Roy Speckhardt: Religious Freedom on the Brink.
[Roy is CEO of the AHA]
t 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….
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.