As Persecution of Christians Intensifies, Freedom of Thought Is at Risk

The world, while seeming to grow freer in certain ways, obviously remains a very unfree place in important aspects.

December 30, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on December 30, 2013.

Much of the world has just celebrated the most sacred Christian holiday, yet persecution of Christians has never been fiercer, especially in the Middle East. The birthplace of Christianity threatens to become a land without Christians.

Other faiths also suffer varying degrees of persecution — Jews, Hindus, Bahai’s, and Muslims, the latter sometimes even in Muslim countries. However, nonbelievers also are often mistreated. The lack of religious belief is less likely to be punished by communist and former communist regimes which discourage, often violently, competing transcendent world views. But such systems punish almost all independent thought in politics and elsewhere for being, well, independent. Moreover, atheists and other freethinkers are particularly at risk in theocratic systems, and especially aggressively Muslim states. The International Humanist and Ethical Union recently published its second annual report, Freedom of Thought 2013: A Global Report on the Rights, Legal Status, and Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists, and the Non‐​religious.

America’s Founders enshrined religious liberty in the U.S. Constitution because they understood the imperative of freedom of conscience and thought, and the necessity of every person to respond to their understanding of the transcendent. Although the latter most often is reflected in theism embodied by the major global religions, a failure to believe is no less fundamental. And punishing a lack of belief is as great a violation of conscience and the very essence of the human person as persecuting someone for holding religious convictions.

The two sides of religious liberty are, in many ways, the canary in the mine for individual freedom. If a state is unwilling to respect a person’s most fundamental and intimate views, his or her Weltanschauung, the foundational beliefs which govern his or her life, then government is unlikely to respect other beliefs, including dissident political opinions. And if it refuses to leave people alone in their beliefs, it is unlikely to leave them free to act. Argued IHEU, “when thought is a crime, no other freedom can long survive.”

Freedom of Thought 2013 addresses the status of the non‐​religious — “whether they call themselves atheists, or agnostics, or humanists, or freethinkers or are otherwise just simply not religious.” The report cites a 2012 global survey in which 13 percent of people declared themselves to be atheists and another 23 percent said they were not religious. Non‐​belief, like belief, cannot be privatized. Instead, the failure to believe implicates a variety of liberties: assembly, association, belief, conscience, expression, religion, and thought. Fundamental to most beliefs is both sharing them with others and acting on them in one’s own life.

Unfortunately, governments routinely violate the liberty not to believe. Concluded IHEU: “the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers. There are laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.” At stake is not just occasional inconvenience, but sometimes life itself.

Restrictions are many. “In some countries, it is illegal to be an atheist. For example, every citizen of the Maldives is required to be a Muslim and the penalty for leaving Islam is death.” IHEU figures that “in effect you can be put to death for expressing atheism in 13 countries,” all Muslim.

More common, according to the report, “are the criminal measures against expressing atheist beliefs.” The toughest punishments, including death, are applied to “blasphemy laws that outlaw criticism of protected religions or religious figures and institutions.” Pakistan implemented its blasphemy law in 1988 and has prosecuted more than 1000 people of very different beliefs. Lesser penalties attach to “hate speech” and other commentary. According to Freedom of Thought 2013: “These crimes — of expressing ‘blasphemy’ or offending religious feelings — are still a crime in 55 countries, can mean prison in 39 of those countries, and are punishable by death in six countries.” So‐​called blasphemy also can be used as evidence of apostasy, which is more likely to carry the death penalty.

Persecution often fades into discrimination, less virulent but still offensive to basic human rights. Noted IHEU: “Other laws that severely affect those who reject religion include bans on atheists holding public office, and some governments require citizens to identify their religion — for example on state ID cards or passports — but make it illegal, or do not allow, for them to identify as an atheist or as non‐​religious.” Especially in Muslim nations, family law often is governed by Shari’a courts implementing Islamic law.

Moreover, “Religious privilege is one of the most common forms of discrimination against atheists.” Much of this is tangible, especially state funding for religious education and other activities. Rather more controversially the organization includes “religious discrimination, or religious privilege, in this report even when its supporters claim it is merely ceremonial or symbolic.” The latter is common in the U.S. and, argues IHEU: “what it symbolizes is the state’s preference for religion and the second class status of the non‐​religious.”

Not all persecution emanates from government. As against religious minorities, extra‐​legal violence is common and governments often do little or nothing in response. There is little practical difference between state actors doing the killing and failing “to hold violent non‐​state actors to account,” as detailed in Freedom of Thought 2013.

Some religiously faithful may be inclined to dismiss the freedom not to believe. However, Matt Cherry, the report’s lead author, emphasizes that “the fight for the rights of the non‐​religious [are] inextricable from the fight for the rights of the religious.” All possess a fundamental right of belief and conscience, and an equally fundamental right to act on belief and conscience.

Government practices vary dramatically around the world. The IHEU uses five categories: Free and Equal, which means no known cases of discrimination (few nations meet this standard); Mostly Satisfactory, which means some limited, anomalous, or symbolic religious preferences (the U.S. falls into this small group); Systematic Discrimination, which means various restrictions on free expression, some religious privileges, and occasional limits on criticism of religion; Severe Discrimination, which means severe restrictions on expression and activities of non‐​religious, significant religious privileges, and limits or even prohibitions on criticism of religion; Grave Violations, which means tyrannical control over belief and expression, treating ideology as theology, and turning the state into a de facto arm of religion.

Obviously, one can disagree over details. For instance, the descriptions offered suggest that some cases of “severe” discrimination are less severe than others. Sometimes the designation seems exaggerated, even though discrimination/​privilege remains real and inappropriate. For instance, state churches in Europe are obnoxious anachronisms, but appear to have only a limited impact on people’s liberties.

Similarly, unfair treatment in European countries has a different feel than in Muslim nations. In the survey Denmark and Germany join Turkmenistan and Zimbabwe among states judged to suffer from “severe” discrimination. However, one suspects that most freethinkers would note a marked difference between living in the first two and the second two.

Moreover, in a world in which a majority of people are religious it should not surprise that social, cultural, and governmental institutions often reflect those religious beliefs. Hence America’s “Mostly Satisfactory” rating. No doubt this kind of assumed Christianity sometimes makes atheists and other nonbelievers feel uncomfortable, though broader cultural practices might be more important in that regard than anemic state symbols such as the declaration “In God We Trust” on coins. (Absent America’s founding history, such examples likely would not withstand constitutional scrutiny today.) While inappropriate, they remain relatively limited infringements on liberty comparable to many other challenges of living in a diverse, even fractious society.

Nevertheless, Freedom of Thought 2013 addresses a genuine and very serious threat to liberty. Governments the world over impose many limits on the most basic freedoms of belief, thought, and expression. Moreover, it is easy to ignore the negative, even deadly impact on individual lives if one shares the majority’s religious or other worldviews.

Basic human rights are at risk when the nonreligious and independent thinkers of all sorts are targeted by state institutions. Indeed, in Islamic states nonbelievers are at greater risk than Jews and Christians, whose faith at least is recognized by the Koran. Far too many nations punish independent thinking. Those who believe in human liberty as the basis for human flourishing have an obligation to defend everyone’s rights.

IHEU judges 46 countries (counting the Palestinian territories) as involving “severe discrimination.” Although a few seem improbable entries in this category (Denmark, El Salvador, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Iceland, New Zealand), others are more obvious additions, such as Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/​Myanmar, Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, India, Israel, Kazakhstan, Laos, Russia, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and more.

However, the greatest problems come from the 29 nations categorized as guilty of “grave violations.” These states cover the globe.

Afghanistan: Limits on freedom of expression and assembly, apostasy and blasphemy punished by death, law based on Islam, discrimination against nonreligious, religious privileges.

Bangladesh: Restrictions on freedom of expression, blasphemy and criticism of religion punished, law based in part on Islam, religious privilege, violence by non‐​state actors ignored by state.

Brunei: Freedom of expression restricted, law based on Islam, government promotion of Sunni Islam, punishment of blasphemy and criticism of religion,

China: Significant limits on freedom of expression, association, and assembly, restrictions on religious liberty, privileges for communist ideology.

Comoros: Pervasive discrimination against non‐​Muslims, prosecution of apostasy and blasphemy, significant privileges for Muslims.

Egypt: Infringement of free expression, blasphemy prosecutions limit criticism of Islam, violence by non‐​state actors against nonreligious left unpunished.

Eritrea: Brutal suppression of virtually all independent expression, including of theists and atheists alike.

Gambia: Severe limits on free expression and assembly, penalties for apostasy and blasphemy, ban on advocating secularism, religious privilege.

Indonesia: Freedom of expression limited, especially for the non‐​religious, government discrimination against religious minorities and non‐​believers, atheist groups cannot officially register, blasphemy punished, Islam privileged.

Iran: Freedom of expression and assembly severely restricted, law based on Islam, apostasy and blasphemy punished by death, pervasive discrimination against nonreligious, privileges for Islam.

Iraq: Freedom of conscience, expression, thought, and religion frequently violated by government and affected by sectarian violence, law based on Islam, privileges for religion and especially Islam, apostasy punished.

Jordan: Restrictions on freedom of belief, expression, and assembly, law based on Islam, family status determined by Shari’a courts, apostasy, blasphemy, and criticism of Islam punished, official identification and government employment require religious identification, privileges for Islam.

Kuwait: Some limits on freedom of association and assembly, law based in part on Islam, apostasy and blasphemy punished, privileges for Islam, illegal to register a non‐​religious organization.

Libya: Increasing restrictions on free expression, law based on Islam, Shari’a law governs family life.

Malaysia: Restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly, law based on Islam, apostasy and blasphemy are punished, Islam is promoted and other beliefs discriminated against, illegal to create non‐​religious NGO.

Maldives: Limits on freedom of expression, citizenship tied to Islam, law based on Islam, apostasy, blasphemy, and criticism of Islam punished, privileges for Islam.

Mauritania: Citizenship tied to Islam, law based on Islam, apostasy and blasphemy punished, discrimination against non‐​Muslims and privileges for Islam.

Morocco: Significant limits on free expression, penalties for criticizing Islam, ban on nonreligious organizations, privileges for religion.

Nigeria: Freedom of expression violated, apostasy and blasphemy punished in some states, law based on Islam in some states, religious privileges.

North Korea: No freedom of expression, association, or assembly, quasi‐​state religion centered around the Kim family.

Pakistan: Freedom of expression frequently violated, blasphemy and criticism of religion punished, law based in part on Islam, family law controlled by Islam, Islam privileged, state actors ignore or collude in non‐​state violence against non‐​Muslims, applications for national identification cards and passports require religious identification.

Qatar: Significant limits on freedom of belief, expression, and assembly, apostasy, blasphemy, and criticism of religion punished, law based on Islam, illegal to register non‐​religious group or advocate secularism, family law controlled by Shari’a, Islam privileged as the state religion.

Saudi Arabia: No freedom of belief, expression, or assembly, law based on Islam, apostasy and blasphemy are death offenses, criticism of Islam punished, registration of nonreligious groups or advocacy of secularism illegal.

Somalia: Law based on Islam, freedom of expression restricted, death imposed for apostasy and blasphemy.

Sudan: Significant restrictions on free expression, death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy, illegal to create nonreligious organizations, law based on Islam, pervasive privilege for Islam.

Syria: Severe restrictions on freedom of expression, religious privileges, family law based on religion, limited liberties observed in the past are “being violated on a massive scale by all sides” in ongoing civil war, which has developed “a strong sectarian religious dimension.“

Swaziland: Limited freedom of expression and assembly, privileges for religion.

United Arab Emirates: Severe restrictions on freedom of belief, conscience, and expression, law based on Islam, the state religion, family law based on Shari’a, apostasy and blasphemy punished, Islam privileged, illegal to register non‐​religious group or advocate secularism.

Yemen: Significant limits on freedom of belief, expression, association, and assembly, Islam the state religion and source of law, apostasy and blasphemy punished, privileges for Islam, illegal to register non‐​religious group or advocate secularism, discrimination against non‐​Muslims.

The world, while seeming to grow freer in certain ways, obviously remains a very unfree place in important aspects. Unfortunately, the majority of the world’s population lives in nations which do not fully protect freedom of conscience. No crusade for freedom of thought is going to succeed overnight. But U.S. officials should include the liberty of non‐​believers in Washington’s human rights dialogue with other nations.

Moreover, the rest of us should work to protect freedom of conscience abroad. Not by coercing and invading other countries, but by convincing, encouraging, pestering, pushing, pressuring, and embarrassing. All of us, from citizens to policymakers, have a stake in expanding liberty for those around us.

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