Freedom of religion and belief

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The challenge is not just that Middle Eastern societies spurn members of the community who decide to embrace another religion, or decide to follow no religion at all, but also that there is no legal protection for such people. Indeed the laws of many Arab countries, like Oman, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, contain penal provisions against Muslim citizens who embrace another religion or openly renounce Islam. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The group facing the greatest difficulties and harassment, from society and government alike, on grounds of religion and belief are atheists. Article 269 of the new Omani Penal Code states: “The punishment shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than three years and not more than ten years for anyone who commits one of the following acts:
(a) blaspheming against or insulting the Divinity verbally or by means of writing, drawing, gestures or by any other means;
(b) insulting, perverting or desecrating the Holy Quran;
(c) insulting the Islamic religion or any of its rites, or reviling any of the divine religions;
(d) blaspheming against or insulting any of the prophets verbally or by means of writing, drawing, gestures or by any other means…” This Article, or its predecessor in the previous Penal Code (Article 209), has been used on more than one occasion against activists who expressed opinions concerning atheism or certain Islamic practices. Among those who have been punished with jail sentences or monetary fines on the basis of this Article are Hassan al-Basham, a former diplomat and activist on Facebook and other social media, and Abdullah Habib, a writer and translator and also a Facebook activist. Others, who published articles critical of aspects of Islamic history, have consequently been threatened with prison if they publish anything further on the subject, and forced to sign pledges not to do so. Article 277 of the new Omani Penal Code states: “The punishment for anyone who openly consumes food or drink or other substances subject to fasting in a public place during daytime in Ramadan shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than ten days and not more than three months.” However, there is a still more dangerous trend, which was widely apparent in Oman at times during the 1980s and ’90s and early 2000s. It went in and out of focus at the Sultan’s direction or with the security forces’ harassment of religious fundamentalists following the discovery of at least one religious group seeking to overthrow the monarchy. This trend is starting to resurface once against in Omani society, with the rise to prominence of elite figures beholden to the religious tendency or the intelligentsia working to incite people against atheism and atheists, in the absence of any laws to safeguard atheists’ right to practice their atheism. There are also people who consider atheists to be mentally ill and needing treatment. In past decades in Oman there were campaigns to denounce as infidels poets and writers who were branded atheists by highly placed clerics in senior government positions. Influential clerics used their pulpits in the mosque to ridicule writers who were taking literature in new directions, and even those who were noted for their piety and writing in the traditional manner, mocking every aspect of religion. Sometimes the clerics’ attacks on modernist writers would be recorded on cassette tapes and circulated among the community. In summary, one can say that the law suppresses all opposing points of view, and provides no protection for atheists or activists in any area capable of being interpreted as anti-Islam. It sets out harsh and discriminatory penalties for such people, claiming in justification that the Islamic religion regards anyone who abandons Islam as a renegade deserving to be killed! So, what do you think – how can those of different beliefs, especially atheists, be protected from having their rights violated?