Freedom of conscience and expression in the 21st century

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression in the 21st Century

Join notable free-thinkers from around the world for a weekend of discussions and debates on freedom of conscience and expression in the 21st century at a spectacular venue in central London during 22-23 July 2017.

On 24 July, an activist strategy meeting will be followed by body-painting in support of ex-Muslims, which will be open to the public.

The two-day conference will discuss censorship and blasphemy laws, freedom of and from religion, apostasy, the limits of religion’s role in society, LGBT and women’s rights, atheism, secular values and more.

Speakers from countries or the Diaspora as diverse as Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Ireland, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Palestinian Territories, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, UK, Ukraine, US and Yemen will gather in London to defend freedom of conscience and expression and argue that freedoms are not western but universal.

The conference will highlight the voices of people on the frontlines of resistance – many of them persecuted and exiled – as well as address challenges faced by activists and freethinkers, elaborate on the links between democratic politics and free expression and conscience, promote secular and rights-based alternatives, and establish priorities for collective action.

Art and culture will be integral to the event as will lively debate with the dauntless use of the free word.

Full schedule:

Confirmed Distinguished Speakers:
A C Grayling, Philosopher
Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Egyptian Feminist Activist
Alya Al-Sultani, British-Iraqi Vocalist and Composer
Ani Zonneveld, Founder and President of Muslims for Progressive Values
Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, Co-Presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation
Armin Navabi, Founder of Atheist Republic
Asher Fainman, President of Goldsmiths Atheist Society
Benjamin David, Editor-in-Chief of Conatus News
Bonya Ahmed, Activist, Writer and Blogger at Mukto-Mona
Cemal Knudsen Yucel, Co-Founder and Chair of Ex-Muslims of Norway
Chris Moos, Secular Activist
Damon Conlan and Neil Edwards, Magicians
Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists
Deeyah Khan, Filmmaker
Djemila Benhabib, Author and Activist
Elham Manea, Yemeni-born Author and Human Rights Campaigner
Fariborz Pooya, Bread and Roses TV Presenter and Editor
Fauzia Ilyas, Founder of Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan
Gina Khan, One Law for All Spokesperson
Gita Sahgal, Director of Centre for Secular Space
Gona Saed, Co-Founder of Kurdistan Secular Centre
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Award-winning Playwright
Halima Begum, Ex-Muslim Feminist Researcher and Blogger
Hassan Radwan, Agnostic Muslim Khutbahs blog
Houzan Mahmoud, Culture Project Co-Founder
Imad Iddine Habib, Founder of Council of Ex-Muslims of Morocco
Inna Shevchenko, FEMEN Leader
Iram Ramzan, Journalist and Founder of Sedaa
Ismail Mohamed, Egyptian Atheist and Founder of Black Ducks Talk Show
Jane Donnelly and Michael Nugent, Atheist Ireland’s Human Rights Officer and Chairperson
Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship
Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights
Karrar D. Al Asfoor, Co-founder of Atheist Alliance Middle East and North Africa
Kate Smurthwaite, Comedian
Kenan Malik, Author and Broadcaster
London Humanist Choir
Maajid Nawaz, Founding Chairman of Quilliam Foundation
Marieme Helie Lucas, Algerian Sociologist and Founder of Secularism is a Women’s Issue
Mario Ramadan, Co-Founder of Freethought Lebanon
Maryam Namazie, Iranian-born Rights Activist, Writer and Conference Organiser
Nadia El Fani, Tunisian Filmmaker
Nasreen Rehman, Co-Founder and Chair of British Muslims for Secular Democracy
Nina Sankari, Polish Atheist Activist
Noura Embabi, Muslim-ish President
Peter Tatchell, Human Rights Campaigner
Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters
Rana Ahmad, Head of the RDF Arab Atheist Community
Rayhana Sultan, ExMuslimBecause
Richard Dawkins, Author and Scientist (subject to availability)
Sadia Hameed, Spokesperson of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
Sanal Edamaruku, Founder and President of Rationalist International
Sarah Haider, Co-Founder of Ex-Muslims of North America
Sarah Peace, Nigerian Artist and Director of Fireproof Library
Savin Bapir Tardy, Counselling Psychologist for The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation
Shabana Rehman, Performance Artist and Human and Animal Rights Advocate
Shelley Segal, Singer/Songwriter
Tasneem Khalil, Swedish-Bangladeshi Journalist and Editor of Independent World Report
Teresa Gimenez Barbat, MEP, Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and Euromind
Victoria Gugenheim, Award-winning Body Artist
Waleed Al Husseini, Palestinian Writer and Founder of Council of Ex-Muslims of France
Yasmine Mohammed, Confessions of an ExMuslim
Yasmin Rehman, Women’s Rights Campaigner
Zehra Pala, President of Atheism Association of Turkey
Zineb El Rhazoui, Moroccan-born Columnist for Charlie Hebdo

Speaker biographies available here:

For more information, contact Maryam Namazie, [email protected].uk.

The conference is sponsored by: Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; Atheist International Alliance; Bread and Roses TV; Center for Inquiry; Centre for Secular Space; Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain; Culture Project; Euromind; Equal Rights Now; Fitnah; Freedom from Religion Foundation; National Secular Society; One Law for All; Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science; Southall Black Sisters; and Secularism is a Women’s Issue.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

When: 22-24 July
Where: Central London
Tickets: From £65 via Secular Conference No tickets will be sold at the door.


Why is academic freedom important?

academic freedom
Academic freedom has been the subject of many debates in recent months. With speakers regularly being no-platformed, and increasing violations of safe space, universities and student unions across the UK have faced harsh criticism.

This growing trend of banning speakers from debates rather than confronting their views head on has led to calls for reforms in university policies in protecting academic freedom and so-called “safe space”.

When human rights activist and ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie was invited by the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) to speak at Goldsmiths University in December 2015 she faced heckles and interruptions from students who opposed her views.

Throughout Namazie’s talk about blasphemy and apostasy members of Goldsmiths University’s Islamic Society (ISOC) caused a disruption by laughing, shouting out and even switching off her presentation, leading to some students being removed by security.

Namazie spoke to Index about the importance of academic freedom, stating: “Universities have always been hotbeds of dissent and progressive politics. They are places where anything can and should be discussed and debated – where deeply held sensibilities and beliefs can be reviewed, opposed and challenged.

“If you can’t express yourself on a university campus, doing so off-campus is usually even harder. Where academic freedom is restricted, it is a measure of the limits of free speech in society at large.”

Speaking about the Goldsmiths incident, Namazie refuses to be intimidated. She believes those pushing the Islamist narrative want to prevent a counter-narrative on university campuses and therefore it is more important for her to go and speak on any campus she is invited to and to push to be allowed where she is denied access.

“My family fled the Islamic regime of Iran in order to live freer lives. Therefore, it’s especially important for me to speak up, particularly given how many face imprisonment or lose their lives in doing so. I feel I have an added responsibility to speak for those who cannot,” she told Index.

In September 2015 Namazie was invited to speak at Warwick University by the Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists’ Society, but her invitation was withdrawn by the University’s Student Union, who claimed her views would “incite hatred on campus”.

Other activists including Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have also been silenced on campuses for their controversial views.

Namazie believes no-platforming is having a chilling effect on students’ academic freedom. She told Index: “These policies equate speech with real harm and violence though clearly there is a huge distinction between speech and action. Criticising Islam and Islamism, for example, is not the same as attacking Muslims. Nonetheless, I have been accused of ‘inciting violence’ or ‘inciting discrimination’ against Muslims.”

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell was involved in a dispute in February after National Union of Students’ LGBT representative Fran Cowling, declined to attend an event at the Canterbury Christ Church University at which Tatchell was giving a keynote address and participating on a panel.

He told Index: “Academic freedom is a crucial element of a free and open society. The right to explore, research, articulate, debate and contest ideas — even disagreeable ones — is a democratic hallmark.

“Imposing restrictions is the slippery slope to authoritarianism. As well as diminishing the realm of knowledge and understanding, it reinforces conformism and the status quo; putting a break on dissent and innovation.”

Right2Debate are a student-led movement who are campaigning for an end to censoring and no-platforming in universities by calling for student unions to reform their policies contesting rather than removing divisive and extremist narratives.

The movement, which has 100 student activists across 12 different UK universities and a further 3000 signatures of support, are aiming to have their four-point policy implemented by student unions across the UK. The policy’s outcomes include debate taking place over censorship, uncontested platforms for extremist speakers and transparency in the way the student unions conduct external speaker policy and challenging extremist/divisive narratives.

Haydar Zaki, Quilliam’s Outreach Right2Debate programme coordinator, told Index: “We are in this hostile environment to free speech because of the fruitless terms that have been employed at universities which include safe spaces and duty of care. In reality, these terms are completely open to interpretation, and have led to the chaos we see today whereby speakers are banned (or initially banned) at one university, but then freely allowed in others.

“What student unions and universities need to do is actually start implementing policies that are transparent and uniform — emphasising academic rights and the right to challenge over censorship.”

Bigoted ideas in society need challenging. To do so students require an academic environment that is willing to have open and civil discussions on all types of ideas, including those that could be deemed offensive, believes Benjamin David, an editor at Right2Debate.

Academic freedom is also essential for developing as a society, he told Index: “Academic freedom is important for a variety of reasons, none so pressing than the instrumental value that it has in making advancements in science, law or politics. Such advancements necessitate that the free discussion of opinion is available.”

The summer 2015 issue of Index on Censorship magazine which focuses on academic freedom. Subscribe here to get your copy.

The summer 2015 issue of Index on Censorship magazine which focuses on academic freedom. Subscribe here to get your copy.

Professor Chris Frost, former head of journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, agrees. Frost believes academic freedom is important for new ideas to be explored. He told Index: “Academic freedom is critical as it allows academics to investigate matters that may be generally considered socially unacceptable simply because there has been no previous investigation. We cannot expand knowledge and understanding if we don’t challenge socially accepted concepts and seek proof to support our theories. Preventing academic research leads to a stifled society and one that will eventually destroy itself through its own limitations.”

Academic freedom is a regular topic for debate for the Index on Censorship Youth Advisory Board, a group of young professionals who meet up for monthly online meetings to discuss current free speech issues. The board spoke to Index about why academic freedom is important to them.

Board member, freelance journalist and race, ethnicity and conflict Masters student, Layli Foroudi, told Index: “Academic freedom is important to me because the purpose of research and study should be to investigate reality, to seek to shed light on some aspect of life, or “truth” — and most importantly, to challenge other people’s truth claims. If there is no academic freedom then there will only be a narrow view of reality that is being purported and left unchallenged.”

Mark Crawford, a postgraduate student specialising in Russian and post-Soviet politics at University College London and current board member, added: “As a historian, it always seemed to me that academic freedom was the closest anyone can really get to ideas breaking down monopolies of power -– hard, scientific investigation can cut through the emotions around nationalism or religion, and afterwards you’re left with truths that however inconvenient are always extremely necessary for new and better narratives to be built.”

This article was updated on 3 May 2016. Corrects to clarify the nature of the dispute over Peter Tatchell’s appearance at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Josie Timms is editorial assistant at Index on Censorship and the first Liverpool John Moores University/Tim Hetherington fellow.


Why is freedom of speech important?

Worst countries for restrictions on religious freedom

After Charlie Hebdo: The free speech fight begins at home


When I started working at Index on Censorship, some friends (including some journalists) asked why an organisation defending free expression was needed in the 21st century. “We’ve won the battle,” was a phrase I heard often. “We have free speech.”

There was another group who recognised that there are many places in the world where speech is curbed (North Korea was mentioned a lot), but most refused to accept that any threat existed in modern, liberal democracies.

After the killing of 12 people at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, that argument died away. The threats that Index sees every day – in Bangladesh, in Iran, in Mexico, the threats to poets, playwrights, singers, journalists and artists – had come to Paris. And so, by extension, to all of us.

Those to whom I had struggled to explain the creeping forms of censorship that are increasingly restraining our freedom to express ourselves – a freedom which for me forms the bedrock of all other liberties and which is essential for a tolerant, progressive society – found their voice. Suddenly, everyone was “Charlie”, declaring their support for a value whose worth they had, in the preceding months, seemingly barely understood, and certainly saw no reason to defend.

The heartfelt response to the brutal murders at Charlie Hebdo was strong and felt like it came from a united voice. If one good thing could come out of such killings, I thought, it would be that people would start to take more seriously what it means to believe that everyone should have the right to speak freely. Perhaps more attention would fall on those whose speech is being curbed on a daily basis elsewhere in the world: the murders of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, the detention of journalists in Azerbaijan, the crackdown on media in Turkey. Perhaps this new-found interest in free expression – and its value – would also help to reignite debate in the UK, France and other democracies about the growing curbs on free speech: the banning of speakers on university campuses, the laws being drafted that are meant to stop terrorism but which can catch anyone with whom the government disagrees, the individuals jailed for making jokes.

And, in a way, this did happen. At least, free expression was “in vogue” for much of 2015. University debating societies wanted to discuss its limits, plays were written about censorship and the arts, funds raised to keep Charlie Hebdo going in defiance against those who would use the “assassin’s veto” to stop them. It was also a tense year. Events discussing hate speech or cartooning for which six months previously we might have struggled to get an audience were now being held to full houses. But they were also marked by the presence of police, security guards and patrol cars. I attended one seminar at which a participant was accompanied at all times by two bodyguards. Newspapers and magazines across London conducted security reviews.

But after the dust settled, after the initial rush of apparent solidarity, it became clear that very few people were actually for free speech in the way we understand it at Index. The “buts” crept quickly in – no one would condone violence to deal with troublesome speech, but many were ready to defend a raft of curbs on speech deemed to be offensive, or found they could only defend certain kinds of speech. The PEN American Center, which defends the freedom to write and read, discovered this in May when it awarded Charlie Hebdo a courage award and a number of novelists withdrew from the gala ceremony. Many said they felt uncomfortable giving an award to a publication that drew crude caricatures and mocked religion.

Index's project Mapping Media Freedom recorded 745 violations against media freedom across Europe in 2015.

Index’s project Mapping Media Freedom recorded 745 violations against media freedom across Europe in 2015.

The problem with the reaction of the PEN novelists is that it sends the same message as that used by the violent fundamentalists: that only some kinds of speech are worth defending. But if free speech is to mean anything at all, then we must extend the same privileges to speech we dislike as to that of which we approve. We cannot qualify this freedom with caveats about the quality of the art, or the acceptability of the views. Because once you start down that route, all speech is fair game for censorship – including your own.

As Neil Gaiman, the writer who stepped in to host one of the tables at the ceremony after others pulled out, once said: “…if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”

Index believes that speech and expression should be curbed only when it incites violence. Defending this position is not easy. It means you find yourself having to defend the speech rights of religious bigots, racists, misogynists and a whole panoply of people with unpalatable views. But if we don’t do that, why should the rights of those who speak out against such people be defended?

In 2016, if we are to defend free expression we need to do a few things. Firstly, we need to stop banning stuff. Sometimes when I look around at the barrage of calls for various people to be silenced (Donald Trump, Germaine Greer, Maryam Namazie) I feel like I’m in that scene from the film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels where a bunch of gangsters keep firing at each other by accident and one finally shouts: “Could everyone stop getting shot?” Instead of demanding that people be prevented from speaking on campus, debate them, argue back, expose the holes in their rhetoric and the flaws in their logic.

Secondly, we need to give people the tools for that fight. If you believe as I do that the free flow of ideas and opinions – as opposed to banning things – is ultimately what builds a more tolerant society, then everyone needs to be able to express themselves. One of the arguments used often in the wake of Charlie Hebdo to potentially excuse, or at least explain, what the gunmen did is that the Muslim community in France lacks a voice in mainstream media. Into this vacuum, poisonous and misrepresentative ideas that perpetuate stereotypes and exacerbate hatreds can flourish. The person with the microphone, the pen or the printing press has power over those without.

It is important not to dismiss these arguments but it is vital that the response is not to censor the speaker, the writer or the publisher. Ideas are not challenged by hiding them away and minds not changed by silence. Efforts that encourage diversity in media coverage, representation and decision-making are a good place to start.

Finally, as the reaction to the killings in Paris in November showed, solidarity makes a difference: we need to stand up to the bullies together. When Index called for republication of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons shortly after the attacks, we wanted to show that publishers and free expression groups were united not by a political philosophy, but by an unwillingness to be cowed by bullies. Fear isolates the brave – and it makes the courageous targets for attack. We saw this clearly in the days after Charlie Hebdo when British newspapers and broadcasters shied away from publishing any of the cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed. We need to act together in speaking out against those who would use violence to silence us.

As we see this week, threats against freedom of expression in Europe come in all shapes and sizes. The Polish government’s plans to appoint the heads of public broadcasters has drawn complaints to the Council of Europe from journalism bodies, including Index, who argue that the changes would be “wholly unacceptable in a genuine democracy”.

In the UK, plans are afoot to curb speech in the name of protecting us from terror but which are likely to have far-reaching repercussions for all. Index, along with colleagues at English PEN, the National Secular Society and the Christian Institute will be working to ensure that doesn’t happen. This year, as every year, defending free speech will begin at home.

Index condemns removal of artwork from Passion for Freedom exhibition

Index condemns a decision to remove an artwork by the artist Mimsy showing Sylvanian Families toys being terrorised by Isis.

According to reports, Isis Threaten Sylvania, a series of seven satirical light box tableaux, was removed from the Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall galleries after police raised concerns about the “potentially inflammatory content” of the work.

The removal highlights a worrying trend in which artistic or other work that addresses extremism has been shut down. Over the summer, the National Youth Theatre pulled a planned production of Homegrown, a play that examined Isis recruitment of young Britons just weeks before its scheduled start. Last week, Maryam Namazie, an Iranian-born campaigner against religious laws, was blocked from visiting Warwick University after the student union said she violated its external speaker policy. That decision has since been overturned.

“Concerns over terror are being inflated to such an extent that perfectly legitimate, non-criminal expression, is being shut down across Britain: from university campuses, to theatre stages, to art galleries,” said Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “The upcoming extremism bill could worsen the situation further. In the case of the Sylvanian Families exhibit, we need to do more to ensure that police work with venues to promote freedom of expression, not stifle it.”

Index has produced a series of booklets on the UK’s legal framework and its impact on artistic freedom of expression for artists and arts organisations mounting challenging and controversial works.