Editorial Introduction to the 2017 edition

By Bob Churchill

Bob Churchill is Editor of the Freedom of Thought Report and Director of Communications and Campaigns at the IHEU

This 2017 edition of the Freedom of Thought Report sounds an alarm siren to humanists and to all who care about freedom of thought and expression.

Active persecution

Through publication of this report, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) issues a warning: that in at least seven countries the non-religious were actively persecuted in new or evolving major incidents or trends in 2017. This includes the murder of humanists or atheists in at least: Pakistan, India, and the Maldives; we record new waves of incitement to hatred or violence in at least Malaysia, Mauritania and Pakistan; and we record new death sentences faced by alleged “apostates” (from Islam to atheism) in Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

Under the entry for Pakistan you will read about the murder of Mashal Khan, a student who called himself ‘the humanist’ on Facebook, who was beat to death by a mob of fellow students at university. Although some efforts have been made to bring the large number of people involved in his murder to justice, it is unclear whether they will face real sanction for their actions, or whether the supposed ‘blasphemy’ of their victim will be treated as a mitigating factor. The murderers of alleged ‘blasphemers’ often get off lightly, and such cases are notoriously difficult and dangerous even for members of the legal profession; already the lead prosecutor against the alleged killers of Mashal Khan has been forced to quit the case after receiving threats. Under the entry for India you will read about the murder of H Farook, in a case which has been widely overlooked around the world, and largely forgotten in predominantly Hindu India, perhaps because the accused was killed for being an “apostate” from Islam. Under the entry for Maldives you will read about Yameen Rasheed, a human rights activist and a secularist in a country bending rapidly toward political Islam, stabbed to death in the communal hall of his building. This a case on which the country’s president saw fit to intervene, by reminding the populace that they must respect religion.

Pakistan has also seen a new crackdown this year, expressly targeting atheist blasphemers, with a campaign of social media harassment and, most worryingly, the enforced disappearances of several alleged atheist activists, as well as new, pending trials for ‘blasphemy’. Such trials can drag on for years in Pakistan, all the time with the threat of a possible death sentence, or extrajudicial killing, hanging over the accused. In Malaysia, members of an atheist meetup group whose photograph was seen online and widely circulated were publicly denigrated and received death threats. They were threatened with being ‘hunted down’ by government officials for upsetting Muslims with their possible “apostasy”. (The photograph that went viral was simply a large group of people smiling and making peace signs at the camera.) In Mauritania, the fourth year of the trial of accused ‘apostate’ Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’kheitir was met with renewed protests at court with huge crowds calling for his death. Following reports in November that his earlier death sentence would not stand and he would be released there was violence in the streets and calls for him to be murdered. (In 2014 M’kheitir had written an article about “caste”, how members of his own “caste” are treated like slaves, and how religious beliefs and history are sometimes used to justify this.)

In Sudan an activist called Mohamed Al-Dosogy wrote to the courts petitioning that he be allowed to designate his religion (for want of a more fitting term) as “atheist” on his identity papers. He was arrested on the charge of “apostasy”, which draws a death sentence. He was given psychiatric assessment, reportedly against his will, but at least the case was dropped on the basis of a supposed diagnosis that he was unfit to stand trial. In Saudi Arabia, joining the likes of Raif Badawi, Waleed Abulkhair, and Ashraf Fayadh as a prisoner of conscience, Ahmad Al-Shamri lost a final appeal against a 2015 death sentence for “apostasy” for allegedly posting sacrilegious videos on Facebook. His sentence was celebrated by some on social media with comments such as “I wish there could be live streaming when you cut his head off”.

The global machine of discrimination

Of course, these particular developments in those seven countries this year are only some of the most noticeable moving parts on the extensive machine of anti-non-religious discrimination which exists in almost every country.

The functional parts of these machines include, in some countries, cutting blades of social malice: the overt demonizing, threatening or physically harming of the non-religious. These machines are very often fitted with megaphones transmitting the abusive voices of officials, clerics, family members and neighbours: reinforcing prejudice, and drowning out freethinking views. Some of these machines are smaller, others are gargantuan and deadly. Even in places where the most destructive and suppressive functions have been restrained by secular reforms and human rights, these machines usually run on caterpillar tracks of religious privilege, or the delegitimization of non-religious perspectives: such discrimination under the law rolls over the rights and personal status of non-religious citizens and carries these machines into even some of the most demographically secularized and pluralistic of nations.

Our report measures countries against a list of sixty boundary conditions, at five levels of severity. The 2017 edition records that in 30 countries at least one (usually more) boundary condition applies at the highest level of severity: “Grave violations”. This includes conditions such as “”Apostasy” or conversion from a specific religion is outlawed and punishable by death” and “Religious instruction in a significant number of schools is of a coercive fundamentalist or extremist variety”.

The thirty countries which meet at least one of the most serious boundary conditions are:

Afghanistan, China, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Comoros, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen.

At the next level down there are 55 countries which meet the next highest level of severity: “Severe Discrimination”. This includes boundary conditions such as “Religious control over family law or legislation on moral matters”, and “‘Blasphemy’ is outlawed or criticism of religion is restricted and punishable with a prison sentence”. Due to this last boundary condition, several states such as Germany, Greece and New Zealand which do retain imprisonable offences for “blasphemy” or similar, make it onto this list.

The 55 countries which meet at least one boundary condition at the “Severe” level are:

Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic, Republic of the Congo, Croatia, Denmark, Djibouti, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guinea, Guyana, Honduras, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Lao PDR, Lebanon, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malta, Myanmar, New Zealand, Oman, Palestine, Paraguay, Poland, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Samoa, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Swaziland, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

In total then, there are 85 countries which meet at least one of our criteria for a “severe” boundary condition or worse. In most cases, these countries meet multiple boundary conditions at this level across multiple categories (e.g. under both our “Constitution and law” category and under our “Education and children’s rights” category). This is because usually if one thing is wrong, then several things are wrong, and the violation of various rights or the prevalence of various patterns of activity is likely to coincide together.

It is worth noting that at our current moment in history, the 30-strong list of countries which exhibit “grave violations” against the non-religious, which corresponds with a high prevalence of human rights abuses across various other sectors of society as well, is predominated by Islamic states, or countries with mainly Muslim populations, or with highly Islamized regions within multi-religious nations (e.g. northern Nigeria). While a full analysis of this correlation and its social, political or even theological drivers is outside the scope of this report, it can hardly be controversial to say at least this: that atheism and ‘apostasy’, especially advocating for atheism or fundamentally criticizing religion as such, are often reviled within religious belief structures; these things are often particularly and explicitly reviled within Islam; and most states with an established, enforced or deeply conservative religion today are Islamic. But nor can governments, clerics, or state bureaucracies bear all the blame, since many of the pains and oppression faced by the non-religious in such countries results from social intimidation, including pressure from schools, family, friends. The result of all this – just as many conservative and extremist followers of Islam would probably agree and desire it! – is that it is Islamic states, and Islamic populations, which pose the most prevalent and often the most serious threat to the non-religious people in their societies today.

The disproportionate “brutality” of anti-non-religious violence

In a keynote address to the annual General Assembly of the IHEU this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, spoke of the extreme nature of some of the violence visited upon atheists and humanists. During this speech, he said:

“There is I think, thanks to the reports that you publish, growing awareness of the plight of humanists around the world. So you find the UN supporting increasing focus on humanists. I also want to stress that in my observations, humanists – when they are attacked – they are attacked far more viciously and brutally than I think in other cases. It’s partly because there is this conception that humanists require no protection. So in Bangladesh what we hear are people hacked to death brutally on the streets, or cafes, everywhere… Yameen Rasheed, in the Maldives, he was stabbed thirty-six times. For what? He was simply a freethinker who expressed his ideas, who made jokes about the mullahs and so on and so forth. And of course at the end of that the president went and said ‘We cannot tolerate blasphemy’. So you can see that the framework, how that empowers people to attack people they see as not deserving of protection.

So this is one dimension that I’m very concerned about: the brutality with which social hostilities are visited upon humanists the world over. You will not find this kind of viciousness in attacks on other communities. Of course the Baha’i and Ahmadis face very serious violations, but I think if you look at specific cases the brutality with which humanists and atheists are attacked exceeds other forms of viciousness that I have come across.”1http://racjonalista.tv/un-special-rapporteur-on-the-human-rights-situation-in-the-iran-ahmed-shadeed/

Of course, any kind of violence that can be visited on one set of people will be visited upon another. Christians – more visible and more numerous – are more often the victims of lynchings in Pakistan. Religious minorities such as the Baha’is in Iran and elsewhere have been bullied and marginalized throughout their history. In Myanmar this year (in the months subsequent to Dr Shaheed’s remarks above) the world has seen decades-long tensions coming to the boil as security forces and non-state actors responded with massively disproportionate force to attacks by militant groups, targeting vulnerable Rohingya Muslim civilians with a “clearance operation” utilizing rape and arson, driving Rohingya people from their homes in the hundreds of thousands.

Yet, Dr Shaheed’s remarks above point up that when it comes to atheists there is often a disproportionate brutality, in that it is perpetrated on such a relatively small and invisible set of people, and also in that that it occurs in the absence of any long-simmering social tensions such as competition for land or resources (there is no ‘atheist people’ as such), and that it occurs (barring for example some conflict with Communists) absent any history of communal violence with atheists as such.

Usually, there is at least a passing pretence that states tolerate the mere existence of religious minorities. With only a few exceptions, such as Saudi Arabia and Christianity, even in countries with high levels of religious restrictions on when and how people worship, religious minorities as such are usually able to at least self-identity. But in many of the most threatening nations for the non-religious, it is prohibitively difficult to ‘come out’ as a humanist or atheist, and although there are indications of a trickling rise in secularization, still only a small percentage of the population will identify this way in surveys, still fewer in public. Those that do speak out, however mild their tone and approach, can suffer massive opprobrium just for voicing questions and offering criticisms, just for their failure to conform to the religious norms and strictures around them. Of course, attacks on religious minorities certainly occur, all too viciously and too frequently. Often, when they do suffer such attacks, there is long-standing sectarian tension, or broader social tension. But there is certainly a perception, as voiced by Dr Shaheed, that when the non-religious dare even to declare their existence in some countries, let alone to speak up on particular topics, they are disproportionately likely to suffer disproportionate abuse and violence for relatively minor ‘offences’, or even just for existing.

Humanists forced to choose: be invisible, or a target

In most of the worst-performing countries in this report, the non-religious are caught in a dilemma.

On the one hand, they can remain invisible, perhaps conforming to religious practices for the sake of an easy life, and be largely safe. Most of the time they are invisible. Unlike most sizeable religious minorities there is not even a pretence that they are welcome to their idiosyncratic beliefs or permitted to build their churches. Rather, the non-religious cannot freely associate or express themselves in daily life, and outside of online networks they cannot build the non-religious equivalents of religious associations in the ‘real world’, as humanists do in ‘Western’ countries, for example.

On the other hand, if they so much as state their non-religiousness, let alone offer any rationale for it, or advocate for explicitly humanist ideas or values beyond that, then they are immediately shouted down for trying to “proselytize”, or as a cause of “hurt sentiments” or “offence”. It is very often an all-or-nothing scenario: silence, or be immediately regarded as a pariah and a provocateur.

The second invisibility

There is a second sense in which the non-religious are often invisible, and it has been much less talked about.

When non-religious people speak out on some social or political or ethical issue, driven by some sense of personal conviction, driven by conscience, driven by principles, this underlying complex of convictions – which we might call their humanist values – often goes unreported. There can be many reasons for this. Most obviously, there is the aforementioned social pressure not to openly state your non-religiousness. But sometimes, even when it is known, the media and even some NGOs, can be observed to skirt around or even flatly disregard this aspect of their motivation. A humanist driven by their values to work and campaign for change, and who perhaps is threatened or attacked for their efforts, may get written up in the press as a ‘blogger’, an ‘activist’, a ‘student’… All of which they may be and which are fine things to be! But what if their convictions and motivation are lost? The issue becomes more stark with a comparison: an attack on a Christian peace campaigner, for example, would likely be reported as such – “a Christian peace campaigner” – and any attack regarded as an attack not just on their person but on their religious convictions. To disregard humanist convictions is to give the non-religious a second coat of invisibility paint, and perhaps makes it harder for the world to understand them and the threat that they face.

We can begin to remove this second invisibility. It will require media and NGOs reporting on humanist activists to ask the right questions and to refuse to skirt around secularity because it might be ‘offensive’ to some. It will also require humanists to claim and be more confident or their convictions, by whatever label.

And it will require breaking the over-focus on that pithy phrase ‘religious freedom’ when it comes to thinking about the right we all share: to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). The narrow formulation ‘religious freedom’ means that too many commentators, lawmakers and sometimes even international institutions, forget or ignore that Article 18 protects also our political convictions, our critical thoughts, and broader philosophies of life or worldviews that fall outside the spectrum of specifically religious belief.

The warning

Many western and European countries are currently engaged in national and intra-national debate about rising nationalism and authoritarianism (this was the main subject of our Editorial Introduction last year). These debates are often thereby seriously questioning the inevitability of social and political progress generally. The warning carried by this report is not only that we record in several countries incidents and trends of active persecution, as if they just happened, independently and spontaneously. Rather, it is that this looks very much like a pattern of regression on a global scale.

The rhetorical opposition and very real threats to democratic norms extends far beyond ‘fake news’ and Twitter bots (as potentially serious as those issues are). Any remaining notion that secularism and human rights must inevitably establish themselves, especially in countries with many conservative religious citizens, must now be cast aside as deeply complacent and apathetic. Humanists everywhere, in safe countries and hostile, must make a massive and principled effort, making great use of international cooperation and solidarity, to assert their values and to claim their rights, including their right even to exist.


Also see: Editorial Introduction to the 2016 edition.

References   [ + ]

1. http://racjonalista.tv/un-special-rapporteur-on-the-human-rights-situation-in-the-iran-ahmed-shadeed/