According to the Pew Research Center in Washington, the 'uncommitted' are the third biggest ideological group in the world after Christians and Islam. For many years, the belief was that secularisation in the West and the secular ideologies in Japan and China were responsible for the growing number of non-believers. However, the cause of the growth evident today is often more unexpected. Twenty-two percent of the population in the Arabic world have doubts about their original religion. In countries like Tunisia and Lebanon, the same applies for up to a third of the population. Even in Saudi Arabia, where Islam is the dominant faith, just 75% of the population say that they are really religious and 5% claim to be atheists.
In Islamic countries in particular, the government and citizens often respond with violence to ‘apostasy’. The Koran condemns apostasy and it is a criminal offence in 55 countries. Branded as 'apostasy’, ‘blasphemy’ or ‘an insult to religion’, non-belief can be punished with long prison sentences or even death. This affects non-believers, ‘adherents of other faiths’ and secular and moderate Muslims, all of whom can be regarded as ‘apostates’.
Devoutly religious forces believe that individual freedom, liberal, secular or even non-religious ideas are all forms of Western imperialism. The Malaysian prime-minister even described atheism, humanism and secularism as 'a threat to Islam and the state itself’. Well, no surprise there: religion and politics are so intertwined in countries like that that any religious ‘apostate’ is a threat to state power too. For this reason amongst others, Saudi Arabia equated atheism with terrorism last year.
The dismissal of non-belief by these dictatorial regimes as 'Western' reflects their hostile attitude. However, the fact that many 'tolerant' Westerners actually view these values as Western privileges is alarming too. Where other emancipation subjects are concerned, people from different cultural backgrounds are all too willing to stand up for individual rights, such as children's, women's and LGBT rights. Unfortunately, cultural relativism often tends to quickly take over any discussion of the fundamental right to individual freedom of ideology and the expression of ideology. It then becomes clear that certain countries are ‘not ready’ for freedoms like this yet and that we Westerners ought to keep our noses out of issues like this. This view is one that fundamentalists themselves are keen to stress: individual freedom is a 'Western frame’.
The misconception on which the above is based is already clear from all of those individuals and small groups of freethinkers that are fighting for exactly these fundamental freedoms from within their own cultures, despite the great danger to which this exposes them. Close to home, in Turkey, efforts are being made to counterbalance the erosion of the secular character of the country. The Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and a 10-year prison sentence for blasphemy and apostasy, having stood up for the right to freedom of expression in his country. In the last half year alone, four non-believer bloggers have been (literally) hacked to death by religious fanatics. The government is not providing these individuals with any kind of protection at all. These heroes are fighting for their own freedom and for the freedom of others in all those countries in which dictatorial regimes and religious fanatics are increasingly limiting the freedoms that people have.
In practice, it has proved to be very difficult to denounce this violation of their human rights. This situation is often brushed under the carpet in favour of trading interests and strategic alliances. The UN Human Rights Council is ineffective. Saudi Arabia is one of the Council's member states and even has aspirations to gain election to its presidency in the future.
The Netherlands is struggling with this shift in the ideological landscape too. In the Human Rights Report that the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs published two months ago, many fine words were dedicated to the right that people have to an ‘theistic, non-theistic or atheist ideology and to leave one faith for another. Unfortunately, there was virtually nothing to show any kind of practical consequences to the violation of this right. Ambassadors organised a number of suitable institutional meetings between religious leaders, with the object of achieving mutual tolerance between them and the members of their faith. Tolerance towards the uncommitted and non-believers did not appear to be on the agenda anywhere.
No Western export product
It is time for this growing group of individuals to be given a face and for us to see their struggle as our own struggle too. Individual freedom is not a Western export product that should be put into perspective, prompted by a sense of shame. It is a universal and fragile human endeavour that has the right to be recognised and protected.
Boris van der Ham
Chairman of the Dutch Humanist Association
This opnion article appeared in the Dutch newspaper NRC 1st of September 2015