Persecuted for non believing in God.

Presentation of the Freedom of Thought Report 2018 at the European Parliament

Contribution by Giulio Ercolessi, European Humanist Federation president (Audio)

Each year the International Humanist and Ethical Union publishes its Freedom of Thought Report, on the situation of non believers, atheists and free-thinkers around the world. The 2018 edition was presented on December 6th 2018 at the European Parliament in an event co-hosted by MEPs Sophie in ’t Veld and Virginie Rozière, with the participation of Bob Churchill of IHEU, of the EU Special Evoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU Ján Figel’, the Tunisian social media human rights activist Nacer Amari, the Iraqi social media atheist activist Karrar Hamza and EHF president Giulio Ercolessi

What I would like to stress is how this report is invaluable, not only per se and for its contents, but also precious in the fight to defend liberal democracy and decency here in our own countries.

In the upcoming European elections we will once again face the populist narrative based upon the assumption that we – either each single European nation and/or the European Union as a whole – are part of what they call an exclusively “Judeo-Christian” tradition as opposed to an “Islamic wave” that is going to submerge us because the evil powers of globalisation want to “replace” – as they claim – our population and irreversibly modify our otherwise presumed immutable identity.

It always proves at the same time too easy and utterly useless to reply that immutable historical identities are all inventions, and that our sense of historical individuality is the outcome of millennia of migrations, encounters, defeats, contaminations, lessons learnt at a dire price. It is useless, because the public debate in our societies is closed to any other dimension than a totally flat present. And it would be equally useless to reply that, for many of us, our sense of historical identity has today most to do with the heritage of the Enlightenment, of liberal democracy, of the rule of law, of individual freedom and self-determination: something that either did not exist or existed at a very embryonic stage until just three centuries ago.

Perhaps it could be a little bit more useful to ask our fellow citizens to look in a less superficial way to our very present. And the Freedom of Thought Report, with the well-deserved reputation it gained in the last few years, casting a long overdue light on a mostly submerged phenomenon, may also be an extremely precious tool for that purpose.

This report may help us understand how many of those who escape from their countries do so precisely because they can no longer stand religious pressure.

There is a lot of discussion on those quite stolid European youngsters that become convert to the most extreme and reactionary brands of fundamentalism through the Internet or satellite TV. Olivier Roy has suggested that one of the reasons for this is not so much a radicalisation of Islam, as an islamisation of radicalism, as extreme islamism is today one of the few items still on offer on the shelves of the extremisms market.

But we never realise how important the phenomenon is on the other side and in the opposite direction. There is no reason to believe that our values are not as popular among a great part of the young population of the world of Muslim tradition, as much as the most reactionary brands of Islam may be attractive for some radicalised youngsters born in our countries. It is obviously impossible to evaluate the quantitative relevance of this phenomenon, but there are thousands of liberal-minded, progressive or LGBTI people that cannot simply live their lives in countries where their life is made unbearable – even where there is no death penalty or other severe punishment provided for the “crime” of apostasy or homosexuality – if they make their coming out: either as atheists, agnostics, apostates, freethinkers (or even Muslim reformers), or as gays and lesbians, or as whatever is considered incompatible with the life stance that is expected from them by the most aggressive brands of religious fundamentalism.

They have all the reasons to grow as much anticlerical as our own liberal or socialist ancestors – and even many of our autochthonous religious minorities – had, when they had to face the mostly utterly intolerant churches of just one or two centuries ago.

Populists in our countries, and the most extreme multiculturalists alike, opposed as they may be, often have one thing in common: they want all strangers and immigrants to be as much exotic as possible. They both want to see whoever is coming from outside the Western countries as much different from us as possible: the latter because they so deeply dislike our (relatively) open societies – liberal democracy, “savage” or tamed capitalism, consumerism, secularisation, etc. – that they welcome whatever may disrupt them; the populists because many of them are either simply racist (even if most of them do not even realize that they are) or hate whoever is not in tune with their dream of an archaic, pre-democratic, deeply illiberal, pre-pluralistic society that no longer exists and probably never existed. And these populists do not even realize how similar they are to the fundamentalists of the other side.

We should in my opinion break this sort of bipartisan consensus of the extreme and apparently opposite wings of the current debate, who see all those coming to our countries as necessarily opposite and culturally different from us. This report shows the reasons why many more people than we think may need to come to our countries primarily because they want to live in – relatively, as the report shows – more open societies, because they love our civic values, individualism, non-conformity, and the opportunities of prosperity they offer, much more than our own autochthonous populist politicians and fellow electors.

But we cannot expect that most of these people make their coming out as liberals or as secularists, as LGBTI or as progressive, once they are here, until they really feel that they can do so without excessive risks, as they have to overcome – even here – the communitarian pressure that often derives from being labelled – both by populists and often by our bureaucracies – as religious Muslims just because they come from countries of Muslim tradition. Hence, also the difficulty to provide the evidence of the risks they face in their countries of origin in order to be granted asylum. A difficulty that should and must be taken in due account by our authorities.

We should valorise as much as possible this sort of immigration, and help these people come out, rather than implicitly accept the populist narrative, and treat everybody as necessarily – and even radically – religious on the basis of a presumed immutable identity we ascribe to them. Just think how relevant their visibility may prove for the defence of liberal democracy from the current populist threat.

We humanists and secularists strongly support every effort that can be made by Europe to defend the life, the rights and the human dignity of Christians, Jews, or any other religious minorities, persecuted all over the world. But we expect that the same value be recognised to atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, religious reformers, progressives and LGBTI persons that are persecuted – usually in the same countries where Christians are. And we expect that the special envoy mandate state in the most explicit wording that Freedom of Religion or Belief include their beliefs as well, and all those whose life stance and individuality is incompatible with the claims of aggressive fundamentalism. The first step is acknowledging what the threats are.




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