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Young Pakistanis Are Asking: If There Can Be Secular Jews, Why Not Atheist Muslims?

In Lahore a Facebook group dedicated to atheists and agnostics serves a silent minority in the world’s other religious nation-state

Mina Sohail
March 10, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

The eight young people who gathered recently at a popular restaurant in central Lahore looked like any others, laughing over samosas with tangy chutney sauce as a table of older ladies in hijab looked on from a nearby table. But the jokes the boisterous twenty-somethings were sharing were about the absurdities of religion, and they weren’t social friends.

Rather, they were members of Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics, a five-year-old group that advertises itself on Twitter as “a social organization for freethinkers of Pakistan.” Two or three times a month they gather to talk about religion—or rather, about rejecting religion—and about politics. On this day, they focused on how Islam rejects the idea of evolution and shared memories of being taught in school that evolution is merely a Western concept.

In Tel Aviv or New York, where the idea of a “secular Jew” isn’t seen as a contradiction, such a conversation would hardly attract notice. But in Lahore, the second city of Pakistan—which, like Israel, is a religion-based nation-state—the notion of a secular Muslim remains subversive and potentially dangerous for members whose relatives still adhere to traditional religious views.

No one knows how many atheists there are in Pakistan exactly, but more than 1,100 people have signed up for Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics on Facebook. “For every member I have now, there are two people who message me saying they would like to join but cannot as they are afraid,” said the group’s founder, a 30-year-old man who calls himself Hazrat NaKhuda—literally “Prophet of no God.”

A recent report by the Pew Research Center placed Pakistan at the top of a list of 198 countries suffering the most from social hostilities involving religion. With a population of about 190 million, Pakistan is predominantly Sunni Muslim. About 20 percent of the population is Shia and 3 percent represents non-Muslims—mostly Hindus, Christians, and Ahmadis.

What prompts silence from most Pakistani atheists is fear of family disapproval and the apprehension of being ostracized from society—and the threat of being charged with blasphemy. The Pakistan penal code has punishment for blasphemy ranging from fines to even death. Although no prosecutions have been reported for atheism, the blasphemy laws technically prevent people from publicly acknowledging their religious beliefs or lack thereof and have often been used to persecute religious minorities. Hundreds of people have been imprisoned, forced to leave the country, or even killed by religious fundamentalists. “Every time there’s a blasphemy case in the country that reaches the news, membership is dropped,” Hazrat NaKhuda told me.

His group Facebook’s page serves as an outlet for young Pakistanis to work through their feelings about living in a country where religion holds official sway for everyone, whether they believe it or not. “It took me years to emerge out of my confusion,” said Khawaja, a 34-year-old content writer for a software company who agreed to be identified only by her last name.

For Khawaja, the decision to leave Islam spanned over a decade as she read books and engaged in discussions with college professors and friends. “I had been reading about religion and talking to people who were progressive enough to listen to me,” she said. When Khawaja was asked by her mother to fast and pray during the month of Ramadan, she would say no and eventually mustered up the courage to disclose her atheism to her family. “Telling my mother was very difficult, as she is a religious person and thought it was a phase,” Khawaja said. Although her family has accepted her views, she has lost a few friends, with some telling her they couldn’t remain close with someone who did not believe in Islam.

Others described similar experiences. “I am an ex-Muslim,” said Sundas, one member of the group, who agreed to be identified by her first name. “I am not someone doubting it. I’ve left it, and leaving Islam means being killed.” Sundas was religious in her early teens and would attend local city sermons with her mother—until she heard one speaker declare that Islam does not see men and women as equal. An avowed feminist, Sundas found herself straying from Islam as a whole. “On a personal level you are rejecting your community, your people, your way of life,” Sundas said. “Your community disowns you.”

The atheists’ group offers the solace of like-minded people, such as Rehman, a 28-year-old who went to college with the group’s founder. For Rehman, who asked to be identified by his last name to avoid jeopardizing his position as a teacher in Lahore, the group is somewhere between therapy and a social club. “Group members meet separately and also one-on-one,” he told me. According to Rehman, they see the group as a “safe space where you can talk about things that are bothering you.”

As a child, Rehman asked questions like “Where did God come from?” or “Why can’t Muslim women marry Jewish men but men can marry Jewish women?” He had been very attached to a Hindu aunt as a child, and while living in Yemen as a teen, he began to find it unsettling that conventional Islamic beliefs would imply that she won’t find a place in heaven. Over the years he stopped fasting or praying altogether as he read more on religion and found more contradictions. But he insists his countrymen aren’t ready to accept secularism. “They are far from accepting atheists,” he said. “If you can’t even accept beliefs in the religious domain such as those of Shias, then outside the domain is even more threatening.”

Pakistan has grown steadily more intolerant since its establishment in 1947. In the 1970s, Ahmadis—a group of Muslims who follow 19th-century religious leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad—became the first victims of sectarian violence and were declared non-Muslim by the government of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Christian schools and convents were attacked as institutions representing the West. By the early 1980s, as Islamic militant groups gained strength, sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis began to replace attacks on non-Muslims.

Fatal attacks against minority groups are common today. The deadliest recent attack against the Christian community came in Peshawar, where 81 worshippers were killed by a suicide bombing at a church last September. The Ahmadiyya community continues to face blasphemy allegations, and militant groups have vandalized their graves and prevented them from using their own mosques in Lahore. More than 400 members of the Shia Muslim population were killed in targeted attacks that took place across Pakistan last year.

Yet members of the atheists’ group insisted that they don’t want to suppress their views. “When you enter a new domain, you are very passionate about it,” said Khawaja. “You want to share and discuss.” She has had to disable her Facebook account after receiving hate mail and, once, a death threat. Like others, she imagines that one day she may have to choose between being candid about her nonbelief and staying in Pakistan. “My friends have even suggested I apply for asylum,” she told me.

Hazrat NaKhuda said he was considering trying to raise funds abroad for a rainy-day account in case any of his members find themselves threatened and need assistance leaving the country. But meantime, he said, he was trying to keep things light. At the moment, he’s looking forward to the annual celebration of God his group throws every April 1—April Fools’ Day. Last year, he said, a meet-up of about a dozen members at an Islamabad ice-cream parlor included a birthday cake decorated with the words “Happy Birthday, God!” No one was there to blow out the candles.


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Mina Sohail is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Her Twitter feed is @MinaSohail.

Mina Sohail is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Her Twitter feed is @MinaSohail.