Iraq and Afghanistan – gravest violators in the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report 2014

IHEU Report 2014The IHEU Freedom of Thought Report 2014 highlights the discrimination and persecution faced by atheists around the world. Two countries — Iraq in Western Asia and Afghanistan in Southern Asia — are rated highest for Grave Violations of atheists’ rights. Three more countries meet four of the five Grave Violations criteria, but without enough information to be fully rated, and so they might be on a par with Iraq and Afghanistan. These countries are Iran in Southern Asia, Jordan in Western Asia and North Korea in Eastern Asia.

Another eight countries also meet four of the five criteria for Grave Violation rating. They are Morocco and Sudan in Northern Africa; Mauritania in Western Africa; Saudi Arabia, Yemen and United Arab Emirates in Western Asia; Maldives in Southern Asia; and Brunei in South-Eastern Asia.

Seven countries meet three of the five criteria for Grave Violation rating. They are Somalia in Eastern Africa; Kuwait and Qutar in Western Asia; Pakistan in Southern Asia; and Indonesia and Malaysia in South-Eastern Asia;

Eight countries meet two of the five criteria for Grave Violation rating. They are Egypt in Northern Africa; Gambia and Nigeria in Western Africa; Comoros and Eritrea in Eastern Africa; Bahrain and Syria in Western Asia; and China in Eastern Asia.

And four countries meet one of the five criteria for Grave Violation rating. They are Libya in Northern Africa; Ethiopia in Eastern Africa; Swaziland in Southern Africa; and Bangladesh in Southern Asia.


So what are the grave violations of atheists’ rights in Iraq and Afghanistan?

In both Iraq and Afghanistan

  • State legislation is largely or entirely derived from religious law or by religious authorities
  • ‘Apostasy’ or conversion from a specific religion is outlawed and punishable by death
  • Religious indoctrination is utterly pervasive in schools
  • Government figures or state agencies openly marginalize, harass, or incite hatred or violence against the non-religious
  • It is illegal to register an explicitly Humanist, atheist, secularist or other non-religious NGO or other human rights organization, or such groups are persecuted by authorities
  • Expression of core Humanist principles on democracy, freedom and human rights is brutally repressed
  • ‘Blasphemy’ or criticism of religion is outlawed and punishable by death
  • It is illegal to advocate secularism or church-state separation, or such advocacy is suppressed

Also in Iraq

  • Complete tyranny precludes all freedoms of thought and expression, religion or belief
  • Religious authorities have supreme authority over the state
  • The non-religious are barred from holding government office
  • It is illegal or unrecognised to identify as an atheist or as non-religious
  • Religious instruction in some schools is of a coercive fundamentalist or extremist variety
  • There is a pattern of impunity or collusion in violence by non-state actors against the nonreligious

Also in Afghanistan

  • Expression of non-religious views is severely persecuted, or is rendered almost impossible by severe social stigma, or is highly likely to be met with hatred or violence

Here is more detail on the two countries with the Gravest Violations.


Iraq is surrounded by Saudi-Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Kuwait, and has been at the centre and conflux of events not just in the region but worldwide for decades. Iraq is a member of the League of Arab States (LAS), as well as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

This country is found to be declining. A devastating series of progessive incursions by terror group “ISIS” has caused major human rights violations and loss of territorial integrity in 2014. Targeting religious minorities including Muslims and ‘apostates’, ISIS has degraded security across large parts of the country.

2.1 Constitution and law

The constitution establishes God’s “right” over the people and government, and Article 2 emphasizes Islam as a “foundation source of legislation”.

The constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of opinion and expression. However, these rights are frequently violated in practice by the government and also as a result of sectarian violence.

2.2 Religious persecutions

Followers of the Baha’i faith has been persecuted since many years. Since 1970, Baha’is have been denied citizenship or other travel documents, such that it has not been possible for them to leave the country.

The almost complete emigration of the Jewish minority has brought to an end 2600 years of Jewish history in Iraq. Since 2003 only 10 Jews live in Baghdad and few families in Kurdistan.

Under the Saddam Hussein regime some religious minorities were favoured in different ways. Christians and Yazidis were allowed to trade in alcohol, also the Sunni minority faced a flavoured treatment under Saddam Hussein, such that all these minorities became a target

in the violent or strict developing Islamic society. Many of them have fled as exiles to Western Europe or United States, because they don’t see a future for themselves in Iraq anymore.

In June 2014, Sunni Jihadists declared the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). The forerunner group arose in 1999 and was the predecessor of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq and participated in military fights against US-led forces. The group joined later other Sunni groups.

The first report on religious and ethnic minorities , published since the proclamation of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria describes the situation of religious minorities as an unfolding catastrophe. More than 12,000 have been killed, where the religious minorities were the main targets of terrorists.
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Nina Shea, Director of the Center for Religious Freedom reported in her publication (July 2014): “Hundreds of Christians have been fleeing from Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city. Last week the Islamist group gave Christians three choices: convert to Islam, pay the jizyah tax required of non-Muslims or face execution. Meanwhile, IS insurgents stole nearly everything from the Christians they threatened to kill.”
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2.3 Everyday discrimination

Non-Muslims report systematic discrimination, which are especially related to employment opportunities. Iraqi women are often objects of sexual and social discrimination in workplaces. It took a long time for women in Iraq to obtain the rights to work, but a 2013 report made by the Central Bureau of Statistics indicated that a high number of high educated women didn’t enter the labor market.
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Women and young girls are systematically facing discrimination from military extremist groups. ISIS terrorists separate them from their families and force them to mary ISIS fighters.
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2.4 Education

The government requires Islamic religious instruction in public schools, but it doesn’t demand the participation from non-Muslim students. However there are continued reports of educational discrimination from religious minorities (Christians, Yezidi).

The Ministry of Education includes an office for Kurdish and other language education. In Mosul, ISIS-occupied second-largest city in Iraq, ISIS terrorists discarded arts, music, history and courses about Christianity from curriculum of public schools. Many parents decided to take childrens education in their own hands and to teach their children in homeschooling.

The ISIS-made changes in Mosul were announced in posters and all those who don’t follow them have been warned to face punishment.
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2.5 Freedom of expression and media

Freedom of media is guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution but it is restricted in practice by the threat of violence. Many journalists received threats and a number of them were killed in 2013 and after proclamation of Islamic State.

2.6 Being atheist

Being openly atheist is risky and rare, making estimates of irreligiosity extremely hard to make. The now defunct Kurdish news agency, AKnews, released a poll in 2011 on Iraqi belief in God. The answers surprised many Iraqis, with 67% professing belief, 21% probably believing, 4% saying they probably didn’t believe in God, and 7% who didn’t.

There are several individual cases where atheists were persecuted or even killed by extremist religious groups. There are some websites or blogs for nonbelievers but the lists of members is kept secret for fear being persecuted or even murdered by terrorist religious groups.

2.7 Anti-gay hatred

Homosexuals are also hated and persecuted in Iraq. Especially post-Saddam Iraq became terrifying for homosexuals. Militant and extremist religious groups are searching over the internet for gays, disguising themselves being gay and setting up meetings which become bloody and crime scenes. The vigilantes are then treated as “heroes in a perverse culture of intolerance and bigotry”.
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2.8 Individual Cases

A 15-year old atheist Ahmad Sherwan was imprisoned in solitary confinement, tortured by electric shock, and threatened with murder, after a discussion in which he told his father that he no longer believed in God, after undertaking “extracurricular” reading. His father then reported him to the police who held and tortured him. He was released after 13 days.

ISIS terrorists publicly execited a leading female lawyer and human rights activist in September, 2014. Samira Salih al-Nuaimi lived in Mosul. She criticized ISIS online in Facebook posts and shortly afterwards she was seized from her home and tried by an ad hoc Sharia court for apostasy. She was finally sentenced to public execution.


Afghanistan has suffered from chronic instability and conflict in its modern history from the Cold War to civil wars between the Mujahedeen to the Taliban. It has been 13 years since the removal of the Taliban and 10 years since Afghanistan has had a democratically elected government with its first ever democratic transfer of power to the new president in 2014. In spite of some development, Afghanistan still struggles to safeguard the rights of its citizens.

Afghanistan is a member state of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

3.1 Constitution and law

State legislation is largely derived from religious law, which is not only contradictory to some articles of the constitution but also to its international commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Although the constitution protects certain basic rights such as freedom of religion and belief, or freedom of press, it is not only frequently violated by the government and regional leaders and local chiefs, but such laws are contradictory too. For example, despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, apostasy is still punishable by death.

Effective enforcement of the constitution is a continuing challenge due to its contradictory commitments, inexperienced judges and the lack of a tradition of judicial review.

The constitution is derived from religious law and religion has been given an overarching authority, which in turn contradicts its own articles.

Article 2 of the constitution explicitly states that followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law” implying that Islam is privileged in some way – even implying a trump on the law.

Article 7 specifically obligates the state to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes commitments to religious freedom and the right to change one’s religion, as well as the right to freedoms of expression and assembly.

However, Article 3 of the constitution also declares that Islam is the official “religion of the state,” that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam,” and that “the provisions of adherence to the fundamentals of the sacred religion of Islam and the regime of the Islamic Republic cannot be amended.”

3.2 Religious law

While government policies strongly favour Islam, often in its most conservative interpretations, government control is very limited outside of major cities. In the rest of the country the situation is far worse. Violence, insecurity, and repression continue to deny and violate human rights nationwide, particularly outside urban areas.

Although the constitution expressly protects free exercise of faith for non-Muslims, in situations where the constitution and penal code are silent, such as apostasy and blasphemy (see below), the constitution also instructs courts to rely on the Hanafi School of Sunni

3.3 Islamic jurisprudence

The Office of Fatwa and Accounts within the Supreme Court interprets Hanafi jurisprudence

when a judge needs assistance in understanding its application. Courts continue to rely on Hanafi interpretations of Islamic law, even in cases which conflict with the country’s international commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The constitution also grants that Shia law may be applied in cases dealing with personal matters where all parties are Shiite. But there is also no separate law applying to non-Muslims.

According to the constitution, the president and vice president must be Muslim. This requirement is not explicitly applied to government ministers or members of Parliament, but each of their oaths includes swearing allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam.

The criminal code makes no specific references to religious conversion. However, in the absence of a provision in the constitution or other laws, Article 130 of the constitution instructs that court decisions should be in accordance with constitutional limits and Hanafi religious jurisprudence to achieve justice.

The government does not designate religion on national identity cards and does not require individuals to declare belief in Islam in order to receive citizenship; therefore some basic citizenship rights of non-Muslims are not explicitly codified. As a result, non-Muslims can be tried under Hanafi jurisprudence.

In accordance with Muslim personal law, courts do not always accord Muslims and non-Muslims the same rights. This includes significant interreligious control. A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths (Christianity or Judaism). Moreover, a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a non-Muslim man.

3.4 Apostasy

Under some interpretations of Islamic law, active in practice under Article 130, converting from Islam to another religion is deemed apostasy and considered an egregious crime. Those found guilty may be given three days to recant, or face death.

3.5 Blasphemy

The criminal code also makes no specific references to blasphemy; courts therefore rely on Islamic law to address this issue. Blasphemy – which can include anti-Islamic writings or speech – is a capital crime under some interpretations of Islamic law. As a result atheists and freethinkers are forced to hide their beliefs and the only way they can express their thoughts are anonymously through social media. For males over age 18 and females over age 16 of sound mind, an Islamic judge may impose a death sentence for blasphemy.

Similar to apostates, those accused of blasphemy are given three days to recant or face death.

The penal code addresses “Crimes against Religions” and states that a person who physically attacks a follower of any religion shall receive a short-term prison sentence of not less than three months and a fine of between 3,000 and 12,000 Afghanis (US$60 to $240); physical attacks on non-religious people are, by exclusion from this law, not technically as serious.

3.6 Death penalty

In the latest Paghman gang rape, on August 23 2014, the primary court convicted 7 men suspected of armed robbery and extramarital sex (zina) (sex outside of marriage). Human Rights Watch questioned the competent, impartial, and independent conduct judicial review and the case was marked by serious flaws by police in a trial that violated international due process standards as well as protections under Afghan law and the constitution. These included alleged coerced confessions and inadequate time to prepare a defense. President Hamid Karzai, in a televised meeting with women’s rights activists on September 6, referenced the Paghman gang rape and said, “I request the honorable chief justice to give them the death sentence.” The president’s statements further undermined the defendants’ presumption of innocence under Afghan and international law and their right to a fair trial by interfering with the independence of the judiciary. A day before leaving office, Karzi signed the execution of the five men convicted.

In spite of human rights organizations calling for the new President Ashraf Ghani to delay the execution of the five men convicted without an independent review of the handling of the case by the government, including the police and the prosecutor’s office, the men, were executed on October 8, 2014.

“The police and court have responded to a horrific crime with a botched trial that makes a mockery of justice for both victims and defendants. This case sadly demonstrates that the Afghan justice system, despite more than a decade of promised reform, still has a long way to go before genuine justice is handed down.”

3.7 Education

The main emphasis of all schooling is instruction in Islam. According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, and in accordance with academic principles, and develop the curriculum of religious subjects on the basis of the Islamic sects existing in Afghanistan.”

In government-controlled schools, religious education has the highest percentage than the general education and the new government promised more religious education. In non-government run madrassahs, the schooling is even more skewed, with the instruction being almost entirel religious.

3.8 Freedom of expression and media

The constitution protects freedom of expression and of the press; however, the media law includes articles detrimental to freedom of religion and expression. Among other prohibited categories,

Article 45 prohibits production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam, works and materials offensive to other religions and denominations, publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam.

Many authorities and most of society view proselytizing by adherents of other faiths as contrary to the beliefs of Islam.

The ambiguity surrounding what constitutes offensive and un-Islamic material offers the potential for restrictions on and abuse of press freedom and intimidation of journalists. These rules also apply to non-Muslims and foreign-owned media outlets. An amendment to the media law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan (RTA), the state-run media outlet, to provide balanced broadcasting that reflects the culture, language, and religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country. The law, however, also obligates RTA to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles and national and spiritual values. For example, take an opinion piece published October 2014 in the Afghanistan Express, where a journalist named AJ Ahwar admonished Muslims for remaining silent in the face of ISIS and the Taliban. He also criticised Islam for not accepting other religions and minorities such as homosexuals and Hazaras, a Shiite minority in Afghanistan. In spite of a public apology issued days after the controversial article, the Afghanistan Express explained that the op-ed was published due to a “technical mistake”. It triggered some demonstrations in several cities with protesters denouncing the articles as blasphemous and calling the government to punish the publications. According to BBC Farsi Afghanistan the government ordered the Interior Ministry officials to arrest those responsible for the publication of the “Anti-Islamic” article.
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The Washington Post publish an article indicating that the Afghan government is investigating a newspaper for a ‘blasphemous article’.
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3.9 Individual Cases

In January 2008, the Afghan Senate supported the death penalty for the 23-year old journalist Sayed Pervez Kambaksh for blasphemy. He downloaded and distributed an article (written by Arash “The Atheist” Bikhoda) that critically discussed certain Qu’ran verses about women. In October 2008, Kambaksh’s sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment. In August 2009, Kambaksh left Afghanistan after a grant of amnesty by President Hamid Karzai.

3.10 Testimonies

“The general environment in Afghanistan can be hostile towards religious minorities and it is even worse for cases of atheism, or cases deemed to be blasphemous. Both, the public and the judicial system are hostile particularly towards the cases of conversion out of Islam. In the past penalties suggested for those accused of conversion out of Islam has included capital punishment, however, due to international interventions, none has been carried out. Articles published in newspapers, magazines, online media, books, or statements delivered through radio and TV channels are closely monitored and any issue considered to be in confrontation with Islamic values can cause serious public and official outrage. As a deeply religious country Afghanistan has a long way to go towards religious freedom and freedom of expression.”
— Ramin Anwari, Human Rights activist in Kabul

“It is not only the people but also the government and Afghan law which regards atheism as a grave crime. I cannot freely express my atheist views. If people know I am an atheist, I would not have time to reach the authorities before facing punishment. That is why, like many atheists in Afghanistan, I pretend I am a moderate Muslim, even my own family does not grant me immunity. My views are only shared with other freethinkers, Humanists and atheists, atheists, through the internet and social media such as Facebook, which I use under a pseudonym.”
— Jamshid Arsalan


The full report, Freedom of Thought 2014: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists, and the Non-religious; Their Human Rights and Legal Status, was created by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). It includes ratings and evaluations for all countries in a comprehensive 542-page resource.

In building this survey they use the global human rights agreements that most affect freethinkers as freethinkers: the right to freedom of thought, conscience, or religion; the right to freedom of expression; and, to some extent, the rights to freedom of assembly and association. And they try to consider national laws that compromise or violate any human rights.

If you have updates, additions or corrections for the report please email or visit the report website at

You can download the full report here.

Iraq and Afghanistan – gravest violators in the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report 2014

3 thoughts on “Iraq and Afghanistan – gravest violators in the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report 2014

  1. (posted this on the ‘top five’ post by mistake:)

    NB. that in 2004, the US government had a leading role in crafting the Afghan constitution, which, while promising freedom of speech & religion and gender equality, trumped all that by asserting:

    “In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

  2. @1
    and I seem to recall the US also having had something to do with creating the current state of affairs in Iraq, the country with which Afghanistan shares the “top” ranking.

  3. From banana republics to the Lusitania to Hirohito to South Vietnam to Allende to Karzai, it’s never been about spreading democracy & freedom, rather always about restoring the status quo to protect US business interests.

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