Stop the Jihadi Onslaught Against Atheists and Free Thinkers

We must defend minorities, and also the minorities within minorities.

10.13.15 5:00 AM ET

LONDON — Fifty-one percent of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a Muslim president. To be clear, that’s 51 percent too many. My fellow Muslims are naturally disturbed by the implications of this sentiment for everyday life, we rightly protest anti-Muslim remarks such as those made by presidential candidate Ben Carson, and we understandably expect solidarity from other communities in challenging such bigotry. But as 53 percent of Americans say that they wouldn’t vote for an atheist president, it must be accepted that no communities—not even my fellow Muslims—are as unpopular in America today as atheists.

Now imagine if you can, that you are a brown, ex-Muslim atheist with a Muslim name. This is perhaps the most persecuted minority-within-a-minority in the world today.

In 2013, atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed in the streets of Bangladesh by jihadist extremists. A month later, rather than his attackers, he was detained for making “derogatory remarks” about religion. His blog was banned. That same year, matters escalated as atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death near his home in Dhaka. This year alone U.S.-Bangladeshi atheist blogger Avijit Roy was hacked to death in February, secular blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was killed in May, while Niloy Neel met his death at the hands of these fanatics in August.

As al Qaeda praised these attacks news broke that a jihadist group called Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) was working its way through an “atheist” hit list.

Nine of the eighty-four named on this hit list are U.K.-based bloggers. Targets also include seven in Germany, two in the U.S., one in Canada and one in Sweden. Some are Bangladeshi citizens living overseas. Others are dual nationals or citizens of other western nations.

Nine of these “enemies of Islam,’” including Roy, Rahman, and Das, have been killed so far, and several others have been attacked. The other five killed are Jafar Munshi, Mamun Hossain, Jagatjyoti Talukder, Arif Hossain Dwip, and Ziauddin Zakaria Babu.

But matters are not restricted to America or Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia has decided that the “crime” of being an atheist is so grave, that—no joke—atheism has been officially declared a terrorism offense. Meanwhile, free-thinking blogger and Nobel Prize nominee Raif Badawi has been accused of atheism and sentenced to 10 years in prison with 1,000 lashes, 50 of which have been executed. To put the boot in, the Saudis decided to convict his lawyer, too, my friend the liberal Muslim Walid Abulkhair.

And Egyptian atheists have it bad too, whether before or after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government there in the summer of 2013.

So, in December 2012, Albert Saber, an atheist blogger and activist, was sentenced to three years in jail after being found guilty of “the defamation of religion.” In October 2013 it was reported that student Sherif Gaber had been arrested after allegedly setting up an atheist Facebook page. And author Karam Saber is appealing a five-year prison sentence after being convicted of contempt of religion and defamation in his book, Where Is God?

So beleaguered is this minority that you can be put to death for atheism in no less than 13 countries around the world today. In 39 countries the law mandates a prison sentence for blasphemy, and six of these are Western countries. Iceland maintains a jail sentence for up to three months; in Denmark it is up to four months; in New Zealand it stretches to up to a year; in Poland up to two years; and in Germany and Greece it is up to three years. Some of you may get through this article and still not feel that those who dissent from the religious identity of their birth are among the most discriminated against in most countries of the world today. But that would only prove my point. 

Let there be no mistake. There is a bloody war being waged on atheism. And it is time for us all—especially we liberals and Muslims—to show some of that solidarity we rightly expect from others.

Societies should be judged by how they treat the weakest among them. But over recent years this laudable liberal concern for minorities has been exploited by organized community voices with a vested interest in maintaining the tribal group identity they claim to represent. These ghetto-chieftains have so bedazzled our sensibilities that some of those who used to consider themselves progressives have become the staunchest defenders of regressive social and political practices within minority communities, in the name of cultural tolerance.

One of the consequences of this betrayal of liberal values has been the stifling of dissenting voices from within minority communities, which is why, let me repeat this, these minorities-within-minorities are the most vulnerable, and none more so in today’s climate of rising extremism than atheist and ex-Muslim voices.

One initiative among others stands out as an attempt to provide the sort of direct support that these modern-day children of Galileo require. Movements.org is a platform that represents a fundamental shift in how human rights work is done today. The old human rights model of writing revelatory reports, and lobbying governments to act on them, rested on the assumption that information about abuse was simply not available. In modern times, the Internet has ensured that the problem is not a lack of information. The need of the day is to cultivate and connect activists with the support and technical skills they need on the ground. By acting as a platform through which dissenters can post their “needs” they can reach supporters, such as lawyers or tech-experts, who may offer their in-kind services. Movements.org, which works in partnership with The Daily Beast, represents a third way to undercut both dictators and Islamists by cultivating genuinely independent, free-thinking voices.

But let our efforts not stop there. If a society is to be judged by how it treats its weakest, its voiceless and most downtrodden, then let that lens focus truly on these minorities-within-minorites who risk everything to question the prevailing conservative dogma within their own communities. For if liberalism is to mean anything at all, it is duty bound to support without hesitation the dissenting individual over the group, the heretic over the orthodox, innovation over stagnation and free speech over offense. So let us all write on these topics. Rather than allowing jihadists to shut down debate, it must proliferate so much that they simply cannot kill us all. In this way, let us spread the risk associated with free speech. Or, as John Maynard Keynes would say, let us “appear unorthodox, troublesome, dangerous, disobedient to them that begat us.”