New Reports Reveal Global Persecution of Nonbelievers

“How do I know who the true God is?”

Alber Saber Ayad’s question was answered by the Egyptian government last week when the 27-year-old computer science student was convicted for “contempt of religion” in Cairo. Saber was taken into custody on September 13 by the police after an enraged mob stormed his house, beating him and threatening his mother, a Coptic Christian. Saber was rumored to be circulating the Innocence of Muslims film trailer on his Facebook page. In a video blog, he spoke of the importance of exercising critical reasoning about religious matters. 

While in custody, Saber was slashed in the throat by razor-wielding prisoners after a guard told them of his “crime” and he was compelled to give false statements. The legal charges were “contempt of Islam and Christianity,” “insulting the divine,” and “satirizing religious rituals and sanctities and prophets” under articles 98, 160, and 161 of the Egyptian Penal Code.

According to Egypt News Daily, the prosecution first sought to charge him in connection with disseminating Innocence of Muslims but when this accusation was proven false, they revised their strategy to target the content of Saber’s video blog. Though sentenced to three years and released on bail he was subsequently locked up due to a clerical error before being released on December 17.

Saber’s is not an isolated case. Around the globe, persecution and discrimination against secularists, atheists, and religious skeptics is widespread and apparently rising according to two new studies, one from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, and the other from a coalition of secularist, atheist, and humanist organizations including the Washington DC-based Center for Inquiry and the London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). Full disclosure: I have worked with both organizations and consulted on the report, titled “Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists, and the Nonreligious,” which was released on December 10, Human Rights Day. 

The IHEU report observes that while relatively few countries around the world criminalize irreligion as such, many impose arbitrary burdens on secular manifestations of conscience that are not experienced by others. These include laws and policies regulating:

• apostasy and religious conversion;
• blasphemy and religious criticism;
• compulsory religious registration, usually with a government proscribed list of permitted religions;
• religious requirements or restrictions on government ID cards and passports;
• religious tests for citizenship or participation in civic life;
• religious control of family law;
• and religious control of public education.

Almost half of the countries of the world have laws or policies that penalize blasphemy, apostasy, contempt of religion, or religious “hate speech,” according to the new analysis by Pew. Of the 198 countries studied, 32 (16%) have anti-blasphemy laws, 20 (10%) have laws against apostasy, and 87 (44%) have laws against the defamation of religion, including hate speech against religious groups.

Pew has consistently documented that such laws, often publicly defended as being motivated by respect for religion, are actually correlated with the suppression of religion. Countries with more prohibitions against blasphemy, apostasy, and religious insult also have more violations of freedom of conscience and more persecution of minority beliefs.

The Freedom of Thought 2012 report, which bears a portrait of a manacled Alber Saber on its cover, draws attention to the role of digital and social media in particular, noting that even Facebook “likes” and re-tweets have drawn the attention of some authorities:

The trend of prosecuting “blasphemies” shared through social media is most marked in Muslim-majority countries. For example, in addition to the tragic, but all too familiar, wave of blasphemy prosecutions in Pakistan, this year saw prosecutions for allegedly atheist comments on Facebook and Twitter in Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey. In some of these cases, the governments even threatened to prosecute those who commented on, or “liked” or re-tweeted, the offending comments. In May, the Pakistan government went so far as to block all access to Twitter in the country because of objections to “blasphemous content.”

The IHEU reports being contacted by an increasing number of secularist groups organizing on Facebook, including groups in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey, and Sudan.

In all of this, the United States is an anomaly since it rejects even laws against religious hate speech, which were found in 36 of 45 European states in 2011. It’s the best place in the world to be a secularist. Several years ago I co-authored an article in Free Inquiry magazine, entitled “Atheism is not a Civil Rights Issue,” criticizing atheist activists in the U.S. for comparing their struggles to the struggles of women, African Americans, and GLBTQ citizens. On a global scale, however, secularism most certainly is an issue of civil rights and of human rights. 

And it’s important to note that the suppression of religious dissent online is being carried out not just by government authorities but also by private corporations. During the Innocence riots, for instance, Google restricted YouTube access to the video in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Libya, and Egypt despite the fact that its content does not violate YouTube’s hate speech policy, which recognizes hate speech against individuals but not the (highly problematic) category of hate speech against groups.

“We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions,” said a YouTube spokesperson at the time. “This can be a challenge because what’s okay in one country can be offensive elsewhere.” 

International human rights treaties guarantee all citizens freedom of thought and freedom of expression. But these treaties are binding on states, not on the media corporations that enable the exercise of such freedoms. It remains to be seen whether national legislation and the international human rights system can evolve fast enough to keep up with the changing ecosystem of online communication.