Dangers posed to atheists in Pakistan

Imagine living with the constant fear that an angry mob would torture you to death if they found out you are a free thinking person.

That’s how many agnostics and atheists live in Pakistan. Being Pakistani and an atheist is undoubtedly a dangerous combination. This does not even begin to make sense until you bring the context into the picture, which is a religious verdict about apostates being punishable by death.  So much for 'thinking freely or differently’. This religious ruling is the prime factor that puts the life of Pakistani atheists in danger. In fact ‘thinking’ is just as big of a sin in Pakistan as thinking differently. You are doomed if you decide to use your so-called god-given mental faculties and engage in critical thinking because thinking in matters of faith is a sin in itself.

Despite the fact that revealing yourself as an atheist in Pakistan is like having a death wish, some are brave enough to publicise their atheism. Yet most atheists living in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have no choice but to live in disguise as Muslims. They are often called ‘in-closet atheists’ which is not far from reality. The constant dread, dismay and the pressures have taken a significant mental toll on atheists in Pakistan as religion takes hold on the majority of Muslims in the country.

Another significant factor jeopardising the life of atheists living in Pakistan is the Penal code of Pakistan, which has laws decreeing the death penalty for various religious offences. This may or may not come as a surprise to free thinking people all over the world, but the famous ‘Blasphemy Law’ proposes death penalty for merely defiling the ‘sacred’ name of Holy Prophet Muhammad. So far many innocent people have fallen prey to the draconian law of blasphemy:

”An estimated number of 1,274 people have been charged under the stringent blasphemy laws of Pakistan between 1986, from when they were included in the Constitution by General Zia ul Haq, until 2010.” (Source: Dawn News)

The exhaustive list of people accused, jailed and even killed by radical Islamists ‘in the name of Allah’ can be accessed here.

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New Atheists Are Not Islamophobes

An article by Nathan Lean is making the rounds on the internet and it seems like everybody is jumping on the atheist-bashing bandwagon. Lean recently wrote an article for Salon – the title: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia. Many anti-Islamophobia crusaders quickly shared it with comments like “Dawkins’ idiot brigade”. To be fair, many liberals, atheists and Christians shared it too. But Lean’s article is currently a hot favourite in circles that dislike atheists in general because of their atheist views.

If you’ve read Lean’s article, you probably already know who he is. But if you haven’t, let me fill you in.  Nathan Lean is the editor-in-chief of the non-profit organisation Aslan Media, an aggressive pro-Islamic, self-proclaimed opponent of Israel of which some members – including Lean himself – hold a reputation for making anti-Israel comments on Twitter. Aslan Media is supposedly an anti-Islamophobia crusader, taking cheap shots at Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller in the past, and been called out by Jihad Watch on more than one occasion. It is also ‘supported’ by Loonwatch, a group of anonymous people who smear almost every critic of Islam while also outing anti-Muslim bigots.  Lean is also the author of the book The Islamophobia Industry, which received a critical review by Jonathan Schanzer for the Wall Street Journal, and elicited a petulant and defensive response piece viciously attacking Schanzer by Loonwatch. As well as writing books, Lean also endorses cyber terrorism:    

A criticism of 'new atheism' is that this type of non-believer is the 'mean' and ‘in-your-face’.  Lean puts new atheists like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens in the ranks of Pamela Geller and anti-Muslim bigots, calling new atheists ‘the new Islamophobes’. This is a little disturbing and so over the top that it sounds almost absurd.  Anyone who has read the works of 'new atheists' such as Dawkins and Harris knows that their ‘invectives’ are directed against Islam as a religion, and not Muslims. If Lean should be criticising anyone, it should be those who engage in destructive acts of terror, those who make the lives of people hell on earth by giving fatwas, those Muslims who kill Muslims and then go on to whine about Islamophobia.

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Defend Dissent - Support the Bangladeshi atheist bloggers

On 25 April Atheist Alliance International stands in solidarity with the Bangladesh atheist bloggers who have been arrested and persecuted simply for expressing their views.   If you support freedom of expression, then support the bloggers today by:

joining a protest in New York, Washington DC, Columbia (MO), Ottowa, Calgary, Toronto, London or Dhaka
- writing a letter of protest to a Bangladesh embassy
- contacting your members of parliament to highlight the situation
supporting a petition to the Bangladeshi government
- posting about the bloggers on Facebook and/or tweeting with the hastags #Bangladesh #Bloggers and #DefendDissent
 

Boston Bombing and Islamophobia in America

In the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, many Americans focus on *why* it happened.  It seems to be human nature to try to find the cause behind these types of events and, when any information is found, then attempt to use that knowledge to prevent any future incidents from taking place.  Unfortunately, more often than not the “Why?” question leads down a path to an emotional response and bigotry rather than rational solutions.

This line of thinking can also be dangerous and may infringe on the rights of those who are in no way connected to the event.  In this case, the first news to come from an official source said the act was religion based, and that the bombers identified their religion as Islam.  Before this news even came to light, the right-wing extremists had been calling the attack "a pretty safe bet .. that this attack was carried out by an Islamist.”  This sparked outcries from many left-leaning liberals of “Islamophobia” and racism, some justifiably so.  However, the two groups caught up in these remarks from both sides are peaceful Muslims who want to distance themselves from this violence, and anyone who speaks out against Islam in a more civil, factual tone.  Look at some of the writings of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and at the responses they have received.  Simple statements or questions, based on facts such as Islamic traditions teaching that the Prophet Mohammed flew on a winged horse, have elicited the “Islamophobe” response.  This exaggerated, ill-used retort does nothing to counter any logical statements, but only serves as an attempt at discrediting an otherwise valid, logical point.  Meanwhile, moderate Muslims are caught in a wave of ridicule and hyperbole from right-wing fundamentalists.

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Zambian government calls on church to fight against homosexuality

In April 2013, the Zambian government asked the church to help fight what it called ‘vices’, the most notable of these being homosexuality. It has been reported that over Easter some rather brave gay couples tried to get married and have their unions officially recognised. This was enough to scare the government into action and following their request for help, a Zambia Police spokesperson promised to crack down on "homosexual activities". A gay rights activist, Paul Kasonkomona, was arrested days later. 

The reasons given for the need to rid society of homosexuality are nothing new: it’s not a part of Zambian culture, it’s unAfrican, it’s unChristian and it goes against Biblical law. On the one hand, opponents of gay rights are arguing that because homosexuality is alien to Zambia (it isn't), it should not be allowed and they use Christianity to back up their views. What these hypocrites don't acknowledge is that Christianity is unAfrican. It is a religion that was introduced to Africa by European colonialists and wholeheartedly embraced. Those who oppose gay rights in Zambia and throughout Africa falsely claim homosexuality as foreign to the continent, yet they use a foreign religion to back up their claims.

In dealing with homosexuality, the Zambian government has shown a complete disregard for separation of church and state. Government officials not only use their Christian faith to guide their work but actively involve the church in it. This is unfair for the non-Christians and people with no religious affiliation living in Zambia as they are forced to live under rules based on a religion they do not subscribe to. Laws developed through logical thinking, taking into consideration issues facing the modern world and human rights do better to serve the people than laws based on ancient texts whose true authors are unknown. These texts, in form of the so-called Holy Bible, contain a multitude of passages that are not at all acceptable in the modern world and yet they are held in such high esteem by a large proportion of the population, including those who make decisions that affect everyone living in Zambia. 

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Iran is one of seven nations...

Iran is one of seven nations (Afghanistan, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan being the other six) where apostasy is legally punishable by death.  A stronger incentive not to be counted as infidel is probably harder to come by. And yet, to date, 3,468 atheists in Iran have gone to atheistcensus.com to do just that.

To be part of society in Iran, religious affiliation – Muslim or otherwise - is required: for official forms, for social inclusion, for just appearing “normal”.  Despite the religious appearance, Iran is one of the top 10 contributors to the Atheist Census, suggesting that atheists do indeed exist there.  It’s just that they are hidden.

In this context, it was heartening and harrowing to receive an unsolicited email from an Iranian woman who warmly thanked the creators of Atheist Census for giving her a forum to be counted.  It was notable that she identified herself as atheist, an Iranian and a global citizen.  She was appreciative, but was not satisfied with counting herself anonymously.  She mentioned that she was going to tell her “numerous” non-religious friends about the site.

According to the latest statistics on Atheist Census, 88% of Iranians who took the short, six question survey, were raised Muslim.  They have now rejected their (former) faith.  They are apostates.  The entomology of apostasy comes from the Greek “apostasia” which means “revolt”.  When apostasy is possibly a life and death situation, it is not hyperbole to say that being counted as an atheist is a revolutionary act.  Perhaps it is even more so when a woman professes herself as infidel, given the oppression of women in particular in Islamic countries.  This atheist, this Iranian, indeed this global citizen who was counted in Atheist Census and then took the time to send me an email, was one woman among the (only) 20% of Iranians who have been counted in Atheist Census that identify as female.

Often surveys are important to those who have created them.  This short story shows that some surveys can also be important to those who participate in them.

Except...there is no heaven

On Wednesday, Pope Francis addressed people from all walks of life by claiming that anyone who does ‘good’ will go to heaven, even atheists. Pope Francis has been the first in many aspects of his papacy: first Pope from the Americas, first Jesuit Pope, and first to use Francis as a regnal name. However, he is not among the first to take a more universalist approach. Pope John XXIII began the Second Vatican Council in 1962, stating he wanted to “throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” That council went on to be more accepting of others, but their acceptance focused primarily on other types of Christ-based religions. Many Christians, from Origen in the third century to Madeleine L’Engle in the twenty first century, have argued for a universal acceptance to heaven, but never has a Pope so concretely stated that morality, not faith, is the way to heaven. With such a broad change from the denominationally strict tendencies of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, what does Pope Francis’ Wednesday morning mass mean for nonbelievers?

Pope Francis alluded to the Gospel of Mark during his mass, telling a story of Jesus’ disciples seeing another man do good and complaining that “if he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not our party, he cannot do good.” The Pope explained that Jesus tells his disciples not to “hinder him” and they should “let him do good.” It appears that the Pope is paralleling the story found on Mark 9:39-40. This book was likely the first of the four canonical gospels, having been written around 60 C.E. It provides the early groundwork for what modern Christians believe, such as being the only gospel to refer to Jesus as a carpenter. With such significance, shouldn’t Mark’s universalist undertones have come to light sooner? Additionally, Mark isn’t the only one arguing for acceptance: “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). With all of these apparent allusions, why is Pope Francis the first to openly accept all people? There is a simple answer: the Bible is unreliable.

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Are atheists more helpful than Christians?

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The tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma had a casualty count of two dozen killed and hundreds injured, with the cost of damage still being tallied, according to a recent report. Directly after the event, social media sites began seeing a plethora of tweets and posts of the damage from first-hand accounts, as well as a tremendous amount of hopes, good thoughts and prayers – just as anyone might expect. On the ground, many relief organisations moved in to give aid to those whose lives had just been drastically altered by the storms. 

But what were the reactions of those who not only believe in a divine creator, but also claim to know the mind of the creator or have a direct link to the divinity? First, I checked into what the largest, worldwide, Christian organization was doing to see what aid was coming from their leader. The Vatican’s response was to offer prayers, but not aid.  Here are some notable citations from public prayers given by Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome:

“Let us pray for the victims and the missing, especially the children, struck by the violent tornado that hit Oklahoma City yesterday. Hear us, O Lord.  Conscious of the tragic loss of life and the immensity of the work of rebuilding that lies ahead, he asks Almighty God to grant eternal rest to the departed, comfort to the afflicted, and strength and hope to the homeless and injured”.

“Upon the local civil and religious leaders, and upon all involved in the relief efforts His Holiness invokes the Risen Lord's gifts of consolation, strength and perseverance in every good”.

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Tree Planting at Kasese Humanist Primary School

Pupils at Kasese Humanist Primary School numbering close to sixty participated in an event that involved planting of trees along their recently acquired permanent site on the river banks of River Nyamwamba, which borders the property in the west.

The students left  from school in the evening hours of Thursday 18 April 2013 led by the School Director accompanied by the School Headteacher plus some 3 teachers.  Movement to this site was by foot from the current site, along the Kasese - Fortportal highway, and they purchased a number of trees seedlings from a nearby nursery bed.  We passed along the Majengo-Rukoki Trading center and headed to the School Project.

The children were so excited to learn of the news that this is going to be a future permanent home of the school. They posed for a photograph at the recently plastered building within the property. There are some plantains, bumpkins, pepper and mangoes and the kids tried their luck and took what was available.

Each child planted a tree in a hole and the trees will be looked after such that they grow and as it's rainy season now, there is a good chance they will grow. This exercise took close to two hours.

The purpose of the trees along the river bunks includes to curb soil erosion, provide shade and fresh air and to add on the beauty of the scenery. This exercise is going to continue in more weeks to come.

A fundraising campaign is in progress as the school management tries to mobilise resources to put up classroom blocks on the site and all well wishers and friends of Kasese Humanist Primary School are encouraged to support us materially, financially or morally such that we succeed in commencing bigger construction works in March 2014.  If you would like to support Kasese Humanist Primary School please donate through AAI.

For Indonesian Atheists, a Community of Support Amid Constant Fear

Indonesian Atheists, an AAI Affiliate, began on Facebook in 2008 and has grown to provide a community for non-believers in Indonesia.  The group was profiled in the New York Times on 26 April:

JAKARTA — Karina is an atheist, but her friends jokingly call her “the prophet.” That is because she is helping nurture a community for unbelievers in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, where trumpeting one’s disbelief in God can lead to abuse, ostracism and even prison. 

“It’s very normal for atheists to be paranoid because the environment does not support them,” said Ms. Karina, 26, who uses only one name. But, she said, “in this group people don’t need to be afraid.”

For the full article click here.

Secular World Episode 11 - Bills, Boston and Bangladesh

In their “welcome back” episode, Jake and Han discuss the sneaky politics of the Christian right, the exclusion of humanists and atheists from the post-bombing events in Boston, and the free speech protests this week.  Enjoy it all here!

Freedom Of Conscience: Can Theists And Atheists Work Together?

Our modern world, where ideas spread far and wide with just one click, continues to fight for something as basic and crucial as freedom of conscience. In 2013, we'd like to think otherwise, but the truth is we have a long way to go before we can score a victory in this fight.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recognised atheist discrimination in its 2013 Annual Report. Discrimination against atheists thrives even in a modern society such as America. In March, the German shoe company Atheist Shoes called out the US Postal Service for discrimination against atheists. The company found that boxes shipped to the U.S. labelled “ATHEIST" were much more likely to be delayed or lost en route than packaging without the label. Similarly, the talented atheist singer Shelley Segal recently faced discrimination when she was booted from a venue. 

If atheists are discriminated against in a modern country like the US, atheists face intolerable discrimination and persecution in Muslim-majority countries. Currently in Bangladesh, Islamists are demanding the hanging of atheists. On 25 April and 2 May atheists around the world rallied in support of the country’s atheist activists. In Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the Maldives, atheists can face the death penalty simply for expressing their views. Elsewhere atheists face the curtailment of basic rights the right to citizenship, prohibition from holding public office and restricted access to public education. This year the UN Rights Council was informed about the extensive discrimination atheists face around the world. From Alber Saber to Alexander Aan, from Asif Mohiuddin who was stabbed by Islamists and later arrested by the Bangladeshi government, to world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say who faces retirement after being convicted for blasphemy by his government; fromSanal Edamaruku for whom an arrest warrant was issued by the Indian police because he debunked a miracle believed by many, to Tunisian atheists Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji who were sentenced to seven years in prison for blasphemy by a Tunisian court, there's a long list of cases of persecution and global discrimination against atheists.

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Pakistani Freethinkers to UN: recognise Int'l Day Against State Religion

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A petition urges the UN to come to the rescue of non-Muslims and non-believers in Pakistan – who are often the victims of State Religion – and recognise and celebrate 11 August as the International Day Against State Religion.

As Pakistan makes history and marks five years of democracy by successfully upholding general elections, conditions in Pakistan for non-Muslims and non-believers are far from getting any better. The 2013 election has been termed the most violent election in the history of Pakistan. The Taliban carried out their threats and attacked convoys and rallies of secular and even Islamist political parties. Here is a whole timeline of pre-poll violence in Pakistan. Even on Election Day, the violence didn't stop.  

Non-Muslim candidates were largely absent from the elections, but those who ran were voted for because electors felt they could offer protection. The Christian residents of Joseph Colony, a Christian community that was attacked by a Muslim mob earlier this year, voted for the conservative party Jamaat-i-Islami's non-Muslim candidate because they wanted to vote for protection.

Conditions in Pakistan for non-Muslims are grim. In 2009 and again in 2012 the World Council Of Churches stated that minority religious communities in Pakistan are living in “fear and terror” of Islamic fundamentalists amid abductions and forced conversions that the government is helpless to stop. WCC’s ruling Central Committee declared that Pakistan’s small Hindu and Christian communities were increasingly subject to “persecution and discrimination”. Likewise, Ahmaddiya Muslims face persecution, outlawed and at the mercy of Islamists.  In light of these and other incidents where non-Muslim and non-believer Pakistanis have been victims of persecution and intolerance, a petition has been set up calling on the Secretary General of the United Nations to recognise an International Day Against State Religion on August 11, 2013 “in solidarity with victims of the State Religion, namely, non-Muslims and non-believers of Pakistan”. The petition says "the life of non-Muslims and non-believers of Pakistan is as good as hell thanks to the State Religion of Pakistan.” There is now a need for State Religion to be hit by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

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Witchcraft Accusation Rages in Northern Ghana

The atmosphere may appear calm and serene, and the people friendly and hospitable. Life in the regional capital, Tamale may not be much of the hustle and bustle one finds at the state capital, Accra or in other capital cities across the region. There is low traffic and the streets are hardly overcrowded except when a new chief is being installed, a political campaign is going on or a top politician is visiting the area.

Still all is not well in the northern region of Ghana because beneath this veneer of calmness and tranquility lurks a vicious, virulent and violent trend- witchcraft accusation.

Northern Ghana is a region charged and enchanted with allegations of witchery, spiritual possession and attack. Witchcraft is at the root of a silent battle,an ongoing  war that has torn apart families and communities, internally displaced many  people, turning them into refugees in their own land. In the past 3 weeks there have been 3 cases of accusation within the regional capital, Tamale, alone. I guess there could be other or more cases. But these are the ones that've come to my notice. Most cases of accusation take place in the rural parts of the region with no accessible roads, power or telephone service. In these remote communities, traditional beliefs and institutions are very strong. Cases of accusation are not reported in the news. They are rarely taken to the police stations, where such stations exist. Except on the highways or border posts, there are virtually no police presence in the rural communities. Most cases of witchcraft accusation are resolved locally and traditionally. By that I mean the matter is taken to the local chief and elders who often refer the issue to a local shrine for confirmation. In some cases they are pressured to banish the accused without a confirmation by a local priest. Sometimes accused persons are forced to flee on their own. Accused persons who are banished are relocated to other communities. But in most cases they are taken to one of the seven ‘safe spaces’ otherwise known as ‘witch’ camps in the region.

This report is based on the three cases of accusation I am currently studying in Tamale metropolis.

In the first case, a middle aged woman, Mateda, was accused of being responsible for the death of a 20 year old seamstress. The seamstress sew some wedding clothes for Mateda’s daughter. But shortly after Mateda paid the seamstres, she took ill and died.The parents of the seamstress said their daughter took ill after drinking some porridge she bought with Mateda's money. They claim she gave their daughter spiritual poison through the money. So they accused Mateda of being behind the death of their daughter.

They reported the matter to the chief and asked him to banish the woman immediately from the community. But the chief declined and instead suggested that the matter be taken to a local shrine for confirmation. But the family of the deceased and a local mob refused and insisted that Mateda be banished right away. In protest they marched to the palace of the paramount chief of Tamale and reported the matter. But he sent them back to the village chief, who insisted that the case be taken to a shrine.

But the angry ‘youths’ started throwing stones at the palace of the village chief and threatened to burn down the building. They broke a window of the palace and a ‘sacred’ pot used in keeping some water for the ancestors to drink when they come visiting at night! The chief invited the police, but before the police convoy arrived, the mob had dispersed. The Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit and the Criminal Investigation Department are currently questioning the suspects. As I was trying to meet and interview the accusers, I was told of another case of accusation that could erupt very soon. An elderly man has been sick for several months and a woman in the neighbourhood is being suspected of being responsible. I was told that if the man died, the ‘youths’ in the area might attack this woman or get her banished from the community. I am trying to nip this accusation in the bud.

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