Britain Grants Asylum to Afghan Atheist

A 21-year-old Afghan who says he does not believe in God has been granted asylum by the U.K. over fears of religious persecution if he were to return to his conservative society.

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty,AFP

A 21-year-old Afghan atheist has been granted asylum by Britain over fears of religious persecution if he were forced to return home.

It is believed to be the first time a lack of religion has been accepted in an asylum application under the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention. The young man, who wishes to remain anonymous, fled Afghanistan in 2007 after a conflict involving his family in the war-torn nation. His lawyers argued that it would be unsafe for him to return home given his rejection of Islam.

When he moved to the West at the age of 16, he was still a practicing Muslim but the teenager says he gradually lost his faith. He even dabbled in church attendance to “see if Christianity had any meaning for him,” according to legal papers submitted to the British government as part of his case. “After a while, he realized that it did not and that he had no religious beliefs,” his lawyers wrote.

Under Sharia, he would be regarded as an “apostate” for renouncing Islam, and his lawyers claim he could be sentenced to death if he was outed as an atheist in Afghanistan’s conservative society. In 2006, the United States government protested against a high-profile case of an Afghan Christian convert who was told by the Afghan Supreme Court to convert back to Islam or be executed. He was eventually released after the intervention of President Hamid Karzai.

Britain’s Home Office accepted the argument that an atheist could be under threat in Afghanistan and approved the application. The ramifications are unclear: no legal precedent has been set by the decision but it may prove difficult for the government to reject further asylum applications from people born in strict Islamic societies who say that they don’t believe in God. A spokesman for the legal team involved told The Daily Beast that they had anticipated media interest in the case but did “not necessarily” think it would attract further atheist asylum seekers.

The asylum application was submitted by Kent Law Clinic, which is a free service partially staffed by students from the University of Kent’s Law School. Claire Splawn, a second year law student, who describes herself as a “missionary kid” and Christian drafted the application. “We argued that an atheist should be entitled to protection from persecution on the grounds of their belief in the same way as a religious person is protected,” she said.

She argued that it would have been virtually impossible for the man to blend in with the Afghan community without exposing his own beliefs. “In Afghanistan, and even in Kabul, life is lived in such a way that everyone is connected with everyone else. There is no sense of privacy, and his lack of religious beliefs would become very quickly known,” the application stated.

In 2010, a tragic story emerged from the Maldives, where the local media reported that Ismail Mohamed Didi, 25, had committed suicide after colleagues at the airport where he worked discovered that he was an atheist.

It is compulsory for citizens of the Maldives to be Sunni Muslims, and the air traffic controller, whose apostasy was being investigated by his bosses, had reached out to international charities about applying for asylum in Britain as an atheist. He never left the country; his body was found hanging from the control tower of Male International Airport.