In Religious Freedom Debate, Nonbelievers Must Not Be Ignored

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog
written by
Billy Ford
Senior Program Associate, International Religious Freedom
written by
Cyrus Rassool
Senior Program Associate, Internet Freedom

According to a 2012 Win-Gallup poll of some 50,000 individuals from 57 countries, 36 percent of respondents classified their religious identity as “Atheist” or “Non-Religious.” The result indicated a shift of 12 percentage points from “Religious” to the other two categories since 2005, when the poll was last conducted. However, the interests of nonbelievers are still frequently ignored in discussions of religious freedom and persecution around the world.

Authoritarian regimes are the worst violators of the rights of nonbelievers. But over the past year, a number of incidents have demonstrated that democracies are also quite capable of favoring certain religious groups, alienating nonbelievers, and silencing the voices of the nonreligious. Indonesia and Turkey, both of which are considered electoral democracies in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index, are two of the most prominent culprits in this regard. Their records raise serious doubts about their ambitions to serve as models for other countries attempting to balance democratic values with religious identity.

  • Indonesia: As the world’s third-largest democracy, Indonesia is recognized by many as a positive example of the compatibility between a majority Muslim population and the principles of democratic pluralism. This reputation is undermined by the country’s growing hostility toward religious minorities, including nonbelievers. The subject gained international attention last July when an atheist, Alexander Aan, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for posting “God doesn’t exist” on Facebook. He was officially punished for the offense of “inciting religious hatred or hostility.” But the effect of the case was to deny nonbelievers the most fundamental freedom: freedom of conscience.



    Pianist Fazil Say.
    Photo Credit: Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra

     
  • Turkey: “Beliefs or non-beliefs should not be used as a basis for discrimination or inequality; the state should stand at an equal distance to members of all beliefs and ones who do not hold a belief.” These are the words of President Abdullah Gül during the 76th anniversary of the adoption of the principle of secularism in the Turkish constitution. While the remarks are encouraging, Turkey’s government is not living up to its secular roots, favoring certain religious communities and institutions over nonbelievers and others in a number of ways. For example, only recognized non-Muslim religious groups are exempt from mandatory religious and moral instruction in primary and secondary schools, which critics say reflects the tenets of Sunni Islam. The state also provides subsidies for Sunni Muslim religious activities, including the salaries of imams, construction of mosques, and pilgrimages. Other religious groups are harmed by this selective support, but nonbelievers are clearly affected as well. And as in Indonesia, open rejection of religious belief can be punished as a criminal offense. On April 15, a Turkish court sentenced Fazil Say, an outspoken atheist and world-renowned pianist, to a suspended 10-month jail term for insulting Islam in postings on Twitter.

Over the past two decades, Turkey and Indonesia have made great strides by embracing many of the principles of democracy, but both have fallen short when it comes to religious freedom. Their failure to lead the way on this issue is all the more unfortunate given the crucial choices faced by fragile or aspiring democracies like Bangladesh, Egypt, and Tunisia.


Bangladeshi blogger Asif Mohiuddin.
Photo Credit: Twitter user @IamAsifM

  • Bangladesh: Over the past two months, four atheist bloggers have been arrested, and two others have been attacked, leaving one dead, for openly expressing their beliefs. The February death sentence of Islamist political leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee for crimes during the 1971 war of independence enraged his Islamist supporters, setting off a nationwide witch hunt for religious minorities and nonbelievers. In addition to the four atheists who have already been arrested, the home minister recently announced that at least seven more are to be arrested for their blasphemous critique of religion.
     
  • Egypt: Breaching the country’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the new Egyptian constitution only recognizes the right for believers of the three Abrahamic religions to freely express and practice their faith. But even before the new charter was adopted in late 2012, nonbelievers were targeted for voicing their opinions. For example, Alber Saber became a symbol of the persecution of nonbelievers in December, when the self-proclaimed atheist was charged with defamation of Islam and Christianity and sentenced to three years in prison. The prosecution said he had “promoted his extremist thoughts in speech and writings by creating web pages, including …‘Egyptian Atheists.’”
     
  • Tunisia: This time last year, two self-described Tunisian atheists, Ghazi el-Beji and Jaber el-Majri, were sentenced to over seven years in prison for expressing their views and questioning the validity of Islam. The National Constituent Assembly is currently preparing a final draft of a new constitution, and it remains unclear whether the assembly will recognize the rights of nonbelievers to publicly voice their beliefs or follow the Egyptian model by including provisions that protect religion from “insult.”

The world’s most robust democracies promise freedom of conscience in their constitutions and are party to international covenants requiring the same. They certainly do not criminalize expressions of nonbelief, as in the examples above. But even these high-performing countries sometimes fail to fully respect their obligation to allow citizens to choose “no religion.” Often for political reasons, laws, elected officials, and candidates in places such as Ireland and the United States show an overt prejudice against nonbelievers. In Ireland, for example, holders of some public offices are required to take a religious oath. In the United States, seven state constitutions bar atheists from public office, though such rules are technically nullified by the federal constitution’s ban on religious tests for public officials. Nonbelievers and other advocates of religious freedom in the country are regularly obliged to defend their rights in the face of new initiatives that constitute an official endorsement of religion.

Despite the often difficult conditions encountered by nonbelievers around the world, many in government and the human rights community regard their plight as a minor issue. Moreover, religious activists seeking freedom of worship rarely view nonbelievers as natural allies. These are both fundamental mistakes. Believers and nonbelievers have a common enemy in state-controlled religion, and a common interest in church-state separation. In terms of human rights and political development, the promotion of comprehensive freedom of conscience can help societies move away from identity-based politics, foster a broader notion of citizenship, and encourage practices—such as civil debate and tolerance for plurality of opinion—that undergird any healthy democracy.