Saudi Arabia has effectively outlawed expressions of atheism in a new anti-terrorism law decreed by King Abdullah. Intended to tackle the growing number of Saudis joining foreign fighters, the law also turns criticism of Islam into a thought crime.
The Daily Mail reports that the law applies to any Saudi citizen or foreigner residing in the country who “calls for atheist thought in any form or calls into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
The law, intended to target terrorists, also jails for up to 20 years any citizen who fights in foreign wars, a move intended to target Saudis fighting in conflicts such the Syrian civil war.
On 3 February, the country created tougher punishments for Saudis who join militant Islamist groups, and on 7 March interior minister Muhammad bin Nayef banned a number of Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The Interior Ministry estimates that around 1,200 Saudis have gone to fight with Islamist groups in Syria.
The Saudi government fears that fighters returning for Syria may then challenge the ruling al Sa’ud family, as has previously happened with Iraq and Afghanistan. The inclusion of atheists alongside terrorists may be to appease the hard line Islamist critics of the royal family.
Joe Stark, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, told the Daily Mail: “Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of their policies, but these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism.”