Apostasy & Atheism – Middle East & Iran

A short note on apostasy and atheism globally and with special focus on the Middle East and Iran

The majority of the countries that criminalise apostasy are located in the Middle East and North Africa, and/or have Muslim majority population [1], however according to the Pew Research Center’s report (2014), in addition to the abovementioned “nearly a quarter of the world’s countries and territories (22%) had anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and one-in-ten (11%) had laws or policies penalizing apostasy” [2] of which Ireland, Denmark, Italy and Germany are outstanding [2]. Finland also criminalises “Breach of sanctuarity of religion” with a penalty of fine or 6 months in prison (Chapter 17, Section 10). The legal punishments for such transgressions vary from fines to death.

The legislations that criminalize apostasy and/or blasphemy are starkly against the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the United Nations.

Of the above countries Iran stands out for several reasons. A terrible history of human rights for the last few decades worsened by an American coup that toppled the elected Prime Minister Mosaddeq (1953), and a revolution (1979) and later on an 8 year war that all prepared the conditions for a strong totalitarian theocratic semi-capitalist system of the militarists (Revolutionary Guards) with a democratic/republic polish. A young well-educated generation is awakening. They are avid users of the “banned” social media, despite consequences such as arrests and long sentences for activity in such media.
Another reason why Iran is an interesting case to follow up regarding atheism is that there are detailed publications (but not an exhaustive list) on cases of Muslims and non-Muslims that have been sentenced to death for apostasy by the Islamic Republic (Reference [3] by the exiled Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre and other institutes).

Thirdly according to the US Law Library of Congress:

“… it appears that Iran is the only one that has executed a person convicted of apostasy to date, … and the courts can hand down that punishment, and have done so in previous years, based on their interpretation of Sharia’a law and fatwas (legal opinions or decrees issued by Islamic religious leaders)” [1, 4, 5].

In agreement with the above, Protestant pastors have been brutally murdered outside of the court system in Iran [1, 6]; and there are also unconfirmed reports of murders under Sharia apostasy rules that were not publicized due to media suppression, cultural of shame for leaving Islam or location of the incidents. Considering the recent ongoing reports on Bangladeshi secular bloggers who were massacred by machete wielding gangs despite appealing for police protection [7], such reports do not seem unlikely in Iran (or any Muslim country). This comes as no surprise considering the mentality of the majority or at least a great fraction of the population in such countries and the cultural/religious harsh propaganda against atheists. For example according to the Pew Research Centre’s 2013 survey report “in six of the 20 countries where there are adequate samples for analysis, at least half of those who favor making Islamic law the official law also support executing apostates” and this figure increases to 87% of Muslims in Egypt for example [8].

According to references [1, 9] “The US Department of State pointed out in a report issued in 2009 that the death penalty in Iran can be imposed on the basis of ambiguous and/or irrelevant charges, such as ‘attempts against the security of the state,’ ‘outrage against high-ranking officials,’ and ‘insults against the memory of Imam Khomeini and against the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic,’ ” and that:

“although there were few details, the government arrested, convicted, and executed persons on questionable criminal charges, including drug trafficking, when their actual “offenses” were political. The government charged members of religious minorities with crimes such as “confronting the regime” and apostasy, and conducted trials in these cases in the same manner as it would treat threats to national security”.

Another reason why Iran stands out regarding treatment of the apostates is the above-mentioned lack of transparency in regulations. This ambiguity leads to interpreting the insult to the regime (Islamic Republic) or its officials being interpreted as insulting Islam and the sacred. This dilemma has been reflected in the Report of the “UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran (Dr Ahmad Shaheed in his 2014 report on Iran [10]):

Article 23: “In September 2103, the “political crime” bill was introduced to Parliament and is currently being reviewed by the Cultural Commission. The bill appears to impose further limits on freedom of expression, association and assembly. According to article 1 of the bill, a political crime is any act meant to criticize the State or to obtain or maintain power, without intending to damage the fundamental principles and framework of the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to article 2, political crimes are those that defame, insult and publish false information against government officials; it lists crimes defined by the Activities of Political and Professional Parties, Groups, Associations and Islamic Associations or Recognized Religious Minorities Law of 1981.”[10].

Lack of support for atheists

There are comparatively low numbers of Atheists in Iran but their numbers are fast growing. Atheists are a (one of the minorities) minority group that lacks cohesion, (and) religious bias (to support the members) and (also) financial support compared to e.g. Muslims, Jews, Baha’is and Christians… . This leads to a defenceless status of the minority, especially in those countries that have strict apostasy laws. Social media has helped such minorities all over the world – including in Iran and diaspora overseas – to link and exchange ideas; however, the atheist community suffers severely from a lack of support. This leads to severe injustice e.g. when it comes to applying for refugee visas in the countries that do not criminalise apostasy. Documenting apostasy is extremely hard and even dangerous for the person and his immediate family, particularly in Muslim countries and especially in Iran where they have sophisticated methods for monitoring citizens (see following). Cyber-attacks by its cyber-army(-ies) have been able to circumvent one of the most secure information systems in the world, i.e. Google with 300,000+ victims according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation [11]. Iran reportedly has over 30,000 spies overseas twice the number of CIA employees) of which, a major fraction spies on Iranian diaspora [12-14].

The emotional and psychological challenges of atheists

Apparently disconnection from the majority of people and the government system can have a serious negative impact on the mental and psychosomatic welfare of atheists. Fear of persecution and prosecution is an ongoing problem for them and seeking refuge as their primary human right needs to be respected and supported by secular countries.

What can be done?

As mentioned above the atheists, particularly Iranian atheists, fear persecution inside and outside their home countries. Their right to seek refuge should be respected by secular governments. They are not the only sufferers of the persecution, as their family also can be systematically harassed and deprived of their basic rights, such as getting a government job in a process called “gozinesh”, a persecution process which has been described by Ahmad Shaheed in his yearly report [10].

Atheists need to seek ways to become more visible. Increasing the visibility of atheists will assist to make their presence the norm and consequently increase tolerance towards them, particularly in Muslim communities.

Like other religious institutes (the church, Islamic institutes, …) , much can be gained by atheist communities providing support for more vulnerable atheists around the world, particularly those from the Middle East, and more specifically Iran (due to the systematic persecution by a well-implemented Machiavellian system) that is “one of the most dangerous places on earth to be an atheist”.)

This Egyptian atheist student’s reflection on the effects of atheism on his relationship with Egyptians, including his family, is noteworthy:

“…Coming from a Muslim background, I was pretty much putting up this facade where I would adhere to all the rules of Islam but now it has gotten to the point where I can’t even be bothered to pray. This, of course, has led to some problems with my parents who still believe it’s just a phase.

People here are nice. They’re kind and simple and empathetic and they enjoy helping others get through their day. Actually, let me change that around a bit; most people here are nice except when it comes to lgbt individuals, atheists and Jews.

A lot of Egyptians have this switch and you don’t know when you might accidentally flip it. One moment they like someone and the next they might hate them for a reason completely unrelated to the things which logically constitute the essence of a good person…

Here, atheists are scum. We’re vermin who supposedly have no moral code to abide by. To most, we only exist as a source of evil to deviate believers away from the righteous path. Here, we deserve death. We’re looked down upon, threatened, and hated by people we’ve never met. And I can’t help but question what I must’ve done to deserve this. I’ve never physically hurt a person. I’ve never wished death upon anyone.”[15].

“Sam” is an Iranian atheist who has been banished by his family for criticizing religion and denying god. His family and more specifically a brother of his has threatened to confiscate his assets, including his inheritance from his father, and the brother has got a “fatwa” from a religious leader that cites: “In presence of a believer Muslim, a non-believer does not inherit”. He fears being reported to the officials, and therefore is seeking refuge in a country that does not persecute atheists; however, he finds the process unduly complicated, negative in nature and humiliating [personal communications with “Sam”]. He hopes that his dark days are over soon.


There is no immediate solution for the problems of atheists in the Middle East, including Iran. However, regarding the extreme hardship that atheists go through on their daily life, more efforts are required to provide support for them within and outside their political borders.

Persecuting an atheist for his religion is no better than what was done in the past to other religious minorities including the Jews. Therefore, the secular world must act to prevent catastrophes happening on daily basis. We all blame the past generations for not doing “enough” regarding persecution of religious minorities and Jews in particular by Nazis; but are we doing our share for one of the most vulnerable and unprotected religious minorities, i.e. atheists in the Middle East and Iran?


  1. Hanibal Goitom – Foreign Law Specialist (Coordinator) and the Staff of the Global Legal Research Center. Laws Criminalizing Apostasy in Selected Jurisdictions. 2014; Available from: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/apostasy/apostasy.pdf.
  2. Pew Research Center. Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy? 2014; Available from: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/28/which-countries-still-outlaw-apostasy-and-blasphemy/.
  3. Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre. Apostasy in the Islamic Republic of Iran. 2014; Available from: http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/publications/reports/1000000512-apostasy-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran.html.
  4. EUROPEAN CENTRE FOR LAW AND JUSTICE. WRITTEN OBSERVATIONS OF THE EUROPEAN CENTRE FOR LAW AND JUSTICE (Apr. 13, 2009). 2013; Available from: http://eclj.org/pdf/eclj_iran_amicusbriefrbgmbvturkey_090416.pdf.
  5. US DEPARTMENT OF STATE, B.O.D., HUMAN RIGHTS AND LABOR,,. HUMAN RIGHTS REPORTS: IRAN (Feb. 27, 2014). 2013; Available from: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2013/nea/220352.htm.
  6. EUROPEAN CENTRE FOR LAW AND JUSTICE – supra note 30; citing to Iran:. Death Penalty Proposed for ‘Apostates.’ 2015; Available from: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/apostasy/#iran.
  7. Burke, J. and S. Hammadi. Bangladesh blogger killed by machete gang had asked for police protection. 2015; Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/07/machete-gang-kills-secular-bangladeshi-blogger-niloy-chakrabarti.
  8. Pew Research Centre. The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society; Chapter 1: Beliefs About Sharia. 2013; Available from: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-beliefs-about-sharia/.
  9. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE, B.O.D., HUMAN RIGHTS AND LABOR,,. HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT: IRAN (Feb. 25, 2009). 2008 Available from: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/nea/119115.htm.
  10. Shaheed, A. March 2014 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, presented to the 25th Session of the Human Rights Council. Available from: http://shaheedoniran.org/english/dr-shaheeds-work/latest-reports/march-2014-report-of-the-special-rapporteur/.
  11. Electronic Frontier Foundation. A Post Mortem on the Iranian DigiNotar Attack. 2013; Available from: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/09/post-mortem-iranian-diginotar-attack.
  12. Gertz, B. Spy Network 30,000 Strong: Pentagon report: Iranian intelligence linked to spying, terror attacks Iran 2016; Available from: http://freebeacon.com/national-security/iran-spy-network-30000-strong/.
  13. Greenfield, D. IRANIAN INTELLIGENCE IS TWICE AS LARGE AS THE CIA. Front Page Magazine 2013 Jan ]; Available from: http://www.frontpagemag.com/point/172263/iranian-intelligence-twice-large-cia-daniel-greenfield.
  14. Federal Research Division of US Library of Congress. Iran’s Ministry of INtelligence and Security: A Profile – A Report Prepared by the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress under an Interagency Agreement with the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office’s Irregular Warfare Support Program 2012; Available from: https://fas.org/irp/world/iran/mois-loc.pdf.
  15. Anonymous. Life as an Atheist in the Middle East. 2015; Available from: https://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/3wxrqp/life_as_an_atheist_in_the_middle_east/.