Too many people have “narrowly defined views on religious freedom”, leading to the exclusion of humanists, atheists and the non-religious from human rights protections.
This is the view of the United Nations’ recently appointed new expert on “freedom of religion or belief”, Mr. Ahmed Shaheed. Shaheed, formerly a politician from the Maldives, took up the post of UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief last month (1 November 2016).
Writing in the foreword to a new report on discrimination and persecution against the non-religious, Mr Shaheed decries laws against ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ (converting or leaving religion): “While anyone can run afoul of these laws, and often there are allegations of the use of such laws for political purposes, these laws potentially automatically criminalize dissent and free-thinking, and victimize “non-believers”, humanists and atheists. What is even more shocking is the cruelty with which those who are accused of violating these laws are often punished– by state agents or by non-state actors, including neighbours and relatives.”
The Freedom of Thought Report 2016, produced by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), records discrimination and persecution against humanists, atheists, and the non-religious, with a country-by-country assessment. The report finds that “blasphemy” is outlawed in at least 59 countries where it is punishable with a prison term or in some cases by death. There are laws against apostasy in 22 countries. At least 13 countries provide for the use of the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy.
Mr Shaheed’s home country, the Maldives, is strongly criticised by the report. While known in the west as a luxury holiday destination, by law all citizens of the Maldives are deemed Muslims, and all civil law is subordinate to Sharia law. The administrators of atheist Facebook pages were publicly outed, kidnapped and compelled to “recant” their atheism in the Maldives in recent years, and there have been prosecutions for “apostasy” and at least one suicide related to being ‘outed’ as an atheist.
Now in its fifth annual edition, the Freedom of Thought Report is now hosted online (at freethoughtreport.com from 6 December 2016), with interactive pages for every country in the world. President of the IHEU, Andrew Copson, said, “This is a tremendous development for the Report, and it comes at a crucial juncture in world affairs. … the rights and equality of the non-religious are under threat and there is an upsurge in the suppression of humanist values more broadly. Serious damage is being done to the brand of democracy, to secularism, and there are new threats to all our liberties.”
The report also examines the rise of populist parties and leaders, and how in some cases they are giving rise to a new breed of “traditionalist and religious authoritarianism”. With examples from recent presidential elections in Bulgaria, Moldova, the United States, and current governments including Poland and Hungary, the report’s editor Bob Churchill draws attention to “the very real risk in some countries that under nationalistic populism the rights of the liberal religious and the non-religious to manifest certain humanist values may be degraded or even lost.”
The Freedom of Thought Report is published at http://freethoughtreport.com.
Data from the Report is freely available under Creative Commons license.
The Freedom of Thought Report is produced by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) with contributions from independent researchers and IHEU Member Organizations around the world.