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Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The quiet repression of non-believers

NOTE: I wrote about this subject in a story which failed to be published last year, and am publishing it now as a new IHEU report is gaining media attention that focuses entirely on Muslim countries.


In 1988 in Sydney I attended a protest which I've never forgotten. It was defending the right of the Sydney Film Festival to screen Martin Scorsese's film 'The Last Temptation of Christ'. That film had been subjected to international protests, including a Molotov cocktail attack on a Paris cinema. In Sydney a mainly elderly and mainly female group counter protested and a number of these older women - dressed in black if memory serves - tried to assault the film's defenders, including me, and those attending the screening.

Last year in Athens, those attending a performance of the play 'Corpus Christi' were attacked by right-wing religious protesters and the police stood by. The Greek state then charged the play's organizers, producers and cast with blasphemy following a lawsuit filed by a Greek Orthodox Bishop. Greek law says that "a lack of respect for things divine, is punished with up to three months in prison."

A report, 'Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious' from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) covers the Greek developments in a global overview of the often forgotten side of religious persecution -- that of atheists, humanists and the non-religious.

The report extensively covers persecution in majority Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Mauritania, Malaysia and Indonesia but it also features other countries where state protection of religion and their persecution of those who dissent and mock draws less attention.

Many of those countries have a Christian church as the state religion and have prosecuted blasphemers, and it's not just the country you've probably heard about -- Russia and the Pussy Riot case.

In Germany insulting "the content of others' religious faith or faith related to a philosophy of life" can get you three years imprisonment. In 2010 a magazine was prosecuted for a cartoon about the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church.

The German state of Bavaria gives Catholic bishops a veto on professorial appointments, including philosophy and sociology/political science, at state universities. That veto was unsuccessfully challenged in court in 2007.

Last year, the case of the lead singer of a Polish heavy metal band who ripped up a Bible and called the Catholic Church a "criminal sect" during a 2007 concert came to the Supreme Court. It found that he did have a case to answer and sent the case back to a lower court. The rock star could get two years in prison.

In many European countries Christian churches are state funded. In some parts of Switzerland there is a church tax, which private companies are required to pay.

The UK funds religious schools -- around one third of all schools -- who can hire and fire based on deviation from their religion (the same is true in Canada). British religious organizations providing social services can discriminate against employees in ways which other service providers cannot. Britain actually has the 26 most senior Church of England Bishops sitting in its upper house of parliament.

Although the UK has abolished its blasphemy law, since 2004 there have been comparable prosecutions for "offense" under the Public Order Act, such as one of a man who refused to remove a sign from his window which read "religions are fairy stories for adults". There is a campaign for the law's repeal, which the government has said it is sympathetic to, but it is yet to be repealed or amended.

Britain's colonial blasphemy law passed over to independent India and in 2011, citing it, the Indian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology told social media networks to screen and remove blasphemous content within 36 hours of receiving a complaint. The Indian Catholic Church has used that law against Sanul Edamaruku, a humanist who has exposed numerous "miracle" frauds. These include a so-called "weeping Jesus" statue which was actually underneath a leaky drain whose contents gullible supplicants were drinking (and falling ill from as a result). Last month two women who complained online when Mumbai was shut down following the death of a Hindu nationalist leader were arrested and their family attacked by mobs.

In Israel, you can be imprisoned for a year if "one voices in a public place and in the hearing of another person any word or sound that is liable to crudely offend the religious faith or sentiment of others." Israelis who are non-religious only got a limited right to marry in 2010 and interfaith marriages and divorces have to be conducted overseas.

The United States, despite constitutional separation of church and state, the report says:
Has long been home to a social and political atmosphere in which atheists and the non-religious are made to feel like lesser Americans or non-Americans.
Despite a 1961 Supreme Court decision, Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas still have in place constitutional provisions that bar atheists from holding public office. It was 2007 when the US Congress got its first and only openly atheist member in Pete Stark from California. In 2012 Stark lost and now there are no atheists in Congress.

Under the radar of media attention, the wealthy American Christian evangelical lobby, aligned with the Vatican and Islamic countries, have been pressing the United Nations for an international blasphemy ban. That notion was knocked back by the Obama administration in October 2012.

In America's military, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has fought "inappropriate religious incursion" by what the group calls "the fundamentalist Christian Taliban".

None of these examples matches the persecution in Muslim majority countries like Pakistan, but media coverage is partial. For example the tourist tropical paradise islands of The Maldives mandate that citizens must be Muslim. Non-Muslims cannot vote. Education, according to the Maldivian constitution, must inculcate obedience to Islam.

Two years ago a Maldivian air traffic controller threatened with death for abandoning Islam was found hanged from the control tower of the international airport which receives thousands of rich foreign tourists every day.

Ismail Mohamed Didi's suicide did not lead to a subsequent tourist boycott of The Maldives. [After this was written a tourist boycott campaign was launched, not because of Didi, or because of the arrest of former president Mohamed Nasheed, but due to a teenage rape victim being sentenced to be lashed for premarital sex].

The IHEU report has one upside. Despite the prosecutions for defying religion on social media, it is through social media that the non-religious are finding each other in religiously repressive countries. The report says that:
There are now Facebook groups of atheists in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey, and Sudan, as well as more general online ex-Muslim and Arab language atheist groups.
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