What do all twelve of these countries have in common?
The state declared religion is Islam and leaving that religion carries a state-sanctioned death sentence.
Algeria, Bahrain, Brunei, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Syria and Tunisia.
A further fifteen countries, where Islam is the major and state recognised religion, include various blasphemy and conversion laws, which carry punishments varying from heavy fines, imprisonment and the death penalty.
Living in the Western world and growing up in a society where the law grants you the freedom to practice whatever religion you like, however, you like, issues such as apostasy and blasphemy never even entered my mind.
These laws only came onto my radar when I left my religion of birth.
All because I lacked a belief in God and found out that Islamically, and legally in the country of my ethnic heritage I could be tried and put on death row for leaving and criticising Islam, under Pakistan's blasphemy laws. That's if vigilante anti-apostasy groups hadn't already got to me first.
I could never go to any of the above countries and feel safe.
It was then I could only imagine what life must be like for closeted Ex-Muslims, Atheists, Muslim minority sects and other religious minorities living in those countries.
Through talking about leaving Islam, openly criticising apostasy and blasphemy laws in Islamic countries and the religion publicly through my Twitter account and podcast, I have spoken to and worked with some of the bravest individuals I could have ever had the pleasure of conversing with.
Two of them, who I will talk about, became my very good friends, both who have had their safety put at risk because they no longer believed in the religion they were raised with.
Fighting apostasy and blasphemy laws is the biggest global freedom of speech issue of our time.
Because those trying to fight these laws in their own countries are restricted by these laws so they cannot even try to fight them without putting their lives on the line.
This is why the apostates, the humanists, the free speech advocates, women's right activists and so on must stand up and speak for those who cannot and voice to those trying to talk about these issues.
Now, I had written the above few paragraphs a few days before what is about to follow and the news I am about to share with you puts all of this into perspective.
I write this with such a heavy heart upon hearing the news about Junaid Hafeez's sentencing.
Junaid has been given the death penalty for false blasphemy claims made against him by jealous work colleagues. Hafeez was champion of liberal ideas and created a Facebook group called the 'So Called Liberals of Pakistan', which contained posts which would be viewed as 'provocative' and not necessarily explicitly blasphemous, but that was enough to create a 'your word against mine,' situation and Hafeez's liberal values were already against him.
Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, in all of their ambiguity have allowed this to happen to this man and the corruption does not stop there. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was killed for simply representing him. Above is an image of the prosecution team handing out sweets in celebration of the verdict. In celebration of handing a man a death sentence over a 'thought crime.'
It pains me writing this, it angers me seeing it all over my Twitter feed and then seeing my Pakistani friends and followers turning their accounts private, posting pro-government tweets to avert suspicion and one girl tweeted, that she had remove a prior post talking about it and people were telling her she was brave, to which she responded she was not brave, but scared.
The grim reality of these laws is that it prevents those in the country, whether they be Muslim, secularists, non-Muslim and atheist from speaking against these laws.
They cannot demonstrate, they cannot organise and protest because they do not know who they can trust.
They cannot trust the law, they cannot trust their fellow citizen in case they are part of the majority who support these laws.
I have seen the first hand effects of these laws. My good friend that founded the podcast I host, The Sinning Skeptics, had to leave the show, delete his socials and all videos he appeared in because he got discovered by his family. A family member, then told him that these videos have made it through anti-apostasy groups in Pakistan and his life, and his families were at risk.
Another friend of mine had been close to getting caught by her parents and was under strict monitoring. I haven't heard from her since she left me a message on Twitter saying why she had to delete all of her socials. I still think and worry about her everyday because she had told me what her father would do if he found out about her apostasy, and that involves being shipped off to another country and even fears for her life. I hope everyday that she is still alive and well. This girl lives in the Western world.
Since Junaid's sentencing, many of my Pakistani mutuals (those I follow and that follow me back on Twitter) have privatised their accounts due to fears of Pakistan's strict monitoring of social media, which has been flagging up critical tweets against Islam and anti-government tweets and accounts. One girl had contemplated tweeting about the blasphemy laws, then sent out a tweet and took it down. She said so many people said she was brave, but in fact she felt scared.
That is how young Pakistanis are feeling in their own country, Muslim and non-Muslim alike feel like they cannot speak against their governments blasphemy laws.
It is not only the law that is the problem, it is the religion and the culture of blasphemy laws that permeate into the Islamic societies of these countries. These laws embolden religious fanatics to carry out vigilante attacks.
I have written about her previously, she was a devout Muslim woman attacked and brutally murdered by a mob of men in Afghanistan after she criticised a man selling religious charms, which she believed to be un-Islamic.
Another case I wrote about, another world famous case, another case from Pakistan.
Bibi was acquitted last year on false blasphemy charges because the Muslim women she worked with refused to share water that she offered because she was a Christian. In Pakistan, the Muslim word holds more gravity, that is if you belong to right sect. Salman Taseer, a politician that stood with Bibi was killed for supporting her. Despite being on death row and being acquitted, Bibi could not return to her life in Pakistan, her children had to leave the country during the case and now Bibi resides in Canada after facing threats on her life from right-winged groups in Pakistan.
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Where does this come from?
Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as outlined by the United Nations.
Do you know how many of the countries that I mentioned previously sit on the United Nations Human Rights Council?
Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.
These ten countries sit on a council that is supposed to uphold the above statement. Those ten countries criminalise apostasy and blasphemy. They criminalise the freedom to think differently, the freedom to speak differently, the freedom of religious belief, the freedom to change their religion.
Secular countries have a duty to fight these countries and the others on their lack of freedom of religion, especially those sitting on this council.
This is why when I am asked why do you criticise religion? Why do criticise Islam? Why are you public with your apostasy, why could you not just leave Islam and be quiet? Why do you talk about apostasy and blasphemy laws?
The simple answer is, I have the privilege to do so and I care about human rights, and that includes fighting for the rights of apostates, critics, heretics and blasphemers.
Freedom of Thought Report 2019 - https://fot.humanists.international/
Junaid Hafeez - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-50878432
Farkhunda Malikzada blog post - https://www.theamberjournals.co.uk/2019/01/from-traitor-to-martyr-story-of.html
Asia Bibi - https://www.theamberjournals.co.uk/2019/01/1-case-of-asia-bibi.html