Foreword to the 2017 edition

By Ensaf Haidar

Ensaf Haidar is a human rights activist, campaigner for the release of her husband, Raif Badawi, and other prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia

In 2012, my husband, Raif Badawi, was arrested in Saudi Arabia. He had helped to set up a liberal blogging platform. In his own blog, and in opinion pieces for newspapers, he expressed his opinion: that the clerics should have less to do with the business of the state, because an excess of religious conservativism was damaging to society. Today, this opinion becomes ever more common, even among royal reformists!

But just for expressing his opinion, Raif faced the possibility of a death sentence on “apostasy” charges, and was eventually sentenced for “insulting Islam” to a long prison term and lashes. On appeal, his sentence was increased to ten years prison and 1,000 lashes. He also faces a ten-year travel ban after his sentence.

Raif has the terrible and unwanted honour now of being probably one of the most famous prisoners in the world. But many bloggers, journalists and activists in too many countries face similar charges and punishments. There are many issues at play in such prosecutions. Authoritarian regimes suppress opinions which they think are a threat to their own power.

Humanist and human rights groups internationally have repeatedly called for the release of Raif Badawi. Here, Norwegian Humanists and Amnesty protest at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Oslo, Friday 16 January 2015

However, in the context of this Freedom of Thought Report, I want to highlight the role that is played when the authorities evoke religion to suppress these ‘troubling’ opinions.

Raif wrote about politics and society. Yet just because some of his opinions overlap with religion or offer criticisms of religious authorities he can be imprisoned for “insulting Islam”.

Raif describes himself as a liberal Muslim, and yet his country tried him for “apostasy”. The idea that he might have left Islam was used to demonize him. It does not matter if you are a humanist or a Muslim, an atheist or a Jew, an agnostic or a Christian. No one anywhere should face such trial just for expressing their view of the world. Freedom of thought and expression are our human rights.

I reject the idea that anyone, or any state, has the right to threaten someone with death just because they believe or don’t believe in any religion. I reject the idea that just because someone thinks critically about any aspect of religion they deserve to be prosecuted, still less to be imprisoned, separated from their children for years and years and years.

It is in everyone’s interest (religious, non-religious, anyone) that we shine a powerful light on the spectre of atheism. Shine a light, and the shadow will lift! And we will find that there is no spectre. Only a human being.

Previous forewords

By Ahmed Shaheed

Dr Shaheed is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, as of 1 November 2016.

The right to freedom of religion or belief is a right that is frequently misunderstood by its conflation with narrowly defined views on religious freedom.

Such narratives often overlook the fact that the freedom of religion or belief includes the freedom of thought and conscience, protected on an equal footing under international human rights law. Moreover, as the Human Rights Committee points out, “religion” and “belief” are to be understood broadly, covering theistic, non-theistic, and atheistic beliefs. Thus, the freedom of religion or belief protects individuals who adhere to traditional as well as new religions and to majority or minority faith communities, and those who are dissenters or who subscribe to no religion or belief at all or who are unconcerned.  In fact, international human rights law protects both the freedom of religion and its corollary, the freedom from religion, for without the latter, the former has no practical meaning at all.

As I write these words at the end of 2016, I am deeply distressed by the rising intolerance related to religion or belief worldwide.  Global trends clearly show a resurgence of religiously motivated action in the public square. While this phenomenon in and of itself, should not be a problem, it can become a challenge where it is accompanied by claims of religious privilege—contrary to the limits set by Article 5.1 (or indeed Article 18.3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. On the one hand, there are the atrocious violations of religious freedom rights in situations of intra-state conflict as in the case of the monstrous crimes committed by the Daesh in Syria and Iraq; the brutal attacks on the Rohingya in Myanmar; or the heinous activities of the Boko Haram in Nigeria.  On the other hand, established democracies are also reporting rising levels of intolerance including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.  The outrage over the former and the shock over the latter often distract from the horror of the persistent violations of the human right to freedom of religion or belief in the numerous countries that suppress religious freedom either through blasphemy and apostasy laws or through other claims of privilege based on religion or belief.

Nearly 70 years after the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom from religion for all, blasphemy is outlawed in at least 59 countries punishable with a prison term or in some cases death. At least 36 countries continue to enforce their anti-blasphemy laws. There are laws against apostasy in 22 countries, and at least 13 countries provide for the use of the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy. While anyone can run afoul of these laws, and often there are allegations of the use of such laws for political purposes, these laws potentially automatically criminalize dissent and free-thinking, and victimize “non-believers”, humanists and atheists.  What is even more shocking is the cruelty with which those who are accused of violating these laws are often punished– by state agents or by non-state actors, including neighbours and relatives.

I therefore welcome the publication of the 2016 Report of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, documenting the situation of atheists, humanists and free-thinkers all over the world. From Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for alleged “blasphemy”; to Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’kheitir, who is facing the death penalty and incitement to murder in Mauritania for alleged “apostasy”; to Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the mayor of Jakarta who is accused of “blasphemy” amidst an election; to those secular bloggers savagely hacked to death in Bangladesh by vigilante groups; to the scores languishing in prison in Pakistan and Iran and elsewhere for expressing views deemed offensive to religious sentiment; persecution and victimization in the name of religion are both chilling and widespread.

The IHEU report is an important reminder that the right to freedom from religion or belief is as fundamental as the right to freedom of religion, and that the same human right protects freedom of non-religious thought and non-religious belief as well; and that for some humanists, atheists, free-thinkers and the unconcerned the protection of this right can mean the difference between life and death.  The report also underscores the principle that the rights and protections in the human rights framework should not, and cannot, be exercised in such a way as to destroy other fundamental  rights articulated in the Universal Declaration, such as the right to life, the right to equal treatment before the law, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and indeed the right to freedom of religion or belief itself. The documentation of rights violations is a crucial step in mobilizing actors against continued or further violations. It is my hope that this publication will not only shed light on existing practices that must change to conform to international human rights law, but will also serve as a vigil to those who have been targeted by blasphemy and apostasy laws or otherwise been victims of religious intolerance the world over.

The first report was published in 2012 on International Human Rights Day, 10 December. In his preface to the report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt (in post 2010-2016), said:

“As a universal human right, freedom of religion or belief has a broad application. However, there seems to be little awareness that this right also provides a normative frame of reference for atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organizations. I am therefore delighted that for the first time the Humanist community has produced a global report on discrimination against atheists. I hope it will be given careful consideration by everyone concerned with freedom of religion or belief.”

For the 2013 report we asked two victims of anti-atheist persecution to provide the introductory remarks. The cases of Kacem El Ghazzali and Alber Saber, from Morocco and Egypt respectively, also feature in the report. They said:

“In spite of international treaties and conventions, many states discriminate in subtler but important ways. And this has a global impact. Laws against “insulting” religion in relatively secure, relatively secular countries, for example, are not only analogues of the most vicious blasphemy laws anywhere in the world, but help to sustain the global norm under which thought is policed and punished.

We welcome this report. The world cannot fix these problems until they are laid bare.”

In 2014, in their preface, Gulalai Ismail and Agnes Ojera, both working to promote human rights in Pakistan and Uganda respectively, said:

“The rights of the non-religious, and the rights of religious minorities and non-conformists, are a touchstone for the freedoms of thought and expression at large. Discrimination and persecution against the non-religious in particular is very often bound up with political suppression, with fears about progressive values, or with oppression in the name of religion. Humanists and secularists are often among the first to ask questions, and to raise the alarm when human rights are being trampled, when religion is misused or abused, or — even with the best intentions — if religion has become part of the problem. Silence the non-religious, and you silence some of the leading voices of responsible concern in society.”

In 2015, following a series of gruesome murders of non-religious writers, bloggers and human rights activists in Bangladesh, targeted by Islamist militant groups for “insulting Islam”, Rafida Bonya Ahmed, whose husband was the first to be killed in this way that year, said:

“If there are lessons the world must draw from Bangladesh in recent years, they are these: Allowing bigotry and extremism to fester unchallenged will have generational consequences; Demands for prison or death sentences or vigilantism against humanists as such must be met not with appeasement nor by arresting the very bloggers under threat, but with condemnation as the gross violations of freedom of thought and expression that such demands represent; And that once a country silences and intimidates its intellectuals and freethinkers , a vicious cycle of terror and extremism becomes inevitable…”