It’s Time to Stand Up for Free Expression

Tom Flynn


The entire Muslim world . . . is agitating for the United Nations to pass an anti blasphemy law. The rest of the civilized world must oppose this at everytu rn.

—Mahfooz Kanwar, Calgary Herald

It seemed the whole world was marking International Blasphemy Rights Day (September 30). Debates about free speech and criticism of religions had beenconsuming the news agenda for days. The inept and insulting Internet video Innocence of Muslims—or more precisely, its inept and insulting fourteen-minute trailer—was thought to have triggered September 11 riots in Benghazi that claimed the life of U.S. Ambassador Chris­to­pher Stevens and three otherAmericans. The Benghazi attack is now understood as an al-Qaeda strike for which outrage over the video was merely pretext. But in the immediate aftermathof the consulate attack, calls for new curbs on speech critical of religion resounded worldwide. Fortunately, so did vigorous defenses of the principle offree speech.

Conspicuous among the latter is the ongoing Campaign for Free Expression (CFE), relaunched on International Blas­phemy Rights Day by the Council forSecular Humanism’s supporting organization, the Center for Inquiry (CFI). The campaign, which will continue into early 2013, is meant to “fight the effortsof governments to criminalize speech critical of religion and to push back against calls for global restrictions on free speech” while it seeks to “inspirethe global community to stand up in defense of free speech.” (To learn more, visit

“Blasphemy” was once understood as an insult to a deity. Today it is fashionable to redefine it as an insult or offense against a group of religiousbelievers. As Austin Dacey reports in his article in this issue (one of four essays following this one that comprise a mini-feature on the controversy),much of the world’s human-rights community has now embraced this revised definition of blasphemy, not the least of whose problems is that it makes“blasphemy” mean whatever its self-labeled victims decide it means. Adherents call for policies or new international laws to legitimate the suppression ofspeech insulting to religious communities.

Since 1999, the fifty-seven-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC, formerly the Organisation of the Islamic Conference) pressed the UnitedNations (UN) to criminalize what it calls “defamation of religions.” In recent years, CFI and others have actively op­posed these initiatives.

With the Innocence controversy, the OIC vastly expanded its activism. It had plenty of company. In rapid succession, Sunni Islam’s highest legal authorityurged the UN to criminalize blasphemy toward Islam. The vice-chair of the International Union of Muslim Scholars demanded that the world body “criminalizethe denigration of religious symbols.” Lebanon’s highest-ranking Catho­lic leader urged the UN to “ban denigrating religions.” Even UN Secretary GeneralBan Ki-moon wound up conceding that curbs on free speech could be acceptable when speech is “used to provoke or humiliate.”

What these proposals share is a willingness to set aside free-speech norms where religion is concerned—in effect, to create a special right not to beinsulted that exists for religious believers and them alone. Turkey’s prime minister has declared that “freedom of thought and belief ends where thefreedom of thought and belief of others start,” while Yemen’s president urged the General Assembly to create “limits for the freedom of expression,especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.” Chillingly, Pakistan’s president called on the global community to“criminalize such acts that . . . endanger world security by freedom of expression.”

Surprisingly, some calls to suppress Innocence of Muslims or sanction its creators came from American sources. Shortly after the Benghazi attack, AntheaButler, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, called, in USA Today, for the video maker, then known only as “SamBacile,” to be arrested because “the ‘free speech’ in Bacile’s film is not about expressing a personal opinion about Islam. It denigrates the religion. . ..” Sarah Chayes, a former special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote in theLos Angeles Times that Innocence of Muslims might be treated as an incitement to violence unworthy of free-speech protections even on American soil.

And Eric Posner, son of the famous judge and a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote at that “Americans need to learn that therest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment.”

It has been heartening to see how rapidly—and capably—such contentions have been rebutted. Within a day, Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Indi­vidualRights in Education replied on the Huffington Post, ridiculing Posner’s claim that “blasphemy could function as some small, manageable exception to ournational guarantee of freedom of expression and belief.” On the contrary: “The brilliance of our system is that we placed freedom of speech, the freeexercise of religion, and the freedom from established religion in the same clause. In one sentence, the Bill of Rights at­tempted to eliminate some of themost consistent reasons for particularly brutal bloodshed in human history.”

As Michael De Dora, CFI’s director of public policy, expressed it: “No one has the right not to be offended, and centuries-dead religious figures certainlyneed no protection from insult.”

Ultimately, this debate will turn on two key questions:

  1. Is free speech a fundamental human right, or is it a uniquely Western concept with limited applicability elsewhere in the world?
  2. Is it proper to offer special treatment or special protection for religious believers because of their heightened sensitivities? Or as New York Timescolumnist Nicholas D. Kristof quipped, “Should we curb the freedom to insult religions that are twitchy?”

Is free speech a fundamental right? In her column, Shadia Drury makes a humanist case for viewing free speech as a domestic good, justifiably treasured athome but difficult to export without at least the appearance of imperialist hubris. It’s important to understand this argument, but I think many secularhumanists will join with me in respectfully rejecting it.

In part, this reflects secular humanism’s commitment to ethical objectivism. Are moral judgments nothing more than expressions of opinion, ultimatelyreflecting only the likes and prejudices of the individual or community that propounds them? If so, there’s no problem if Amer­icans prefer free expressionwhile Paki­stanis fancy curbs on speech to shield the Prophet and his religion. No one’s right, no one’s wrong; let a thousand flowers bloom. Pakistanicricket star and politician Imran Khan exemplified this stance when he said, “You can’t come into a society and say ‘this should be painful and this shouldnot be painful.’ What is painful to us is painful to us. And we expect countries to recognize that.” Pious critics often accuse nonbelievers of embracingjust this sort of relativism in the moral arena. But secular humanism has always firmly rejected tha
t approach, explicitly blending nontheism with the viewthat ethical norms can be evaluated objectively in terms of how effectively they support human flourishing.

In the new introduction to the second edition of his book Forbidden Fruit, Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz noted that there are “prima facie general rulesthat we can discover in human experience and reflection and in which common social virtues appear . . . common moral decencies that cut across cultures. .. . This is most likely due to the fact that human beings face similar problems and as a consequence share basic common needs.” In other words,because all societies are comprised of human beings whose natures and psychologies are broadly similar, through patient observation and unbiased analysiswe can hope to discover ethical precepts valid for every society, not only for some.

In fact, this process has been ongoing for centuries, and freedom of expression has emerged as one of the universal human values it reveals. In announcingthe new Campaign for Free Expression, CFI President Ronald A. Lindsay aptly termed it “a fundamental human right.”

This view has prominent defenders outside of our movement, including U.S. President Barack Obama. In remarks to the UN General Assembly on September 25,Obama said bluntly that the principles of free speech “are not simply American values or Western values—they are universal values.”

And if free speech is a universal value, then, as Edward Tabash asserts in his column in this issue, “blasphemy is a human right.”

That brings us back to our second question. Is it proper to treat religious be­lievers differently because of their heightened sensitivities? If freespeech is a universal right, then the answer to this question must always be no. As blogmaster Ed Brayton summed up, “If we are not free to criticize yourreligious views, we do not have free speech.” Free Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry have always been outspoken ininsisting that no religious proposition, personage, or image can be held immune from responsible criticism, satire, or even ridicule.

Religious teachings, figures, and be­liefs should be accorded the same respect and protection we accord to, say, opinions about politics or economics—butno more. Indeed, a secular humanist argument can be made that religious viewpoints deserve less protection than other views rooted in more sophisticatedways of knowing. As Kurtz noted in a 1995 Free Inquiry editorial, “You cannot find a defense of human rights in the Bible or the Koran. They have emergedonly with the democratic and humanist revolutions of the modern era.”

A September 25 Chicago Tribune editorial wisely admonished the UN against suggesting “that people in free countries, ours included, need to curb their ownrights in order to placate the sensibilities of those who permit their anger to become actionable.” It’s time to stand up for free speech, volubly andquickly, before this essential human value is de­graded—degraded in part by knaves, in part by reformers blinded by the best intentions. One starting pointis the firm insistence that, intellectual fashions not­withstanding, blasphemy remains a victimless crime.

Interestingly, on October 15 the head of the Organisation of Islamic Coopera­tion said that it would stop agitating for aUN ban on insults to religion because West­ern nations’ objections on the basis of free speech could not be overcome.Ap­parently principled resistance has met with some success.

President Obama declared that “the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech—the voices of tolerance that rally againstbigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.” With the proviso that blasphemy is often legitimate, three cheers.


Thanks to Andrea Szalanski and Paul Fidalgo for research assistance.

Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

  The entire Muslim world . . . is agitating for the United Nations to pass an anti blasphemy law. The rest of the civilized world must oppose this at everytu rn. —Mahfooz Kanwar, Calgary Herald It seemed the whole world was marking International Blasphemy Rights Day (September 30). Debates about free speech and criticism …

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