It seems that, at least as recently as 2014, Iran had a death penalty for apostasy. But apostasy isn't non-belief. In fact, that charge seems to be a rather contextual matter. In this Guardian story we find an example of a man was executed for "heresy" generally, but more specifically for "insulting prophet Jonah and making ‘innovations in religion’ through interpretations of Qur’an" - that is, he is religious, but he holds an unacceptable position within the sphere of (Shia) Islam.

My questions are:

  1. What exactly is illegal in Iran w.r.t. religious non-belief, if anything? Specifically, if you're an Atheist, and you say out loud that you don't believe in the existence of gods or supernatural phenomena etc. - have you violated Iranian law?
  2. Do people get prosecuted for holding atheist views? For expressing atheist views? For promoting atheism?

Part of my motivation for asking is an opinion poll from 2020, suggesting that over 20% of Iranians claim having no religion, and nearly 9% define themselves as outright atheists.

  • 1
    I don’t understand exactly what the difference between your second and first questions are? Nov 25 at 12:53
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    @EkadhSingh-ReinstateMonica: The first question is formal, the second question is practical. In many countries, some laws are "dead letter" - in the law books, but not enforced through prosecution. For example, in South Carolina in the USA, it is technically illegal to seduce a married woman, but AFAIK nobody is getting prosecuted despite the practice being not uncommon.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 25 at 13:00
  • The 2014 story you've linked to is about someone who was providing their own religious interpretations of religious texts, so I'm not sure what it has to do with your question on atheism.
    – Fizz
    Nov 25 at 17:32
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    Charges of blasphemy or "inciting religious hatered" is how atheism is "handled" in a few other Islamic countries, e.g. Egypt or Indonesia. Since 2014 Saudi Arabia allows for terrorism charges and that law has been used.
    – Fizz
    Nov 25 at 19:00
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    It seems that legally being registered as an atheist is impossible dw.com/en/iran-id-card-rule-highlights-plight-of-bahai/… though it doesn't say anything about legally registered as a theist but otherwise living openly as an atheist
    – Martheen
    Nov 26 at 1:49

As I understand it, traditional Islamic law holds that non-Muslims are tolerated but excluded from some of the benefits of Muslim society. Apostates are a different matter: they are Muslims who have rejected or denounced Islam as a religion. The latter are much more threatening to Islam as a religion than the former, and so they are given harsher penalties. In other words:

  • An atheist in a Muslim nation could comfortably and openly live as an atheist, assuming no attacks on the faith or attempts to turn others into atheists. He would generally be treated as a kind of second class citizen, with nice people trying to show him the way of Islam
  • An atheist in a Muslim nation who actively spoke against Islam might be attacked, imprisoned, expelled, or killed, but wouldn't be labeled apostate
  • A Muslim who rejected Islam would be labeled an apostate, and face harsh consequences.

For instance, Salman Rushdie faced a fatwah calling for his death because he was a Muslim criticizing the faith. There was no fatwah against Charlie Hebdo who were attacked by enraged radicalized elements. The first was considered apostasy, the second wasn't, and the cases called for different actions under Sharia.

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    While this is an interesting comment, it does not really answer my question. Also, there isn't one single Islamic tradition anyway.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 25 at 15:31
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    @einpoklum: I'm not an expert on Iranian law, but this is a typical distinction made in Islamic regions. Not even draconian regimes/groups like Saudi Arabia or ISIL treat non-Muslims and apostates the same. Remember, Islam is a proselytizing faith: Non-Muslims are potential converts; ex-Muslims are lost souls. Nov 25 at 15:42
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    Can't say how reliable The Sun is on this, but it claims with quotes from a royal decree that in Saudi Arabia atheism has been declared a form of terrorism thesun.co.uk/news/1701609/… So generalizing anything about Islamic countries in this matters seems on pretty thin ice.
    – Fizz
    Nov 25 at 17:53
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    PBS says the same. So one case where The Sun reported something accurately kiinda impressed.
    – Fizz
    Nov 25 at 18:14
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    @TedWrigley: The (usually) well-treated "Non-Muslims" are first and foremost Christians and Jews, and that's indeed well known. The question is what specifically is happening in Iran.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 25 at 19:55

Not officially, no.

According to this news article that was linked to in the comments, the only legally-recognized minority religions in Iran are Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. If you're an atheist, you'd either have to lie about your religion when you fill out the forms to apply for government identification, or you wouldn't be allowed to gain an ID and the accompanying citizenship rights.

This is apparently the result of a deliberate campaign of repression against the Baha'i faith, which is the largest minority faith in Iran and which is viewed by the Iranian government as an heretical sect.

Therefore, it can be concluded that the lack of government identification and the loss of legal rights concomitant with that lack of identification is one of the primary means by which the Iranian government persecutes open atheists.

  • The body of your answer does not answer my questions, while the title says "no" as a supposed answer. I did not ask about registration.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 27 at 14:02
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    @einpoklum "The body of your answer does not answer my question" It does. It sounds like the prevention of registry and the loss of rights as a citizen is the method of punishment used by the Iranian government. Here, I made it a bit more explicit. Is that better?
    – nick012000
    Nov 27 at 14:04

First you should know that law enforcement in the Middle East depends a lot on the people rather than the law, for instance, check Article Two of the Egyptian Constitution, it says that "Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic is its language, and the Islamic Sharia is the main source of law", however, I don't think that in all past decades any of these Islamic laws have been applied.

The answers to your questions:

What exactly is illegal in Iran w.r.t. religious non-belief, if anything? Specifically, if you're an Atheist, and you say out loud that you don't believe in the existence of gods or supernatural phenomena etc. - have you violated Iranian law?

I'd say it's allowed only by the people: no one (either in the government or the Iranian societies) will give much attention about that, unless you tried to make a lot of hubbub. Something you should know about apostasy in Islam: the unanimous law between Muslims scholars says that "whoever is in charge of apostasy, should have been Ostatab يُستتاب (Be asked for showing repentance), and if he did not, he should be killed". I think anyone in such situation will be capable of showing repentance.

However, a lot of Muslims scholars are confused about what you should do to be accused of apostasy? In the era of the caliphate, and in the first war on the apostates, one of the main reasons for the war was that they violated the law and refrained from paying zakat. Some of them interpret the Hudud of apostasy as a Hudud of normal law rather than belief.

A tyrannical country will make use of those nominal laws just to arrest opponents. It happens a lot in Egypt, the law enforcement forces don't care a lot of you if you're cursing Muslims and criticizing Islam, but if you said something bad about the governor, you will be tried in an Islamic court from the eleventh century. Same thing applies in Iran.

Do people get prosecuted for holding atheist views? For expressing atheist views? For promoting atheism?

By people? No, "The average American is slightly more religious than the average Iranian" says Robert Putnam. Of course, you may experience some harassment.

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  • 3
    First, thank you for taking the time to write this. However, it seems like you're drawing an analogue from the situation in Egypt to that in Iran. And while it's true that there are some similarities between the cases - we're still talking about very different political situations and a different current within Islam. What kind of factual knowledge are you basing your answer on? Specifically, do you live in Iran or have acquaintances who do? Do you follow Iranian news sources in Farsi closely? etc.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 27 at 10:09
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    Also, while it is definitely possible that the average Iranian may be less religious than the average US'er - the question is about how the law and the authorities treat this, which could (and probably does) differ.
    – einpoklum
    Nov 27 at 10:10

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