The Saudi Arabian newspaper Al Watan recently reported that a national court sentenced a unnamed man to 10 years in prison, as well as 2,000 lashes, for atheist tweets. Apparently, he admitted to being an atheist and refused to repent. Since 2014, Saudi Arabia has classed any open expression of atheist thought as terrorism. Of course, a government that enforces gender apartheid, publicly beheads its citizens and actively runs an “anti-witchcraft unit” is guilty of many appalling crimes, but less international attention is given to its repeated anti-atheist agenda.

This unnamed man is not an anomaly. Raif Badawi, founder of the website Free Liberal Saudis, had his sentence increased from 600 to 1,000 lashes and 7 to 10 years’ imprisonment for crimes including apostasy, or abandonment of the Islamic faith in 2014. Badawi’s lashings have been postponed multiple times on accounts of health concerns. The Saudi courts are clearly not seeing the irony in sentencing a man with hypertension to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison whilst maintaining a notion of “going too far”.

When reading any reports of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, you’ll often find there is a response of strong condemnation from a broad range of political leaders. It is hard to see how, other than dusting off Prince Charles and sending him over for lunch, the UK government has taken any direct action whatsoever. Both Raif Badawi and the unnamed atheist may spend over a decade in prison for speaking out against the theocracy; those who believe in religious freedom ought to be equally as vocal.

This is not to suggest that the world community is completely limp in dealing with the world’s largest oil exporter. Last week, in response to concerns for the civilian cost of the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, an EU vote passed a nonbinding agreement for an embargo on selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Yet most organisations, from the UN to the EU, seem entirely unable to grapple with the human rights abuses, and is particularly timid when dealing with religious persecution; including not only the suppression of atheism but the institutional inequality of Shiite muslims. Saudi Arabia defines itself, fundamentally, as an Islamic theocracy, and is one of the most religiously conservative countries on the planet. A secular Saudi Arabia is practically unimaginable, possibly even for centuries, but a call for the basic acceptance of the rights of atheist and minority religious Saudis must come from stronger voices in the international community.

“Before secularism can even be considered in most Middle Eastern countries, there must be a push for the basic rights of those inherently secularist – atheists”

Yasmine Bahrani, for the Washington Post, wrote in 2015 an excellent explanation of the stigma surrounding secularism in the Middle East; describing a distrust stemming from ill-applied secularism in the 20th century that amounted to religious suppression. However, before secularism can even be considered in most Middle Eastern countries, there must be a push for the basic rights of those inherently secularist – atheists. Clearly, accepting atheism as a legitimate position opens the pathway for more secular policy making. Evidently this is why the Saudi government are so set against it, the convenience of twisting religion to justify their draconian policies is too hard to pass up.

Nevertheless, there are countless Muslim voices who speak up against the enforcement of Islam at a state-level. One prominent thinker is Abdullahi an-Na’im, a Sudanese Islamic scholar. In “Islam and the Secular State”, he writes, “in order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state”. Whilst the powerful elite may distrust secularism’s threat to their power, it is certainly not taboo for all.

“Human rights reform is and always will be gradual and incremental”

Atheists voices, in unison with the secular religious like an-Na’im, can internally push for the separation of state and religion. Of course, many Saudis may abhor the idea. Yet, even without secularism, freedom of religious affiliation, inclusive of those who are non-religious, should be considered a basic human right. Many atheists feel their beliefs are fundamental to their identities in the same way religious individuals do. Despite this, the liberal word is turning its back upon them.

If Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative of all theocracies, were persuaded by the west to begin recognising the rights of atheists, it could potentially have profound implications for religious suppression in the Middle East. Of course, there are countless other human rights battles to be won, not just in Saudi Arabia, but the region as a whole. Nonetheless, human rights reform is and always will be gradual and incremental, and it is time the world began pressing for those increments.

Luke Bywater

Image: Wajahat Mahmood via Flickr. 

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  1. Michael Glass
    March 15, 2016 at 05:38 — Reply

    One day – let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later – it’s going to dawn on the authorities in Saudi Arabia, that persecuting atheists is counterproductive, and that persecuting people demeans their religion.

    Public outcries can help persuade religious authorities to change. The Vatican was shamed out of using castrated singers in church choirs; Similarly, Saudi authorities might be shamed into stopping their cruelties towards Saudi atheists.

  2. Evidentialist
    March 15, 2016 at 21:22 — Reply

    This is such a travesty. A regime that brutalizes it’s free thinking citizens like this is an abomination. I have no love for any religion, but surely most religious people must reject this kind of totalitarianism. Freedom of expression is the most basic liberty that humans have. It’s like air. No one can take it away. It’s our birthright.

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