Every human being alive today, provided they have access to even the most rudimentary computing hardware, is now a broadcasting platform. Compared to generations past, even for the least electronically visible among us, we have many times the reach for any thought or opinion we care to express. And we rarely have full control over who hears what we say.
The consequences for the expression of religious belief (or lack thereof) have been enormous. To my mind, the collision of the democratized Internet with the innate restrictions of certain faith traditions is the most significant development in the world of religion today. Never in human history have supernaturally based belief systems, so specific in their proscriptions for behavior and thought, been so open to scrutiny and criticism, and on such a mass scale.
And it is a collision, because the free expression of dissenting ideas are anathema to dogma, particularly state-enforced dogma. Incidents of heretics and religious dissenters are not unique to our era of course, but never has it been so easy to broadcast one’s dissent, for religious authorities to become aware of said dissent, and for the rest of the world to be awoken to how those dissenters are being persecuted. They are no longer isolated to villages or insular nations. A heretical tweet can land one in jail, but one’s next tweet can then rally a movement to demand your freedom.
This collision has sparked a global crisis, a crackdown on free expression from serial offenders such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to countries that fancy themselves democracies like Turkey, Russia, and even Greece. Often these prohibitions against religious dissent are given names like “hurting religious sentiments” or “insulting religion,” but they all fall under the rubric of blasphemy laws.
It is remarkably easy to commit blasphemy today. Some victims of persecution have been willing agitators, intentionally trying to bring about change within their own societies, such as Saudi Arabia’s Raif Badawi, who began a website for the discussion of liberal opinion; or Alber Saber, the Egyptian secular activist arrested in 2012 for allegedly sharing links to the video “The Innocence of Muslims,” which sparked enraged protests and violence across the Islamic world. But on the other hand, we also have people like Alexander Aan, an Indonesian civil servant who has begun quietly expressing atheistic opinions on Facebook, and soon faced the violent wrath of an angry mob and several months in prison as a result.
In other words, one need not seek out controversy to find it, and one need not look to publicly commit blasphemy to find oneself in existential danger as a result of expressing dissenting beliefs. A casual Facebook conversation or tweet can land one in just as much peril as being an intentional rabble-rouser online.
The silver lining to this is how easily the rest of us can become aware of this crisis, and each instance of it. Alexander Aan began his travails alone, but soon found that he had won the support of countless allies around the world, including leading human rights organizations, such as the one that employs me, the Center for Inquiry. These newfound allies, friends he could never have known he had without the same technology that allowed him to be placed in danger in the first place, rallied to his cause and leveled a degree of political pressure to Indonesian authorities that they could not have anticipated when the first locked Alex up.
And for Raif Badawi – along with his fellow dissenter, Saudi human rights activist Waleed Abu Al-Khair, who also sits in prison for blasphemy-related offenses – their cause has likewise brought to bear the combined efforts of activists, human rights organizations, and even casual users of social media to push back against their persecution. Their case was recently brought before the UN’s Human Rights Commission by my organization, which was an important enough step in itself. But when delegates of the Saudi government manically tried to silence our own representative, Josephine Macintosh, as she delivered her rebuke of Saudi’s human rights abuses, the video of the altercation went viral, exposing to tens of thousands of individuals the extent of Saudi Arabia’s crimes, the plights of Badawi and Al-khair, and the fact that a growing movement was working so hard to push back.
But without Twitter and Facebook and other online media, we in the West might never know any of this. We might go on wholly unaware and uninterested in the challenges faced by atheists and other religious dissenters around the world. Miriam Ibrahim, originally of Sudan, is a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to convert to Islam, but the outcry for her right to follow the faith of her choosing was heard at first exclusively online, and largely from atheists and secularists. The sheer volume of attention brought to her cause online led to breathless “mainstream” media coverage, which in turn brought the heat of the world’s gaze upon Sudan, who eventually released her. She is no agitator. She didn’t have a blasphemous blog or tweet religious satire. She, simply and quietly, refused to violate her conscience, and the online world turned up the volume on her behalf.
Religious belief, whatever good can be ascribed to it, nearly always brings with it the expectation of conformity of thought and deed, lest one earn the wrath of the creator of the universe. The Internet is, among other things, an engine for sifting, parsing, and critiquing information and opinion. The collision of these two phenomena in this early part of the 21st century is one whose shockwaves will be felt for generations to come.
Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here.
You can learn much more about blasphemy laws and the fight for free expression at CFI’s Campaign for Free Expression.