Atheist Ireland will this Monday, October 1st, attend the annual OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) human rights meeting in Warsaw in Poland, where we will speak against blasphemy laws, religious oaths and the need for secular education. Atheist Ireland will also host a side meeting to highlight the need to respect the human rights of atheists and nonbelievers.
We believe that the western world is in danger of crossing a significant line in the historic battle for freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. We are in danger of conceding the step between the state respecting somebody’s right to believe what they want, and the state automatically respecting the content of the belief itself – and insisting by law that citizens do so also.
The Atheist Ireland delegation at the OSCE meeting is Michael Nugent, Chairperson Atheist Ireland; Prof David Nash, Oxford Brookes University UK, who is an expert on blasphemy laws; and Jane Donnelly, Education Policy Officer Atheist Ireland, who is an expert on secular education.
The European Union has endorsed ‘full respect of religion’.
Two weeks ago the European Union, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League and the Commission of the African Union released an absurd and dangerous joint statement, expressing ‘the importance of respecting all prophets’, and ‘strongly committing to take further measures’ to work for ‘full respect of religion’. Since then the Islamic States at the United Nations have reintroduced their bid to have blasphemy criminalized internationally.
‘Respecting all prophets, regardless of which religion they belong to’ includes not only the Abrahamic prophets such as Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, but also the convicted con-man and first Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, the Raelist prophet Claude Vorilhon, David Koresh of the Branch Davidians in Waco, and the former Coventry City goalkeeper turned snooker commentator turned Green Party spokesperson turned Son of God David Icke. Why is the European Union endorsing this absurd statement?
The joint statement concludes by saying that ‘We reiterate our strong commitment to take further measures and to work for an international consensus on tolerance and full respect of religion, including on the basis of UN Human Rights Council resolution 16/18.’ What exactly is meant by the phrase ‘full respect of religion’? And if enforcing it only ‘includes’ the basis of this UN resolution, what else does it include? We know what Islamic states mean by ‘full protection of religion’. Why is the European Union advancing this dangerous notion?
We know what Islamic states mean by ‘full respect of religion’.
- In Indonesia, Alexander Aan, a 31-year-old atheist civil servant, has been jailed for two and a half years for sharing material on Facebook about the Prophet Mohammad and writing that god does not exist.
- In Pakistan, Asia Noreen Bibi, a 41-year-old Christian mother, has spent three years in prison and faces execution by hanging after a farcical blasphemy conviction. And last year two Pakistani politicians who questioned her sentence were murdered.
- Also in Pakistan, Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl, was recently arrested for allegedly burning pages from the Quran. An islamic cleric was later arrested for planting the Quran pages as evidence.
- In Saudi Arabia, Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old Muslim poet, has been jailed for blasphemy for publishing tweets saying that he would shake Muhammad’s hand as an equal if he met him.
- And in Iran, Youcef Nadarkhani, a 35-year-old Christian Pastor, has just recently been released after spending nearly three years in prison facing execution on charges of apostasy and evangelising Muslims.
Now these type of cases are spreading to OSCE countries.
- In Greece, a man was arrested last weekend for setting up a Facebook page mocking a Greek monk and prophet who died nearly twenty years ago.
- In Russia, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot are in prison for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ after they sang a protest song in a Cathedral.
- In Turkey, Fazil Sey, an internationally acclaimed classical pianist, was charged in June with insulting Muslim religious values in comments posted on Twitter.
- And Turkey is now leading the attempts at the UN by the Islamic States to have blasphemy criminalized internationally.
These developments are encouraged by political weakness on this issue in some Western States.
- Ireland has recently passed a new blasphemy law, the only western State to do so in the 21st century, and the new Irish Government is delaying attempts to remove this law by pushing the issue into a year-long constitutional convention.
- The USA’s initial response to the recent attacks on Embassies focused too much on criticizing the YouTube video and not enough on the violent reactions. President Obama said that the USA “rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”
- Fortunately, President Obama had changed focus by last week’s UN meeting, stating unambiguously: “I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.”
- The Holy See has been ambiguous on blasphemy. It has rightly supported Christians accused of blasphemy in Islamic States, such as Asia Bibi in Pakistan. But it has ignored the blasphemy case in India against Sanal Edamarauku, initiated by the Catholic Church in India, after Sanal had exposed a weeping statue as being caused by faulty plumbing.
Religious oaths and secular education
Atheist Ireland will also highlight two other issues at the OSCE human rights meeting this Monday: religious oaths and secular education.
Some OSCE States still have religious oaths for political office holders, and defendants and witnesses in court cases are placed in a position where they must swear a religious oath or else reveal private information about their lack of religious beliefs.
In Ireland, Eamon Gilmore, the current chairperson of the OSCE, is a member of the Irish Council of State by virtue of being deputy prime minister. To take up this office, he must swear a religious oath enshrined in the Irish Constitution. Yet he is on record as saying that he does not believe in god.
Protecting human rights requires that people understand what human rights are, and this is more likely to happen if new generations of young adults have been educated in a secular education system based on human rights law.
A secular human rights based education is inclusive of all religions and beliefs. It is a starting point for children to respect each other and learn about human rights and living in an ethical society. Secular schools can educate for democratic citizenship and human rights. Secular education based on human rights does not discriminate on any ground.
An example of how an education system discriminates in equality of access is the Irish education system. The majority of schools in Ireland are private religious schools and the Catholic Church controls over 92% of them at primary level. These schools are permitted by legislation to give preference to co-religionists. 98% of primary schools in Ireland are actually publicly funded private religious schools and are exempted from equality legislation.