In an interesting turn of events, David Saperstein, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom posted a blog on Wednesday titled “Time To Abolish Blasphemy Laws, Uphold Freedom of Expression”.
As a country that still has a blasphemy law on the books, Canada should feel justly chastised at being part of a group that includes such human rights luminaries as Indonesia, Egypt, and Iran.
This blog from Saperstein is like a gift from on high for those of us advocating for the repeal of section 296. I encourage all of you to send the link to your MP.
So, is that it? Are done here? Weeeeeeell, no, not quite. While most coverage of this story stops there, this wouldn’t be an Indi-style CA if I didn’t go just a bit deeper into the story.
So, let’s dig.
I don’t know enough about Saperstein to say much about him. I invite any American readers – or Canadians who are familiar with Saperstein – to weigh in in the comments. What I do know is that he’s the first non-Christian US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom – he’s actually a rabbi. He seems to have a reputation of standing up for minority religions. (Which, if you’re a cynic, might be explained by the fact that he’s a rabbi.)
So what’s the problem?
My favourite Sherlock Holmes quote comes from the story The Adventure of the Silver Blaze:
Detective Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
Did you notice that among the examples given by Saperstein in his blog post there was:
- a Muslim university lecturer in Indonesia;
- a poet in Egypt;
- four Coptic Christian teenagers in Egypt;
- a Christian in Iran;
- the Afghan mob murder of Farkhunda;
- a Pakistani Christian couple burned alive by a mob;
dozens of targeted killings of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan; and
- the one positive story, about an Imam and
two other prominent Muslim leaderswho
physically stood between the angry mob and the Christian community until the crowd dissipated.
Notice anything missing?
Don’t focus on the fact that all the aggressors are Muslim. That’s just sloppiness on Saperstein’s part, because it’s not like violence instigated by other religious groups is hard to find. Don’t focus on the aggressors. Focus on the victims. Notice anything missing?
Here are the religions of the victims (I presume the “poet in Egypt” is Fatima Naoot, who I think is Christian):
- Christian (probably);
- Muslims; and
Now, I can excuse Saperstein of just… forgetting… about all the other major religions out there, because he is an American, and they’re not really on his radar. But… there is one group that does have a very prominent presence in America, yet that he totally missed.
There’s not a single incident of discrimination or persecution against atheists or otherwise non-religious persons or groups mentioned.
Where are the multiple atheist bloggers who have been hacked to death in Bangladesh? What about Alexander Aan, beaten by a mob and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for Facebook postings?
Now you might just shrug it off as just an oversight on Saperstein’s part. To that I’d point out… that’s a hell of an oversight for the head of the US’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
But I wish it was just Saperstein’s oversight.
See, the punchline of Saperstein’s post is the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18. If you followed the link and read it… did you notice the curious thing about its language about nonreligion?
“But, Indi. There is no language in Resolution 16/18 about nonreligion.”
That’s the curious thing.
Resolution 16/18 was a big deal for the UNHCR. And let me be clear, both 16/18 and its follow-up Resolution 19/8 are wonderful documents. If you read closely enough, nonbelief is covered by both 16/18 and 19/8. The problem is that you have to read really carefully, and it’s all too easy for states to say they agree with 16/18 & 19/8 while at the same time persecuting atheists. Other UN comments do clearly state that nonbelief deserves the same protections from discrimination as belief. But Saperstein neither pointed to those other documents, nor did he give any indication that he was giving any consideration to nonbelief at all.
Here’s another fact that might put things into perspective. Resolution 16/18 was originally proposed by…
… on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
That would be the same Pakistan mentioned in 3 out of 8 of the incidents Saperstein mentioned… and the same OIC whose members are mentioned in… well, all 8.
Knowing that 16/18 came original from the OIC and Pakistan, now it probably makes sense why it doesn’t explicitly offer any protection to lack of religion or belief. Sure, the brilliance of 16/18 is that protection is nevertheless implied… but when atheist bloggers are being hacked to death, we really need more than just a vague implication.
So what have we got here? Well, we’ve got a call for the abolition of blasphemy laws… but specifically for the protection of minority religions. Not non-religion.
Sigh. Always the bridesmaid; never the bride.
Okay, fine. Even if it’s not being done for us, the abolition of blasphemy laws is just a good thing in general. And, sure, we can certainly cheer for the minority religious people who will no longer be persecuted. And we do benefit too, however indirectly. Increasing liberty and fighting intolerance are always good things, even if we atheists are not the direct beneficiaries.
But… it just… rankles… to be so pointedly ignored. This is our problem, too. And arguably, blasphemy is more a problem for nonbelievers than it is for any believers, minority or otherwise.
I suppose just… grit your teeth, pass the link on to your MP, and if this does actually lead to the abolition of any blasphemy laws, try to put on a show of being as enthused as if you weren’t being completely overlooked in favour of religious groups. If atheism being invisible will help the passage of resolutions like 16/18 and the abolition of blasphemy laws then… well, we can bear that much.