Since I wrote about the Center for Inquiry’s Blasphemy Day last week, this is a fitting followup. By participating in events like those, we demonstrate our commitment to defending the right of free speech. But we can also show that commitment in a more tangible way: by taking action on behalf of the prisoners of conscience around the world who’ve been imprisoned and punished for exercising that right.
In this case, I’m speaking of Kareem Amer, an Egyptian blogger and law student who in 2007 was sentenced to four years in prison for writing posts that criticized Islam and the repressive Egyptian government and defended secularism and women’s rights. Naturally, these were judged intolerable crimes in the authoritarian, theocratic dictatorship that modern Egypt has become. Even his own parents disowned him, although this may (or may not) have been the result of coercion.
You can read Kareem’s writings for yourself, translated into English, on the site that’s been set up to lobby for his freedom. Some of them are astounding in their boldness and courage, especially “There Is No Deity but the Human Being“, a ringing endorsement of secular humanism:
Verily, we must return to the beginning and define the function of the law in our lives. And before that, we must convince the human being of his individual sanctity, and that nothing surpasses him in importance and standing besides himself. Following that, the law is a follower, protector, and organizer of his life. It is not a tool of suppression with which whoever is behind it aims to create a new deity the human being will prostrate to and sanctify.
If you’re willing to help, the Free Kareem website has an action center with a list of what you can do. As I’m not familiar with the people behind this site, I can’t say whether donating money will go to a good cause, so I’d advise some skepticism on that. Instead, of all the actions listed, I think the most effective is sending letters and faxes to the Egyptian government (their link to Amnesty International’s webpage for this purpose is broken, so here’s a new one).
This may seem like an unlikely way to bring about change in a corrupt theocracy, but Western pressure can have an effect. For instance, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the Afghan student sentenced to death for the great crime of downloading writings on women’s rights from the internet, was pardoned by President Hamid Karzai after heavy international pressure and safely escaped the country.
To support this brave and unjustly imprisoned ally of free speech, writing a letter is the least we can do. This is why we have events like Blasphemy Day, to let oppressive religions and tyrannical governments know that they can’t escape criticism no matter how they try. But while blasphemy laws are useless in the long run, in the short run they destroy innocent lives. By taking action on this cause, we have a chance to mitigate at least some of that harm.