The fundamental right to free expression is under attack around the world. The targets of the assault are those who question, criticize, or satirize religious beliefs, cultural customs, or political figures. These dissidents are not violent insurgents wielding guns or machetes, but writers, activists, thinkers, scholars, and everyday citizens living their lives and speaking their minds. Their weapons are pens, keyboards, and their own human voices.
To silence these voices, a global crackdown is underway, where those who exercise their right to free expression are persecuted, threatened, jailed, tortured, or killed. The assault is being waged by religious demagogues, angry mobs, and radicalized individuals, as well as by governments, both local and national, leveling charges of blasphemy and “insulting religion” against dissidents. And through the abuse of individuals, they seek to terrorize the population as a whole into resigned submission.
The Campaign for Free Expression is an initiative of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) created to resist this crackdown and defend the right of all people to think, believe, and speak as they choose without fear of government sanction or violent reprisal. We find ourselves in the midst of what is no less than a human rights crisis that even the most pessimistic Enlightenment-era thinker could not have thought possible in the 21st century. But whether those speaking out are atheist or religious; liberal or conservative; Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or of any or no faith, the Campaign for Free Expression exists to fight for their right to speak.
Consider just a few recent examples:
- In Bangladesh, four secularist bloggers have been murdered in the streets by Islamic extremists in 2015 alone, while the prime minister reprimands not the killers, but the bloggers, for hurting religious feelings.
- In Indonesia, a man was sentenced to thirty months in prison merely for posting on Facebook that he is an atheist.
- In Pakistan, a Christian mother of five has been sentenced to death for allegedly making derogatory comments about Muhammad.
- In Russia, three feminist musicians were sentenced to two years in prison for performing a protest song at a Catholic Church.
- In Saudi Arabia, a young man was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes for operating a website featuring content critical of religion.
- In Egypt, Christians have been subjected to threats as well as actual physical violence for trying to attend church services, while an atheist was recently sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting religion.”
- In Iran, seven leaders of the Bahá’í faith face twenty years in prison simply for belonging to a minority religion—an example of the government’s continuing arbitrary crackdowns on Bahá’ís.
For many in positions of power around the world, even examples such as these are not sufficient crackdowns on freedom of thought. While some leaders offer vague platitudes that invoke a need to curtail certain forms of sensitive speech, others are far more severe. They seek ironclad global restrictions on what can and cannot be expressed about religion and religious figures, criminalizing on a planetary scale any speech that might offend religious sentiments. Eruptions of violence in majority-Muslim countries ostensibly in response to an anti-Islam Internet video, the murders of secular bloggers and activists in Bangladesh and India, and a massacre perpetrated on a Paris newspaper over its satirical cartoons, have prompted leaders in Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, and other countries to seize upon the unrest and call upon the United Nations to enact binding resolutions against the so-called “defamation of religion.” Worried about further violence and wary of the appearance of insensitivity, many pro-democracy governments and organizations have begun to soften in their defense of free expression.
At the Center for Inquiry, we believe it’s time for us as a unified human species to stand up and declare that this is unacceptable.
Despite what many would have us believe, the right to freedom of expression is not a luxury valued mainly by Western elites, but a widely accepted, foundational principle of civilization. Several important international agreements, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, clearly outline that freedom of expression is a universal right possessed by all persons, regardless of geography or nationality.
No one, anywhere, should face social or legal punishment simply for speaking about his or her beliefs in public. And, importantly, no topic should be off limits—especially religion, which has such an enormous impact on the lives of billions. Part of the freedom of expression is the freedom to inquire—to ask questions and seek answers beyond what is dictated by a religious text or cultural dogma. This freedom is at the core of CFI’s mission. How can we truly have freedom and equality if certain groups of people aren’t allowed to exercise the same rights as anyone else? And how can we as a civilization grow, learn, and prosper if we sit back and allow the suppression—too often violent—of minority viewpoints?
The right to freedom of expression is being whittled away, person by person, law by law, and innocent and peaceful people are every day suffering the consequences. It is not a problem isolated to a faraway land. The crackdown of free expression reverberates around the planet.
The aims of the Campaign for Free Expression are to increase public awareness of these threats; discuss and develop plans to fight back, both in the world’s halls of power and at the grassroots; and to demonstrate that people value their right to freedom of expression and are eager to exercise it.
We hope you join us.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Campaign for Free Expression?
The Campaign for Free Expression is an initiative of the Center for Inquiry to raise awareness regarding one of the most foundational human rights: the freedom to speak and to express one’s views without persecution or oppression.
But isn’t free expression protected in the United States?
Yes, but Americans are fortunate. Around the world, people routinely face social and legal punishment simply for stating their position on topics such as religion, whether they are expressing their belief in a given faith or their doubts. This is where the Campaign is focused.
What is the purpose or goal of the Campaign?
CFI launched this Campaign with two goals.
First, we seek to raise consciousness about the insidious prevalence of laws around the world that restrict freedom of expression, as well as the disturbing number of cases in which peaceful people have been targeted and punished simply for stating their views on religion.
Second, we want people to take action: to make others aware of the current situation; to contact governmental leaders, diplomats, and others in positions of influence over laws and social norms regarding free expression; and to reach out and support those who are right now being oppressed and persecuted by blasphemy laws and similar restrictions.
Through accomplishing these aims, we hope to show the world that the freedom of expression enjoys broad, global support.
What is the Campaign doing to achieve these aims?
A number of things, central of which is launching a website, www.centerforinquiry.net/cfe. This website details laws and cases of expression being restricted, allowing people to learn about many of the current threats to free expression, along with featuring advocacy material like petitions and action alerts.
All of this is happening in concert with the political advocacy that CFI has been doing for years at both the United Nations and on Capitol Hill.
Where does CFI/the Campaign stand on inflammatory speech, such as burning a Qu’ran?
CFI considers such speech on a case-by-case basis. In the case of burning a Qu’ran, we would rather people read and discuss the book as a more constructive alternative to an act that might only cause anger. But the point of this Campaign is to raise awareness about why freedom of expression is a universal human right. We might not agree with the burning of a Qu’ran, but we oppose attempts to punish those who do.
How can you say free expression is a universal human right? Many people do not agree with that.
Several international agreements state explicitly that freedom of expression is a universal human right.
This right was first recognized in 1948 in United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) and was given the force of international law in 1966 by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19). Article 19 of the ICCPR reads that:
“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” (ICCPR, Article 19)
These agreements are not arbitrary, nor are they based on an exclusively Western interpretation of values. They are based on a universally recognizable secular humanist moral code that leaves private and personal beliefs for homes and churches and values freedom of conscience, reason, and naturalism in the public square.