Free speech: why we still have reason to be hopeful

We must now help to build momentum for the changes that will ensure everybody has a safe space to share their ideas

The incidents of the past two weeks – the Charlie Hebdo attack and the flogging of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi for expressing his liberal views on Islam – have disgusted me.

It was not just the incidents themselves that were outrageous; so was the response of apologetic liberals and the censored media. The backlash which followed including increasing attacks against Muslims, Jews and others in France and elsewhere, has been quite depressing.

Distinguishing between free speech and hate against people should not be that difficult. Mocking and criticising any ideology, including Islam, is a right, while spreading anti-Muslim hate – or hate against any particular group – is a crime.

The concept is very simple: inclusion and respect are for people not beliefs.

Nevertheless, thinking about the struggle for freedom of speech over the past few days, I have tried to look on the bright side.

This is a moment to remember and celebrate our victories over the last decade as a secular movement pushing for freedom of expression. It is also a time to embrace the opportunities we still have to push the battle further.

Through long bloody battles against abusive forums of powers, the right to criticise, mock and offend has been fought for, not given. It is not enough merely to protect these rights, they need to be exercised. In the name of these freedoms various art forms have flourished, science has evolved and societies have been reformed.

Throughout history, they have played a significant role in shaming abusive governments, corporations and religious institutions and have shaped the civil values we are enjoying and the societies we are living in today. After all, satire is an art form that requires a great deal of wit; not everyone can perform it, not everyone can appreciate it.

The secular movement is gaining momentum around the world led by rationalists, humanists, atheists and secularists from different backgrounds. Across Islamic states and Muslim majority countries, where thoughts and speech are most restricted and criminalised when it comes to religion, there are over 200,000 active online groups whose members identify as atheists, non-religious, agnostics and secularists.

This online movement reflects what could exist on the ground if safety was guaranteed. However, despite the serious dangers secularists face, we have recently witnessed the victory of the Tunisian secular party Nidaa Tounes and the establishment of the Council of Exmuslims of Morocco, and we hear daily about the hundreds of individuals who resist and pay with their lives.

Add to that the international secular movements and activists who came together last year agreeing on a manifesto and forming an International Secular Front to push the fight further.

While blasphemy and apostasy laws remain active in more than 30 Islamic states and Muslim majority countries, within this age of human rights declarations, these laws are being frequently addressed and challenged.

We have witnessed the establishment of the International Ethical and Humanist Union, and the inclusion of non-religious and humanist representatives in parliaments and the United Nations. In addition there are a great number of national and international NGOs and human rights organisations which play a crucial role in reporting and monitoring abuse cases against free thinkers. A good database of evidence against apostasy and blasphemy laws is being created, and reforms of these laws are becoming closer to reality.

The more abuse cases are reported, the more discussion and support of free speech takes place. A number of courts have been challenged nationally by their own citizens, and demonstration in support of freedoms of thought and expression have been organised after various individuals were charged with apostasy.

We have seen this in Sudan on behalf of Maryam Yehya, in Eygpt for Alia al-Mehdi, in Tunisia for Amina Tyler and in many cases elsewhere. Apostasy and blasphemy laws are now widely seen as discriminative and unacceptable. At this stage it’s a matter of how to abolish them rather than why.

Having said all this, here are a few suggestions to influence change and push the struggle further:

First, oppose apostasy and blasphemy laws and challenge multiculturalism policies. The reformation of apostasy and blasphemy laws would have to be part of a long democratic process or a massive regime change. Nevertheless, those working in the legal and human rights sectors have more capacity to legally challenge and influence the reformation, considering the laws conflict with human rights conventions.

The rest of us can significantly assist by supporting anti-hate campaigns against apostates and strongly challenging concepts such as Kafir, Murtad, Zindeeq and Munafiq, which are the Islamic equivalent to ‘apostates’, but additionally promote hate and call for action against those called as such.

As for multicultural polices, these should be challenged politically and socially for the way they homogenise diverse groups and empower certain leaders, as well as the conflicts they generate by creating protected cultures and identities. Promoting common civil values, universal human rights and defending the right to criticise and mock are concepts always to bear in mind within the battle for free speech.

Second, support activists on line and on the ground. Nothing is easier in the digital age than supporting those who resist and fight on the frontlines on behalf of us. Supporting groups and their work on the different social media platforms would cost no more than a few minutes. Maybe we can start by signing the petition to free the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and raise the profile of Egyptian writer Fatma Naoot who is facing imprisonment for criticising Islam.

In addition, a number of organisations are working directly with activists on the ground and devoting a great deal of effort and time to collecting evidence to defend free speech. Be they religious or non-religious, they are all working toward secular systems and safe spheres for all to speak out. Attending their events, promoting their work and supporting them financially are the least we can do. Here is a list of secular groups and activists whom you could contact and support.

Finally, support a secular education system. Those of us who have experienced a religious education know how narrow and dogmatic it can be. The lived experience of faith schools also supports this. The problem is mainly reflected in the lack of exposure to other view points, and sometimes in underestimating scientific facts and ridiculing ‘the others’.

Questioning, disagreeing and politely criticising are crucial skills, which should be encouraged in schools to prepare children for the diverse world outside. To do so, we need a safe atmosphere which welcomes children regardless of their parents’ different backgrounds, and where they are unafraid to ask and explore. Here are a few initiatives to support.

To conclude, the struggle for freedom of speech has always been there. We have seen it under political oppression, during tribal fights and civil wars, and between classes and religions. Everywhere, advocates for free speech are paying an expensive cost fighting for the right to exist and speak; however, those who criticise Islam are paying an extra cost. Just in the past few years we have lost Iranian Mohsen Amir-Aslani, Pakistani Muhammad Shakeel, Iraqi Samira Saleh al-Naimi, Bangladeshi Rajib Haider and many others for criticising Islam, not to mention the attacks and firebombing in Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan and more.

This is a long battle indeed, but we are also becoming bigger and stronger. In 2015, we renew our hopes and resolve to fight for a safe and free space for everyone to think, express and criticise.

Nahla Mahmoud is an environmental campaigner and human rights activist. Follow her on Twitter

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