Since we at the Center for Inquiry first launched the Campaign for Free Expression website in 2012, a lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same.
Let me start with what has not changed: There remains a global crackdown on freedom of expression, blasphemy laws exist in more than 50 countries, and often times, in countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, these laws are still viciously enforced. Governments are still too often in thrall to political pressure from extremist religious movements, rather than responding to the rights and needs of all people. Countries with dreadful human rights records still hold too much sway at the United Nations, and organize to resist — and reverse — progress on freedom of thought.
And, unfortunately, many of the dissidents and victims of persecution we highlighted when this site was first launched remain either imprisoned or in legal or even mortal danger.
But things have also changed, some for better, some for worse. Alexander Aan of Indonesia, jailed for posting to Facebook about his atheism, was released from prison after 19 months, and now pursues his love of science, and works toward a degree in physics. Raif Badawi, jailed in 2012 for “insulting Islam” in Saudi Arabia, was eventually sentenced to 10 years and an unthinkable 1000 lashes. But his story has elevated the cause of free expression, and the United States’ problematic relationship with Saudi Arabia, to international attention. The protest band Pussy Riot became globally known symbols of free speech, particularly the right to criticize one’s government, and now, out of prison, continue to rally support to the cause. And at the diplomatic level, the once-relentless efforts by certain countries to codify a kind of global blasphemy law at the United Nations have largely dissipated. For now.
Some things have gotten much worse. One need look no further than the crisis in Bangladesh, where four secularist bloggers have been murdered by Islamic radicals in 2015 alone, with many more on a “hit list” of names singled out for death by extremist groups, some reportedly affiliated with Al Qaeda. One of the victims, Avijit Roy, was a naturalized U.S. citizen who assisted us with our worldwide protests against the jailing of atheist bloggers in 2013.
Violence in response to perceived blasphemy reached Paris at the end of 2014 with the massacre of journalists and cartoonists at the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Sony Pictures, for a time, capitulated to the demands of what may or may not have been the North Korean government, when violence was threatened over the screening of the film “The Interview.” And right here in the United States, the peaceful citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting the killing of Michael Brown, had their free expression rights curbed by a militarized police force.
The silver lining to these ongoing concerns is that free expression and the right to criticize and satirize religion, cultural traditions, and governments is now a topic of mainstream debate and discussion. Now, more than ever, the world community is taking seriously the need to defend free speech, and wrestling with how to navigate the fundamental right to free religious belief (including the right not to believe) and the equally fundamental right of individuals to criticize religious beliefs.
We are proud to have led so much of this conversation, to have been at the forefront of this great challenge, a challenge that tests our notions of a global civilization, and calls us to be our best, most humanistic selves.
With so much change, and with so much that still needs to change, we thought it was also time to rethink our campaign website, to refocus our online presence, and better respond to the rapid developments on this broad and explosive topic.
So take a look around the new site. See the updated case files of those persecuted for their dissent. Educate yourself on the issue with our various materials and media, including statements to the UN Human Rights Council. And most importantly, check out the ways you can get involved.
The right to free expression is as big as the world, and as we’ve seen so often, responses and suppressions of free expression have reverberations far beyond any one country’s borders. But you can help us get this important concept across those borders, into the hearts and minds of government officials, diplomats, and the general public:
Ideas don’t need rights. People do. Protect dissent.