KARACHI - They realise that they belong to a country where apostasy means inviting the risk of death – even if spared by government authorities and courts, a fanatic mob would certainly not.
But they have still chosen to tread a perilous path in their attempt to reach out to other Pakistanis sharing similar beliefs and more importantly, to let the world know they exist. They are a group of Pakistani atheists called the Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics (PAA). They first tried to make their presence known two years back by making a page about their group on Facebook. On August 14 this year, they launched their website www.e-paa.org that was literally an instant hit. It received more than 17,000 hits in just 48 hours after its launch from 95 countries, including Saudi Arabia.
How did the idea to bring together Pakistani atheists on a single platform come up? “When I became an atheist, I honestly thought there were no others like me in Pakistan. Through discussions on various social networking groups and forums, I found a few others like me. So we decided to make this group to find out how many more were out there,” says Hazrat NaKhuda, one of the founding members of the group. For obvious reasons, the PAA members go by pseudonyms to protect their identity.
When the PAA first appeared on the Internet, the Indian media ran a misconstrued story about the group, giving the impression that Pakistani youth were turning away from Islam due to the rising extremism and militancy. However, the PAA rebuts that story and says that its members are not only former Muslims, but people who have left Christianity, Hinduism and other faiths as well.
“Extremism is not the primary reason why people leave Islam. But looking at recent converts, I can say that it has become one of the reasons why people start questioning the religion of their forefathers,” explains Hazrat NaKhuda, who personally believes that religion does not make sense in this age. “Most people are following the beliefs of their parents and have no reason to proclaim that what they have is the truth. Once one realises that, it is fairly simple,” he adds.
Bela, another member of the group, says that extremism or militancy cannot force people to leave Islam, but it can definitely force them to find out the truth. “There can be many reasons why a person starts questioning, including rising militancy, extremism, lack of logical answers or patriarchy,” she adds. Bela believes that religion is dominated by patriarchy and is nothing more than a tool for men in power to control.
“There were always questions on my mind about religious divisions, sectarian differences and treatment of women. After much research, I found that the inequality sanctioned in religion against women is appalling and the same across all religions.” Another member Maliha thinks that apart from extremism, which is “repugnant to anyone who has not been brainwashed into accepting it,” disillusionment is also one of the reasons people turn away from their faith.
“We live in a troubled society. Often enough, we are taught that if only we turn to god, to religion, we will find answers and peace. When people, especially young ones, do that, and find that there is merely rhetoric, they feel rather disillusioned with religion, and that consequently pushes them away,” she says. “Another reason is that we are living in a progressing society. The whole world is undergoing a slow change in which it is leaving behind old religions and turning towards fixing a world, the problems of which are solely ours, not to be solved by a divine hand.
The rapid progress of science has helped this process. We Pakistanis resist globalisation and the introduction of ‘Western’ ideas and concepts, and cling dearly to our Islamic values and Arabised culture, but we are still susceptible to the zeitgeist. Some members of our society have picked it up faster than others. That’s all.” But for Zaeem Kalm, it is the “injustice we see everywhere (inclusive of that due to religious extremism but not exclusive to it) that leads us to believe that there cannot possibly be a just omnipotent being”.
“The cogs also start spinning when Muslims are exposed to people of other beliefs (directly or indirectly) and they realise that they have been falsely demonised by their society and no one deserves to be tortured for all eternity no matter what. Anyone with even a smidgen of empathy would realise how utterly vile and repugnant just the mere idea is... this makes one question the character of their deity. All one needs to do then is to think of their god like one would think of a person. If all of the personality traits were found in somebody you knew, it would be very hard to tolerate, let alone worship that person,” he says.
For most atheists living in a largely conservative society such as ours, the hardest part is putting up with the response of those close to their heart - family and friends. “If I had a buck for every time my family and friends tried to bring me back to the ‘right path’, then I would be extremely rich. The responses are varied. My family was shocked and thinks that I am just confused right now and would eventually come back. However, they are okay with it now. My friends are okay with it as well. They debate with me on different issues but that’s about it,” says Hazrat NaKhuda.
Zaeem Kalm recalls that he gradually broke the news to his family with “a subtle hint here and a brow-raising joke there”. He finally told his mother how the universe made the most sense to him and that, no matter how hard he tried, he simply could not accommodate any magical beings in it without the entire perception of reality being polarised, contorted or even shattered. His parents thought that “being a good human being is the most important thing and everything else is secondary”.
“There were times when they would call it a ‘phase’ or give me a nudge back towards religion but they seem to have given up on that now and have even learnt to deal with my occasional dose of heathen-humour,” he says. Even his close friends had no issues and they mostly said that religion is personal and no one should be forced to believe anything.
However, not all PAA members are prepared to go as far as Hazrat NaKhuda and Zaeem Kalm. “I am still a closet atheist. To my friends I am a secular Muslim. They have all liked my transition from a very religious person to a secular one and today I am much more socially accepted as compared to when I was religious. I am away from my family and I am sure they will give me a tough time when they will discover that I have quit religion,” says Aek.
Maliha thinks that a confession of all-out atheism would cause an upheaval and says that she is not ready to face that yet. “My parents are moderately religious and get upset enough at what they see as my growing heresy,” she says. “My best friend, however, is deeply religious, and, she has tried several times to bring me back to the ‘right path’, using a varied approach, including emotional and rhetorical arguments. I try my best to avoid the topic altogether with her, as I do with other religious friends - or else I listen to them, even while firmly, but gently resisting conversion. It is tough, not resisting the arguments themselves, but the emotional trauma and the sense of being so thoroughly alone is one’s perception of the world.”
Are there any chances of PAA members coming out in the open and freely expressing their beliefs without the help of pseudonyms, Hazrat NaKhuda believes in the short-term no, but in the longer run yes. “I do foresee a rise of atheists and freethinkers in Pakistan…. if not in my life time, then definitely in my children’s.” Zaeem Kalm says that when people have the courtesy to tolerate others’ beliefs, Pakistani atheists would probably be quite close to the day when they are able to freely express themselves. “That said, this would be a step forward for this country that has become exceedingly counter-intuitive for us over the past few decades.”
For its members, the PAA not only allows them to express themselves but also gives them comfort that there are others like them out there as well. “That has been one of the greatest benefits of this group. Pakistani atheists knowing that they are not alone,” says Hazrat NaKhuda. Another member Atheoi Clerk says that the PAA is a platform that lets Pakistani atheists discuss among themselves, ponder over what role they should be playing and figure out how to make things happen for the betterment of humanity.
“It comforts me now to think that surely the day isn’t far when the word atheism will sound more familiar than words like ‘fate’ or ‘angels’ even in this part of the world!” Under traditional Islamic laws, apostasy is punishable by death unless the ‘guilty’ repents and reverts back to Islam in three days, however, various Islamic schools of thought hold different views over the issue.
In 2007, the Islamist political parties of Pakistan tabled a bill in the parliament called the Apostasy Act 2006 that proposed death sentence and life imprisonment for male and female apostates, respectively. It was sent to the parliament’s standing committee concerned for review.
“The apostasy bill was not passed. Otherwise, it would have been a crime in Pakistan to change your faith. Having said that, if the prosecution can prove that one had committed blasphemy in the act of committing apostasy, then the accused could be charged under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. But then again, all you need to charge anyone under 295-C are a few people willing to lie for you in court,” points out Hazrat NaKhuda.
He says that it is also a matter of concern for Pakistani atheists that they are left with no choice but to declare their religion when applying for a passport. The PAA wants a non-theist box to be added there. The PAA also wants it to be easier for Pakistanis to change their religion legally if they want,” he adds.
“The common population in Pakistan doesn’t care what you believe in until you get into debate with them or ridicule their values. Therefore, just being an atheist would never get me into trouble,” believes Aek.