Every now and then, the issue of blasphemy rises to the surface and makes headlines due to its infringement upon the right to free speech. It is saddening that some countries have taken it upon themselves to assume moral authority and act as ethical judges by scrutinizing people’s freedom of free speech and expression; a case in question being the recent arrest of Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria.
On 28 April, Mubarak Bala, a prominent Nigerian humanist/atheist was arrested by police officers at his home in Kaduna, north-western Nigeria, and accused of blasphemy after he wrote a post on Facebook expressing his beliefs on Monday, 27 April. On 30 April he was transferred to Kano, a conservative region in northern Nigeria where religious dissent is unpopular. He is currently being detained in solitary confinement at Kano state police command.
Understanding the concept of free speech, and whether it is a legal right which should be granted and protected by the state regardless of its moral or immoral content, is an important issue.
Human rights are the foundation of human dignity, freedom, justice and peace. Behind each right, there is more often than not a history (and too often a present) of oppression. As such, they each play a role in the construction of our common humanity. But it is their togetherness that makes us all human.
The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) laid out equal rights for all people and three fundamental principles governing human rights: rights are universal, meaning that rights apply to everyone whoever or wherever that person is; inalienable, in that they precede state authority and are based on peoples’ humanity; and indivisible in that all rights are of equal importance.
The UDHR was also intended to provide a common framework and understanding across nations for preventing the religious, racial, political and sectarian strife which plagued humanity throughout its history, culminating in the Second World War. This idea is forcefully expressed in the preamble of the UDHR, cited below, which aspires to the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief.
“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people …United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
The General Assembly,
Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for
these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
Freedom of expression
Freedom of expression as a cornerstone right – one that enables other rights to be protected and exercised. The full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression is central to achieving individual freedoms and developing democracy and plays a critical role in tackling the underlying causes of poverty.
Freedom of expression makes electoral democracy meaningful and builds public trust in administration. Access to information strengthens mechanisms to hold governments accountable for their promises, obligations and actions. It not only increases the knowledge base and participation within a society but can also secure external checks on state accountability, and thus prevent corruption that thrives on secrecy and closed environments.
Freedom of expression is also essential to the exercise of freedom of religion. And conversely, if people are not free to manifest their religion, there is no right to freedom of expression.
Yet, the right to freedom of expression, under international human rights law, may be restricted in order to protect, amongst others, the rights of others, and public order, if it is “necessary in a democratic society” to do so and it is done by law. This formulation is found in both the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in the European Convention on Human Rights. Reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression may be necessary or legitimate to prevent advocacy of hatred based on nationality, race, religion that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. Such restrictions should however not be extended to offensive and blasphemous expressions.
Several established democracies still have blasphemy provisions on the books, although most of these are rarely, if ever, used. In the United Kingdom, for example, there have been only two prosecutions for blasphemy since 1923; Norway saw its last case in 1936 and Denmark in 1938. Other countries, including Sweden and Spain, have repealed their blasphemy laws. In the United States, the Supreme Court steadfastly strikes down any legislation prohibiting blasphemy, on the fear that even well-meaning censors would be tempted to favour one religion over another, as well as because it “is not the business of government to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine.”
There cannot be a human rights justification to the existence and implementation of blasphemy laws. There is no evidence that these laws are indeed “necessary”, but plenty demonstrating the opposite. Indeed, lessons from human history should dictate opposition to any attempts to stifle offensive or blasphemous speeches and discoveries. Freedom of expression is an “empowerment” right: It allows people to demand other rights – the right to health, to food, to free education, equality, peaceful demonstration etc.
There is no actual evidence that the right to freedom of religion as understood under international standard is better served, or protected with or through blasphemy laws. Under international human rights law, freedom of religion, for instance, is not about respecting religion but about respecting people’s right to practice the religion of their choice. Do offensive statements threaten the ability of adherents to religions to exercise and express their own beliefs? This is highly doubtful.
Blasphemy laws, even when they in theory at least extend to all beliefs and not just to state religion, are used to violate peoples right to freedom of religion – religious minorities are particularly targeted.
At a normative level, they establish a hierarchy of beliefs that betrays the common understanding and intentions of the international human rights framework. Blasphemy laws are the Servants of Power and the means for religious persecution; they censor, they create a climate of fears, and they stifle artistic creativity, academic research, scholarship and freedom. They may also lead to imprisonment and death – thus violating the most potent human rights of all – the right to mental and physical integrity, and the right to life, as with the case of Mubarak Bala.