Last Updated 28 August 2020

Somalia has lacked an effective central government for decades. The ousting of President Siad Barre in 1991 precipitated a decades-long civil war between rival factions and the disintegration of central authority, which the terrorist group Al-Shabaab was able to make significant territorial gains. Al-Shabaab imposes a strict version of Sharia law in areas under its control, including the death penalty for apostasy, blasphemy and adultery.

The former British Somaliland declared independence in 1991, and the region of Northern Puntland similarly broke away in 1998.  Only in 2012 did efforts to restore central authority make significant progress, with the formation of the first parliament in more than 20 years, and the holding of the first presidential election since 1967.1

99.7% of the population of Somalia is Sunni Muslim, with the remaining less-than-1% comprising a small Christian community of approximately 1,000 individuals, a small Sufi Muslim community, and an unknown number of Shia Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, humanists, atheists and other non-religious individuals.2

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination

Constitution and government

In August 2012, in an effort to establish greater centralized authority, the new government of Somalia adopted the Provisional Constitution. The Provisional Constitution claims to provide for some freedom of religion, as well as some freedom of expression. However, Article 2 of the same Constitution undercuts this claim:

(1) Islam is the religion of the State.
(2) No religion other than Islam can be propagated in the country.
(3) No law can be enacted that is not compliant with the general principles and objectives of Shari’ah.3

The provisional federal Constitution requires that the president be Muslim (Article 88(a)).

The constitutions of Somaliland and Puntland State (which are technically autonomous states but are not internationally recognised) similarly declare Islam as the state religion, bar the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and require all laws to comply with the general principles of Shari’ah law.4

The Somaliland Constitution requires that candidates for president, vice president, and the house of representatives be Muslim. The Puntland state Constitution requires that its president be Muslim.

The judiciary in most regions relies on Xeer (traditional and customary law), Islamic law, and the 1963 penal code. Legal frameworks vary considerably because each community individually regulates and enforces religious expression, often inconsistently.


The terrorist group Al-Shabaab remains a major impediment to peace, attacking the Somali government and all “enemies of Islam” in recent years, harassing and killing persons suspected of converting from Islam, and maiming and killing those who fail to adhere to its edicts under territory it controls. Having pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, in 2015 some senior figures now appear to have aligned with ISIS. The group’s mission is to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in the Horn of Africa that would encompass Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia.5

While the group has suffered considerable loss of territory, and seen numerous high-level defections, it remains active and in control in some rural areas, having established effective ‘local government’ including in some cases tax systems, infrastructure projects, and services not provided by the legitimate Al-Shabaab carried out a record number of terrorist attacks in 2019, mostly against civilians, non-Muslims, members of the government and the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). The Mayor of Mogadishu was killed in one such attack in August 2019.7


Education and children’s rights

Article 30(8) of the provisional constitution states that “The teaching of Islam shall be compulsory for pupils in both public and private schools. Schools owned by non-Muslims shall be exempted from these measures.”8

In October 2019, it was announced that a new standard curriculum for primary and secondary schools would be adopted for the first time since the civil war began in 1991. The Minister of Higher Education And Culture, Abdirahman Mohamed Abdulle, highlighted that religious education would be a particularly important aspect of the state curriculum in order to counter al-Shabaab’s attempts to impose a strict version of Islamic law. According to Abdulle, Musim clerics helped to train teachers in Islamic ethics and create a syllabus that “will produce students who are sound, who are free from terror ideology, moderate students who have Islamic knowledge as well as other subjects”.9 Al-Shabaab is known to employ an aggressive child recruitment strategy, forcing communities in rural areas to hand over their children for indoctrination or to become frontline fighters.10

Somalia has one of the world’s lowest enrolment rates for school-aged children, with only four out of ten children in school.11

Family, community and society

Women’s rights and harmful religious, cultural and traditional practices

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty and conflict in Somalia, which has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality and sexual and gender-based violence in the world.  According to the Social Institutions and Gender Index:

“Whilst most incidents of violence against women go unreported, there is a culture of impunity surrounding sexual and domestic violence in Somalia. Customary approaches to dealing with violence against women typically involve making “arrangements” between the clans of the victim and the rapist.”12

Widespread adherence to customary laws and traditions routinely undermines the rights of women and girls. For example, in February 2020, it was reported that a man found guilty of the rape and murder of a 12 year old girl was freed after he agreed to pay the family 75 camels.13

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage is practiced throughout Somalia, with both practices experiencing an increase during COVID-19 and the resulting closure of schools.14;  Politicians have been reluctant to challenge the cultural beliefs that underpin these harmful practices, and have at times helped to entrench existing norms. In August 2020, a bill was proposed in parliament that would legalise child marriage from the age of puberty.15

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The new constitutions in Puntland, Somalia and Somaliland call for freedoms of speech and the press, but these rights are not respected in practice. Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with dozens of journalists murdered every year.


The Provisional Federal Constitution prohibits (under Articles 2 and 17) the “propagation” of any religion other than Islam.

While the provisional federal constitution does not explicitly prohibit apostasy, it does state that Shari’ah law takes precedence over federal law (and Shari’ah law forbids conversion from Islam).

Both Puntland State and Somaliland have their own constitutions that also claim to provide some protection for religious freedom, though both documents prohibit apostasy, conversion from Islam, and propagation of religions other than Islam.

The Puntland Constitution, adopted by a constituent assembly in 2012, states that no one can be forced to adhere to a faith different from one’s own beliefs. However it also prohibits apostasy for Muslims and propagation of any religion other than Islam. The Puntland authorities interpret this section of the Puntland Constitution to mean that conversion from Islam to other religions is prohibited.

The Somaliland Constitution protects the right of freedom of belief. However, it states that Islamic law does not accept Muslim apostasy, prohibits preaching in a mosque on “matters that would divide the nation,” and prohibits the promotion of any religion other than Islam. Somaliland authorities interpret this portion of the Somaliland Constitution to mean that conversion from Islam to other religions is prohibited.

Al-Shabaab adopts its own interpretation of Shari’ah law and routinely executes both people of non-Muslim faiths and converts from Islam.16;


The penal code developed in 1963 applies to all regions of the country. Article 313 criminalizes blasphemy and imposes a punishment of 2 years in prison, stating:

“(1) Whoever publicly brings the religion of Islam into contempt shall be punished with imprisonment up to two years

(2) Whoever publicly insults the religion of Islam by bringing into contempt persons professing it or places or objects dedicated to worship shall be liable to the same punishment”

Separately, in the section in the Penal Code concerning ‘morals and decency’, Article 559 imposes a fine for blasphemy, stating:

“(1) Whoever publicly blasphemes, with invectives or insulting words, the Deity or the symbols of the person venented in the religion of the State shall be punished with fine [99. PC) from Sh. So. 100 to 3,000”17

In areas controlled by al-Shabaab there remains a high risk that criticism of Islam, or the militant group, let alone any statement or act perceived as ‘blasphemous’, could result in an unlawful execution under the auspices of al-Shabaab.

Highlighted Cases

In 2015 a man was killed in public for “insulting the prophet Muhammed”, witnesses told the BBC. He was shot by a firing squad in the southern town of Jamame, Lower Juba region, following a Sharia trial conducted under the auspices of

In February 2019, Professor Mahmoud Jama Ahmed published a post on Facebook which questioned whether praying to God for water was a useful strategy to overcome the drought that affects Somalia every year. This post went viral and was widely interpreted as an act of “blasphemy”. He received multiple death threats and was arrested by police in March 2019. Before being presented to the court, he suffered months of illegal detention, physical harassment, searches and various forms of intimidation. On 30 April 2019, Ahmed was sentenced to two and half years in jail for “blasphemy”.  He received a presidential pardon after ten months in jail, but only on the condition that he agreed not to practice any clerical activity and was also suspended from university work for five years. After his release, and despite having refrained from any public activity, Ahmed continues to receive threats on his life. On 28 February, a prominent local Imam, Adam Sunnah, publicly called for his death during Friday prayers. In a recording heard by Humanists International, Sunnah says that no repentance should be accepted from Ahmed because he is an apostate and apostates must be killed even if they repent.19


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