Bulletin # 148 (12 October 2005)



Afghanistan: Women's rights editor arrested for blasphemy

Norway: Religious bent of Constitution violates Human Rights

India: High Court lifts ban on Taslima Nasreen's book

Poland: A nation with a Pope of its own - By Andrzej Koraszewski

Afghanistan: Women's rights editor Mohaqiq Nasar arrested for blasphemy

Mohaqiq Nasar (50), editor-in-chief of the magazine Hoqooq-i-Zan (Women's Rights), has been arrested on 29 September 2005 on charges of blasphemy. He was detained on instructions from the religious adviser to President Hamid Karzai, a government official said. President Karzai's religious adviser - though not explicitly named in this connection - is Mohaibuddin Baloch. The editor's arrest is violating the press law of Afghanistan, which clearly demands that a journalist can only be arrested after the government appointed media-commission has studied the case, questioned him personally and recommended his arrest. This has obviously not happened. In a letter to President Karzai, Rationalist International strongly condemned the illegal arrest of Mohaqiq Nasar and the act of violation of press freedom and demanded the immediate release of the editor and the withdrawal of all blasphemy charges against him.

Nasar has been publishing his women's rights magazine since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 and contributed much to the change of women's lives in his country that could be achieved since then. His magazine has always been a thorn in the flesh of the fundamentalist clergy and he was facing pressure from them. Before the parliamentary elections on 18 September, Nasar published an article, criticizing the draconian punishments for blasphemy, adultery and theft in Afghanistan's penal law today. This article was used as a reason for the editor's illegal arrest a few days after the election. Nasar's article has been referred as potentially blasphemous to the Supreme Court.

Quite as it had been under the Taliban, blasphemy is still punishable with death, adultery with public stoning to death and theft with cutting off hands. In fact, the new Constitution, adopted in January 2004, demands confirmity of all laws with the beliefs and provisions of Islam, that is with the laws of Sharia. The Supreme Court in Afghanistan can straightly take open blasphemy trials against alleged offenders proposed by the government and decide their punishment. Head of the Supreme Court is the country's Chief Justice, the hardline cleric Fazl Hadi Shinwadi, who is notorious for his ruthless action against critics of Sharia. In 2003, he forced a sitting minister to resign, after she questioned the role of Sharia in the new Afghanistan. Before the presidential elections in 2004, he "disqualified" a running presidential candidate for blasphemy. As the head of the Fatwa department of the Supreme Court, which is even under the new Consitution the final authority to determine the confirmity of legislation to Islam, he ordered in August 2003 death penalty for Sayed Mir Hussein Mahdavi, Chief Editor of the weekly Aftab, and his Iranian assistant Ali Reza Payam Sistany [Bulletin # 111/1]. The fate of the two journalists is not known, but it is believed that they escaped to Paksitan.

Norway: Religious bent of Constitution violates Human Rights

Time for a secular Constitution?

Norway's Constitution has to be changed as it violates Human Rights by protecting the privileges of the powerful Norwegian State Church, says the international Human Rights organization Helsinki Committee. Section 12 of the Constitution demands that any democratically elected government has to present a cabinet with more than 50 % of the ministers being members of the Evangelical Lutheran State Church. This violates the freedom of religion, said Gunnar M Carlsen, deputy secretary general of the Norwegian wing of the committee, in a press statement demanding that Norway revised Section 12 of its Constitution. Lawyer Njal Hoestmaaelingen at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Oslo supports this position: "The Constitution's paragraph 12 is in conflict with both the United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the European Council's Human Rights Convention", he said.

Before the recent parliamentary election, the country was ruled by a center-right coalition headed by a Lutheran priest - Father Bodevik - as the Prime Minister. The new 'red-green' coalition government of the Labor, Socialist, Left and Center parties is expected to be more open to changes towards secularism. Incoming Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (Labor) is himself not a member of the State Church. But Socialist Left Party leader Kristin Halvorsen and Center Party leader Aslaug Haga both are.

In another attempt to curb the heavy privileges of the State Church, a complaint against Norway's education system has been launched before the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg in 2002. It demands the deletion of the general Christian-aim clause of Norwegian schools and the withdrawal of the compulsory religious education in the lines of the "State's official religion" for all students of primary and secondary schools, which had been reestablished in 1997.

India: High Court lifts ban on Taslima Nasreen's book

The Calcutta High Court lifted the ban on Taslima Nasreen's book Dwikhandita. Two years back, the Communist state government of West Bengal had ordered the forfeiture of the book under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs). A three-judge Special Bench of the Calcutta High Court observed that the book did not fulfill any of the criteria described in this article and that the ban was not in accordance with law. The court also noted that the controversial passages in the book were limited to two pages only - page 49 and 50 - which did not play a central role within the whole 395-pages-strong book and could in no way justify the ban. Moreover, the book had been in circulation for quite some time without causing any incident of communal violence.

Dwikhandita (Split into Two) appeared in 2003 in Bengali language in Kolkata (Calcutta) as the third part of Taslima Nasreen's autobiography. It criticises the transformation of the author's country of origin, neighboring Bangladesh, from a secular state into an Islamic state and speaks bluntly about the brutal treatment of women under Islam. Taslima Nasreen had to flee Bangladesh in 1994, when militant fundamentalists threatened her life, and is still living in exile.

The lifting of the ban is a set back for the censor happy Left Front government under Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattarcharjee (CPI –M). Trying to please his party's Muslim support base, he rushed to slap a ban on the disturbing book. In the night of 28 November 2003, he had Calcutta's bookshops raided and all available copies seized. The act of censorship was appreciated by the opposition (Congress party), but strongly criticized by the Indian Rationalist Association and other defenders of free expression.

Taslima Nasreen is an Honorary Associate of Rationalist International.

Poland: A nation with a Pope of its own

By Andrzej Koraszewski

In the native country of late Pope John Paul II the cult of his person has acquired forms, which stretch far beyond respect for a religious authority. If we were to look for an idea or a symbol, which unites most Poles, I am convinced that it would be the image of John Paul II.

Poland is not a happy country. In the 18th century it had lost its independence, and was divided between Russia, Austria and Germany. Even before Partitions it was dramatically mismanaged, and for a long period it was treated by other countries as a no man’s land.

Earlier, just after the Reformation, Poland was one of the most tolerant countries in Europe. In the beginning of the 17th century Catholic reaction started. The Church and the noble class stopped any spread of education among the peasants and other "common" people. Towns didn’t develop and many of them slowly died out. The Jesuit order acquired a monopoly on schools, which resulted in schooling being changed into religious indoctrination and teaching of prejudice. Almost all social mobility was blocked and the middle class didn’t develop.

One hundred years later the Polish State practically collapsed. It drifted aimlessly for half a century and was then partitioned. Two of Poland’s occupying powers were of different religious denomination. Germany was Protestant and Russia Orthodox. Not surprisingly Catholicism was often equated with Polishness.

Poland lost its independence for more than 130 years. Then after a short break as a sovereign nation, it became dependent again after World War II, this time from communist Russia. Communism was a semi-theocracy with loyalty as the highest virtue. There was no freedom of speech or assembly; its atheism was based on ideology rather than on reason. The hope to catch-up with better developed countries was short lived and the dream of independence grew stronger with every year. Religion and the Church were once again important as symbols of national identity.

When in 1978 the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became the first non-Italian pope in 400 years, everybody, even nonbelievers, looked on him as a leader and a symbol of resistance. Nobody expected that the collapse of communism would lead from semi-theocracy to almost real theocracy. Party apparatchiks disappeared and their place was immediately taken by men in black frocks. The Church became not only a strong political factor, but also one of the most important agents in education, media and other social areas. Any opposition against this new theocracy is very weak.

Poland is a country of packed churches, a country where millions have enthusiastically welcomed "the Polish Pope", a country with a ban on virtually all abortions and with restrictions on prenatal tests, a country in which the Church claims the right to be involved in legislative processes about laws concerning neither the Church nor religion, a country in which the Church would like to tell scientists what should and what should not be a subject of their research. The Church was prepared to set Poland at variance with the EU in order to get God's name into the European constitution.

In this country, we are trying to promote rational thinking. Four years ago, we founded the rationalist website RACIONALISTA.pl, which became a sort of antidote for young people. There is a great demand for rational thinking in Poland, in spite of the expansion of the Church and of growing clericalism, intolerance and parochialism. In January 2005 people connected with RACJONALISTA created the Polish Association of Rationalists based in Wroclaw, which is trying to organize an association of people convinced of the need for joint action in order to promote the growth of individuals and society along rational lines.

Copyright © 2005 Rationalist International.
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President: Sanal Edamaruku
Honorary Associates
Dr. Pieter Admiraal (The Netherlands), Prof. Mike Archer (Australia), Katsuaki Asai (Japan), Sir Hermann Bondi (deceased, UK), Prof. Colin Blakemore (UK), Prof. Vern Bullough (USA), Dr. Bill Cooke (New Zealand), Dr. Helena Cronin (UK), Prof. Richard Dawkins (UK), Joseph Edamaruku (India), Jan Loeb Eisler (USA), Prof. Antony Flew (UK), Tom Flynn (USA), Jim Herrick (UK), Christopher Hitchens (USA), Ellen Johnson (USA), Prof. Paul Kurtz (USA), Lavanam (India), Dr. Richard Leakey (Kenya), Iain Middleton (New Zealand), Dr. Henry Morgentaler (Canada), Dr. Taslima Nasreen (Bangladesh), Steinar Nilsen (Norway), Prof. Jean-Claude Pecker (France), James Randi (USA), Prof. Ajoy Roy (Bangladesh), Dr. G N Jyoti Shankar (deceased, USA), Dr. Younus Shaikh (Pakistan), Barbara Smoker (UK), Richard Stallman (USA), Prof. Rob Tielman (The Netherlands), David Tribe (Australia), K Veeramani (India), Barry Williams (Australia), Prof. Richard Wiseman (UK) and Prof. Lewis Wolpert (UK).