"Not ready to wait": Freedom of expression and religion

 Global VoicesFreedom of expression is often stifled by the fear of repercussion, particularly on a subject as polarising as religion. The internet is considered by many to be the last bastion of freedom, and social media has given people a universal platform to express themselves in ways never imagined before. In this three-part blog series, we hope to analyse the existing scenario, explore the offline harm and consequences to individuals, examine the laws that determine our online expression on religion, and reflect on the way forward for creating an open and safe environment for dialogue online.

The curious case of the Ready to Wait campaign on Facebook – where women came out in defence of an age-old patriarchal (read chauvinistic) tradition of a temple in Kerala, India prohibiting women under the age of 55 from entering the temple – merits some examination. The issue has gained national importance with the Supreme Court of India questioning the legality of this practice, given that we function in a state that is bound by a constitution that recognises the right to equality.

Segregation and suppression in religious institutions in India is not new. For instance, the Dalit communities in India have long suffered this indignation and continue to do so despite the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 specifically declaring this as a crime. Many religious institutions and structures discriminate against women in India. Social norms often dictate that women during their menstruation should not visit holy sites. In a welcome development, recently the Bombay High Court affirmed the right of women to enter the inner sanctum of Haji Ali, an Islamic dargah, which perhaps indicated that the legal system might not turn a blind eye to these practices for much longer.

With the Ready to Wait campaign hitting social media, it created a largely polarised debate that soon descended into a screaming match between the “traditionalists” and the “liberals”. The campaigns, both Ready to Wait and its counter campaign Right to Pray, which consisted of persons defending the right of women to enter and pray in any religious place, received plenty of hate and displayed a marked level of intolerance towards each other.

Discussing religion is seldom an easy task with differing opinions around the table. This is just as true, if not more so, on the internet. The internet and other information and communications technologies (ICTs) have become an integral part of our lives, and numerous aspects of our daily functioning largely intersect with online spaces. Online platforms and more particularly social media have provided an alternative medium for not only expression of opinion but development of discourse that may otherwise be difficult to find in traditional offline platforms.

Recently, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief presented his report on the intersection and mutually reinforcing nature of the right to religion and the right to freedom of expression. Unfortunately, this report as well as the Rabat Plan of Action fail to address the specific challenges faced in this intersection in online spaces.

Across Asia and the globe, states have taken a problematic position in relation to censoring expression in the name of defending religion. Information and content relating to social, political or religious issues in several Asian states remain heavily regulated, policed, punished and prevented.

Many websites of religious and ethnic minorities such as the Shia and the Ahmadi communities have been banned by the government in Pakistan in the last couple of years. One example is the banning of a watchdog website that was monitoring the killing of Shia Muslims. Similarly, the state is also clamping down on free expression of sexual minorities: a website discussing LGBT and SOGI issues is blocked on the grounds of it being “un-Islamic”. Sites hosting material or content of pornographic nature are also taken down on account of them being “immoral”, which more often than not is dictated by religious values. Such removal of websites and pages of these groups severely impinges on a whole host of rights, including the right to freedom of religion, expression, assembly and association online.

States have also resorted to blocking content on the grounds that sites host material that may be deemed offensive to religion. The case of YouTube being blocked in Pakistan for about three years following the outbreak of large-scale violence relating to a video that was hosted on the site and was regarded as offensive is one such example. In India, an order issued under the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking Access of Information by Public) Rules in 2015 to block websites promoting religious intolerance led to the indiscriminate blocking of many popular sites hosting other content as well. These blanket bans impinge on the right to information and expression of the people.

States have also enacted laws governing information and communication technology with specific provisions on prohibiting content insulting religion. Similarly, blasphemy charges remain the greatest threat to free expression in online spaces despite repeated calls by the international community to repeal these provisions. States use blasphemy provisions in penal and other legislation used for offline expression in online spaces as well. For instance, Usman Liaqat, a Christian, was arrested for allegedly posting content on Facebook that was regarded as “blasphemous” by state authorities in Pakistan using the penal law and constitutional provisions. Similarly, another professor in Pakistan is currently imprisoned for a post on Facebook that was deemed blasphemous. In Malaysia, arrests and charges of sedition were also made against Eric Paulsen, a lawyer, for a tweet on Friday sermons.

Given the space afforded by new media on the internet, many activists and citizen journalists resort to expression online. Backlash from non-state actors to such expression remains another grave challenge. The most disturbing account of this is the situation of bloggers in Bangladesh .

States and civil society have to be careful with this alarming trend of crackdown on expression in online spaces as people increasingly move into this space for exercising their right to freedom of expression and a whole host of other rights. Such censorship may also lead to surveillance and privacy violations of individuals exercising their rights and will ultimately prevent public participation in democratic processes. Another worrying issue is in relation to the understanding of justice mechanisms on the principles of restrictions in online spaces justifiable under national and international laws, as this will also have an impact on the jurisprudence evolving on the subject in the region.

Victims of such state and non-state action are theists, atheists, the undecided, those who are religion-fluid as well as the indifferent. By resorting to draconian measures in the name of preventing defamation of religion, states are in effect desecrating the right to freedom of expression, and compromising the right to religion as well. More worryingly, these restrictions prevent all forms of dialogue and discussion on existing legal and social norms that touch upon religion even for academic purposes, which only contributes to weakening democratic practices.

Given this context, any discussion on religion online is to be welcomed, irrespective of whether we subscribe to the view presented. The Ready to Wait campaign in this sense is a positive development as the internet aided women, who would have otherwise not been able to voice their views through traditional media, to speak out. If there is one thing we should not be ready to wait for, it is the opening up of spaces for more dialogue and discussion about religion and other issues online. 

Image: Secular bloggers killed in in Bangladesh between 2013-2015. Source: Global Voices

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