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Humanists have defended the right to wear religious dress in the face of various laws targeting “extremism” which would remove this right on fallacious grounds.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was speaking at a meeting with Harlem Désir, the Special Representative on Freedom of the Media, from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE). The IHEU spoke out in defence of the importance of free expression in the context of anti-extremist legislation, specifically in terms of religious dress.

HDIM Conference 2017, Warsaw

During her first statement at the 2017 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), IHEU  director of advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey, urged states to foster, rather than hinder, the free expression of belief so that an environment of debate, inquiry and tolerance can be engendered.

She focused on the crackdown in some Central Asian countries on sartorial displays that are perceived as overtly religious by the state – such as headscarves and beards.

Talking about some draconian measures against citizens wearing headscarves or sporting beards in the region — which includes forced shaving, state harassment, the forced closing of business, forced feeding of pork and arrests — O’Casey voiced her concern that not only were these against international human rights standards but highlighted how non-verbal expression (such as through dress or art) is particularly vulnerable to the subjective interpretation of the onlooker, which in the case of an authoritarian state threatens freedom of expression.

She said, “It is unclear how state offices can claim to legitimately attribute specific intentions to those wearing beards and hijabs, when they are grounded in speculation about their symbolic meaning. That beards and headscarves can be sported for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to, religious beliefs, only amplifies the subjectivity and dangers around any attempt to curtail this form of expression.”

O’Casey continued, “As the OSCE representative on freedom of the media points out, free expression can play a critical role in promoting equality and combatting intolerance. We urge the governments of the Central Asian states concerned to foster not hinder expression of belief so that an environment of debate, inquiry and tolerance can be fostered.”

HDIM is an annual two-week conference held in Warsaw every autumn and is attended by some 1000 government representatives, international experts, non-governmental organizations, and human rights activists. Organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the meeting is considered to be Europe’s largest human rights conference.

O’Casey’s statement follows in full below:


International Humanist and Ethical Union
Statement for Working Session I, HDIM 2017

Elizabeth O’Casey

The importance of free expression in the context of anti-extremist actions in central Asia

As has been reaffirmed by the previous OSCE representative on freedom of the media, “freedom of expression is a prerequisite to prevent and counter violent extremism and radicalisation that leads to terrorism.”

Despite this, the right to express oneself freely has too often been pitted against security concerns, and fears of terrorism instrumentalised so as to silence those who do not subscribe to the majority view.

There are concerning examples from across the OSCE region; but I should like to highlight some Central Asian states, where specifically, non-verbal expressions of personal belief have been subjected to illegitimate curtailment over the past few years.

There has been a forceful crackdown on sartorial expression of women; in some regions of Tajikistan hijab blacklists have been drawn up, shops selling the garments closed down and the state has ordered and harassed Muslim women to tie head scarves the ‘Tajik’ way. In Uzbekistan, authorities are removing head scarves from women in de-veilings as part of “hudjum” [The first “hudjum” dates back to 1927 when the Soviet government forced women to stop wearing scarves, veils, and burqas]. and reportedly, special units have been formed and tasked with finding and detaining women wearing the hijab. In Kazakhstan, laws have been drafted banning clothing perceived as overtly religious.

There have also been reports of forced beard-shavings; in Tajikistan police have shaved nearly 13,000 men. In Uzbekistan, football fans have reported being prevented from entering stadiums until having removed their beards. In Turkmenistan, reports have suggested that law enforcement officers are confronting men aged under 50 with stubble or beards and accusing them of being Wahhabis.

Much of the discourse and explicit reasoning for these crackdowns is rooted in concerns about Islamic militancy. There is growing unease across the region about rising Islamic radicalism. However, governments have been consistently inflating, overstating, and misstating this threat in order to justify cracking down on political opponents and those who seek to practice their faith more conservatively or openly.

It is unclear how state offices can claim to legitimately attribute specific intentions to those wearing beards and hijabs, when they are grounded in speculation about their symbolic meaning. That beards and headscarves can be sported for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to, religious beliefs, only amplifies the subjectivity and dangers around any attempt to curtail this form of expression.

As the OSCE representative on freedom of the media points out, free expression can play a critical role in promoting equality and combating intolerance. We urge the governments of the Central Asian states concerned to encourage not hinder free expression of belief so that an environment of debate, inquiry and tolerance can be fostered. Where such states may be in doubt, we recommend the UN Rabat Plan of Action in helping clarify the scope of state obligations on prohibiting incitement to violence, hostility and discrimination whilst maintaining the right to free expression of its citizens.

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