6 outrageous incidents of discrimination against nonbelievers

It might not be as severe as racism or misogyny, but the persecution of atheists is real -- and global

Published December 20, 2012 5:26PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet "Oh, you atheists are always whining about how put-upon you are. You don't experience real discrimination: not like African-Americans, or gays, or women, or immigrants. So knock it off with the pity party."

You may have heard this refrain. You may have even sung it yourself. So let's look at this question for a moment: Are atheists subjected to real discrimination?

It's certainly true that, in the United States, while atheists do experience real discrimination, it's typically not as severe as, say, racism or misogyny. Or rather, since I don't think comparing discriminations is usually all that useful: Anti-atheist discrimination takes different forms. It's not like the systematic economic apartheid African-Americans experience, or the systematic enforcement of rigid gender roles women experience. It takes other forms: such as social ostracism; bullying in schools; public schools denying atheist students the right to form clubs; religious proselytizing promoted by the government; widespread perceptions of atheists as untrustworthy; businesses denying equal access to atheists and atheist organizations; government promotion of religion in social service programs; government promotion of religion in the military. And it's true that atheists have significant legal protection in the United States: people sometimes break those laws, and those laws aren't always enforced, but we do have these laws, and they do help.

But the United States isn't the whole world.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a world umbrella group bringing together more than a hundred humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, and free-thought organizations from 40 countries, has just produced the first ever report focusing on how countries around the world discriminate against non-religious people. Published on Dec. 10 to mark Human Rights Day, the Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious:

...covers laws affecting freedom of conscience in 60 countries and lists numerous individual cases where atheists have been prosecuted for their beliefs in 2012. It reports on laws that deny atheists' right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.

There are two big take-home messages from this report. One: This is a worldwide issue. Examples of anti-atheist discrimination have been reported in 60 countries, from Algeria to Zambia; including the Bahamas, Brazil, Bahrain, and Belize; Italy, India, Israel, Iceland; the United Kingdom and the United States. It's been reported in brutal theocracies notorious for their human rights violations, like Pakistan and Iran -- and it's been reported in supposed secular paradises, like Sweden and France. It's worse in some countries than others, obviously ... but this is a global problem.

Two: In some countries, this anti-atheist discrimination is severe. It doesn't take the form of government proselytizing or being denied the right to organize clubs. It takes the form of being arrested. It takes the form of being imprisoned, for years. It takes the form of being targeted by a mob screaming for your blood ... and when the police who should be there to protect you show up, instead they throw you in jail. Where another mob forms, screaming for your blood.

Don't believe me? Here are six outrageous examples of discrimination against non-believers.

1. Alber Saber, Egypt. Alber Saber, the 27-year-old atheist activist, blogger, and reported administrator of the Egyptian Atheists Facebook page, was arrested after a mob swarmed outside his home demanding his arrest for insulting religion. Saber was then attacked in prison, after a guard told the other prisoners what he had been charged with. On December 12 of this year, he was convicted of blasphemy, and sentenced to three years in prison. I would just like to point out: This is 2012. It is not 1633 during Galileo's conviction for heresy; it is not 1692 during the Salem witch trials. It is 2012. And people in the world today, in 2012, are being arrested, charged, convicted, and imprisoned -- for blasphemy. They are being arrested, charged, convicted, and imprisoned -- not to mention attacked by mobs and assaulted in prison -- for the crime of not believing in God, and for saying so out loud. (Pending appeal, Alber Saber has just been released on bail -- a week after the bail money was paid.)

2. Alexander Aan, Indonesia. In January 2012, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan was attacked by an entirely different mob, after he criticized Islam on Facebook and said he'd left the religion and become an atheist. Following the attack, Aan was arrested for insulting religion (i.e., blasphemy), electronic transmission of defamatory statements (i.e., blasphemy via the Internet), and false reporting on an official form. That last charge is loaded with horrible irony, by the way: Indonesians are legally required to register as one of six official religions ... thus literally forcing people who doesn't believe in one of those religions, including people like Aan who don't believe in any of them, to lie.On June 14, Aan was sentenced. He is now serving two and a half years in prison.

3. Phillipos Loizos, Greece. In September 2012, Phillipos Loizos was arrested in Evia, Greece, on charges of posting "malicious blasphemy and religious insult" on Facebook. His crime? Creating a Facebook page making fun of Elder Paisios, the late Greek Orthodox monk revered by many as a prophet -- a page referring to Paisios as Pastistios, connecting him with the satirical atheist faux-religion Pastafarianism, and replacing his face with an image of the Greek beef dish pastitsio. Seriously. Aggravated Photoshopping, with intent to mock. Overzealous police officer? Maybe. But then why was Loizos not immediately released, with pleading, tear-stained apologies and a groveling request not to sue? Why, as of the release of the IHEU report on Dec. 10, is he still being charged?

4. Sanal Edamaruku, India. A humanist organizer and a renowned skeptical debunker of supernatural claims -- sort of a James Randi of India -- Sanal Edamaruku is the president of the Indian Rationalist Association. He's also the guy who, in March 2012, profoundly embarrassed the Catholic Church on national television, when he debunked a supposed "miracle" believed in by thousands by proving that a weeping Jesus on the cross was actually the result of a leaky drain. The Catholic Church, naturally, was profoundly grateful for this information, as it cares passionately about the truth and wants to be sure that any "miracles" it promotes are truly the hand of God...

...No, wait, That's not what happened at all. In April 2012, a group called the Association of Concerned Catholics filed a complaint against Edamaruku with the Mumbai police under Section 295 of the country's penal code... a complaint the Catholic Church didn't officially support but also didn't speak out against or try to stop in any way. The police, recognizing this complaint for the blatant absurdity that it was, laughed them out of the room...

...No, wait. That's not what happened at all. The Mumbai police actually took this seriously. They issued an arrest, charging Edamaruku with "hurting the religious sentiments of a particular community." The police haven't dropped it, either: they have since gone to Edamaruku's home in Delhi to serve the arrest warrant, and to demand information on his whereabouts. What's more, they are denying him "anticipatory bail," so if he submitted to the arrest he could do months of jail time before his trial. Edamaruku, unwilling to do months of jail time for first-degree debunking of fraudulent miracles, has fled the country, and is currently in hiding in Finland. (More information at the A Friendly Atheist blog.)

Please note here that -- as in the Greek case -- it is not Islamic theocrats or would-be theocrats trying to get atheists locked up for making them look bad. It is Christian ones. So in case you were going in that whole "this is just a problem of Muslim extremists" direction ... yeah, don't go there.

5. Fazil Say, Turkey. Of course, sometimes it is a problem of Muslim extremists. If you know the world of classical and jazz piano, you might already know of Fazil Say: he is apparently widely renowned in that world. He is also an atheist. On June 1, 2012, he was arrested and charged with insulting Islamic values, via the fearsome and formidable medium of Twitter. The case is pending (it's scheduled for February 2013): if he's convicted, he faces up to a year and a half in prison.

He's not the only one. Say's arrest is just one of a series of recent legal actions in Turkey, targeting artists, writers and intellectuals for making less than entirely laudatory statements about religion and Turkish national identity. And if you're thinking, "Oh, dear, another of those terrible Middle Eastern theocracies" -- think again. The Turkish Constitution protects freedom of religious belief, guarantees equal protection under the law regardless of religion, and lists secularism as one of the Turkish republic's fundamental characteristics.

Yeah. I know. My head is spinning, too. I keep thinking of Inigo Montoya: You keep saying "secularism and freedom of religious belief." I do not think it means what you think it means.

6. Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, Tunisia. Seven and a half years: that's the prison sentence given to atheists Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji in Tunisia in March 2012, for posting cartoons of Muhammad on Facebook. Beji got lucky, and got the hell out of the country: he is still being sought as a fugitive by Tunisian authorities. Mejri wasn't so lucky. He is currently in prison -- serving a seven and half year sentence. Think, for a moment, about how long seven and a half years is. In seven and a half years, a kindergarten child would almost be in junior high. In seven and a half years, an elm tree would grow from a sapling to over twice your height. Now, think about spending seven and a half years in prison. For posting cartoons about religion that the government didn't like.

If you've noticed how many of these incidents involve social media -- non-believers being arrested and imprisoned for using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to discuss atheism and criticize religion -- you're not alone. The IHEU noticed that, too. As IHEU pointed out when it announced the report: "The report highlights a sharp increase in arrests for 'blasphemy' on social media this year. The previous three years saw just three such cases, but in 2012 more than a dozen people in ten countries have been prosecuted for 'blasphemy' on Facebook or Twitter."

There seems to be something about atheism on the Internet -- the possibility of anonymity, the speed at which ideas can spread, the ability to organize at the touch of a finger, the impossibility of keeping a movement invisible -- that makes oppressive theocrats piss themselves in panic, and desperately try to shut it down.

Please note, also, that every single one of these incidents happened this year. These incidents are not outdated relics of the Dark Ages, or even of a century ago. They happened in 2012. They are still happening right now: as of this writing, every single one of these people is under arrest, awaiting trial, awaiting sentencing, in prison, or in hiding.

And these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg, a handful of the more egregious examples. They don't include Mauritania, where leaving Islam means losing citizenship; Pakistan, where the government blocked all access to Twitter because of "blasphemous content"; Italy, where Minister for Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini called on Christians, Muslims and Jews to join together in the fight against the "threat" of atheism; Zambia, where the government requires Christian instruction in public schools; Poland, where pop musician Doda was fined $1,450 for saying that the Bible is full of "unbelievable tales"; Israel, where atheists or anyone else wanting a secular marriage have to leave the country to get married; the United States, where attendance at evangelical Christian events in the military is often mandatory; Sudan, where leaving Islam is punishable by death.

I wish I knew what to do about all this. I usually like to end my "alerts about outrages" pieces with a call to action: here's whom to donate money to, here's where you can sign a petition, here are the elected officials you can call or email. But this is bigger than just a one-shot call to action.

Whom can you give money to? Atheist organizations around the world; international atheist organizations; human rights organizations that recognize human rights violations against atheists as a real thing. Where can you sign a petition? Get on the mailing lists of a couple/few atheist organizations, especially international ones, and they'll alert you when petitions are happening. (The International Humanist and Ethical Union would probably be a good start.) Who can you call or email? Your elected officials, especially on the national level, to demand that they treat human rights violations against atheists as seriously as they do any other kind. (Not that that's such a high bar ...) What else can you do? Speak out. Spread the word. Like I said, there's a reason theocrats and would-be theocrats are scared to pieces of Facebook and Twitter...

But the first step, before you can do any of that, is this: Don't pretend that this isn't real. This is real. This is happening, around the world, at the hands of every major religion. Don't dismiss it.

By Greta Christina

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