Being known as a humanist or an atheist can mean social ostracisation at best, at worst, death in Africa. Secular liberal countries must do more for them.
Being a non-religious person comes with many risks and challenges. In many nations across Africa and the world, those who identify openly as atheists or agnostics are unable to stand for any public office or hold any political positions because non religiosity is socially and politically disabling. Public expression of humanist and freethinking views goes against social convention sand norms. It violates laws and breaks the taboo that requires individuals with no faith or those who question the notion of God or Allah to keep their atheism, skeptical thought or lack of religious belief secret and private.
Across Africa, thousands, tens of thousands and in fact millions of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers are harassed and persecuted for their views. Atheists are treated with disdain. Their existence and rights are denied with impunity. This is especially the case in muslim majority countries where sharia law is in force or in places where Islam is the actual or official state religion.
In Muslim majority countries people who have no faith are described as infidels and as such systematically denied their human rights. An ex muslim from northern Nigeria said this regarding the plight of those who leave Islam: “social networks and relationships shrink. Family members could disown the person. If he or she openly criticised Islam or refused to observe its tenets, the person could be tagged a heretic and subjected to various maltreatments”. Atheists and humanists risk being betrayed and abandoned by family members who may consign them to a mental hospital for leaving the religion, as in the case of Mubarak Bala of Nigeria. Disbelief in God or Allah has social and political costs and consequences including: “Ostracism, severance of family ties, threat to life, loss of job, exile, loss of property, denial of the rights to inheritance, harassment, and blackmail”. A popular muslim woman from Nigeria told me some years ago: “I will have nothing to do with any of my children who leaves Islam”.
This is an opinion that is widely shared in the region. Apart from these social sanctions, humanists and freethinkers are executed by the state or by non-state actors because of their views and opinions. Under sharia law, apostasy and blasphemy are offences punishable by death. These criminal provisions are weapons that Islamic religious establishments in particular use to target non-religious persons and suppress atheism, religious dissent and disbelief.
Therefore, for atheists and religious dissenters in the region everyday life is an exercise in risk analysis and in constant assessment and reassessment of their safety and security. The life of an atheist is filled with anxieties and uncertainties. Atheists are unsure whether they will be dead or alive; whether they will end up in the grave or in the prison as a result of their atheism or lack of belief. Atheists are uncertain as to how their friends, family members and the society at large will perceive and react to their irreligious or non-religious viewpoints.
It is important to state that humanists and freethinkers are not asking for a special treatment. Non-religious people want to live in a society that ensures equality, justice, freedom and human rights for all individuals despite the religious belief or lack of it. They desire to live their lives free from fear and persecution like other human beings. Given this situation, humanists everywhere are looking to countries for help in the realization of this aspiration. With the growing population of non-religious persons worldwide, many countries are in the position to defend all humanists at risk. Countries should use their positions as member states of the Commonwealth, of the UN and other regional and international bodies to help end the persecution and discrimination against non-religious people across the world.
Let me conclude by pointing out something that happened in New Zealand in 1995. The Commonwealth Heads of Government met in this pacific nation. And at the meeting, they decided to suspend Nigeria following the execution of the Nigerian environmentalist, Ken Saro Wiwa and other minority rights activists. That decision was impactful and helped bring an end to the military rule of then Nigerian dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha and the restoration of democracy in the country.
Countries that have come through this phase in social evolution, and have successfully managed to quell ancient notions of punishment for disbelief, cannot afford to turn its back as atheists and secularists are attacked and killed in Nigeria, Mauritania, Zambia, South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Indonesia. All nations that value human rights cannot look the other way while non-religious persons are being treated as terrorists and criminals in these countries.
As in the case of Ken Saro Wiwa, the resolutions that parliamentarians pass in their various houses can make a significant difference in the lives of humanists who are persecuted worldwide. The decisions that politicians take can positively reflect on the challenges that non-religious persons are facing in distant places. So many countries can make a positive difference in the lives of all humanists at risk. States have the power to change the situation of non religious persons for the better. Countries should use their power to protect all humanists at risk and end all forms of religious persecution and oppression. Countries should act now in defence of the human rights and freedom of atheists and freethinkers worldwide.
Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.