By Mobeen Azhar
12 July 2017
Being an atheist in Pakistan can be
life-threatening. But behind closed doors, non-believers are getting together
to support one another. How do they survive in a nation where blasphemy carries
a death sentence?
Omar, named after one of Islam's most
revered caliphs, has rejected the faith of his forefathers. He is one of the
founding members of an online group - a meeting point for the atheists of
But even there he must stay on his guard.
Members use fake identities.
"You have to be careful who you are
befriending," he says.
One man contacted Omar to say he had
visited his Facebook profile and printed out pictures of him with his family.
"You cannot be safe," Omar says.
In Pakistan, posting about atheism online
can have serious consequences.
Under a recently passed cyber-crime law, it
is now illegal to post content online - even in a private forum - that could be
The government took out adverts in national
newspapers asking members of the public to report any content they believe
could constitute blasphemy.
And the law is being enforced. In June this
year, in the first case of its kind, Taimoor Raza was sentenced to death for
posting blasphemous content on Facebook.
A Pakistani Atheist's Diary
"Zahir" is an online activist who
uses social media to express atheist ideas and comment on Pakistani politics
"Dear diary, I've been through four
Twitter accounts in one year now. The last one got blocked last night. It
doesn't matter how vague my details are or if the pictures I use are generic.
It's as if someone is watching me. Every time this happens I feel that I should
just give up. They want to silence me."
As a result, atheists feel their ability to
publicly question the existence of God is threatened.
Omar believes the government is at war with
atheist bloggers. "A good friend of mine used to write against religious
fundamentalism," he says.
"We used to run the [online] group
together. I came to know he was very severely tortured. Once you are abducted,
there is a high chance your body will come in a bag.
"The state is doing it deliberately,
so those remaining get a sign that if you go beyond your limits you will also
be facing things like this."
This year, six activists have reportedly
been abducted after posting on forums that are pro-atheist and anti-government.
One of those activists spoke to the BBC but does not want to be identified. He
believes that Pakistan's intelligence service wants to stamp out not only
criticism of Islam but also criticism of the state.
In his view, the government is trying to
enforce the notion that a good citizen must be a good Muslim.
"Hamza" is a blogger and a
founding member of an online atheist forum
"Dear diary. Some people have called
it an arrest but it was an abduction. I was held for 28 days. They wouldn't
identify themselves but I'm sure it was the military. There were eight days of
torture and 20 days for healing. My whole body was black. They made me sign a
statement that said I regretted what I and done and that I would not engage
with political or religious blogging. And that my family could be target if I
spoke to the media."
Pakistan is, this year, celebrating its
70th year of independence. Since 1956, it has been an Islamic republic. Many
atheists feel the nation is more monolithic than ever before.
In recent years, they say, the Islamic
faith has become more visible in public life. Saudi-style dress codes are
increasingly enforced. Television evangelists shape pop culture and to be
Pakistani is increasingly linked to being a devout Muslim.
Although atheism is not technically illegal
in Pakistan, apostasy is deemed to be punishable by death in some
interpretations of Islam. As a result, speaking publicly can be
Many Pakistani atheists meet at secret,
The Atheists of Lahore have monthly
get-togethers in guarded buildings or private homes. One of those in attendance
explains: "It's like a secret society. It's a bubble where we can talk.
It's not all about Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. We may just talk about how
things are going. It's a place where you can let your hair down and truly be
At these meet-ups, atheists are
predominantly affluent, English-speaking city-dwellers. Money does grant a
degree of privilege and protection from those who are hostile towards
godlessness. But many self-identified atheists also live in Pakistan's
"Suhaib" recently graduated from
university in Punjab
"Dear diary, this afternoon at
university an acquaintance approached me and said: 'I want to have a debate
with you. I heard you're an atheist.' It was an expression of disbelief, as if
to ask: 'How do you function?' She wanted to know where I get my morals from.
For her, morality comes from religion and without faith you can't be expected
to have morals. Later that afternoon I text all my friends. 'Stop telling
people I'm an atheist. I don't want to die.' I must learn that discretion is a
Zafer was once the muezzin, the man who
recited the call to prayer at his village mosque. He used to pray five times a
day and was a student of Islamic theology. When he got a job in IT and moved
out of his family home, he found his views on religion had changed.
"My family noticed a shift. My mother
thought someone had cast a spell on me. I was given holy water to drink and
blessed food to eat. She thought it would break the spell.
"These days, I will go along to Friday
prayers and celebrate Eid just as a social ritual. My family know I'm not a
believer but they give me the space to be myself - as long as I'm not too vocal
about being an atheist.
"If you're willing to do certain
things - have etiquette, respect your parents and be appropriate in public -
you can get away with being a disbeliever."
The Ministry of Information Technology
declined my request for an interview, saying the campaign promoting the
cyber-crime laws was "simply about raising awareness". They would not
comment on the alleged abduction of online activists.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist who
has documented the government's response to atheism in the public domain. He
believes online atheist activists are being abducted by the government because
challenging religion and challenging the state often go hand-in-hand.
"There are two holy cows in Pakistan,"
he says. "One is the army, the other is Islam. Any person challenging one
of these holy cows would, more often than not, be talking about the other as
well. The sites whose administrators were abducted were critical of the army
and government policy, so blasphemy became a convenient tool.
"In one go, they simply silenced a
wide array of critics."
Some of the names in the article have been
changed to protect the identity of contributors.