Contents – In bad faith: How religion is being weaponised by the right


The Autumn 2023 issue of Index looks at blasphemy laws, and how they are being weaponised by the religious right as a means of imposing intolerance. We wanted to understand the ways in which religion is being used by states as an excuse for censorship, and how this has played out in a global context.

The writers in this issue have examined blasphemy laws in countries all over the world, shining a light on the those who have been left voiceless or have been persecuted in the name of religion. These worrying stories paint a picture of a growing movement amongst the religious right that threatens to suppress those who do not conform to increasingly strict cultures and norms.

Up Front

Faithful foot soldiers, by Jemimah Steinfeld: The religious right is in, our rights to speech out.

The Index, by Mark Frary: From fraught elections in Mali to Russians launching VPNs, this is free expression in focus.


Oiling the wheels of injustice, by Francis Clarke and Mark Frary: Behind a mega-city construction and the roar of Formula 1, Saudi Arabia is driving human rights further into the ground.

Pinochet's ghost still haunts, by Juan Carlos Ramírez Figueroa: The Chilean dictator is long gone, but support lingers on.

The dissident lives on, by Martin Bright: The dissident is not dead, long live the dissident.

No place to hide, by Nik Williams: Transnational repression has no borders in a digital world.

Peer pressure, by Thiện Việt: In China, enforced social rankings aren’t just confined to the realms of Black Mirror.

No country for anxious men, by Laura Silvia Battaglia: A mental health crisis in Yemen has left people locked up with no voice.

Nollywood gets naked, by Tilewa Kazeem: It’s getting hot in Nigeria, as the film scene strips back on what’s deemed inappropriate.

Policing symbolism, by Jimena Ledgard: Peruvian protesters are being met with violence, and not even flower carpets are safe.

Setting the story straight, by Danson Kahyana: Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law is having an unexpected effect, with literature being ripped apart.

A marriage made in transgression, by Alexandra Domenech: Despite being tortured by security forces and her fiancé thrown in jail, Russian dissident Alexandra Popova is staying put in Moscow.

Out of the oven, into the fire, by Mir Aiyaz: Rohingya Muslims hoping for open arms in India are getting a cold reception.

Special Report: In bad faith - how religion is being weaponised by the right

For the love of God?, by Rebecca L Root: As intolerance rises in many parts of the world, a misplaced profanity can spell out death.

Worshippers of power, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Under the eye of the religious right, Margaret Atwood discusses why a blasphemy accusation holds so much power.

King David he is not, by JP O'Malley: The USA's religious right is playing the Trump Card.

No sex please, we're Hindus, by Salil Tripathi: Oppenheimer isn't just breaking box office records, it's offending Hindu nationalists.

In the name of the father?, by Francis Clarke: A far from extensive list of the countries currently imposing sentences on those who "offend".

A call to harm, by Ayesha Khan: Pakistan has some of the world's harshest blasphemy laws, but punishments come from those outside the law too.

The blasphemy obstacle course, by Mai Al-Nakib: Kuwait's rocky relationship with blasphemy laws is breeding a generation of self-censored authors.

Self-worship is the new religion, by Tara Isabella Burton: A new faith is emerging and it's not necessarily open to different views.

Think of the children, by Katie Dancey-Downs: When Juno Dawson's stories are banned, is it really about the books?

Turkey's zealots still want blood, by Kaya Genç: A foundation related to the controversial and failed translation of The Satanic Verses continues to be attacked.

Sharia Law and disorder, by Kola Alapinni: When the state fails to step in, violent mobs control the punishments for blasphemy in Nigeria.

Loose hair in Tehran, by Farnaz Haeri: The writer describes her first time walking out in Iran without a headscarf.

Handmaid's tale in a holy land, by Jo-Ann Mort: In an Israel that is eroding women's rights, female-free billboards and segregated beaches are just some of the battlegrounds.

Practise what they preach, by Simon Coates: Religious values are an excuse to eradicate LGBTQ+ discussion in the UAE, while tolerance is forgotten.

Poland's papal problem, by Kseniya Tarasevich: One Pope's lack of integrity paints a picture of Poland's infiltrated politics.


Turkish and European courts failed me, by Nedim Türfent: How one journalist swapped a press card for a "terrorist" badge.

Truth in seduction, by Mark Hollingsworth: A historian struggles to lift the cloak of secrecy on a KGB-orchestrated sex scandal.

First they came for the female journalists, by Zahra Joya: The space for women in Afghanistan is ever-diminishing, and female journalists are crucial.

Speak, debate, challenge, by Ruth Anderson: Index's guiding framework remains the same in a 2023 context.


Will Paulina ever rest?, by Ariel Dorfman and Jemimah Steinfeld: The Death and the Maiden protagonist fights for justice once more. Plus an exclusive new short story.

Lines of inquiry, by Richard Norton-Taylor: The thorn in intelligence establishment's side explains the growing pressure on whistleblowers

Shortlists announced for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards

For the last 22 years Index on Censorship has been proud to host the annual Freedom of Expression Awards. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the brave artists, journalists and campaigners from around the world who fight for freedom of expression in the most challenging of circumstances. There are some truly incredible nominees for the awards this year, who more than ever, are challenging the repressive regimes they live under to fight for the rights of ordinary people.

2023 has seen the continuation of Russia’s war on Ukraine with its horrific consequences for the people of Ukraine and the severe repression for those speaking out against the war in Russia. The CCP in China continues to repress journalists, particularly those who attempt to uncover the crimes against the Uyghur people, and activists and protesters for women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan face vicious attacks from the authorities.

The shortlisted candidates for the Arts award are Visual Rebellion, a platform for sharing the work of photographers, filmmakers, and artists documenting the protests in Myanmar; Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, who sings about injustice and the abuse of civil society by the authorities, for which he has been imprisoned; and Ukrainians, curator Maria Lanko and artist Pavlo Makov, who have worked to protect Ukrainian art in the face of Russian war crimes.

The shortlisted candidates for the Campaigning award are Matiullah Wesa from Afghanistan who has worked to ensure all children, but especially girls, have access to education and educational materials; Russian student Olesya Krivtsova who has publicly opposed Russia’s war on Ukraine and has fled the country to avoid up to 10 years’ imprisonment; the Xinjiang Victim’s Database, which records the incarceration and persecution of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province; and the Africa Human Rights Network which works to support and protect human rights defenders across the Great Lakes region of Africa.

And the shortlisted candidates for the Journalism award are Bilan Media, Somalia’s first women-only media organisation and newsroom; Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the Indian fact-checking platform Alt News which has led to threats after challenging misinformation; and Afghan Mortaza Behboudi, in exile in France, who continues to travel to Afghanistan every month to work with different media outlets to ensure the voices of Afghans are heard.

The Freedom of Expression Awards are a time to remind ourselves of the importance of freedom of expression and to commit ourselves to protecting our own freedom of expression. It is easily lost but hard fought for. We must not forget that.

Nominees for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards – Campaigning

Matiullah Wesa (Afghanistan)

Through Pen Path, Matiullah Wesa has worked to ensure all children have access to education, teaching materials and books. After the Taliban’s takeover, this focus turned to protecting education for girls and women.

Matiullah Wesa established Pen Path in 2009 to campaign for greater access to education for boys and girls in Afghanistan. In this role, Wesa visited 34 provinces of the country and almost all districts. Pen Path’s first step was to re-open closed schools, after The Taliban had previously shut them down in the remote villages of Afghanistan. Prior to The Taliban’s takeover, Pen Path acted as mediator between the government and the Taliban, while also encouraging local elders to collaborate with them to re-open those schools. It is estimated by Pen Path that their team, to date, has re-opened more than a hundred schools and established a number of new schools across the country.

To date, Pen Path has also provided stationery and children’s books to approximately 300,000 children. Pen Path also established 39 libraries in rural areas to provide access to books for the general public (especially women who could not go to school due to restrictions).

To further extend the reach of education across Afghanistan, Pen Path launched a programme of mobile classes delivered via a specially designed motorbike fitted with a computer screen and speakers, as well as a bookcase, teaching materials and a mobile library.

On 27 March 2023, Matiullah Wesa was arbitrarily arrested by the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), while returning from evening prayer. The day after his arrest, the GDI raided his house and confiscated his personal mobile and laptop. On 29 March, the Taliban spokesperson confirmed his arrest, accusing him of illegal activities. His family have not been allowed to visit him and there has been no avenue to challenge the legality of his detention.

Olesya Krivtsova (Russia)

Olesya Krivtsova is a Russian student, who was targeted by the Russian authorities for opposing the unlawful Russian invasion of Ukraine

Over the first year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Olesya organised partisan anti-war actions in her small town of Arkhangelsk. This included posting anti-war leaflets and posting anti-war messages on her blog and the chat rooms set up for students based at her university. Olesya took the risks to do this to “counter Russian propaganda and promote alternative information about the war in Ukraine among students and other residents of my city.”

As a result of these acts, Krivtsova was placed under house arrest in January, and banned from using the internet on the charges of discrediting the Russian army and justifying terrorism. It has been reported that her classmates reported her to the authorities after taking screenshots of her anti-war messages. She was also added to the country’s official list of terrorists and extremists. Due to the severity of the charges, she faced up to 10 years in prison. In March 2023, Olesya uploaded  a video of her cutting off her monitoring tag and she fled Russia for Lithuania.

Xinjiang Victim’s Database (China)

The Xinjiang Victim’s Database attempts to overcome the secrecy and silence that defines the incarceration and persecution of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang by giving journalists and researchers resources and data to support their work. 

The Database aims to make Xinjiang and the mass-incarceration policies taking place there as transparent and accessible for the world at large as possible. This is done primarily by documenting the individual victims and their situations in as much detail as available data allow. In addition to this, they maintain a number of side databases, such as monitoring the facilities where victims are held, the villages/neighbourhoods they come from, the individuals in the government/police linked to their detentions, and the collection/translation of various primary-source materials, such as eyewitness accounts or government/police/court records.

The Database serves as a free-to-use tool for researchers, journalists, and advocates. Additionally, it provides several specific tools to the public: an ID search that allows 10,000s of internal and public documents held by the database to be searched for information about specific people, a name translator to convert Chinese pinyin versions to more appropriate Turkic versions (e.g. Memet instead of Maimaiti), and a translation bank that combines the Database’s 10 in-house dictionaries to assist with translation of Xinjiang-related texts.

Africa Human Rights Network (Africa-wide)

The AHRN works to support and protect human rights defenders (HRDs) across the Great Lakes region of Africa to ensure they can speak up and protect human rights and democracy across Africa.

The main goal of AHRN is to promote and protect the work of Human Rights Defenders, including activists, bloggers, journalists, feminists, environmental defenders and many others. This work includes advocating for and protecting HRD at risk. It does this through its protection programme and shelter city scheme, which started in 2017 with the launch of the Dar es Salaam Shelter City which is a regional temporary relocation program for at-risk HRDs operation in the African Great Lakes Region. In 2019, this scheme was expanded after the launch of the shelter city Benin to provide temporary relocation to at-risk human rights defenders from Central and west African countries especially those from Francophone countries. As well as direct support, AHRN also facilitates engagement between HRDs in Africa to share capacity building expertise, exchange experience and foster stronger relationships of support and solidarity.

The organisation also provides a platform to more than 175 grassroots civil society organisations that have proven capacity to implement human rights projects in Africa. As a result, AHRN has been able to establish a platform of local HRDs who have decided to organise themselves to improve their working environment and security. This networked approach has defined AHRN’s work. In 2021, they created the YADA Network (Young African Defenders in Action) following a workshop attended by young people from 18 African countries. While it is present in 18 countries, the AHRN’s goal is to extend the Network to 30 countries by the end of 2023. They also created, which is a specialised social media platform for HRDs to connect with others and share information in real time. 

Parliament’s China spying scandal breaks the bond of trust

This week it emerged that a British parliamentary researcher who worked closely with senior MPs, working on UK security issues, had been arrested for espionage on behalf of the Chinese state. While the allegations have been denied, the focus of the coverage this week has been largely on the implications for UK security and the acknowledgement of the threats of Chinese spying on UK institutions.

However, there are some other serious consequences. At Index, we have reported on the long-arm of Chinese repression and their targeting of dissidents abroad. Our Banned by Beijing reports have focused on the influence of the Chinese state in the academic sphere through Confucius Institutes and funding in UK universities. The threat to academic freedom is serious enough.

At Index, we rely on the testimonies of dissidents to expose what is happening in repressive regimes where dictators and tyrants oppress the media and their peoples in order to maintain tight control. We can only achieve this through close relationships based on trust. They have to be convinced that we will do everything we can to keep them safe and that by speaking to us their situation and that of their families will be protected. We take that responsibility very seriously.

Dissidents have to feel that they are safe to discuss their experiences with Parliamentarians and not worry about their reports getting back to any regime, including the Chinese state, they have to be assured that by speaking privately to decision makers they will not be endangering their families remaining in China.

Our Banned by Beijing reports have repeatedly exposed how the CCP has targeted the families of dissidents as a tool to try and coerce people into silence. Privacy and security is vital for many dissidents to feel comfortable explaining their experiences; but for that they need to trust us.

My fear is that this scandal will undermine information gathering as the trust between Parliament and Chinese dissidents will have been broken. And it isn’t just a matter for those of us who have an interest in the repression dished out by the CCP, it is also a matter of huge concern for those of us who want dissidents to feel safe, wherever they come from.

Dissidents who have fled their country to shine a light on repression have left their lives behind. They have made huge sacrifices in order to excise their freedom of speech. They have done it so that their voices can be heard and the tyrant that runs their country can be exposed. Historically the saftest place to do that has been the British Parliament – where MPs have privilege and use the stories of dissidents to challenge the status quo. By undermining this bond of trust those who spy for a despotic regime haven’t just undermine the cause of Chinese dissidents – they have undermined the cause of all dissidents.

That trust must be rebuilt as a matter of urgency.