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Free Speech Under Siege

Since the Enlightenment, fundamentalist religious leaders the world over have railed against the idea of free speech, for understandable reasons. By permitting other people to point out the fallacies in their arguments and dispute their claim to be the infallible voice of God, the right of free speech is the single most effective countermeasure to prevent theocracy and tyranny from taking hold. Religious extremism can be found in many places, but it rarely becomes truly dominant unless it can force dissenting voices to be silent.

Lately, some of the most tyrannical and outrageous attacks on free speech have come from Islam, which has among its ranks many ruthless, violent fanatics who would like nothing better than to crush all differing opinions by force. Three stories on this theme have been in the news lately.

First, a true outrage from Pakistan - our supposed ally in the battle against Islamic extremism. The author Younus Shaikh has been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for writing a supposedly blasphemous book titled The Satanic Cleric. These crimes, supposedly, included claiming that stoning as a punishment for adultery is not mentioned in the Qur'an, and writing "contemptuous remarks" directed at Muslim imams. (Note: This is not, as I originally thought, the same case as that of Dr. Younus Shaikh - another Pakistani citizen and freethinker who was threatened with life imprisonment for violating Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Dr. Shaikh was finally freed, after two years of confinement, and wisely chose to leave the country. As best as I can determine, this is a different individual with a similar name.)

Second: Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi writer and secular humanist, was recently attacked by Muslim fanatics while in Hyderabad, India, to promote translations of some of her books, including Lajja (Bengali for "shame"), about anti-Hindu bigotry among Muslims in Bangladesh. Dr. Nasrin has been repeatedly threatened by religious terrorists for her outspoken humanist and feminist views, including earlier this year when an Indian Muslim group promised a large cash reward for her murder, but she has so far remained courageously undaunted by these evil and despicable criminals. Most shocking of all, her attackers on this occasion were elected legislators in the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, belonging to a Muslim political party. (Dr. Nasrin was unhurt in the incident.) Thankfully, her attackers did not escape, and were arrested and charged.

Finally, consider Turkey. Harun Yahya - the pen name of Adnan Oktar - is a prolific creationist, a Holocaust denier, and has been accused of leading a religious cult that engaged in pedophilia. All in all, he's a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. Now he can claim yet another act of evil to his name: he successfully persuaded the Turkish government to block WordPress.com, which hosts thousands of blogs, from all of Turkey because a handful of WordPress-hosted blogs had the temerity to criticize him. Turkey has a relatively secular government compared to most Muslim-majority nations, and I hope this outrageous censorship will soon be lifted (though it can be bypassed easily enough), but I've heard no such news yet.

It's interesting to note that all three of these incidents occurred in countries - Pakistan, India, Turkey - that are democracies. This just goes to show that while democracy, on average, is better than any other governmental system, but it is not a panacea. No state can be more peaceful or virtuous than the people who make it up, and where violent fanatics exist, they can influence the workings of any government. Tyranny imposed by a democracy is no better than tyranny imposed by a dictator. What this means for all of us is that, where religious fundamentalism is dominant, no truly free society can be expected to arise. Until we nonbelievers succeed in quenching the fever of faith, attacks on free speech like these will be almost certain to continue.

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