The murders at Charlie Hebdo , a satirical French magazine, have reinvigorated the global debate about the limits that the religious dogmas of some can exercise over free speech of all. For much of the western public, this discussion was unexpected. When the 20th century French novelist and politician André Malraux declared that the next century “will be religious, or it will not be at all,” few in the western world took him seriously.

The secularization theory dominated among its academics, who looked around and, in a stunning exhibition of confirmation bias, decided that the decline of public religion is a global, unavoidable, and absolutely irreversible development. Most were convinced that the forces of modernization will diminish the role played by religious ideas, actors and institutions in public life.

It didn’t work out that way, of course, and religious narratives continue to inspire constructions of social, political and economic order in much of the world, albeit differently in different places, and often for wildly different reasons.

A single generation ago, the Soviet Union ceased to be. When it did, its ideological exports lost their place among the domineering narratives in many parts of the world. Funds that the USSR channeled to groups and states that collaborated with it dried up, while the highly authoritarian variations of its socialism were increasingly discredited. Augmented by the rapid rise of the internet, this void of culturally unifying myths and symbols filled up with identity politics.

With ethnicity and religion at its forefront, identity politics amplified, and in some cases displaced nationalism as the popular channel through which grievances are aired, power structures formed, and much in the way of politics is done. Meanwhile, across the Muslim world from West Africa to South Asia, Islam was increasingly portrayed as the only real force in the world capable of standing up to different powers, whether those powers are local dictators, Israel, the West in general, or the Unites States in particular. Saudi Arabia, along with other GCC countries, replaced the USSR as the biggest funder and creator of the new global dissent, encouraging the growth of myriad regional Islamist movements.

In the meantime, active and emerging civil conflicts in which religion plays either a central or a peripheral role have increased steadily since the end of the 1960s, from 22% of all conflicts then, to over 50% in the last decade. Moreover, a disproportionately large presence of Islam in religious civil wars has become more apparent. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence says that Islam has been a factor in over 80% of religious civil wars since 1940, and the religiously motivated incidences of terrorism that have been on the sharp rise since the 1980s also involve Islam more than any other faith.

In such times of upheaval, public religion presents a perfect avenue through which to suppress the free flow of opinions, ideas and information. One of the most direct ways of achieving this purpose is through categories like blasphemy. While readers in Pakistan are doubtless familiar with their own country’s blasphemy-related incidents, both extra-judicial and official prosecution on similar grounds are also a regular and increasing occurrence in many other Muslim-majority states. These cases have been rising for decades, targeting those who were deemed to overstep certain boundaries, whether religious, social and, increasingly, political.

The violent arbiters of what can and cannot be said are lowering their targets on anyone, and not only those who are in the public eye. From poor farm workers like Asia Bibi, to world renowned writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, to theologians such as Mahmoud Mohammed Taha and Nasr Abu Zayd, to dozens of known and unknown journalists imprisoned for challenging the wrong people, to social media users calling for reform in countries as far apart as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia – no one is too well-known or too insignificant to be punished.

Neither does this trend limit itself to Muslim-majority countries, as globalization ensures the rapid spread of ideas which are now dependent on nothing more than an internet connection. In the west, radical Islamists and their politically active and well funded conservative supporters have begun to advocate for criminalization of blasphemy through the expansion of existing hate-speech laws. In the U.K., Muslim groups were the only religious minority that advocated for the resuscitation (and expansion) of long-unused blasphemy laws.

At the global level, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is trying to criminalize any affront through pushing for legislation that prohibits the defamation of religion. But the flowering culture of self-censorship, the roots of which can be traced back to the the accompanying violence of the Rushdie Affair, is increasingly doing their work for them. 

The BBC will cancel documentary movie screenings because of security threats. British museums will hide their collections containing artistic images of the Prophet Mohammad made by Muslims through the ages. Atheist societies are censored on British university campuses. A political candidate, himself of Muslim background, receives death threats because he tweeted a picture of stick figures saying hi to each other – a picture which the BBC refused to show. A campaign is underway to prohibit him from running for office.

These are but a small fraction of the latest examples of the changing tides. When Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are accused of provocation, people forget that their publications were a response to these incremental changes of the last two decades. And the fact that these developments are increasingly being forced, not through dialogue and discussion, but violence and intimidation, is likewise ignored.

In the wake of the murders, numerous religious leaders – from Pope Francis to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church – have condemned religious satire as unpardonable provocation. Politicians of the world have listened closely to these calls for sensitivity to religion. And while authoritarian regimes are always happy to use the barrel of a gun in order to suppress legitimate dissent, artistic expression, and political opposition, pluralistic democracies increasingly appear to have stepped on the same path.