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Worrying developments for freedom of expression in the UK

This thread combines a number of examples where atheists, humanists and/or secularists have been threatened or coerced into silence, both by Muslims and by institutions or other groups apparently subscribing to the view that 'If someone believes it, you must respect it'. All these examples have happened in the UK in the course of the last week or so.

In none of these examples was anyone on the censored side inciting anyone to violence or hatred. They were not even spewing foul-mouthed abuse: they were simply acting in accordance with the principles of free speech in a free society, to express their views.  In each case the response has been heavy-handed, to say the least.  

Rhys Morgan, who, despite being only 17 years old, is already one of leading lights of the sceptical movement, has apparently received veiled threats of expulsion or suspension from his school if he does not remove a Jesus & Mo image from his personal Facebook page - I am not as yet aware of any similar threat hanging over his Muslim school colleagues who have threatened him with violence, including the threat that they'll burn his home down, though I would certainly hope there is one.  

A meeting to advance the cause of One Law For All has had to be called off as a result of death threats from Muslims; whereupon a security guard present blamed the organisers for having had the temerity to arrange such a meeting in the first place.  

And we also have the already much-discussed UCL situation which has resulted in predictable outpourings of rage from the usual suspects and in which an atheist society posting on an atheist social networking page for an audience of atheists, and in a way that contained no threats or incitement, has found itself at the centre of a completely disproportionate storm of disapproval, outrage and coercion with a view to forcing it to remove a cartoon. Indeed, we have seen on the pages of this very website how a number of religious users - not all of them Muslim - have called for the cartoon to be censored, or self-censored, which amounts to the same thing.

But the key thing to note in all these cases is that it is no longer just the religious who would inhibit our freedom of expression: increasingly, secular bodies are buying into this invidious idea too, all in the name of 'tolerance' or 'community relations' or 'respect'.

This erosion of our freedom of expression really matters. The reason it's difficult to take a stand against religion and its hold on society is because it has a long tradition of being shielded from criticism and there is therefore a widely held assumption that shielding it is the 'nice' thing to do. Secularists are challenging that shield, and religious people - understandably enough - feel upset and resentful about it.  They don't want to be challenged, and they don't want their ideas to be subjected to criticism.  I can understand their feeling, but is that a good enough reason to make such challenges unacceptable, either socially or legally?  You cannot have a free or healthy society where some ideas may not be challenged, especially when - as in the UK - those ideas have real power and influence in public life.  And you certainly can't have a free or healthy society where a person's rights to challenge ideas peacefully are not protected, but the rights of the challenged to respond with threats of death and other violence are (even if only tacitly, by caving in to them and treating those who threaten violence in response to mere ideas as though they were the real victims).  

The day I see atheists threatening violence or inciting hatred or indulging in any other kind of threatening behaviour, I will not hesitate to condemn them for it. But so long as they are merely insisting on their right to express their views even though doing so is going to offend those who disagree with them, they must be free to do so.

If we don't stand up for our freedom to express ourselves when that freedom comes under attack, as it has done in many ways this week, then we are tacitly accepting that the campaign for true secularism must be waged with one arm tied behind our backs. If that arm were wielding a knife or a bomb, fair enough; but the only things we want to be allowed to wield are words and ideas and occasionally a bit of mockery; exactly as we would be free to do if we were talking about anything else at all.

Please read these stories and consider how best you can show your support for freedom of expression in the UK. If you want to contact your MP, you will be able to find his or her details via this link.

Paula Kirby
RDFRS UK

Rhys Morgan's blog and Twitter feed

The One Law For All story - Maryam Namazie

The UCL story - in addition to the threads on this website, see also Butterflies and Wheels, here and here, which covers the latest developments at the time of writing.

TAGGED: ACTIVISM, HUMAN RIGHTS, ISLAM, SECULARISM


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