- Editorial Introduction to the 2018 edition
- Editorial Introduction to the 2017 edition
Editorial Introduction to the 2018 edition
By Bob Churchill
Bob Churchill is Editor of the Freedom of Thought Report and Director of Communications and Campaigns at the IHEU
New ranking index
This year, for the first time, the Freedom of Thought Report provides a ranking index. The new index for 2018 allows greater than ever clarity of the comparative performance of different countries.
The ranking index is an extension of the existing ratings system. Under this ratings system, a series of boundary conditions (descriptions of various possible situations) are applied to a country when they are found to be true based on the narrative report for that country. The boundary conditions are classed at various levels of “severity” depending on the seriousness of the situation they describe.
Under the new ranking system, countries accumulate a base score according to how many boundary conditions are applied and how severe they are. The higher a country’s base score, the worse that country has performed, and the higher its position in the ranking index will be.
As we point out on the Ranking Index page, the rankings are intimately tied to the boundary conditions we consider in this report, and these conditions focus heavily on documented information such as the existence of laws, cross-checked reports pertaining to individual cases and incidents of discrimination. Unfortunately, though we try to capture some elements of social discrimination, we do not have the capacity to produce a qualitative assessment of societal factors or personal experience. (See also the section “Some words of caution”, below.)
The ten worst-performing countries are:
|United Arab Emirates||1060||191|
As has been noted in some previous editions of the Report, one of the obvious similarities between these worst-performing countries is that they are in various ways states with legal codes drawing on Islamic law. Note that this is not to say that countries with majority Muslim populations are always among the worst-performing countries. There are states with predominantly Muslim populations such as Burkina Faso and Senegal which perform relatively well according to our criteria (in those two countries in particular the legal systems inherit more from previous colonisation by secular France than from Islam).
What all these worst-performing countries do have in common that is not shared by more liberal or secular-state majority-Muslim countries, is that a conservative vision of Islam is deeply embedded in the legal framework.
Of these worst-performing ten countries, we happen to have applied the boundary condition “State legislation is largely or entirely derived from religious law or by religious authorities” in eight out of ten cases, or in the cases of Malaysia and Pakistan we applied “State legislation is partly derived from religious law or by religious authorities”.
Both Malaysia and Pakistan are among the countries which have suffered specific apparent anti-atheist and anti-‘blasphemy’ violence in recent years.
It is alarming that there have been serious notable degradations in several of these worst-performing countries during the seven years we have produced the Freedom of Thought Report. Saudi Arabia introduced a law under which “the promotion of atheist thought in any form” was classed as terrorism. Sudan has prosecuted numerous apostates. Pakistan saw in 2017 an anti-‘blasphemy’ crackdown against atheists and supposed ‘blasphemers’ on social media, as well as continued mob ‘blasphemy’ violence. Mauritania has this year increased the penalty for ‘apostasy’ and ‘blasphemy’ to death and removed the right of “repentance”.
There are a few signals of hope in some of our other worst-rated countries, however. The government of Brunei planned to implement an even more strict Islamic penal code; the plan was due to take place in stages culminating in the introduction of some of the most severe Sharia penalties including death for some infractions of Islamic norms. However, the plan stalled early in 2018, after the international community – and trading partners – expressed their grave concerns. As noted in last year’s report, anti-atheist rhetoric from senior officials in Malaysia (not to mention Muslim-Malay nationalism) caused serious alarm, but that government has now been replaced by a new leadership. In Maldives, too, a government which had overseen an increasing role for conservative Islam in the legal system, and under which various secular and human rights activists have been ‘disappeared’ or murdered, has been routed in elections. It can take more than setbacks and changes in government to reverse long term trends, but it’s worth noting and encouraging hopeful possibilities where they exist, slim as they may be.
Note: There are of course other countries where human rights in general, including freedom of thought and expression, are severely repressed. Our ratings do consider and reflect such issues; so for example North Korea (where the state is almost entirely identical with a propaganda machine designed to uphold a repressive cult of personality) is also rated very badly in our report. But our remit, and the major focus of our ratings, is on discrimination specifically against the non-religious, including restrictions on secularism and religious privilege. This is why a country like North Korea, which fundamentally violates human rights, human dignity and human autonomy on a colossal scale, may be rated badly (currently at 173 out of 196) but not at the very top, where countries which specifically discriminate against or persecute the non-religious pull ahead.
The ten best-performing countries are:
|São Tomé and Príncipe||2||4|
|United States of America||6||8|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||8||10|
The best performing states highlighted in this Report are Belgium, Netherlands and Taiwan. The first two share some clear similarities, indeed cultural and legal roots in the case of Belgium and Netherlands. Belgium and the Netherlands have both taken a pluralist approach to secularism, with the state adopting a neutral attitude toward religion or belief, and have done so against a backdrop of historically high levels of Christian belief. The pluralist systems now in place do not mean there is no religion in public life, and the overall high rating does not mean that there are no conservative religious forces and other social issues, but it does mean that the non-religious do not face any documented systematic discrimination, and there is protection or legal recourse for any incidents of discrimination
Taiwan is clearly an outlier in the top 3, all-clear countries. It is non-European, and demographically much more religious. But in its relatively open, democratic and tolerant society we have recorded no evidence of laws or social discrimination against members of the non-religious minority.
While France, Japan and Norway may not be particular surprises in the top 10, the socially religious island nations of São Tomé and Príncipe, Nauru, and Saint Kitts and Nevis may be surprising, as may be the United States of America, world famous for its conservative Christian influence. On the island nations it’s worth noting that they are small, and it may be that their tolerance of non-religious voices has simply not been tested, but this shouldn’t take away from the legal and constitutional frameworks which appear to be sound.
The United States is famously a land with an entrenched culture war, and a very active “Christian right”. Yet it is also famous for extremely strong constitutional protections, valued by the judiciary and the people, not least pertaining to freedom of religion and freedom of expression. There will (as anywhere) be individuals who will suffer for ‘coming out’ as non-religious in a conservative religious family, for example, and the sense of social pressure to conform to religious norms in some states or communities may be very strong. However, such individuals have legal recourse, social options, and a great tradition of liberty to support them; benefits which are absent in so many other countries with a prevalence of high-control religious presumption.
None of this means that an American secularist can be complacent! The United States is one of the countries where the idea of ‘religious freedom’ in the popular mindset is often deeply distorted, presented as a right to claim privilege, to overrule, and to discriminate. This is a notion of ‘religious freedom’ which is conceptually diminished from the full right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” which we get from Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under that later conception, the law must respect thoughts and beliefs of many kinds, and the right to manifest beliefs (religious or otherwise) may be curtailed if it impinges on the rights and freedoms of others. The populist US conception of ‘religious freedom’ suffers from having being formed, as part of its visionary constitution, so early in modern history. It preceded the future benefit of the more inclusive language of 1948, which in some form or other is now included in many of the constitutions created subsequently. The narrower, more exclusive form of ‘religious freedom’ prominent in US discourse is both being exported around the world, and it could always become more deeply entrenched in law and precedent domestically if it continues to expand, or if certain offices of justice are held in sway to self-entitled partisan causes.
Some words of caution
The remit of this report is extensive, and our organizational capacity limited. Therefore there will be incidents and issues which we have failed to record, or recorded with some element of error. In mitigation, we consider the report an evolving document; it is always available online and we will continue to update the narrative reports, the rankings, and the index, in line with new evidence in subsequent editions. We advertise year-round for submissions and researcher volunteers, are we are very open to receiving any corrections or additional material.
Qualitative questions about how difficult it might be to ‘come out’ as non-religious in a given society, or how experiences of various forms of discrimination along different spectra differ from place to place, are beyond our current capacity to research and capture, as we are not able to conduct such wide-ranging social research. In mitigation, we introduced boundary conditions which attempt to capture forms of social discrimination, such as whether “There is a pattern of impunity or collusion in violence by non-state actors against the nonreligious” or “The non-religious are persecuted socially or there are prohibitive social taboos against atheism, humanism or secularism”. Such conditions may be supported by secondary sources, testimony, and observation. We can hope for more resources to extend our analysis into qualitative social research in the future, or that others will step in to fill this gap. Nevertheless, in the meantime, there is a strong leaning in the Report toward particular kinds of binary (or at least, fairly easily evidenced) legal questions, over social experience, and this will be reflected in the rankings.
There is inevitably some subjectivity in this process. Some questions are quite binary, such as whether or not a particular law exists, though even then the wording and application of some laws mean that some further analysis is necessary. Other issues can only be examined through interpretation and a multi-faceted understanding of the situation in a given country. For example, whether the “Expression of core Humanist principles on democracy, freedom and human rights” is suppressed is a somewhat broad question, and assessing it depends on interpretation of events and terms. Further, whether we classify such suppression as “somewhat restricted”, “severely restricted” or “brutally repressed” (corresponding to three of our boundary conditions at three escalating levels of severity) creates further room for subjectivity. In mitigation, however, the very fact that we can split out somewhat subjective questions over a range of severity levels creates a helpful guide for consistent application; if a given set of evidence means we apply a boundary at a particular severity level to one country, it works as a steer for the application of similar evidence to other countries.
At the moment, all boundary conditions at a given severity level share the same numerical value. This could be extended by subdividing the boundary conditions, or giving them a variable value depending for example on how harshly or how often a given law is applied, or a given situation is encountered. Such a process would add some granularity, but also significant complexity. In mitigation, again, the spread of similar boundary conditions across multiple severity levels means that we can be sensitive to context to some degree, and in some cases (such as the “Education and children’s rights” strand) the boundary conditions are worded such that many combinations of circumstance (such as whether or not there’s an opt-out to religious instruction, and whether there are alternative classes) can be taken into account.
All these considerations affect the application of boundary conditions and therefore the final rankings index.
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.
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.
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.
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