Rahaf al-Qunun’s brave fight for protection from persecution ended happily with the Saudi teen’s arrival in Canada. The ex-Muslim who was fleeing her abusive family barricaded herself in her hotel room in Thailand and managed to reach safety despite her family and Saudi government’s attempts to return her to Saudi Arabia. Rahaf’s plight mobilised widespread support with countless groups and individuals demanding action by the Thai government and the UNHCR and cheering her on to safety.
Unfortunately, Rahaf’s plight is a reality for countless ex-Muslims, atheists, women and LGBT fleeing Sharia or “honour”-related violence condoned by Islamic states and movements. In more than ten countries, being ex-Muslim, atheist, or LGBT are even punishable by death. In these countries, being a free woman is a crime. Despite these harsh realities, countless asylum seekers in Britain and the west as well as refugee claimants in places like Turkey continue to be detained, refused protection despite evidence of persecution, mistreated and deported.
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) calls on governments and the UNHCR to protect ex-Muslims, atheists, women and LGBT fleeing sharia, “honour-related” violence and Islamic states and movements.
Like Rahaf, they are refugees too.
UK ACTIVIST CASE SUMMARIES
Marwa Mastouri is a Tunisian ex-Muslim woman who has received threats from her family and death and rape threats for her topless actions in support of those who do not believe in Islam, against hijab day and in solidarity with those who want to eat during Ramadan. She has written a book critical of Islam. Moreover, she has defended LGBT rights and recently carried out a topless action in support of Saudi women. Marwa is waiting for an interview with the Home Office.
Shawon Syed, a Bangladeshi ex-Muslim and bi-sexual has been waiting nearly two years for an interview with the Home Office. Shawan is an Editor of a magazine called “Boys Love World” and a sub-Editor of “Atheist In Bangladesh.” He continues to receive serious threats to his life. In Bangladesh, seven cases have been filed against him and his team for their criticism of religion and Islam. Islamist mobs have attacked and destroyed his home there and threatened his mother who is in hiding. His brother and father have already been murdered by the Islamists. Shawan has health issues and is currently homeless here in the UK. Shawan is a long-time activist who marched with CEMB at Pride and spoke at an event co-sponsored with Pride Festival on LGBT Rights, Blasphemy and Apostasy.
Mohamed Aly is an Egyptian ex-Muslim atheist. He left his country because he had been threatened with having his beliefs exposed to the public. He applied in the UK for asylum in April 2016 and has been refused on a number of occasions. Although the Home Office accepted that he was a genuine Ex-Muslim atheist, they advised him to return to Egypt and “live discreetly” as an atheist. The Home Office claimed that there is ‘’no policy of persecution in Egypt against Ex-Muslims atheists’’, it is merely ‘’discrimination’’. Mohamed is a long-time activist of CEMB involved in fast-defying actions during Ramadan and also marching at Pride in London amongst other actions and protests.
Aftab Ahmed is an ex-Muslim from Pakistan who applied for asylum in August 2015, been refused a number of times and is submitting a fresh claim. His father was killed by the Taliban and he was threatened by them; he continues to receive threats due to his activities with CEMB. In his refusal letter, the Home Office asserted that since the Taliban was a non-state actor, “the authorities are able to provide protection.” On his being agnostic and unable to return to Pakistan, the Home Office has said he “would be able to live as someone who does not follow Islam. As [he has] not converted to another religion, [he] would not be required to talk to anyone about [his] religion.” Aftab is a key CEMB activist involved in organising and participating in our protests and actions, including fast-defying and against blasphemy laws at the Pakistani embassy, defending LGBT rights at Pride and opposing compulsory veiling.
Fasahat Hasan Rizvi is a Pakistani ex-Muslim whose asylum claim has been rejected on a number of occasions. Fasahat’s spouse was forcibly divorced from him because his religious in-laws with links to an Islamist group there believed him to be an apostate. When she joined him in the UK and they had a second child despite the divorce, her family threatened to kill them for adultery and murder their child “born out of wedlock.” According to the Home Office, though, “it is believed that the authorities in Pakistan are able to provide [him] with effective protection” and that he can relocate to another city in Pakistan other than Karachi. According to the refusal letter, the Home Office states: “You are an educated male of working age and are able to speak Urdu and English, one of the official languages of Pakistan. You have already demonstrated considerable personal fortitude in relocating to the UK and attempting to establish a life here and you have offered no explanation why you could not demonstrate the same resolve to reestablish your life in Pakistan.” Fasahat stopped believing in Islam early on but realised he was an atheist here in the UK after reading Dawkins’ book and making contact with the CEMB. Fasahat has been one of CEMB’s main activists and organisers since 2016, however, the Home Office says “it is not accepted that [he] is an atheist.”
Letter from Fasahat’s 12-year-old daughter
My name is Hurmat Fatima and I am proudly standing here to support my family, my belief, my atheism and i am fighting for my rights. I have done continuous 8 years of education in this country so how do you expect me to go back to Pakistan and learn the compulsory local language (urdu, hindustani and more)? How do u expect me to go back to pakistan and learn Islam when i am a free-thinker and an atheist? How do you expect me to go there and be proud of my atheism when you can be sentenced to death for not believing in islam?
Home office know the terrible conditions that my family and i live in and yet they still choose to ignore us. They know that my daddy has mental issues and it can be risky for him to deal with lots of stress and depression. As a daughter, i feel extremely upset for him because i don’t want to lose my daddy. My parents try day and night to provide me and my sister the best life and the best environment. Because of you, we all suffer. They are the ones that taught me that all human beings are kind and generous and that you should never judge anyone but clearly home office is showing the complete opposite. I am thankful to my parents because they encouraged me to develop my critical thinking and i am really proud of being an atheist.
We have done everything that home office asked us to do, they have all the evidence all the proof what more do they want? We have respectfully and patiently waited for their response and they choose to refuse us. Do they realise that going back to pakistan is extremely risky, it isn’t even a joke, it is a matter of death and we can even be prosecuted just because of our belief? Do they realise that Islam considers atheism as a threat? Do you realise that if we go back to pakistan we have to constantly hide from everyone? They can at least have sympathy for us.
I have written several letters to home office through my account taking my time and my effort in it and they choose to ignore it. Just because i am a child that doesn’t mean that i can’t fight and that i can’t say my opinions or fight for my rights.
Just because home office are high standard people that doesn’t mean that they forget their respect. You should treat everyone equally and respectfully.
I am sorry but i have no words to define home office but disrespectful.
Basma is a 24-year-old Yemeni ex-Muslim woman who fled to Turkey. In Yemen, she was not able to live freely and decide what to do with her life. A woman there is a slave to her family and community. Because of her outspokenness about the situation of women and her criticism of Islam, she was called an “infidel” by professors at her university where she was studying mass communications and by her own father who threatened to turn her in to the authorities. Basma feared she would be killed by Islamist groups or sentenced to death as others have been so she fled before finishing her degree. Moreover, as a black woman from a persecuted group in Yemen that are openly called “Akhdam” or servants, she faced horrendous racism. In Turkey, where she hoped to reach safety, life has been hell. She was jailed for 4 months in a deportation centre and attempts were made to deport her a number of times, which she has resisted.
Arsalan Nejati is a 32-year-old Iranian who has been persecuted for his political views and social activities as an ex-Muslim, an independent author, blogger, and a member of the atheist and humanist society in Iran. In 2014, after he published his story, he was arrested and tortured by Iranian security. After his conditional and temporary release, the threats continued. He was forced to flee to Turkey. He applied for refugee status to UNHCR on 5 May 2015. He has been sent to a satellite city without the right to work and no financial support from UNHCR. After two and a half years, he was rejected by the UNHCR because whilst they say he had established that he was an atheist, “there is not a reasonable possibility that [he] will suffer serious harm if [he] return(s) there due to [his] faith as an atheist.” The UNHCR did not accept his appeal and informed him that his case has been transferred to Turkish Immigration Office.
Iman Soleymani Amiri is a lawyer, a writer and critic of Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Due to various activities on social media, he was identified by security agents and forced to flee the country before his arrest. He is director and author of Islamic Criticism Channel with more than sixty thousand subscribers. His audio and video content is available to the general public on various channels and networks. He is a weekly expert on a weekly program called “Islam, a Reasonable Need to Know”. He applied to UNHCR in Turkey for refugee status a year and a half ago. He has received no response from the UNHCR. Recently, his case has been forwarded to Turkish Immigration Office.
Amir and Mina Kalateh are Iranian ex-Muslim siblings. Amir became an atheist at 16 and persuaded his mother and sister to become atheists too. They took to social media, became admin of Atheist Iranian Community with nearly 12,000 followers. One day, they found that one of their meeting places had been exposed and the security were looking for them. Amir fled first and when Mina and Amir were summoned to court, Mina and her mother Mehri fled the country to Turkey. They arrived in 2016 and have still not been interviewed by UNHCR.
On Monday 21 January 2019, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain organised a rally at Richmond Terrace SW1A 2NJ across Downing Street in London to demand asylum and protection for ex-Muslims, atheists, women and LGBT fleeing Sharia and/or honour-related violence.
#RefugeeToo highlighted asylum or refugee cases as well as exposed the absurd reasons given for refusals by governments and the UNHCR.
We wanted to give you an update on the crucial work of Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain this past year, thank you for your support and ask for you to continue to help us, including by donating to our crucial work. Every bit helps and no amount is too small. If you are thinking of donating during the holiday period, CEMB is a great secular/non-religious option doing important work without religious conditions, dogma or proselytizing.
Since it is nearing the end of 2018, we would like to tell you some of the highlights of the year that couldn’t have been possible without the support of our donors:
In February, Sadia went to Australia to speak at the first ever event of ex-Muslims speaking out publicly. She took part in a number of speeches and panel discussions in Sydney and Melbourne and also took part in media interviews. Here is one on Australian TV where she debates a Muslim woman apologist.
On World Hijab Day in February and in the women’s march in London in March, CEMB defended the movement in Iran against compulsory veiling.
In April, Maryam spoke at the 10th anniversary celebration of FEMEN in Paris. They are the topless activists that have worked closely with CEMB in support of apostasy, blasphemy and women’s rights.
On 18 May, CEMB has an “eat-in” in front of several embassies of countries that persecute people for eating during Ramadan. At the Saudi embassy, armed metropolitan police told us we were “offending” staff in the Saudi embassy, to which we exclaimed that their persecution offends us and is a lot more serious than hurt sentiments!
In the same month, Maryam spoke at a seminar at European Parliament on Fundamentalism & Neo-Liberalism in Europe: Their Collusion and Impact on Women’s Rights and Ethnic Minorities Rights. You can see a summary of her speech here.
Maryam also spoke at the Muslimish conference in NYC about ex-Muslims being a “community in protest” (as opposed to community in the regressive sense of identity politics). Here is Maryam’s speech at the conference and the Q&A that followed. Also see a shortened article in sister-hood explaining ex-Muslims as a community in protest.
With the rise of atheism in countries under Islamic rule, we are seeing many more cases of those being persecuted for blasphemy and apostasy. Here is a recent article we have published on the demand for atheism which calls for normalising #AtheismNotACrime. We developed a successful series of publicity materials for it, including for #BlasphemyNotACrime, #ApostasyNotACrime.
In July, CEMB joined Pride in London for the second year (organised by Daniel Fitzgerald). It was a great success for us given that we were not sure if we would be allowed to march officially until a few months before the event. We received tremendous amounts of support. This year we had a much larger group joining us, including a Bangladeshi LGBT group, Boys Love World. A filmmaker Carl Russ-Mohl joined our march and produced a short film on CEMB and Spokespersons Jimmy Bangash. You can see the film here. Spokesperson Imad Iddine Habib explains why “Allah is Gay,” a placard he made first in 2017, which has now been picked up by ex-Muslims from Germany to Canada.
With the International Coalition of Ex-Muslims formed after our 2017 conference (the largest gathering of ex-Muslims in history), we read a poem written by Jimmy Bangash in defence of LGBT rights in countries under Islamic rule.
In July, Maryam worked with MEP Teresa Barbat Gimenez to suggest amendments to the European Parliament’s Committees of Foreign Affairs and Human Rights report regarding Freedom of religion and belief.
In August, CEMB organised a Vegetarian Heathen Eid. Bakra Eid is about slaughtering animals in the most brutal manner. Many CEMB members miss Eid and the time with family but don’t want to take part in a religious event or have anything to do with animal sacrifice so CEMB celebrated Eid the heathen way.
In September for International Blasphemy Day, CEMB members tore verses of the Quran that were anti-apostate and anti-women in a public protest action.
The International Ex-Muslim Coalition also did a video accusing “Ayatollah Facebook” of silencing blasphemers by constantly shutting down pages of ex-Muslims and freethinkers. Here is Maryam’s message.
CEMB sponsored Bullet Hole, a powerful production about FGM, at Park Theatre, for black history month. It is a story of hope, love and human rights played by an all-female cast.
In October, Spokespersons Sadia Hameed and Maryam Namazie conducted a training for 11 Malaysian government officials who are involved in the Islamic religious affairs department, including those implementing Sharia in the law, education and government. We showed them the film, Islam’s Non Believers, and had an extended discussion on apostasy and the right to atheism. They argued that atheists go against “their culture” and that the law must be respected. We argued that unjust laws must be challenged and culture is not homogenous. We stressed the importance of secularism and universal values. Discussions were sometimes heated but it was the first time they had met with ex-Muslims and it helped some of them to understand the awful treatment Malaysian atheists face and humanise ex-Muslims. We also linked it to the treatment of women, religious minorities and LGBT, amongst others.
In early November, at the Freedom from Religion Foundation Convention in San Francisco, Maryam awarded Ensaf Haidar, Raif Badawi’s wife (the Saudi freethinker sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes for “insulting Islam”) with the Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award that she won last year.
On 25 November, CEMB sponsored an international Conference on Sharia, Segregation and Secularism, marking the 10th anniversary of our sister campaign One Law for All. The conference was a landmark event. (Organising Committee: Maryam Namazie, Sadia Hameed and Sina Ahadi Pour; MCs: Fariborz Pooya and Nahla Mahmoud).
In April and October, we held “Coming Out” parties where ex-Muslims received their apostasy certificates. The parties are one way of seeing people’s coming out as a cause for celebration rather than vilification and a source of shame.
We also started monthly support groups in addition to monthly meet-ups to allow ex-Muslims to share issues and empower each other. So far, the group has discussed issues like shunning, identity, post-apostasy trauma, family, drug and alcohol abuse, community, why we left Islam and relationships.
Our monthly meet-ups continue to go strong. It is a place where ex-Muslims and their friends can come to listen to a speaker, socialise, have a drink and let off some steam. The events bring speakers dealing with a range of issues including on the ex-Muslim experience through art and evenings with lawyer Ana González on apostasy and asylum, with Hassan Radwan on Islamic reform and Imad Iddine Habib on challenging racism and the far-Right.
In 2018, we also organised swimming lessons, picnics and movie nights and took ex-Muslims to Thorpe Park. You can see all our events and speaking engagements here.
We have done a huge amount of work for the right to apostasy and blasphemy (see also a timeline of our highlights from 2007-2018) but much more needs to be done. Particularly at a time when fascism, including religious fundamentalisms, is on the rise, we must keep going and defending universal rights for all, freedom of conscience, including for non-believers and secularism.
We look forward to working with you in the coming year and hope to see you at one or more of our upcoming events and speaking engagements.
Wishing you happy holidays and a wonderful New Year.
CEMB and One Law for All hold seminar on Sharia Law in Britain to mark International Women’s Day. The seminar brought together Muslims, ex-Muslims, women’s rights campaigners, lawyers and politicians to outline the problems with Muslim Arbitration Tribunals and Sharia Councils and to propose recommendations for prohibiting religious tribunals and bringing about equal rights for all.
CEMB defends Alexander Aan and condemns his being sentenced to two and a half years in prison and fined for having written “God does not exist” on Facebook and calls for his immediate release. He was found guilty of “deliberately spreading information inciting religious hatred and animosity” and “caused anxiety to the community and tarnished Islam” in Indonesia.
CEMB organises an International Day of Action to Defend Blasphemers and Apostates and calls on groups and individuals to take action on this day by organising a protest or vigil, setting up a table in a city centre, writing a letter, signing a petition, drawing a picture, taking a photo, making a video to highlight blasphemy and apostasy laws and rules, defend free expression and the women and men whose lives are at stake.
CEMB organises a Day of Agreement to highlight the difficulties faced by non-believers in Islamic theocracies, where they are forced to live in silence and furthermore, are unable to have even the smallest disagreements, as it could very much result in incarceration or execution.
Northern Ex-Muslim Meet up Group Launched. CEMB affiliated Manchester Ex-Muslim Meet-Up group which was established in November 2012 by Sandbad has been renamed Northern Ex-Muslim Meet-up Group. Ex-Muslims from Leeds, Bradford and surrounding areas are now part of the group. They welcome ex-Muslims in the North to join them, including from Liverpool.
Muslimish Launched in May 2012 in New York City where ex-Muslims and Muslims who have questions about religion or want take a more objective look at its teachings can come and participate in a free and open discussion without fear of punishment or judgement.
CEMB holds successful International Day to Defend Apostates and Blasphemers. More than three hundred individuals and organisations call for an international day of action on 14 March to defend those accused of apostasy and blasphemy. Thousands more defended apostates and blasphemers via acts of solidarity and social media, Tweeted, sent letters of protest, or issued statements and messages of support.
CEMB stands with Bangladeshi bloggers and activists. In January, 29 year old blogger Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed. In February, 35 year old atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib, was brutally killed. Islamists continue to threaten prominent bloggers and have called for the “execution of 84 atheist bloggers for insulting religion”. We call for 25 April to be an international day to defend Bangladesh’s bloggers and activists.
First legal atheist organisation formed in Turkey! The first legally recognised Atheist Organisation of the Balkans, Middle East and among all Muslim-majority countries, has been founded in Istanbul, Turkey. The organisation, titled Ateizm Dernegi, was founded in Istanbul on April 16, 2014.
CEMB and One Law for All sponsor a two-day international conference on the Religious Right, Secularism and Civil Rights. Notable free-thinkers, atheists and secularists from around the world came together for a weekend of discussions and debates on the religious-Right, its attacks on civil rights and freedoms, and the role of secularism for 21st century humanity. The exciting two-day conference discusses the Arab Spring, Sharia and religious laws, the limits of religion’s role in society, free expression, honour killings, apostasy and blasphemy laws, faith schools, women’s rights, secular values and much more. The 250 delegates made an unequivocal stand with the brave women and men of Kobane saying: “Their struggle is ours. Their fight is a fight for us all. We are all, today, Kobane.”
CEMB and One Law for All organise a Conference on Sharia Law, Apostasy and Secularism to discuss freedom of expression, apostasy and blasphemy laws, Islamism and the religious-Right, as well as Sharia in the law, educational system and public policy. They will also highlight the successful campaigns against the Law Society and Universities UK and pay tribute to Charlie Hebdo and the many Muslims, ex-Muslims and others who have been killed or persecuted for their dissent.
CEMB calls on all to stand with Mohamed Salih, a young Sudanese who filed an official request for all mention of Islam to be removed from his documents, including his national ID. As a result, he was charged with apostasy, arrested and released after being declared mentally unfit. Salih was forced to flee the country.
CEMB hosts the largest gathering of ex-Muslims in history in London in July 2017 at the International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression with over 70 notable speakers from 30 countries or the Diaspora gathered in what is dubbed “The Glastonbury of Freethinkers” and “a Conference of Heroes” to honour dissenters and defend apostasy, blasphemy, and secularism. The sold-out conference highlights the voices of those on the frontlines of resistance – many of them persecuted and exiled. The conference made a space for crucial discussions and debates on Islamophobia and its use by Islamists to impose de facto blasphemy laws, the relation between Islam and Islamism as well as communalism’s threat to universal rights, art as resistance and Laicite as a human right. The conference hashtag, #IWant2BFree, trends on Twitter. The conference includes a public art protest of 99 balloons to represent those killed or imprisoned for blasphemy and apostasy around the world. Resolutions against the no platforming of Richard Dawkins and in support of Egyptian atheist Ismail Mohamed and CEMB at Pride are adopted. A Declaration of Freethinkers is adopted at the conference.
Following the International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression, the International Coalition of Ex-Muslims is launched. The Coalition begins working on joint projects and actions and meets regularly to plan campaigns.
CEMB holds fast defying protests outside embassies of countries that prosecute people for eating during Ramadan, an action that led to being filmed and threatened outside the Pakistani embassy and armed police approaching our protestors outside the Saudi embassy.
In April and October, we held “Coming Out” parties where people received their apostasy certificates. The parties are one way of seeing people’s coming out as a cause for celebration rather than vilification and a source of shame.
In October, Sadia and Maryam conduct a training for 11 Malaysian government officials who are involved in the Islamic religious affairs department, including those implementing Sharia in the law, education and government. We show the film, Islam’s Non Believers, and have an extended discussion on apostasy and the right to atheism.
I have been an atheist since the age of 13. There was no Damascene moment to it. One day I realised that I did not believe in god any longer. It was the end of a personal journey that had started out in fervent Catholic devotion from the moment I took my First Holy Communion, fuelled by regular attendance to Sunday mass, daily evening prayers before going to sleep and regular engagement in confession. However, for many reasons, I lost my faith, never to return. Just like that.
To mark such a momentous occasion there was a short announcement in the only appropriate forum at the time: the family dinner table. My revelation was greeted with a dismissive eye roll from my mother, complete indifference from my siblings and one of my father’s undefined grunts which meant anything from “Ok”, “you must be having a laugh”, “Good”, “What’s on telly?” or “No”. Interpreting my father’s moods was a bizarre game of chicken that taught me to be brave – yet cautious – to expect the unexpected, never shy away from a fight – unless it could not be won – and always think outside the box. These skills have been invaluable in the last 20 years working as an asylum and immigration lawyer in the UK.
The timing of my revelation was critical. Had I been born a few years earlier the situation would have been completely different. I was born in the early 1970s, in Franco’s Spain, where pretty much all babies had to be baptised by legal imperative. Luckily for me I have no recollection of Francoism. El Caudillo died before I could understand what was going on around me.
My atheism would have been very dangerous under Franco. My father – also an atheist – would have been much more vocal in his response to my revelation, to the point of verbalising some actual words. He would have told me to keep quiet and never, ever share my thoughts with anyone unless I wanted to end up in prison. My father had witnessed Catholic priests abuse the great power bestowed upon them by the Franco regime. He grew up at a time when those who did not show up for Sunday mass mysteriously disappeared without a trace. Everyone knew not to ask any questions to avoid suffering the same fate. I have no doubt that I would have found it intolerable to live in a society so dominated by a religion I could not follow. I have no doubt I would have desperately sought a way to escape.
Being an outspoken free thinker in the society I grew up in did not put my life in danger. I may have been perceived as being weird and annoying which resulted in having less (but more select) friends. My family did not disown me. The authorities had no interest in me and I was not ostracised or persecuted by my local community. I was not discriminated against by anyone because of my atheism.
Unfortunately this is a privilege that is not afforded to many atheists and free thinkers around the world. Millions are born in repressive societies where religion and politics are indivisibly merged together. These are societies where women have fewer rights than men, where nobody can be religiously indifferent and individuality and non-observance of the status quo can literally get you killed. Just like LGBTI individuals from homophobic countries, free thinkers and atheists born in religiously autocratic regimes face the agonising choice of either conforming, following the herd and living a lie or leaving their home, culture and families, everything they have ever known, in order to start out from scratch in a strange land where they would be able to be themselves without having to pretend to be someone they are not.
Over the years I have had the enormous privilege of successfully representing a large number of atheists from different countries. I am stunned at the extraordinarily high personal price paid by many of my clients as a result of their free thinking. As a fellow atheist, I understand their journey from believer to non-believer. I know it is a process with a beginning, a middle and an end. However, I cannot in any way relate to the pain my clients have endured as a result of their atheism such as not being able to visit their countries of origin, having been disowned by their families and lifelong friends, feeling isolated and sometimes suicidal.
And that is before they make a formal asylum application to seek protection. This is a process that can feel like the legal equivalent of a full body cavity search; intrusive, adversarial and unsympathetic; marred by a culture of disbelief; sometimes inhumane.
As a lawyer I strive to protect my clients as much as possible, advising them as to what they can expect from the process, spending many hours going through their evidence with them to present the best possible case, strengthening their claims with relevant country information, making full use of my legal toolkit to persuade the decision-maker that atheist asylum applicants are not making up their claims to stay here and work, to be given a council flat and benefits, that these applicants would be at risk of imprisonment, death or both if they are sent them back home just because they can no longer make themselves follow a religion they believe to be a fantasy and cannot abide by the rules imposed by it. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot go back in.
Not all of my atheist clients have had a difficult time securing asylum in the UK. This is very much the luck of the draw. In my experience once my client negotiates the potential Orwellian situations that arise at the Asylum Screening Unit, if the case is well prepared in my experience there is a reasonable chance of securing a grant of asylum on application. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts sometimes the decision-makers do not read or engage with all the evidence painstakingly prepared in support of our cases. In those situations, we can find ourselves in front of an Immigration Judge who is independent of the Home Office. This comes at a very substantial financial and emotional cost.
Over the course of my career I have worked on a wide variety of asylum cases which I have very much enjoyed. However, I cannot help but having a soft spot for atheist clients. Every single time I work in these cases I find something relatable on a personal level. I very much hope to be able to continue doing this work for many years to come.
But for me, this has never been about building a community as it is understood within identity politics, which implies people being boxed into homogenised, segregated communities with culturally-relative rights managed by ‘community leaders.’ Rather, I see ex-Muslims as a community in protest: insisting on freedom from religion, and freedom of conscience. For the right to apostasy and blasphemy, without fear.
Like the LGBT, anti-slavery, anti-colonialist, anti-apartheid, suffragette or civil rights movements, it’s a movement which insists upon our common humanity and equality – not upon difference or superiority. It’s a movement of people who refuse to live in fear and in the shadows, and who are speaking out for social change in unprecedented ways.
This movement matters because thirteen states punish atheism with the death penalty and all of them Islamic. Because a series of laws in Saudi Arabia define atheism as terrorism, where Ahmad Al-Shamri has been sentenced to death for atheism. Because Sina Dehghan has been sentenced to death in Iran for ‘insulting Islam.’ Because a Pakistani High Court Judge has said that blasphemers are terrorists and Ayaz Nizami and Rana Noman face the death penalty there. Because even in countries without the death penalty, such as Bangladesh, Islamists kill atheists whilst the government turns a blind eye. Because in Bangladesh, the atheist poet and publisher Shahzahan Bachchu was dragged out of a shop and shot dead mid-June this year. Because the Egyptian government is producing a national plan to ‘confront and eliminate’ atheism. Because in Egypt, the atheist blogger Sherif Gaber has not been seen in public since his arrest at Cairo airport on 2 May. Because a Malaysian government minister has said that atheists should be ‘hunted down’ and ‘re-educated.’ Because even in secular societies, ex-Muslims can be shunned, ostracised, and face ‘honour’-related violence.
This movement matters because you can be killed for leaving or criticising Islam. Full stop. Reason enough.
The Saudi UN Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi says that advocating for atheism is a terrorist offence; that it leads to chaos. Absurdly, the Guardian’s David Shariatmadari agrees that ‘criticism of religion, Islam especially, can be antisocial, even dangerous.’ These accusations are not new. The Suffragettes, for example, were considered dangerous, subversive, as destroying the natural order of things. They were labelled anti-male and traitors for demanding the right to vote. Similarly, ex-Muslims are often labelled traitors or ‘native informants.’ After all, when one homogenises a ‘community,’ anyone who steps outside of their assigned place may be deemed dangerous, subversive; as destroying the natural order of things.
Like other social and political movements which fight for equality, the ex-Muslim movement is considered ‘dangerous’ because it subverts the status quo, not because of some paternalistic concern for minorities. After all, don’t minorities also have the right to dissent, to equality, to civil rights and freedoms? And why is blasphemy or apostasy considered ‘Muslim-bashing?’ Is promoting LGBT rights ‘straight-bashing’, or promoting women’s right to vote ‘male-bashing’?
Yet when CEMB took to the streets of London Pride last year, the East London Mosque filed a complaint against our ‘Islamophobic’ placards. It took Pride London eight long months to meet with CEMB and to allow us to return this year. (Imagine if the Westboro Baptist Church had filed a complaint with Pride against a group that was critical of Christianity and the Christian Right. Would it have taken eight months for them to decide whose side they were on?)
When the hashtag #ExMuslimBecause became viral overnight, with over 120,000 Tweets from 65 countries, many people realised they were not alone in their rejection of Islam – maybe for the first time in their lives. Yet BBC Trending described it as an excuse for ‘Muslim-bashing’ and ‘Islamophobia.’ Or when we showed our solidarity with those persecuted in Saudi Arabia for eating during Ramadan, armed police came to the Saudi Embassy’s rescue, telling us our eat-in and fast-defying solidarity action was offending those in the embassy.
In my opinion, accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ are less about opposing bigotry and more about defending religious privilege but you cannot stop racism by outlawing blasphemy and apostasy. These accusations are used to scaremonger ex-Muslims into silence and to impose de facto apostasy and blasphemy laws where none exist. Where these laws do exist, we are accused of these ‘crimes’ and persecuted without any niceties.
The charge of ‘Islamophobia’ protects religion and the religious Right, not believers. There is a clear difference between the term xenophobia, for example, which describes how migrants are targeted by bigotry, or homophobia, where people are targeted for their sexuality, versus Islamophobia, which describes the criticism of an idea. Religion is an idea; Islamism and the religious-Right are political movements. They must be open to criticism. Conflating criticism of Islam and Islamism with ‘Muslim-bashing’ misrepresents dissent as bigotry.
That doesn’t mean that bigotry against Muslims, migrants and minorities doesn’t exist. Of course it does! We live in class-based societies which profit from racism. Ex-Muslims and their families (many of whom are still Muslim) understand this better than most; we also face closed borders, travel bans, hate, violence and discrimination. And, yes of course, there are ex-Muslims who are bigoted against Muslims, just as there are Muslims who are bigoted against ex-Muslims; just as there are women who are misogynists and men who are feminists and so forth. But individuals – not a ‘community’ – must be held accountable for their choices. We are not extensions of our communities to be defended or condemned depending upon which ‘tribe’ we belong to.
Victim blaming is the natural outcome of an unconditional defence of the ‘community’ – if only we had not been so offensive; if only we had minded our manners, well, then there would be no need to threaten, kill or silence us. Ironically, collective blame is a natural outcome of identity politics, which moreover legitimises white identity politics. The argument that cultures are homogenous and need protection has aided the rise of xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment. Trump uses this narrative all the time, as do far-Right groups like Pegida, the Five Star Movement, For Britain and the English Defence League.
Letting migrants drown in waters and separating toddlers from their parents at borders is the height of defending one’s ‘culture’ – as is murdering apostates. Whilst touted as progressive, identity politics is a politics of difference and superiority. These are two edges of the same sword. The politics of difference has always been a fundamental principle of a supremacist agenda – whether it is Nazism, the biological theory of racial superiority or expressions of difference couched in cultural and religious terms. Identity politics is the corruption of the fight for social justice. It degrades it to a mere defence of culture and the homogenous ‘community.’
This is why, when Goldsmiths Islamic Society tried to cancel and disrupt my talk, the LGBTQ+ and Feminist Societies sided with the ISOC against my apparent ‘Islamophobia’ – even after the ISOC President’s homophobic tweets came to light and he was forced to resign. This is why the Muslim LGBTQ charity Imaan has asserted our presence at Pride last year served only to “deepen divisions between communities” and why a Guardian piece by a gay Muslim accuses us of “Islamophobia” whilst defending the East London Mosque which is itself a centre for homophobia. From the point of view of identity politics, it is better to defend the East London Mosque with its preachers, who call for the death penalty for LGBT and apostates, than to be seen to side with ‘those ex-Muslims’ who defend the rights of Muslim and ex-Muslim LGBT. Identity politics fails to see allies and enemies within and outside the ‘community.’ It fails to mobilise real solidarity and see how our lives and rights are interlinked across ‘communities,’ borders and boundaries.
In an age of regressive identity politics and cultural relativism, an ex-Muslim community in protest matters, because it reaffirms universal values, anti-racism, secularism, the fight for equality, social justice and our common humanity. A movement that is about equality not privilege. Rights without permission. No apologies.