Religious Persecution

What It’s Like to Be an Atheist in Palestine

Waleed Al Husseini spent 10 months in Palestinian prison for being an atheist blogger. He asks why non-believers like himself are abandoned by the world.

Like many non-religious people around the world, I use the Internet to express my thoughts. It provides a relatively safe way of speaking freely, especially in a country where the vast majority believe in one religion and do not like to hear criticism. Or so I thought.

I used to run a blog in Arabic called “Nour Alakl” and ran a satirical Facebook page under the pseudonym “Allah.” But in October 2010, Palestinian security forces stormed into an Internet cafe and arrested me. Until then, I had been under the impression that I had a right to freedom of speech and to the freedom of belief. But in jail, I was told that my online statements about religion and Islam were illegal. I was told that society didn’t accept such criticisms.

I was beaten by prison guards who demanded to know who had made me write against Islam. In their minds, I could only say these things as the result of some plot, some conspiracy. The idea that I might simply want to express my independent thoughts was alien to them.

The 10 months I spent in Palestinian prison were the worse of my life. I faced constant pressure to retract my statements. I was told they had removed my blog and that I must apologize for publishing it. Even once I was freed, I was told I should never again use the Internet, nor meet with the media.

For months after my release, I was harassed by the security services, who further interrogated me and detained me without cause. I received letters from people saying they wanted to kill me.

My views, however, cannot be changed by a prison sentence or by persecution. I still believe that Islam often stands in opposition to human rights and women’s rights. I believe that the Qur’an relays that Muhammad demanded death for non-believers. Many Muslims may disagree with my view, or interpret Islam in a more moderate way, but I cannot accept this religion myself. That is what my conscience tells me.

I am an atheist. I believe in human rights. I have the right to say these things.

Whose fault was it that I was treated so unjustly? Islam is religion, but it is also a culture. Certainly some people simply cannot stand to live alongside someone who does not conform to their views.

I eventually left the West Bank for Jordan with a visa I obtained from the French embassy. I am now in Paris, and have applied for asylum. After six months, I am still waiting for an answer, and it has become harder and harder as time goes on.

From here I have the chance to blog in Arabic and in English as “Proud Atheist,” but I am now effectively in exile. I am living alone in a foreign city, cut off from friends and family, all because of my words.

I still do not feel safe. If I cannot stay here, and if I am not protected, then there’s a chance the Palestinian Authority will arrest me again. That is my fear. I want to be active, but safety is my priority.

My hope is that the international community cares for those like me who are persecuted simply for speaking their minds, to stand against the laws in any country which limits basic freedoms of thought and expression. We are human, and freedom means living our lives without hurting others. Sadly, laws throughout the Middle East—from North Africa to the Gulf—limit the rights of religious minorities and non-believers.

The international community should do more to protect the plight of these people. There are many of us who need to talk and be reached out to, even if we use fake Facebook accounts for our safety. We must express our thoughts and ourselves. We simply must be allowed this basic freedom.

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