Thomas Turnbull holds an Honours degree in International Relations from Victoria University of Wellington and was a researcher at IHEU for the Freedom of Thought Report 2017.
A recent spate of attacks on secular humanists highlights a growing trend of anti-secularism in governments and societies worldwide.
Earlier this year, Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim, a minister in Malaysia’s Department of the Prime Minister, made a public statement declaring atheism ‘unconstitutional’ and suggesting that ‘non religious civil society groups and any “apostates” from Islam participating in atheist events should be hunted down’. His opinion was echoed by other Malay government officials including a fellow minister and the Chief of Police, continuing a disturbing trend of public officials in a democratic society declaring the non-religious minority ‘dangerous’ and a threat to the nation.
This is not an isolated incident. In recent years there has been a significant rise in the number of political leaders worldwide who have denounced humanism, liberalism and secularism. It is worrying to see many nations which appeared to be heading toward liberal democracy come under the spell of reactionary, religious and nationalist revivalism. Particularly concerning are the violent attacks on atheists and other non-religious peoples, including rationalists in India, atheist bloggers in Bangladesh, and liberal activists in the Maldives. Humanists and secularists are easy targets for leaders of conservative communities. They can be portrayed as a threat to the state’s religion, culture and identity.
‘In recent years there has been a significant rise in the number of political leaders worldwide who have denounced humanism, liberalism and secularism’
The growing anti-secular trend
The Malaysian Government’s willingness go after secular groups is just one case of many. According to the 2017 Freedom of Thought Report, instances of politicians targeting secular ideals in order to appease anti-secular segments of their support bases are increasing in frequency. In India, the election of the BJP and Narendra Modi in 2014 has seen a rise in Hindu nationalism. Several federal laws promoting Hindu national identity above all others have been legislated since Modi’s election. Crimes committed against humanist thinkers or secular activists receive limited official condemnation or never come to trial.
Similarly, officials in neighbouring Bangladesh and the Maldives have been accused of turning a blind eye to violent attacks on academics and journalists by Islamic extremists. In April, Maldivian blogger and secular activist Yameen Rasheed confided in his friends that he suspected his claims of receiving death threats, in response to his writings on the Government and Islam, were being ignored by police. He was murdered within weeks, hacked to death on the steps of his home.
Indonesia has seen a revival of anti-secularism in the last decade following the introduction of Sharia law in the state of Aceh, where public canings are now carried out for breaching the law, and the domination of Islamic courts in many others. Even in Samoa, a small island nation in the South Pacific, the government has reinforced the status held by religion within the daily life of the nation through a declaration of Christianity’s dominance in the constitution. This is despite warnings from civil society groups that such a move would be exclusionary for minorities.
Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has stated that these moves are driven by fears of foreign influence and cultural change occurring within Samoa. Whether these are genuine fears or are played up as a strategy to bolster religious votes, these are typical expressions of leaders in religious nations. They claim that forces beyond their control are going to change the traditional way of life. Rather than being attached to what’s written in a book or historical authenticity, what draws people to religion is its emotional intensity and psychological comforts, which helps explain why religious extremism and fanatical nationalism are so easily intertwined.
This has been useful for politicians and dictators in the post-cold war era in gaining control over the nation-state. It has allowed them to resist pressure from opposition groups and foreign governments who threaten their positions of power. From their perspective, secularism is a Western ideology, imported and imposed by elites and revolutionaries who are hostile to the traditions and norms of the local people. Fear drives the masses into supporting officials who promise stability through traditional values, such as religion.
In Samoa, the government’s legislated promotion of Christian values reinforces the support it maintains with local chiefs who continue to hold strong influence over the people in their tribes. In India and Bangladesh, humanists and secularists threaten to open up space for the increased suffrage of minority groups in either country, potentially shifting the electoral status quo. And in Malaysia, the upcoming general election makes the appeal of firing up conservative voters by stoking fears of an unchecked atheist revolution tantalising for incumbent politicians. In the United States, the Republican Party, facing a shrinking voter base, utilised extreme and aggressive religious rhetoric, laced with nationalism, xenophobia, bigotry and sexism prior to the Trump presidency.
The importance of freedom of conscience
Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief is a right we all share. Religious freedom must not come at the expense of rationality, equality and universal human rights. It can never justify hate speech or attacks against the non-religious. The perversion of religion through fear by self-interested politicians is unacceptable. It is all too often the reason why humanists and secularists are so persecuted today. Threats to global stability, whether it’s the relative decline of United States global hegemony, the rise of autocratic regional regimes, fluctuations in the international economy or climate change will only worsen this trend. Governments will look for scapegoats on whom to blame the worst fears of their citizens in an attempt to insulate their power base from forces beyond their control.