Editorial Introduction

Editorial Introduction to the 2019 edition

By Bob Churchill

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

The push to abolish ‘blasphemy’ laws is proceeding apace in many western countries. This is a trend that must be welcomed as a victory for freedom of thought and expression, and for the campaigners who have been pushing for reform, both in countries like Malta and Denmark where the laws were sometimes employed, and countries like Canada and New Zealand where they had been out of use for decades or longer. In an interconnected world, it is important that bad laws, no matter how seemingly inactive, should be actively abolished, both because of the risk they may be reactivated, as Ireland saw, but also because they set a dangerous precedent in a world where at least 69 states still have ‘blasphemy’ or quasi- ‘blasphemy’ laws on the books.

And that brings us to the other side of this success story. The world is divided, with many states still enforcing these laws, and several states actively tightening or introducing new ‘blasphemy’ legislation in the past few years.

Victories for freedom of thought and expression

Since 2015, this Report has documented the repeal of ‘blasphemy’ laws in eight countries, namely: Norway, Iceland, Malta, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, Greece, one province of France, and one further country: Ireland, where repeal legislation is pending.

In 2015, citing the then-recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, Norway finally got around to removing its essentially defunct ‘blasphemy’ law, the culmination of a process that had begun in 2009 and was ushered to conclusion by the outrage. One lawmaker who nevertheless remained opposed at the time called the abolition “cultural suicide”, adding that “Today we have no value basis.” Neither the State nor culture of Norway has subsequently been seen to collapse, however.

Iceland followed its Nordic cousin in the same year. The proposal to scrap the Icelandic ‘blasphemy’ law was put forward by the Pirate Party, the matter was unanimously supported by the committee examining the proposal, and then received broad support from all other political parties. Sidmennt, the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, which had been calling for repeal, specifically cited the international precedent set by retaining such a law: “Often, countries where there is a lack of democracy and freedom are criticized for punishing people for blasphemy even with death sentences. When those countries are criticized, their spokespeople frequently point out, correctly, that similar laws are in force in “Western” democracies. Therefore, it sends a vital message to the rest of the world if Iceland has repealed its blasphemy law. Nations which maintain blasphemy laws with serious consequences should not be able to point to Iceland and say that it has the same kind of law.”

In June 2016, a frequently-used ‘blasphemy’ law in Malta was scrapped. The Malta Humanist Association had actively campaigned for the change, arguing it would encourage rational debate and constructive criticism in a country where conservative Catholicism is still common, but battles on reforms around social issues such as divorce and same-sex marriage are steadily being won by progressives. The law having been framed around “vilification” of religion, the humanists also stressed that repeal would have no effect on hate speech laws which already existed and which serve any legitimate purpose that a ‘blasphemy’ law could be said to have, adding that “vilification” in the ‘blasphemy’ law was vague, and therefore problematically “may be left to the discretion of the judiciary”.

Later in 2016, France followed suit, where despite the avowed laïcité of the nation, a ‘blasphemy’ law on statue in the Alsace-Moselle region had been clinging on in local law after occupation, inherited from the German Criminal Code of 1871.

In 2017, Denmark repealed it’s blasphemy law, section 140 of the Penal Code, which threatened fines or imprisonment for “ridiculing” religion. As in France, Islamist extremism loomed over the decision, with the Jyllands-Potsden cartoon backlash, the murder of Theo van Gogh and threats against other ardent secularists, was predominant in the national debate. Confrontation with the logical conclusion of the ‘blasphemy’ taboo in its absurdity – that sacrilege is somehow a crime against the Almighty Himself and must be resisted even by riot, violence and murder – led to more secular reasoning prevailing. The eventual vote had cross-party support, and ‘blasphemy’ law was abolished by a majority of 75 – 27.

On Friday 26 October 2018, Ireland became the first country in the world to hold a referendum on ending its ‘blasphemy’ law. The Irish people voted (64.85% to 35.15%) to remove the constitutional requirement that ‘blasphemy’ be outlawed. section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009 had criminalized the publishing or utterance of “blasphemous matter” punishable by a fine of up to €25,000. Though sometimes presented as an unenforced or unenforceable law, campaigners including Atheist Ireland noted that this relatively very recent law was cited internationally as a precedent in favour of such laws elsewhere, and an “investigation” into comments by the broadcaster Stephen Fry in 2017 drove home to many that even a relatively dud law could still have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. The Blasphemy (Abolition of Offences and Related Matters) Bill 2019 was formally introduced on 17 July 2019 and had reached the Second Stage as of 25 September 2019.

Even since the publication of last year’s Freedom of Thought Report, three more countries have abolished the crime of ‘blasphemy’, in all cases as part of reforms designed to remove laws considered “anachronistic” or contrary to twenty-first century human rights standards.

In December 2018, the Canadian Senate voted for repeal, as part of a bill intended to remove outdated legislation. Under Section 296 of the Canadian Criminal Code, dating back to 1892 the crime of “blasphemous libel” was in principle punishable by a prison term up to two years. Despite a “good faith” provision protecting “opinion” delivered in “decent language”, the law had historically been used to prosecute satire and criticism.

Then, in March 2019, the New Zealand parliament voted to repeal “blasphemous libel”, again as part of a package of measures to remove “anachronistic” laws under the Crimes Amendment Bill. The move follows decades of campaigning by Humanist NZ, a national partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign. In their submission to a public consultation on the bill to remove Section 123 of the criminal code, Humanist NZ argued for repeal of ‘blasphemy’ on the grounds that it was detrimental to the country’s capacity to challenge rights violations committed under so-called ‘blasphemy’ laws abroad, an argument that was taken up by Justice Minister Andrew Little in favour of repeal. Later arguing for the repeal, Littledeclared that ‘blasphemy’ law was “out of place with New Zealand’s position as a bastion of human rights”.

And similarly, in June 2019, once again as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedures, Greece dropped the two articles outlawing ‘blasphemy’. There were some words of criticism from leaders of the Greek Orthodox church, however wider public reaction was minimal, and the move was welcomed by the Humanist Union of Greece, which had lobbied on the move for many years, as well as other campaigners for free expression.

Cultures of taboo and regression in law

The divide between countries respecting secular freedom and those which do not is growing however.

It was welcome and celebrated news in October 2018 that a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was finally pardoned from ‘blasphemy’ allegations dating back to 2009, and was freed and fled to Canada in May 2019. However, the fate of dozens or hundreds of others accused of ‘blasphemy’ in the country is more obscure and deeply troubling. One relatively well-known case, Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer accused of ‘blasphemously’ discussing the life of Muhammad on a closed Facebook group, remain in prison in solitary confinement. His first defence lawyer quit after receiving death threats, his second defence lawyer was murdered. Others have been ‘disappeared’ and then charged with ‘blasphemy’ in connection with accusations that they merely joined atheist groups online. Extrajudicially, ‘blasphemy’ accusations lead to mob attacks and murder. Despite occasional attempts to argue for reform, all critical discussion of Pakistan’s ‘blasphemy’ laws stands to be criticized by Islamists as itself an act of ‘blasphemy’, leading to the condemnation and sometimes the assassination of those who even suggest reform of the law.

Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, a number of accused ‘apostates’ or ‘blasphemers’, some of whom were previously sentenced to death, including Ahmad Al Shamri, Ashraf Fayadh, Waleed Abu al-Khair, and Raif Badawi, have disappeared into the prison system.

While the ‘blasphemy’ situation in Pakistan is perennially horrific, and the situation for ‘apostates’ and ‘blasphemers’ in Saudi and other states enforcing conservative taboos is nothing to be emulated, a number of other countries have actually increased penalties for such crimes in the past year alone.

The case of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkheitir has shaken Mauritania since 2014. Accused of ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ over an article he wrote about religion and slavery, as a member of a commonly “indentured” caste himself, Mkheitir was reviled by Islamist groups and leaders who repeatedly dogged his trial with rallies calling for his death. Mkheitir was imprisoned from early 2014, and handed a death sentence before the end of that year. The death penalty was subsequently commuted, and after years of isolated imprisonment he was pardoned by the Supreme Court in 2017, but he remained in detention until finally being allowed to leave the country in 2019. The entire long episode is a story of gross injustice against an innocent man, and could have served responsible lawmakers as a basis on which to talk about the perils of allowing extremists to incite hatred under the guise of ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ allegations; could have moved the state toward just reforms. Instead, they opted for entrenching extremist demands, actually increasing the penalties for ‘apostay’ and ‘blasphemy’ to a mandatory death penalty as of April 2018.

After some years of staged implementation, the kingdom of Brunei has increased penalties for various crimes against religion including ‘aspotasy’ and ‘blasphemy’, as well as adultery and gay sex. These are now capital crimes. The sultan has said that a moratorium on the death penalty will be preserved. However, indefinite prison terms are a terrifying prospect for people simply trying to live their lives and express their beliefs. The persecution of innocent people is a high price to pay for an entirely impossible attempt to impose cultural homogeneity across a society on questions concerning religion and personal morality.

A world divided

Despite the victories in Europe, Canada and New Zealand, then, it remains the case that 69 countries outlaw ‘blasphemy’ or criticism of religion under similar laws, 6 of those carrying a death penalty.

Meanwhile at least 18 countries outlaw ‘apostasy’ (the mere fact, or announcing of the fact, of leaving or changing religion), 12 of those carrying a death penalty.

Humanists International and numerous other human rights groups continue to call for the abolition of all such laws. In our advocacy work at the United Nations and other international institutions we continue to highlight cases of accused ‘apostates’ and call on states to abolish these medieval laws. Under the banner of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign we work with partners around the world to campaign locally for abolition.

The human rights consensus is firmly behind abolition. There is momentum for reform in the west. But much harsher laws especially in countries with Islamic penal codes or Sharia-influenced law, continue to oppress freedom of thought asnd expression, not only for the non-religious but also religious liberals and reformists. The major lesson of the past several years must be this: that for governments to promote or accede to the demands of extremist religion, whether to shore up conservative votes or to satisfy radical political groups or in an attempt to enforce conformity and control (as we have seen during the editions of this report in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Maldives, Mauritania) is not even a short-term victory. It always stamps on human rights, it leads to further extremist demands, it shrinks the space for civil liberties, it sometimes creates an illusion of conformity and homogeneity, but these are the enemy of the social good, and meanwhile liberal and progressive voices will not be silenced forever.


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.)

Worst-performing countries

The ten worst-performing countries are:

Country Const/Govt Edu/Child Society/Comm Expression Base score Ranking
Brunei Darussalam 876 187
Sudan 880 188
Malaysia 923 189
Mauritania 940 190
United Arab Emirates 1060 191
Pakistan 1076 192
Maldives 1094 193
Afghanistan 1100 194
Iran 1287 195
Saudi Arabia 1358 196

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.

Best-performing countries

The ten best-performing countries are:

Country Const/Govt Edu/Child Society/Comm Expression Base score Ranking
Belgium 0 1
Netherlands 0 1
Taiwan 0 1
France 2 4
Japan 2 4
Nauru 2 4
São Tomé and Príncipe 2 4
Norway 6 8
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.

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/

Support our work

Donate Button with Credit Cards
whois: Andy White WordPress Theme Developer London