“I Stand for Freedom for All”

This text is excerpted from the remarks of Commissioner Mohamed Magid of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom made at the launch event for the 2023 Freedom of Thought Report from Humanists International. The event was held on Capitol Hill in December 2023 and hosted by the American Humanist Association. You can access the full report at fot.humanists.international.

The Freedom of Thought Report, released annually by Humanists International, assesses every country in the world on the basis of human rights and the legal status with regard to humanists, atheists, and the non-religious. It is a unique, worldwide survey of persecution and discrimination against humanists, atheists, the nonreligious, and religious minorities.

GOOD MORNING, EVERYONE. My name is Mohamed Magid and I am a Commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF. Thank you very much to Humanists International and the American Humanist Association for inviting me to speak today to mark the release of this very important report on freedom of thought. As you may know, USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government body dedicated to promoting the universal right to freedom of religion or belief around the world. We defend religious freedom internationally for people of all faiths, and of none. Throughout the year, USCIRF uses international standards to monitor freedom of religion or belief abroad and to make policy recommendations to the U.S. government.

As Humanist International’s 2023 report makes clear, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the right of an individual to reject any religion or belief, to identify as humanist or atheist, and to manifest non-religious convictions through expression, teaching, and practice. Despite this sweeping protection, the right to freedom of religion or belief for the non-religious is frequently overlooked. And, disturbingly, Humanist International found that a majority of countries around the world fail to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and the non-religious.

At USCIRF, we also closely monitor and report on violations committed against non-religious populations. I will offer just a few brief observations based on our reporting. Governments continue to use blasphemy laws to target the non-religious for punishment, including fines, imprisonment, and the death penalty. In September, USCIRF released a report showing that ninety-five countries around the world have national level laws criminalizing blasphemy. The prevalence of blasphemy laws globally is concerning given their clear inconsistency with international human rights law’s protections for both the right to freedom of religion or belief and the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

We have also been tracking cases of non-religious individuals who have been detained or imprisoned based on blasphemy allegations through our Frank Wolf Freedom of Religion or Belief Victims List (www.uscirf.gov/victims-list). Congress requires USCIRF to maintain the Victims List, which contains profiles of certain victims of religious persecution including humanists.

Gary McLelland, Chief Executive of Humanists International, (3rd from left) at the Freedom of Thought Report launch event on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC with members of the AHA staff, from left: David Reinbold, Communications Manager; Nicole Carr, Interim Executive Director; Isabella Russian, Policy Coordinator; Meredith Thompson, Development Manager; Emily Newman, Senior Education Coordinator; and Lily Bolourian, Legal and Policy Director.

I encourage you all to consult the Victims List. And, if you know of any humanists or non-religious individuals who have been targeted for persecution, I invite you to log onto the USCIRF website and submit information for us to review.

In addition to blasphemy laws, USCIRF closely monitors legislation that criminalizes or imposes legal burdens on an individual’s freedom to convert from one religion or belief to another, or to no belief at all—otherwise known as anti-conversion laws. Just a few weeks ago, we released a report showing that seventy-three national-level laws limiting the freedom to convert, including seven criminalizing apostasy, are in force across forty-six countries around the world. Apostasy laws are particularly problematic for humanists and other non-religious individuals because they harshly punish the renunciation of one’s religion or belief. It is not uncommon for apostasy laws to mandate the death penalty.

In addition, USCIRF reporting indicates that, over the last several years, state governments in India have implemented restrictions on conversion. Currently, thirteen states have laws prohibiting or limiting an individual’s ability to convert or change their religion. These laws use vague language and come with hefty fines and punishments.

Finally, USCIRF recently released a report on religious garb and international human rights law. Our analysis shows that laws in countries such as Afghanistan and Iran that force individuals to wear religious clothing regardless of whether they are religious or not, often come with criminal penalties. These laws are deeply inconsistent with international human rights law and violate an individual’s freedom to manifest their belief or non-belief in accordance with their conscience.

(an aside from the scripted remarks) Before I conclude, I want to say that I’m an Imam. I don’t know if you know that. (You can tell from my hat.) I want to say that it’s very disturbing to me, as a member of clergy, when Islam or my religion is used to restrict the people’s choice to believe or not to believe. There’s nothing in my own religion that says that. I stand with you for freedom for all. That’s what we need to protect in the public square. To make sure people are not being persecuted because they chose not to believe. And blasphemy laws, the use of blasphemy laws, is very disturbing to me. We cannot force people to believe. There’s a verse in the Quran that says there should be no compulsion of religion. I want to say that because I think it’s important, because I’m disturbed by seeing many blasphemy laws, especially in Muslim countries, being used to persecute people who choose not to believe or to convert or to change their religion.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak today. We at USCIRF are grateful for the work you do and we look forward to learning from your new report and incorporating your findings into our own reporting.