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Saudi Arabia’s New Law Defines Atheism as “Terrorism”, Bans All Criticism of Government

Re-posted from IHEU.org

Humanist and secular organizations, as well as civil liberties and human rights groups around the world, have responded with outrage to the news that a new law in Saudi Arabia equates “atheism” with “terrorism”.

The Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing criminalizes as “terrorism” all free expression on a vast range of topics, including advocacy of “atheist thought”, criticism of Islam as it is understood by the state, and any expression deemed to “insult the reputation of the state”.

Saudia Arabia is a current and recently-elected member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Details of the law

Article 1 of the “terrorism” law prohibits “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.” The law was introduced by royal decree without judicial oversight.

Domestic “terrorism” is defined in the decree as “any act” (expressly including non-violent acts) which among other things is intended to “insult the reputation of the state,” “harm public order,” or “shake the security of society”. The terms are very broad, and and could be used to prosecute any criticism of the state, its king or officials, or the state conception of Islam.

The provisions of the “terrorism” law define and outlaw numerous acts and forms of expression as “terrorism”, including:

  • “Calling for atheist thought in any form”;
  • any disloyalty “to the country’s rulers”, or anyone “who swears allegiance to any party, organization, current [of thought], group, or individual inside or outside [the kingdom]“;
  • anyone who aids, affiliates, or holds “sympathy” with any “terrorist” organization as defined by the act, which “includes participation in audio, written, or visual media; social media in its audio, written, or visual forms; internet websites; or circulating their contents in any form”;
  • contact with groups or individuals who are “hostile to the kingdom”
  • and the article on “Seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion” prohibits all protest, without qualification as to its message or intent, by outlawing “calling, participating, promoting, or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings, or group statements in any form”.

Humanists respond

Sonja Eggerickx, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), commented, “All Humanist organizations and all legitimate human rights groups worldwide will recognize these regulations as the apotheosis of oppression cemented into law. This law gives an almost unlimited scope for the state to prosecute and brand as “terrorists” anyone who deviates from the government line, or from the state religion, or who espouses freedom and human rights to any degree.

“This so-called “terrorism” law is a further violation by this state of the human rights to freedom of expression, to freedom of religion or belief, and a host of civil and political freedoms.

“If the national delegations of the UN Human Rights Council are to preserve any validity they must condemn the passing of this law and suspend Saudi Arabia’s membership of the Council at the first opportunity.”

Maggie Ardiente, communications director for the American Humanist Association, which has been working with the United States Department of State and other government agencies to raise awareness of atheist discrimination abroad, said, “Saudi Arabia’s new law equating atheism with terrorism should be deeply disturbing to anyone who values freedom of expression. This will no doubt lead to extreme discrimination against nonbelievers in the worst way possible.”

Saudi Arabia already has a death sentence for “apostasy”, which in practice makes conversion from Islam or expression of atheism unlawful. Many of those convicted of apostasy are forced to disavow their views and undergo “re-education”.


The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the worldwide union of Humanist, atheist and secular organisations. The American Humanist Association is a member of IHEU.

IHEU participates as an NGO at the UN Human Rights Council, and has previously protested the arrest and detention of liberal campaigner Raif Badawi and drawn attention on many occasions to the kingdom’s appalling human rights record.

IHEU publishes the annual Freedom of Thought report on discrimination and rights violations against the non-religious around the world.

For further comment on this story please contact Bob Churchill on comms@iheu.org.