The Myth of Religious Freedom in Muslim Countries

>> 07 May 2013




If you are an atheist, then you are lucky that you aren’t in Bangladesh this week. Last Sunday, Violence blew up in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka, leaving at least 30 dead people behind. The violence was organized by a collation of Islamic groups call themselves “Hefazat-e Islam” which means in Arabic “Protectors of Islam”. Islamists took the streets chanting “Hang Atheists”, aiming to abolish the secular regime, and start hunting atheists. This wasn’t the first time that this violence happens in Bangladesh. Last September, a Muslim mob destroyed twelve pagodas and more than fifty Buddhists houses in Ramu in Bangladesh because of a Facebook photo derogating the Koran.

Your god is illegal
Actually the problem is rooted in the legal framework which delegalize religious groups. Indonesia, as an example, has around 86%. Muslim population. Constitutionally, the country acknowledges six different religions: Islam, Christianity (only Protestantism and Catholicism), Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Ahmadiyya and other religious groups are not permitted to practice. Christians need special permission to build churches. Last October, in the country’s island of Sumatra, a Special Aceh District provincial government shut down nine churches and 6 Buddhist temples in Aceh’s capital Banda Aceh.
Egypt has a similar story, with authorities which don’t recognize any religions besides Sunni-Islam and Christianity. They claim that they also recognize Judaism, but it’s hard to believe that in a country expelled its 80 thousands Jews in the 1950s, and just shut down its last active synagogue this past September. Many of Baha'is, Shiite, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others are not allowed to practice their religions in Egypt, and if they did, they would be arrested immediately. Christians are not permitted to build churches without the express permission of the President, something, they rarely get.
Registration of religious groups exists in Europe, USA, and other free countries. But in these free countries, registration is just a bureaucratic process, which usually doesn’t consume time, and made mainly for tax-exemption. But obviously, countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are using the registration process as a way to prevent people from their human right to practice their beliefs.
Saudi Arabia has gone a bit more far than Egypt. Beside requiring being a Muslim for the Saudi citizenship, and limiting access to some cities only to Muslims, Saudi Arabia forbids practicing any other religion on its land except Islam. No one is allowed to build a church, synagogue, or any other places of worship in Saudi Arabia, except Mosques. Christian foreign workers usually got arrested by the Saudi police if they gathered in any house to pray together.
In Azerbaijan, 4 Baptist Christians were arrested in November for gathering together in prayer without permission, at a private house. The police raided the place, cut the electricity, and arrested the owner of the place and 3 others. The four arrested were tried that same night, and imprisoned. Local churches in the region complained that their applications for recognition from the state have been blocked by bureaucracy.

Jailed because of their belief
Pakistan decided to hit a record with blasphemy cases. The German newspaper Der Spiegel says that in the last two decades, there have been more than 1200 people accused of blasphemy, and that there is more than 100 cases still pending. Spiegel also mentioned that nearly 50 of these people were murdered after they were released. Last August, A Christian girl was arrested after she was accused of burning some papers of the Koran, and she is still being detained. The most recent arrest of a school teacher Arifa Ahmed and Asim Farooqi, the headmaster of the Farooqi Girls School in Lahore, were the cause of an angry mob protesting an English test which contained some words considered to be insulting to the Prophet Mohammed.
Blasphemy cases exist in most of Muslim countries. In Iran, Farshid Fathi Malayeri is serving a 6 year sentence since 2010 for converting from Islam to Christianity. In Saudi Arabia, the writer Turki Alhamad, the blogger Hamza Kashgari, and the Founder of the Saudi Liberal Forum Raif Badawy are jailed and being tried now for blasphemy, which may result in the death penalty. In Kuwait, Abdel Aziz Mohamed Albaz was sentenced to a year in prison with forced labor for his blog Benbaz. In Indonesia, Alexander Aan’s Facebook comment ‘God doesn’t exist’ resulted in a Two and a half year jail-term this past June. In Morocco, the new Islamic government arrested the Atheist activist Mohammed Socrates, accusing him of dealing drugs, and sentenced him to 2 years imprisonment after he confessed under torture. In Tunisia, courts have sentenced two activists Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji to seven and a half years in prison for blasphemy also. In Egypt, Ayman Youseef Mansour, Gamal Abdou Masoud and Mohammed Asfour are serving a three year sentence for blasphemy, while Makarem Diab Said and Bishoy El-Beheri are serving six years for the same alleged crime.
It’s sad that some European countries like Germany, Ireland and Denmark still have blasphemy laws. We understand that these European laws haven’t been used for decades. But at the same time, these laws are used as an excuse by Authoritarian governments to take the freedoms of its citizens. Lots of work still needed on our planet, cleaning dirty laws of free countries, and pressuring un-free countries to recognize freedom of belief.

Islamic Human Sacrifices
Indonesia also is facing this phenomenon of Islamic violence. Eid al-Adha or Feast of Sacrifice turned bloody last year, as The Islamist Defenders Front (FPI) attacked Ahmadeyya congregations, preventing them from celebrating their Feast. While in February 2012, merciless tortures and killings of Ahmadiyya at the hand of Islamists took place in Cikeusik, while they were shouting Allah Akbar “God is great.” The perpetrators were only sentenced 3-6 months  and the court blamed the Ahmadiyya for inciting the attack. In April 2012, an attack occurred in a Shiite community in which two people were killed in Sampang, Indonesia. At least 270 refugees were left after the attack.  In Sampang, Sunni Muslims attacked Shiite houses last October, leaving nearly 200 Shiite without a home, displacing them, unless they’re willing to convert to Sunni Islam.
In Malaysia also you can see the same phenomenon. Christians complains that some former Muslims who converted to Christianity have been tortured, and forced to return to Islam. A doctor was arrested for seeking childcare from a church, and could face a three year sentence. A tuition center was shut down by the Education Ministry this past August, following claims that the teachers were trying to convert several Malay Muslim children studying there. A church was raided after a complaint was received that it had attempted to convert the twelve Muslims that attended the dinner.
Back to Africa where Nigeria’s Islamic extremists “Boko Haram,” which means in the Hausa language “Education is sinful”, celebrated Christmas in 2011 by bomb blasts and shootings at churches in Madalla, Jos, Gadaka, and Damaturu, leaving 41 people dead. Boko Haram is known for targeting churches, universities, police stations, and even the moderate Muslim Cleric, Liman Bana. The organization is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people and remains active, using terrorism against non-Muslims and Muslims, pushing Nigeria back into the Medieval Ages.
In Egypt, the army used the chance of the revolution to invade St. Bishop monastery in Feb 2011, and shot monks with RPJs. The same army attacked the nonviolent Christian demonstration in Maspero in October 2011, and left behind at least 28 people dead, and over 200 injured. To this day, not a single person was prosecuted for the massacre of Christians in El-Kosheh in 2000, in which 21 Christians were killed. Islamic extremist groups are known to burn churches every couple of months, and are protected by the state, not forgetting the habit of bombing churches at Christian feasts, like what happened in Alexandria 2011, and Nagahamadi 2010. In March 2011, a Salafi group burned a Christian house in Qena, and cut an ear of its owner, because the attitude of a girl living at that house was considered inappropriate. Few months later, a court announced the predators “Innocent”.

Final Words
The crimes of Islamic extremist groups are widespread in Muslim countries: Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM) in Somalia, the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, The Revolutionary Guards in Iran, and the Salafis in Egypt and Tunisia. Not to mention the Islamic government in Sudan, which wanted to apply Shariaa laws over the Christian south, leading to two civil wars, resulting in hundreds of thousands of killings, and millions of refugees. The south is happily separated now, but Islamic Militias are still killing and raping Sudanese women in Darfur, while the government is blessing the predators.  The International Criminal Court hasn’t arrested yet the Sudanese President Hasan Elbashir for his war crimes.

Both of us live now in Europe, where being a believer or not is completely a personal freedom. But we understand that people in other parts of the world don’t enjoy the same freedoms. That’s why we are calling on the Free World to pressure these countries to respect the international standards of Human Rights.


This article was co-written with Hosea Handoyo, Chinese-Indonesian observer and technocrat, based now in Germany. Part of this article was published in English in The Times of Israel.

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