With free thought under threat, the space for discourse itself seems to be becoming smaller

2017 In Review: Shrinking Space for Freedom of Thought

Bob Churchill, Communications Director for The International Humanist and Ethical Union speak to Conatus News about the 2017 Freedom of Thought Report.

Bob Churchill is the Communications Director for The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Editor of The Free Thought Report. He is also a trustee of Conway Hall Ethical Society and a trustee of the Karen Woo Foundation.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The new Freedom of Thought Report (2017) by the IHEU, looking at discrimination against the non-religious on a global scale… Let’s talk about it: What big changes took place since the previous report?

Bob Churchill: There’s lots of new information about specific cases. In the Editorial Introduction we focus on seven key incidents which occurred since the previous year’s edition. This includes murders of humanists or atheists in Pakistan, India and the Maldives, and a series of anti-atheist pronouncements by government officials in Malaysia, also a new upsurge in ‘blasphemy’ hysteria again in Pakistan which saw several secular activists forcibly ‘disappeared’ and men accused of running atheist social media channels arrested on ‘blasphemy’ charges. And there were cases in Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Mauritania in which men who have faced ‘apostasy’ charges have been faced with possible death sentences for being atheists.

Bob Churchill (left), Director of Communications and Campaigns at the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). Image Credit: IHEU.

In Sudan an extremely brave atheist activist Mohamed Al-Dosogy was forcibly subjected to a psychiatric test before before being released, in Saudi a death sentence for apostasy against Ahmad Al-Shamri was upheld, and in Mauritania a writer called Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’kheitir, who’s been jailed since 2014 for writing about religious hypocrisy around caste discrimination, looked set to be released in November after his sentence was downgraded to two years, which he’s already served, but no – it appears the prosecution is demanding yet another re-trial.

As I say, this is all in the editorial, and there’s more information on specific cases in the country entry for each place. Our ratings system for countries is based on big issues, like whether a specific kind of law exists, or whether a particular kind of discrimination occurs, therefore the ratings themselves don’t change radically from year to year as you can imagine. But still, there were a few changes in 2017! Most notably was a positive change which is that Denmark scrapped its ‘blasphemy’ law, which in that country had a potential prison term, which we consider a ‘serious’ problem! So the rating for Denmark in the category of free expression fell from ‘serious’ to one place lower. That’s happened in a few countries over the past few years including Malta and Iceland.

Jacobsen: What countries remain the worst for the non-religious? What countries left that category?

Churchill: No country left that category this year. We apply boundary conditions to each country across four thematic areas, and each boundary condition has a different severity level. The worst severity level is ‘grave violations’. In most cases, if a country has a boundary condition in one thematic area at the ‘grave violations’ level then it probably meets another few boundary conditions at the same level, so it’s going to be rare that a country moves out of the position of having at least one of the worst conditions. That would require, for example, a country which currently has a death-for-apostasy law getting rid of it, or a country which currently derives all its laws from religious edicts to stop doing that, and also to stop doing whatever else it’s doing at the same severity level.

In fact, in the six years we’ve been running the report I don’t think any country which met any of our most severe boundary conditions has lost any of those worst conditions. I’d interpret ‘the countries which remain the worst’ as any which meet one or more conditions at the ‘grave violations’ level, which is – if I just consult my list here: Afghanistan, China, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Comoros, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen.

Jacobsen: What countries remain the best for the non-religious?

Churchill: Very few countries have a clear slate across all four thematic areas of the report, but they do exist: Belgium, Netherlands and Taiwan. Now this isn’t to say that it’s impossible for an atheist to be bullied or persecuted in those countries, of course it is. And we know for example there are some problems with the treatment of atheists living as refugees or seeking asylum in otherwise well-performing European countries, where essentially the lack of a litmus test for atheism is leading authorities to discount the concerns of atheist asylum seekers, or for example putting liberal, non-religious people in detention centers with sometimes very conservative and threatening fellow refugees. That’s a problem we are concerned about. But formally speaking Belgium and the Netherlands in Europe and also Taiwan do very well.

It’s interesting to note that, maybe contrary to the expectations of some, Belgium and Netherlands both have what is called ‘pillar model’ secularism, and Taiwan is similar, although that’s a country entry that we need to expand on. The point is, rather than church-state separation as such, there’s a promotion of equality and state neutrality between religious or ‘lifestance’ groups in these countries, including humanists. So if you’re a separationist-type secularist then this isn’t wholly satisfactory, but in terms of non-discrimination which is what our report focuses on then their equality of treatment is very positive. Interestingly, Norway was heading in that direction, but very recently there’s talk of a new law which would privilege the Church of Norway including giving them a larger slice of public funding than other religious and other lifestance groups, so that’s a rating to watch that could slip back next year!

Jacobsen: What positives and negatives come from the report in the big picture?

Churchill: The most serious concern for any humanist or progressive should be that we live on a planet where over 80 countries have some ‘serious’ or worse problem for the non-religious. In 30 countries – a list which at this moment in history is entirely predominated by Islamic states or countries with predominantly Muslim populations or regions – there’s a detriment to your freedom of thought so severe that we would call it a ‘grave violation’. This includes countries that can take your children off you if you declare your atheism, or where you can be murdered with near impunity and the government will blame the victim for the murder because posting something satirical on Facebook was ‘incitement’, or where the state could hand you a death sentence for ‘apostasy’ just for saying ‘I don’t believe’.

Atheist, Non-Religious, Persecution
Atheists and the non-religious still face persecution, discrimination and violence in many parts of the world. Image Credit: Huffington Post

These are huge violations. Of course many religious minorities face other kinds of control and suppression, but I think the international community has been overlooking the extremeness and severity with which the non-religious are treated, to the point where they are often almost invisible. When a government shrugs and says ‘there aren’t any atheists here’ that should be as laughable and absurd as when they say ‘there are no gay people here’ or similar. In all but the very smallest of island nations for example, then it is obviously wrong, obviously a symptom that people are socially marginalised, or not free to ask questions or to express themselves.

So I think that should be one of the big take-away messages of the report: that there’s this huge swathe of the planet where many people will openly demonise atheism and non-religious persons, where religious criticism and humanist values are seen, wrongly, as a western imposition or even a plot to destroy culture, and where the non-religious are denied their right to freedom of thought and expression.

There’s a lot that’s negative in the report, but one thing I do try and point out is that the non-religious are not going away. Even in some of the very worst countries, or the countries we’ve focused on in 2017 like Bangladesh, Maldives, Sudan, Pakistan and so on, and I can think also of Egypt and many MENA region countries, the backlash against atheists is often very explicitly linked to the perception of spreading atheism. Again and again the concern is that social media and a globalised world, and also the spread of Jihadi terror, is turning some proportion of the population away from religion, especially the young.

Now, at the same time, some religious identities are hardening, turning more conservative or fundamentalist. But the perception of what they call ‘creeping atheism’ is usually borne out by the statistics: very slowly in most countries the world is secularising. And my personal view – though I recognise I can’t really derive this from the data as such – but I think a lot of the resurgence in anti-atheist rhetoric and even the murders we’re seeing is a backlash against this secularisation. It’s a conservative religious mentality that is losing the argument, that is losing ground as ideas and information find their way to every smartphone and campus, and then they have this violent, oppressive reaction to it.

It’s doubtless not much of a comfort if you live in a country where your life is at risk if you champion humanism or atheism or secularism, and it’s not intended as such, but it is a cause for some hope. The backlash gets more violent because of real progress. And that progress isn’t going to stop I think: the non-religious aren’t just going to go away once they’ve seen behind the curtain! So it’s absolutely vital now that we get the human rights of the non-religious recognised, enshrined, and made an international touchstone issue. That is what we’re trying to do with the report – make it known, put the issue in front of international institutions and ensure that national delegations know that their records will be tarnished if the abuse or ignore the rights of their non-religious citizens.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Bob.

Churchill: Thank you!

About Scott Jacobsen

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Scott is the founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing

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3 comments

  1. How did Turkey, of all places, avoid a high spot in these rankings?

  2. Very worrying report, which highlights just how irrational and illogical many regimes around the planet still are.
    Hopefully, religious extremism will die away over time.
    Alternatively, we might start to see belief systems like animism returning again because some misguided individuals consider it more ethnically “authentic”!

    • No John, It is very rational when you see it as a way of control of the population and thus holding onto power. Religion has always followed the pattern of scare, control and then tax. Thankfully in this country we are no longer compelled to pay tithes but in recent years there were occasions when homeowners discovered that they owned property with responsibilities for the upkeep of local churches. I think this has gone away because of the fuss caused but it shows we have to be forever vigilant in these matters.

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