Today the demonstrators will gather outside the Nigerian High Commission in London to demand the release of Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria. It has been two years since he was arrested and locked up away from home. A few weeks ago, he was sentenced to 24 years in prison. His offence? Just for being non-religious and posting criticism of religion on his Facebook page.
The punishment may seem shocking in its severity, but it is only the tip of the iceberg in a worldwide trend of increasing state action against non-religious people, ranging from general discrimination to arrest, imprisonment, torture or even death. Blasphemy remains a punishable offense in at least 83 countries, apostasy a criminal offense in 17 countries. There are 13 countries in the world where you can be sentenced to death for expressing an opinion deemed blasphemous or for apostasy, including Nigeria, Afghanistan, Qatar, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
In recent years, violent actions have been carried out against non-religious people. In Malaysia, members of non-religious groups have been arrested and their associations repressed. A government minister has vowed to “hunt down” atheists and humanists. In Libya, leaders of the Humanists International-affiliated group have been harassed and arrested, and their organization suppressed. Even if you are not convicted, a simple accusation against you, motivated by personal grievances, can result in harassment or being murdered with impunity by vigilantes. Humanist activists in India and humanist bloggers in Bangladesh have been murdered in the streets in targeted killings.
A Pakistani student was lynched by his classmates simply for saying he was a humanist on social media.
Mubarak’s life story was an example of the hatred against non-religious people around the world. In 2014, when his humanist beliefs first became known, he was forcibly detained in a mental hospital for more than two weeks. He was only released when a hospital strike saw many patients dismissed. His treatment for not believing in gods is a common action against non-religious people in Muslim-majority countries in particular.
The human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief should be a universal right for everyone, everywhere and equally. In addition to protecting traditional religious followers and orthodox and established believers, it must also protect non-conformists, reformists, minority sects, heretics and dividers. It should protect humanists, atheists, agnostics and those with non-religious worldviews, whether systematized or implicit.
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In much of the West, being humanist or otherwise non-religious carries relatively few penalties – reduced access to public schools in a country like England, or reduced social respectability in a country like the United States perhaps. These are inequalities that we must campaign to eliminate, but they do not come close to the widespread risk of death.
We have an enormous responsibility to defend the universal human rights of the less fortunate. In July, the UK hosts an international ministerial conference on the right to freedom of religion or belief. As this summit approaches, during its convening and in the months and years that follow, the pressure should be on for decisive action to be taken in favor of this most fundamental human right. We must also lobby for it to be truly considered a right for all.
Andrew is the Managing Director of Humanists United Kingdom and president of Humanists International
Humanists UK will be outside the Nigeria High Commission (9 Northumberland Avenue near Trafalgar Square, London) today from 4-6pm to protest against the sentencing.