Freedom Of Conscience: Can Theists And Atheists Work Together?

Our modern world, where ideas spread far and wide with just one click, continues to fight for something as basic and crucial as freedom of conscience. In 2013, we'd like to think otherwise, but the truth is we have a long way to go before we can score a victory in this fight.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recognised atheist discrimination in its 2013 Annual Report. Discrimination against atheists thrives even in a modern society such as America. In March, the German shoe company Atheist Shoes called out the US Postal Service for discrimination against atheists. The company found that boxes shipped to the U.S. labelled “ATHEIST" were much more likely to be delayed or lost en route than packaging without the label. Similarly, the talented atheist singer Shelley Segal recently faced discrimination when she was booted from a venue. 

If atheists are discriminated against in a modern country like the US, atheists face intolerable discrimination and persecution in Muslim-majority countries. Currently in Bangladesh, Islamists are demanding the hanging of atheists. On 25 April and 2 May atheists around the world rallied in support of the country’s atheist activists. In Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the Maldives, atheists can face the death penalty simply for expressing their views. Elsewhere atheists face the curtailment of basic rights the right to citizenship, prohibition from holding public office and restricted access to public education. This year the UN Rights Council was informed about the extensive discrimination atheists face around the world. From Alber Saber to Alexander Aan, from Asif Mohiuddin who was stabbed by Islamists and later arrested by the Bangladeshi government, to world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say who faces retirement after being convicted for blasphemy by his government; fromSanal Edamaruku for whom an arrest warrant was issued by the Indian police because he debunked a miracle believed by many, to Tunisian atheists Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji who were sentenced to seven years in prison for blasphemy by a Tunisian court, there's a long list of cases of persecution and global discrimination against atheists.

There is also discrimination against theists, usually – but not always – by other theists. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, a Muslim American cab-driver Mohamed A. Salim – a war vet who has served in Iraq – was attacked for being Muslim. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that “between 9/11/2001 and 3/11/2012, 1,040 charges were filed that were related to the attacks by an individual who is – or is perceived to be – Muslim, Sikh, Arab, Middle Eastern or South Asian. ” Muslims in the US often face work related discrimination. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recognised the danger of growing public intolerance against Muslims as early as 2002.

The Middle East, according to Fiorello Provera of the European Parliament, is "the most dangerous place for Christians to live" and cited Ayaan Hirsi Ali who blamed the international community for failing to deal with what she considers a war against Christians in the Muslim world. In Egypt, Coptic Christians face discrimination and persecution. In April,Copts were attacked by a mob of over 200 which left many injured. Such attacks against Coptic Christians are common in Egypt, a country that does not recognise religious conversions from Islam to Christianity. 

In Iraq, 1,000 Christians were killed in Baghdad between the years 2003 and 2012 and 70 churches in the country were burned; in Iran, converts to Christianity face the death penalty and in 2012 Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani (here is his full story) was sentenced to death by the Iranian regime for practicing Christianity in Iran, although new reports suggest he is still alive. In Saudi Arabia, private Christian prayer is against the law and recently Saudi Arabian officials detained 53 Ethiopian Christians after they were caught holding a prayer meeting in a private home. 

In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the situation for Christians and other minorities such as Hindus is no different. In March, a mob of thousands attacked Christian homes in Joseph Colony of Lahore and burned the whole neighbourhood down. In the upcoming Pakistan elections, Christians won't have any representation and Ahmadi Muslims also distanced themselves after a politician made anti-Ahmadi stance clear. In a rare incident, Christians in Pakistan fought back when they were attacked by a Muslim mob.

In Myanmar, Muslims are currently facing systematic persecution by Buddhist monks which has left many dead. In Indonesia, Ahmaddiya Muslims continue to face discrimination and violence from Sunni Muslims and this month suffered attacks from extremist Muslims for reciting the Koran. In India, Ahmaddiya Muslims face regular discrimination by their fellow Muslims and are not permitted by Muslim leaders of other sects to sit on the All India Muslim Personal Law Board – an independent body of Islamic religious leaders that the Indian government recognises as representatives of Indian Muslims. 

Jews also have a long history of persecution and discrimination against them which still exists today. In July 2010, a jury found that the owner of the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica discriminated against Jews during a charity event. In 2012, Emory University apologised for years of its anti-Semitic stance. In March this year, Britain’s Labour Party suspended Lord Nazir Ahmed for claiming "Jewish conspiracy" when he was arrested for texting during driving and causing a car accident. 

After all the cases listed above, there shouldn’t be any doubt in anyone’s mind that both believers and non-believers need to work together for freedom of conscience and can achieve this common goal by bridging the gap through communication. Anyone who believes in freedom of conscience and supports the right to belief and disbelief is an ally. There are plenty of theists and many groups who promote freedom of conscience, tolerance and dialogue. I recently came across Alif Laam Meem, a fraternity of American Muslims from the University of Texas who held a protest in Dallas against domestic violence and supporting women's rights. There is also a campaign started by a group of overseas Pakistanis known as Bolo Pakistan (‘Speak Pakistan’) that is against hate and intolerance.

In such times we should seek out allies - not enemies. An atheist and a theist might disagree on many things, and maybe there can never be an agreement on some things, but both can agree on at least one thing: freedom of conscience is under attack and we must save it, together.

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