Political and religious populism threatens freedom of expression

Oslo 8. March 2012

To the board of PEN International

Political and religious populism threatens freedom of expression

Political use of religious symbols and play on religious feelings undermine freedom of speech and political debate in many parts of the world. Populist politicians exploit human insecurity and powerlessness by stirring demonstrations, public rage and violent actions against members for alleged blasphemy, unbelief and lack of respect for sacred symbols.

Religious based law and scripture interpretation restrict human freedom. Statutory or politically interpreted commands and prohibitions define shame, honor and punishment in violation of basic human rights for women, children, religious and sexual minorities and make political and artistic criticism impossible.

In the battle for the evangelical Christian conservative votes in the United States, the remaining candidates in the race to be nominated for the Republican presidential candidate become increasingly clear on religious affiliation and religiously motivated political views. Questions about abortion, homosexuality and so-called Christian family values become central, well-defined issues. Former President Jimmy Carter is one of many who is now warning against excessive use of religion and religious symbols in the political nomination battle.

In Nigeria, religion and religious identity is being exploited in order to strengthen regional and ethnic borders. Politicization of Islam through the introduction of sharia in several states in this declaredly secular republic has led to increased political tension and has triggered regional, violent conflicts between Muslim and Christian groups.

In Iran and Iraq there has been a shift from secular to Islamic constitutions. The Iranian Constitution, which states that all other legislation must be based on Islamic criteria, is the strictest. The Afghan Constitution of 2004, Article 2, states that «no law can be contrary to the teachings and laws of Islam.» This has weakened the position of human rights in the country´s legislation.  It has limited the number of religions that are approved as a recognized religion and weakened freedom of expression and equality.

Egypt’s first democratic elections has given the Muslim parties an overwhelming majority in Parliament. What consequences this will have on the design of the new Egyptian constitution, remains to be seen. The country’s Coptic Christian minority is experiencing various forms of sectarian harassment, and fears increased discrimination including greater influence from radical Islamist parties. Many women fear the introduction of sharia, which will severely restrict their rights and freedoms. Author Nawal El Saadavi is among the most outspoken critics of the fact that the commission, which has started to work on a proposed new constitution, was formed without the participation of women.

In Pakistan weak politicians allow themselves to be dictated by small religious populist parties, which exploit the strong anti-Western trends in the country in its struggle to preserve the country’s inhumane blasphemy laws. A law that involves the possibility of accusations, imprisonment and brutal punishment of women and children, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities and political critics.

Indian politicians like to describe the country as the world’s most populous democracy. Author Salman Rushdie was recently forced to withdraw from India’s largest literary festival in Jaipur in northwest India. Muslim extremists claimed that Rushdie’s expressions violate Islam and that criminals should be hired to eliminate the author. Again, Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses from 1988 is being used to justify threats from Muslim activists and populist politicians. An Iranian fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 involved a death sentence for the author and all his translators and publishers. The fatwa still formally exists. Satanic Verses was banned in India shortly after its release and is still blacklisted. The ban came after pressure from Muslim populist politicians. The novel became a symbol for the strengthening of support among Muslim voters and led to pressure against PM Ranjiv Gandhi and the Congress Party, which was dependent on Muslim votes. Roughly 23 years later the Congress Party is back in power, but chooses silently to let the threats from extremists set the agenda in the political power struggle.

Norwegian PEN warns against a trend in which religiously based politics, at both national and international levels, weakens freedom of expression and undermine basic human rights for individuals and groups. Norwegian PEN urges PEN International, the national PEN clubs, other human rights organizations and  institutions, and national and international authors´-, journalists´-  and publishers´ organizations to challenge a political development in which populist politicians abuse religious feelings and symbols in order to set groups up against each other, undermine the rights of individuals and groups and weaken freedom of expression.

On behalf of the board of Norwegian PEN

Ann-Magrit Austenå                   Carl Morten Iversen
boardmember                             secretary general