Opinion Former Article

Global victims call for UK Government review into non-religious persecution

Persecuted humanists who have been victims of oppressive blasphemy and apostasy laws and societal hostility towards the non-religious have called on the UK Government to urgently launch a global review into the persecution of non-religious people who face death, violence, and torture for expressing non-religious beliefs.

The letter, signed by 17 non-religious activists including those from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Malaysia, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia who have all faced extreme persecution, calls on the Government to conduct a global review into the persecution of the non-religious, similar to the recent review by the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) into the persecution of Christians.

Amongst the signatories are Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi humanist who has faced forced exile and multiple fatwas calling for her death, and Bangladeshi writer Bonya Ahmed, who was seriously injured and whose husband was murdered after being attacked with machetes. Other signatories include apostates like Mubarak Bala, an engineer from northern Nigeria who was forcibly admitted to a psychiatric unit for renouncing Islam. In Nigeria, sharia law deems blasphemy punishable by death. Alber Saber of Egypt was attacked and then arrested for expressing anti-Islamic sentiment. The Malaysian Atheists and Secular Humanists have collectively signed the letter after the Government said atheists should be ‘hunted down’.

The letter highlights the dangerous situation many openly non-religious people face around the world, including the 13 countries where the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy exists. In many more countries, these offences are criminalised and non-religious people including humanists and atheists face widespread social prejudice and mob violence against them.

The signatories write: ‘Many humanists have been murdered with impunity, in some cases for merely identifying as such. In the words of Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, “In my observations, humanists, when they are attacked, are attacked far more viciously and brutally than in other cases”.’

The letter has been welcomed by Humanists UK, the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people, and by Humanists International. The signatories also state that the UK is best placed to stand up against the persecution that the non-religious face, considering that the majority of British adults belong to no religion.

Support for the call also came from Ensaf Haidar, whose husband Raif Badawi is in prison in Saudi Arabia following accusations of apostasy. She said, ‘As a Muslim I strongly support this letter because I see the impact that the persecution of those who are non-religious, or who are accused of being non-religious, has around the globe. My husband Raif Badawi is himself a Muslim but has been accused of being an apostate and that alone is enough to have seen him imprisoned, severely flogged, and fined. If the non-religious were not persecuted, then he would not face such punishment.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: ‘The scale of persecution faced by non-religious people globally is catastrophic – on a daily basis they face death threats and mob violence and many live in fear they will face the death penalty or torture if they express beliefs that are different to the established religion of the state. At a time when the UK Government has conducted a review into the persecution of Christians, it must also prove it is fully committed to protecting freedom of religion or belief for all who are at risk of persecution. The Government must listen to the pleas of these persecuted humanists and take steps to ensure that the safety and human rights of non-religious people are protected.’

According to Humanists International’s Freedom of Thought Report, 30 countries have some form of the most serious or brutal persecution against the non-religious, up to and including the death penalty. A further 56 have serious social or legal discrimination, such as forcing the non-religious to comply with ‘family law’ as controlled by religion.

Threats to the freedom of the non-religious come from a wide range of sources, from individuals and groups wishing to censure freedom of thought, or criticism particularly of religion, through to powerful nations seeking to outlaw and criminalise any perceived negative discussion or criticism or portrayal of religion, or simply being non-religious at all.

The full letter and signatories is below.

'We are non-religious activists and campaigners who have been victims of blasphemy and apostasy laws around the world, or of vigilante violence inspired by prejudice against humanists. We are aware that the UK has recently concluded a review of persecution of Christians around the globe, and believe that a similar review should now be conducted into persecution of the non-religious.

Many countries, when supporting freedom of religion or belief, already focus their efforts on opposing the persecution of Christians specifically. But none have given any detailed attention to the non-religious. The UK is one of the least religious countries on the planet. The British Social Attitudes Survey suggests that a majority of British adults belong to no religion. It is one of the best placed to champion opposition to the persecution that the non-religious face.

What is more, the non-religious need such a champion. In many countries around the world it is simply impossible to be openly non-religious. 13 have the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy, with many more criminalising it, and widespread social prejudice exists across much of the globe. Many humanists have been murdered with impunity, in some cases for merely identifying as such. In the words of Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, ‘In my observations, humanists, when they are attacked, are attacked far more viciously and brutally than in other cases’.

If the UK doesn’t provide such high-level support to people like us, who will?

Rana Ahmad, Saudi Arabia (now based in Germany)

Bonya Ahmed, Bangladesh (now based in the US)

Choity Ahmed, Bangladesh (now Germany)

Waleed Al-Husseini, Palestine (now based in France)

Mubarak Bala, President, Nigeria Humanist Association

Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, Editor and publisher, Shuddhashar, Bangladesh (now based in Norway)

Fauzia Ilyas, Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan (now based in the Netherlands)

Siti Kasim, Malaysia

Philippos Louizos, Greece

Asif Mohiuddin, Bangladesh (now based in Germany)

Taslima Nasrin, Bangladesh (now based in India)

Alber Saber, Egypt (now based abroad)

Mohamed Salih, Sudan (now based in Uganda)

Prithu Sanyal, Editor, Nari News, Bangladesh (now based in Germany)

Rana Amjad Sattar, Humanist Society Pakistan (now based in New Zealand)

Amed Sherwan, Iraq (now Germany)

Malaysian Atheists and Secular Humanists (MASH)



For more information contact Humanists UK press manager Casey-Ann Seaniger at casey@humanism.org.uk or 020 7324 3078 or 07393 344293.

Read our previous news item calling for the Christian persecution review to be widened to include the non-religious.

Humanists UK is a founding member of the End Blasphemy Laws coalition and this year made several interventions at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva calling on states to abolish blasphemy laws.

Read more about our international campaigns.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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