Life as an Atheist in an Islamic Republic

Your Feet in Our Shoes

Imagine yourself trapped somewhere… a place where you have to follow all the established rules but you cannot demand your rights; where you cannot complain no matter how many times you get abused or attacked, where raising your voice for social justice is a crime, where calling a spade a spade is punishable even by death. A place where, as soon as you step outside your front door every morning, you have to brace yourself for any possible harm that might come to you, your house, or your family members. A place where you cannot sleep at night for fear that someone might come and burn down your house for no logical reason, where your children have to suffer at school on daily basis, where you are bound to honor certain people or traditions no matter how inane they may be. For many, this nightmare of an existence is no mere imagination.

I have spent more than 19 years of my life living in Pakistan, an Islamic Republic. If you wish to see what hell might actually be as a non-believer, skeptic, freethinker, atheist – pay a visit to this country. Islam rocks the cradle here but I do not talk of Pakistan in particular; you may visit any religion-dominated country, especially if it is an Islamic republic, and find yourself stifled. You are not allowed to openly express your views, simply because they do not match those of the religious fanatics who rule the country. You cannot ask questions openly, you cannot refuse to believe in something that has been asserted without evidence. You cannot decide how you want to live because what you will think and follow was decided even before you were born. The most likely scenario is that you will sell your life at the cost of your breaths, and satisfy yourself with mere survival. Either you would get brainwashed and deluded, your capability to critically examine eradicated from the very beginning; or you would become a freethinking skeptic, living in fear.

What I Have Seen & Been Through

As a child, I was educated at an army-oriented school in my hometown. The subject of Islamic (not general religious) studies was embedded into the curriculum of each grade until the first semester of my engineering program. For non-Muslims though, there was another subject of elective English language. But those like me who belonged to Muslim families, Islamic studies was not optional.

I do not really mind studying the history of Islam; I actually thank those who taught it to me. Without digging deep into it, maybe I wouldn’t have become an atheist. But I take issue with the way Islam is favored and how students are taught to be proud of being a Muslim. favoritism and pointless pride for being a Muslim is injected into the minds of children. For instance, we were once taught a chapter related to Mehmood Ghaznavi’s attack on the temple of Somnath. The instructor himself was laden with pride for having the same faith as “the great warrior” Mehmood. The chapter had it stated crystal clear that Mehmood attacked the temple which rightfully belonged to the Hindu community, slaughtered the priests there, damaged the Somnath idol, looted all the gold and gems and sent some of it to Mecca and Medina while keeping the leftovers to himself. To a sensible, moderate and sane person, Mehmood would be no less than a barbaric maniac; but for Muslims, he is a hero for demolishing the idols of the Hindu community and snatching their treasure away from them so that it could be used in the development of cities of his Prophet Mohammad. It would not be wrong to say that Medina has been made to progress at the cost of the blood of non-Muslims in the past.

I looked at that story and saw nothing to be proud of. I asked my teacher a simple question: “If Mehmood can be considered correct for demolishing the Hindu temples, why then do we criticize the Hindus for destroying the Babri mosque in 1992? As I see it, they only made us pay for what our Mehmood did to their priests in the past.” For asking that simple question, I got teased for months by my classmates as they started to call me an infidel.

Well, at least they thought they were teasing me. But, to me, being a freethinking infidel is much more desirable than being a deluded brat who has learned to favor the most vicious of deeds of someone just for having the same religion. Not only that, but from that point onwards, I also got looked down upon by most of my teachers who taught me Islamic studies for the rest of my time at school.

When I got to the 10th grade, the textbook of Islamic studies was mostly verses and even whole chapters from the Quran, in Arabic. I did not even know the basics of Arabic. In fact, on the main door of each classroom of my school, there was a note that ordered, “Speak English!” And chastisement followed any student who could not recite the Quranic chapters and verses in Arabic.

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So, growing up in Pakistan I learned that you have to learn Arabic, you have to be fluent at reciting the Quran, you have to honor all the holy months, you have to become a statue in honor of the Adhan and that is the least you MUST do if you are not going to offer prayer. You have to starve yourself during the whole month of Ramadan so that Muslims around you do not feel uncomfortable and you do not become the reason for them to break their fast unlawfully. Again, it is not concentrated only in Pakistan, the same absurd events take place in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. You may also get beaten-up in public for being offensive towards the holy month by simply eating in public!

A Thought Worth a Thought

We are social animals; we are the organisms with the most enhanced brains on earth. We think, doubt, make and ask questions, research, explore and innovate. That is the way we progress. But, what if you are told not to think? What if doubting or questioning could lead to death? What if your tendency to research and discover is labeled as immoral and offensive? What if innovation is considered to be unlawful? What if people around you do not wish to progress, rather, they wish to go back to the 7th century?

We are social animals; we are the organisms with the most enhanced brains on earth. We think, doubt, make and ask questions, research, explore and innovate. That is the way we progress. But, what if you are told not to think? What if doubting or questioning could lead to death? What if your tendency to research and discover is labeled as immoral and offensive? What if innovation is considered to be unlawful? What if people around you do not wish to progress, rather, they wish to go back to the 7th century?

If you are a brother, you cannot help but remain in a constant state of fear – what if the next time you get to see your sister is when she is hospitalized – wounded on every part of her body with slap marks on her face, her clothes torn, and her eyes telling you that she regrets being alive? And when you reach the courts, your sister is asked to present a certain number of witnesses who saw her getting molested only because she was not wearing a cloth-bag and if she doesn’t present the witnesses, no case will be filed, no rape committed! Would you go around asking people, “Excuse me, you see this girl? This is my sister. Did you see her getting raped? Please, I need witnesses!” or would you stay silent and never be able to show your face to your sister ever again as a brother?

If you are an elder sister, what if one day your little brother comes home with one of his fingers broken for picking up a piece of bread, or his jaw displaced just because you committed a blunder of sending him to school with lunch during Ramadan? Living in such a place with no respect, or even concern, for rationality and evidence, having such insane people around you, what can you do? How can you live? That feeling of being a slave, bound to pretend to be what you are not, forbidden to express yourself and required to do as told, cannot be described in words…

Photo Credits: Jon Martin

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