Atheists face increased discrimination around the world

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is being confronted with a detailed report highlighting the widespread discrimination and prejudice faced by atheists around the world

Ghaffar Hussain
On 26 February 2013 08:08

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which opened its Spring session this week, is being confronted with a detailed report highlighting the widespread discrimination and prejudice faced by atheists, freethinkers and humanists around the world.

According to the report, submitted by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), people who have rejected religion face having their views criminalised and, in some countries, are subject to capital punishment. In Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the Maldives, atheists can face the death penalty, simply for expressing their views.

In many other countries, atheists and freethinkers also face discrimination and the curtailment of basic rights. These include: the right to marry, the right to citizenship, exclusion from public sector jobs, prohibition from holding public office, and restricted access to public education.

Since the advent of social media, ‘blasphemy cases’ in particular have sharply increased. Recently, in Tunisia, two young atheists, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for Facebook postings that were considered 'blasphemous'. In Turkey, pianist and atheist Fazil Say faces jail for 'blasphemous' tweets. There have been similar cases in Indonesia and Egypt too.

Such cases are not restricted to Muslim-majority countries. In Greece, Phillipos Loizos is facing charges of insulting religion after he created a Facebook page that poked fun at his fellow countrymen’s belief in miracles. But, of course, the bulk of cases are in Muslim-majority countries, including those affected by the misleadingly-labelled ‘Arab Spring’.

Calls by the IHEU for the UNHRC to take action preventing the persecution of atheists and freethinkers is taking place at a time when many Muslim-majority countries are campaigning at the UN for a world ban on the denigration of religion, especially 'Islamophobia'.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Tunisia and Egypt, are campaigning vigorously for the UN to take action against the expression of views deemed insulting to Islam, while stepping up their own prosecutions of freethinkers and atheists that criticise religion on Facebook and Twitter.

One of the many problems with attempts to outlaw blasphemy, other than the fact that it clearly should not be outlawed, is that countries that are keen to do so don't distinguish between insulting religion and criticising religion. If any criticism of Islam, for example, is to be deemed 'blasphemous', then essentially certain countries are seeking to outlaw criticism of Islam under the guise of fighting 'Islamophobia'.

This privileging of one belief system over others is deeply dangerous, hypocritical and, in the long term, a recipe for disaster. It is an attempt by countries that don't respect pluralism and diversity of viewpoints to have their own particular views respected and protected, whilst denying the same right to others.

It is not clear at this stage how the UNHRC is going to respond to the report before them. Ideally no-one should be discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs and one set of beliefs should not be afforded a special status beyond reproach. But whether or not common sense is reflected in reality, remains to be seen.

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator

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