Religious Freedom on the Brink

Oct 12, 2012 | Updated Dec 12, 2012

It's time to reconsider recent reasons for optimism regarding worldwide religious freedom. In September I wrote about how the Libyan embassy attack taught the world that true religious freedom requires not just that people are able to believe as they so choose, but it also demands the ability to be free from imposed belief and be able to question beliefs as one sees fit. Some leaders like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon capitalized on the teachable moment to show humanity that while words can hurt, they never justify violence or oppression. But unfortunately, violence in the Middle East and elsewhere continues the long-running tendency to link blood and blasphemy. We haven't outgrown the outdated attitudes from ancient civilizations where people like Anaxagoras were condemned to death for denying or questioning the existence of gods and a law was adopted that denounced " those who do not believe in the divine beings or who teach doctrines about things in the sky."

It seems as though many in the world are far more eager to use religion as a tool for consolidating power than are interested in protecting religious freedom and free speech. Countries such as Pakistan, Greece, and Egypt are imprisoning those who dare to speak their mind about religion and belief in general. This undemocratic crackdown on speech is worrying not only because it threatens the concept of religious freedom, but because real human beings around the world are suffering from the effects of this renewed tyrannical campaign that goes on where the attempts to impose blasphemy laws at the UN left off in 2011.

Take the case of a 27-year-old in Greece who was arrested on charges of posting "malicious blasphemy and religious insult" on Facebook. The accused, whose identity has not been made public, had created and managed the Facebook page "Elder Pastitsios the Pastafarian," a name that plays on a combination of Elder Paisios, a famous Greek-Orthodox monk, and the Greek food pastitsio, a baked pasta dish made of ground beef and béchamel sauce. The picture of Elder Pastitsios has a pastitsio where the monk's face should be. The fact that a person was arrested for posting a picture of a monk with a plate of pasta for a face is a very surreal and might almost be funny if not for the fact that the "blasphemer" is now in prison.

The case of Egyptian atheist Alber Saber is even less funny. On September 13th, two days after the clashes between Egyptian security forces and protesters broke out near the U.S. Embassy over the "Innocence of Muslims" film, neighbors of Saber claimed that he shared the anti-Islam video on Facebook. This led to an angry mob storming Saber's house and kicking out Saber and his mother. When police arrived, it was Saber who was arrested, not the attackers. Saber's lawyer said police then incited prisoners against Saber, stating that he was an atheist and claiming he had insulted the Prophet Mohamed. This prompted the prisoners to attack Saber with razors until he was grievously injured. Meanwhile, the mob returned to his home, surrounded the building, and ordered his mother to leave the neighborhood or be burned alive inside the home. Saber's mother, who is a Coptic Christian, has been in hiding since the attack. And the Egyptian government proceeded to accuse Saber of religious blasphemy, hold him for weeks in custody at a secret location without trial, and eventually sentenced him to six years in prison.

Even children aren't safe from this onslaught against religious freedom and free speech. In Egypt, two children aged nine and ten were arrested and charged with blasphemy in the Upper Egyptian city of Beni Suef after being accused of urinating on copies of the Quran. The defiled Qurans were reportedly found by a sheikh near the village mosque, and the sheikh filed a complaint accusing the two of blasphemy at the local police station.

Unfortunately, 17 cases of religious blasphemy have been filed in Egypt alone in the wake of violent protests against the anti-Islam film "The Innocence of Muslims." While actions such as those by the two Egyptian youths may be offensive, the arrests made by governments attempting to combat "blasphemy" are the clear problem here. The idea that every human being is free to think and express their beliefs without fear of violence or unjust imprisonment is being threatened by governments that are more concerned about protecting religious beliefs than human rights.

Should we place the right to speak one's mind over that of protecting the "honor" of religious beliefs? Or do we want to continue following the dictates of the ancient past; copying laws established to forbid certain types of world views and killing people for violating them. The answer should be obvious: we need to ensure that a person's freedom of thought and speech is paramount. The sacredness some hold for religion must never be written into the law, and blasphemy must never be justification for violence, government-sanctioned or otherwise. If we fail to agree on these basic principles of free expression the world will quickly become a much less democratic and free place than it is today.