-threatening, life-changing injuries at the hands of an Islamist extremist in 2022.

Letting extremists shut down speech which offends them sends a signal that restricting freedom of expression can be carried out with impunity and that religion is off limits for debate or criticism.

Believers in any one religion are not a homogeneous mass. A vocal minority –frequently extremists – often claim to speak for whole communities. Equally, there is no one nonreligious culture; non-believers are as diverse as believers.

One of the growing causes for concern is that these diverse voices of the nonreligious are either not being heard or are not equally valued: religious voices are claiming their right to freedom of expression but at the cost of non-religious voices being silenced. Claims of bias or persecution are used to silence debate or to steer it into areas non-critical of religion, particularly in its more extreme forms. It is these that are the greatest threat to social cohesion, equalities and free expression. And it is these most in need of being brought into open public debate.

In 2008 the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief noted that laws protecting religious citizens are inherently discriminatory against atheists, non‐theists, and religious sceptics because they protect religion as opposed to belief or conscience and their expression.

There is also the risk of a hierarchy of values with the most orthodox religious considering theirs the truest or most important and those of the non-religious either a pale imitation or non-existent – and therefore not worthy of respect or discussion. The potential result is a homogenised, sanitised universal culture that either gives offence to none or is controlled by the most vocal and powerful group whatever the rest of the populace may want or believe.

'Blasphemy' laws are specific prohibitions on speech which religious groups consider 'blasphemous' or offensive to their religion.

Many people are surprised to learn how late the UK has been to address its own blasphemy laws. They were abolished as late as 2008 in England and Wales. Scotland only abolished theirs in 2019.

And Northern Ireland still retains its blasphemy laws. It is the only part of the UK where 'blasphemy' and 'blasphemous libel' remain common law offences.

Blasphemy laws have no place in any country, and especially 21st century Northern Ireland. They are illiberal, anachronistic and incompatible with the fundamental human rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

The presence of blasphemy laws in Northern Ireland undermines efforts to repeal blasphemy laws worldwide. Blasphemy laws are used to persecute religious minorities, the non-religious, those who leave or change their religion, or simply those who speak their mind. In some countries, "blasphemy" carries the death penalty.

As long as blasphemy laws remain on the books, there is always the risk that they may be invoked to silence criticism or ridicule of religion within Northern Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland an attempt to arrest Stephen Fry was made in 2015 under the Defamation Act 2009, which at the time outlawed "utterance of blasphemous matter", by a person offended by Fry's comments about religion. The Republic of Ireland abolished its blasphemy laws in 2020.

And in 2014, Newtownabbey Borough Council in NI banned a play about the Bible on the grounds that it was "blasphemous".

The existence of blasphemy laws sends the dangerous and anti-democratic message that offence-takers have the right to censor that which offends their religious beliefs.

Abolishing its blasphemy laws would send a message that Northern Ireland is committed to the values of free speech, tolerance, democracy and freedom of conscience. It would also send a message to other countries that employ blasphemy laws that such laws are unacceptable in the 21st century, and so help to end global persecution in the name of religion.

Sixty-nine countries have 'blasphemy laws'. In six of these, blasphemy is punishable by death.

Eighteen countries outlaw 'apostasy' – leaving a religious tradition – and in 12 of them it is punishable by death. In 13 countries, people can effectively be put to death for expressing atheism.

But things are beginning to change. Since 2014, blasphemy laws have been repealed in eight countries.

A vibrant civil society with robust freedom of expression is best placed to challenge hateful speech, discrimination and sectarian bigotry. Free speech organisations have an important role in this.

In a liberal, secular society individuals should be afforded respect and protection, ideas should not. While we must always defend the right to criticise any religion or belief, a secular society is meaningless if it does not protect the rights and dignities of people of all faiths and none. While some may seek to shield religion from any criticism, we must also be wary of criticism used as a cloak for bigotry.

The National Secular Society opposes sectarianism, bigotry and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their religion. Secularists strongly oppose discrimination or privilege on the grounds of religious or non-religious beliefs, or perceived beliefs.

Our mission is to challenge religious privilege and discrimination. This is essential to protect the human rights of individuals of all religions and beliefs, including Muslims, and we hope to work positively with individuals and groups of good conscience regardless of their religion or beliefs to further this mission.

Anti-Muslim groups may attempt to link their prejudice to legitimate secular concerns, however secularists do not oppose one form of religious privilege when it is afforded to Muslims while supporting similar privileges for other groups. For example an anti-Muslim group may oppose a Muslim faith school, but that would be quite different to a principled secularist position against faith schools.

Anti-Muslim bigotry, directed against individuals or "Muslims" as a whole, is distinct from (even discourteous) criticism of Islamic ideas, ideology or practices and can be directed against anyone perceived to be Muslim regardless of their religious or ideological views.

In a liberal secular society individuals should be afforded respect and protection, ideas should not. Secularists reject the idea that any set of beliefs should be privileged or protected from criticism. For this reason we have concerns over the use of the term "Islamophobia". Accusations of 'Islamophobia' have been used to silence debate about (and within) Islam, to justify religious privilege, to justify religious violence and even to argue against showing solidarity with Muslim victims of Islamist violence.

Far from combatting prejudice and bigotry, erroneous cries of 'Islamophobia' have in fact become a cover for it. LGBT rights campaigners have been called 'Islamophobes' for criticising Muslim clerics' views on homosexuality. Ex-Muslims and feminist activists have be called 'Islamophobes' for criticising certain Islamic views on women. Even liberal and secular Muslims have been branded 'Islamophobes'

Anti-Muslim bigotry seeks to present Muslims as a monolithic block sharing the same beliefs. This plays into the hands of Islamists, who seek to present themselves as the genuine and definitive voice of Muslims.

Secularists uphold individuals' rights to interpret their beliefs as their conscience dictates. We reject 'religious policing', when groups insist that their interpretation of a religion should be privileged and define who is a 'real' member of a religious group.

Islam like any other religion or belief system is a diverse and evolving ideology. While some Islamic beliefs may conflict with secularism and liberal values, there is no reason why individual Muslims and Muslim groups cannot reconcile the values of secularism and Human Rights with their own beliefs. Indeed, around the world secular and progressive Muslims are often on the frontline of challenging Islamism.

Many Muslims face discrimination and bigotry and may be victims of racism. Some far right groups use Islam and Muslims as code words for non-white to further their deeply anti-secular identity politics. However, erroneous accusations of racism should not be allowed to silencing legitimate criticism and debate about (and within) Islam. Doing so leaves a gulf which is filled by anti-Muslim bigotry and helps extremists from both sides put forward a monolithic view of Muslims.

Finally, we are wary of conflating Islamism with Islam or Muslims. Such conflation can be used either to promote anti-Muslim bigotry, or to protect Islamism from criticism through erroneous accusations of 'Islamophobia'.

Islamism describes a range of religiopolitical ideologies characterised by:

  • The belief that specific interpretations of Islam are definitive, should guide social and political decisions and should be privileged/enforced through violence, state policy or severe social pressure.
  • Extreme hostility to apostates and Muslims with different interpretations of Islam, especially when they are perceived as liberal, progressive or secular.
  • Explicit anti-secularism, coupled with the claim that secularism and Islam are incompatible.
  • Extreme hostility to Human Rights and free expression where they contradict with the Islamists' preferred interpretation of Islam.
  • The desire to establish a caliphate as a real world political entity governed by Islamic law.
  • Extremely reactionary attitudes towards women and LGBTQ people – based on an interpretation of Islam.

"Phobia language, including "Islamophobia" and "Christianophobia", has been used in some international human rights fora. This emphasises "feelings" rather than "actions", whether or not a human right has actually been violated. Human rights allows restrictions on inciting hatred against religious (or non-religious) believers, but it also requires a proper balance to be struck to safeguard freedom of expression. It is therefore important to ensure that freedom of religion or belief itself, not feelings about it, remains the primary focus of concern."
Foreign & Commonwealth Office Freedom of Religion or Belief Toolkit

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims is encouraging political parties, local authorities and other institutions to adopt their definition of 'Islamophobia', which states: "Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness".

While the NSS supports efforts to end anti-Muslim bigotry, we do not think this definition is the right way to do this. We share the concerns held by the UK government and many human rights organisations that the definition risks silencing criticism of Islam and may be in conflict with equality law.

For this reason, we do not support the APPG's 'Islamophobia' definition and encourage authorities to use other methods to tackle anti-Muslim hate without adopting this definition.