Acknowledge the Right of Apostacy

Boris van der Ham, Chairman of the Dutch Humanist Association ,

2015 was a dangerous year for ‘non-believers’. This becomes clear from the Freedom of Thought Report 2015 that was published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) on 10 December.

The type and nature of the position non-believers find themselves in varies worldwide. Some are subject to restrictions in the employment market, are not permitted to express their opinions, are unable to hold political positions or are not allowed to marry, and some find that their existence is systematically denied.

In the worst-case scenario, 'non-believers' are prosecuted and sentenced to death. Apostasy and blasphemy are punishable offences in 55 countries; in 13 countries, these crimes carry a death sentence. Despite - or perhaps even thanks to - the increasing secularisation in Islamic countries, more people have been convicted for blasphemy and apostasy. Some countries have made their punishments even stronger. For instance, last year Saudi Arabia placed atheism on a par with terrorism in its legislation. Various death sentences were passed this year as a result.

Besides this top-down form of human rights violation, the absence of ‘horizontal’ religious freedom - the freedom that people should also extend to each other as individuals – is also a growing problem.  Even in countries where sufficient legal protection is in place, individuals and groups experience problems in informal situations. Many of them decide not to express their 'real' beliefs for fear of social exclusion by their family and friends. This happens mainly in orthodox religious environments. At the current time, attention needs to focus on Islamic environments in particular. It will not be possible to 'fix' this social problem with new legislation alone.

In other countries, social exclusion is often accompanied by physical violence. This year, in Bangladesh five atheistic bloggers were literally hacked to death by members of an extreme Islamic group. The two appalling attacks in Paris and those in Beirut, Turkey and Egypt fall in the same category. It is true to say that non-state networks in virtually every part of the world are using brute force to try to impose their interpretation of the Koran on 'non-believers'. To them, non-believers include atheists and humanists, but also Muslims with views different to those of their own and the supporters of other religions. 

How to respond to this violence towards ‘non-believers’ in these parts of the Islamic world? In these situations, some platitudes are expressed. For example, calling on ‘moderate Muslims’ to take the lead in this situation.  One good example often used to encourage them to do this is the letter that 126 Islamic spiritual leaders from throughout the world wrote to IS. It immediately became a hype among progressive users of social media. In this letter, IS was asked to respect Muslims with views that were different to its own, including the 'brothers of the Book’, being Jews and Christians. However, the letter did not mention any other religions or the right to apostasy or to criticise religion. The letter fell far short of being the Islamic variant of the Dignitatis humanae, for example, in which the Roman Catholic church recognised freedom of belief - for believers and non-believers alike - in 1965.

It’s a sign of politically-correct anxiety or hostile detachment to leave the debate on religious tolerance to moderate muslims. In fact this is a debate which affects everyone. The right to apostasy and an absence of belief is the benchmark here, and must be endorsed plainly, both in the mosque and in education. After all, if everyone has the fundamental right to be an ‘unbeliever’ in the eyes of another, this provides space for everyone: for orthodox believers, moderate and ex-muslims, and all other (un)believers.