03/20/2014 04:32 pm ET Updated May 20, 2014

Atheists in Afghanistan

In January, a UK court granted asylum to an Afghan man for fear of religious persecution in his home country. He is believed to be the first atheist granted asylum on religious grounds. The anonymous 23-year-old was raised a Muslim in Afghanistan and fled to the UK at age 16 to escape the conflict. After becoming an atheist, he learned that he would face persecution and a possible death sentence if he were to return to Afghanistan.

While Afghanistan's constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of religion, it also states that Islam is the "religion of state" and that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." Various interpretations of Islamic law require the death penalty in cases of apostasy from Islam.

Support for the death penalty for apostasy is claimed to be found in the Quran itself (4.89). But naively taking this passage as commending the death penalty in cases of apostasy would contradict the Quran's claim that there is no compulsion in religion (2:256). Killing, the most severe of compulsions, is then forbidden. While Muslims are encouraged and maybe even required to exhort unbelievers ("in the most kindly manner"), they are forbidden from compelling them (88:21-22; 16:125).

Again, the Afghani constitution endorses the freedom of religion and the Quran commends it. But Afghani courts defer not to the constitution, but to their malicious and misleading understanding of "the sacred religion of Islam" on such matters.

There are, of course, atheists in Afghanistan -- apostates from Islam, even. Most of them are safe from persecution because they conceal their non-Muslim beliefs. But if their unbelief were made known, a Muslim apostate would be in grave danger.

Afghanistan is not alone in its antipathy towards atheism. Atheists in Muslim-majority countries around the world suffer discrimination, persecution and even death. In "Freedom of Thought 2013: A Global Report on the Rights, Legal Status, and Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists, and the Non-religious" created by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), we read that in at least 13 nations, atheists can be executed for their (lack of) belief. These nations include Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Even in countries where atheism is not illegal, atheists face systematic and systemic discrimination. In some countries, they are forbidden by law from holding public office. They are forced to undergo religious instruction in others. And, in still other countries, it is illegal for them to meet as a group or to express their unbelief out loud. Finally, atheists are discriminated against when applying for various jobs or seeking redress in a court of law.

While the United States does not have laws forbidding atheists from attaining to public office, public opinion surveys show that Islamaphobic Americans are more likely to vote for a Muslim for President than for an atheist.

Atheists around the world are denied the rights and privileges granted to believers in a state's majority religion. We have fought for centuries for religious freedom and made some not unsubstantial progress, but the fight for the freedom of the unreligious has been less successful.

One simple point needs to be made: The rights of believers and of non-believers are the rights of humans as humans, not of humans as believers in the majority religion (or in any religion).

The Quran itself allows people to exercise full liberty regarding believing and disbelieving in Islam: "Say (Muhammad it is) truth from the Lord of all. Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve" (18:29).

Freedom not to believe is as important as freedom to believe. We find in most countries a bias towards believers in the majority religion and a bias against believers in the non-majority religion (as well bias against unbelievers). The right to freedom of unbelief is the very right that protects freedom of belief; ultimately, freedom to follow one's believing conscience is the right to be free of coercion, discrimination and intolerance from members of the majority religion and to enjoy all of the benefits of living in civil society. The right to freedom of belief protects (or should protect) the Muslim in Christian-majority nations, the Christian in Muslim-majority nations, and the unbeliever in both sorts of nations.

In religious terms, the discrimination and persecution of atheists is a failure of divinely ordained respect and love. Religious believers are not allowed to diminish any person created in the image of God (regardless of their beliefs). Religious believers are required to treat each and every icon of God with honor and respect. One is being monumentally unfaithful to God when treating another human as less than human. Finally, you don't get to choose to restrict your kindness and compassion to those who are just like you, those within your faith community. You are to love your neighbor, the stranger and even your enemy. Denigration of the unbeliever is a failure to love as God has commanded.

The religious believer and unbeliever alike need to struggle together to defend human rights for all -- religious believer and unbeliever alike.