The 2017 Freedom of Thought Report — on discrimination and persecution against humanists, atheists and the non-religious — highlights seven countries that have actively persecuted non-religious people this year.
The report published today (5 December) by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) emphasizes the murders of humanists and atheists in the past 12 months, including Mashal Khan in Pakistan, Yameen Rasheed in the Maldives, and H Farook in India.
In Malaysia, a backlash against atheists was escalated to government levels, when officials threatened to “hunt down” apostates. An anti-atheist campaign in Pakistan saw several activists ‘disappeared’ or prosecuted for alleged “blasphemy”, with two men facing a possible death sentence.
The “apostasy” cases of Mohamed M’kheitir in Mauritania (who has been imprisoned since 2014 despite legal irregularities), Ahmad al Shamri in Saudi Arabia (whose death sentence for apostasy to atheism was upheld) and Mohamed Salih in Sudan (who had asked that he be allowed to specify ‘atheism’ on his identity papers) are highlighted as part of the wider threat to those who speak out as “non-religious” or who challenge religious power structures, in particular in Islamic countries where “apostasy” is often reviled.
The report documents 12 countries where leaving or changing religion by “apostasy” is punishable by death.
Even these incidents are only “the most noticeable moving parts on the extensive machine of anti-non-religious discrimination” globally, according to the 2017 edition’s Editorial Introduction. 85 countries are listed as having one or more elements of “severe discrimination” or worse. Such elements include for example imprisonable “blasphemy” laws, fundamentalist proselytization in state-run schools, the derivation of state law from religious doctrine, and control over family and personal status law by religious courts.
The report warns that the increasing number of anti-atheist murders and other incidents of persecution should not be thought of as disconnected events, but as part of “a pattern of regression on a global scale”. While there is much global attention on rising populism and authoritarianism, the Freedom of Thought Report warns that, “The rhetorical opposition and very real threats to democratic norms extend far beyond ‘fake news’ and Twitter bots… Any remaining notion that secularism and human rights must inevitably establish themselves… must now be cast aside as deeply complacent and apathetic.”
Ahead of the report’s launch at the European Parliament on Tuesday, president of the IHEU Andrew Copson said, “More and more people are coming to us in the humanist movement from Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, and saying: ‘I am humanist’ or ‘I am atheist, and I cannot speak out, I cannot say what I need to, even online’. They are afraid they’re going to be attacked for it, maybe even killed.”
Copson continued, “This report shows that this is not an irrational fear. There have been extrajudicial killings occurring in multiple countries and near impunity for the killers. The international community cannot continue to placate states which criminalize leaving religion as a capital offence. We call on the international community to condemn the persecution of humanists and atheists, and to work with human rights defenders around the world to bring an end to this injustice. We also call on all those who are able to support our ‘humanists at risk’ crowdfunding campaign to help ensure that IHEU can continue to do our valuable advocacy work for the non-religious around the world.”