A program of the Center for Inquiry
A preview from the October / November issue of Free Inquiry.
September 30 is International Blasphemy Rights Day, an observance founded by the Center for Inquiry (CFI). In this issue, we spotlight one of the courageous writers imperiled for writing critically of religion who has received aid from CFI’s Secular Rescue program.
Ghluam Kabir (not his real name) was an admin for the Facebook page Pakistani Freethinkers. Legal persecution of freethinkers and atheists active on social media rose sharply in Pakistan during 2017. Allegations of blasphemy led to forced disappearances and arrests, and even a lynching: a university student who called himself “The Humanist” on Facebook was shot in the head and his body beaten by a mob of fellow students. Several of Kabir’s fellow Pakistani Freethinkers admins were arrested on charges of blasphemy.
Fearing for their lives, Kabir and his wife fled Pakistan. Since then, they have applied for refugee status under UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Unfortunately, the country they are now in is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Accords of 1951. As a result, the Kabirs are forbidden to work, open bank accounts, or receive government assistance. Secular Rescue has contributed significantly to defray the Kabirs’ living costs while they pursue the months-long asylum review process. —Eds.
My name is Ghluam Kabir. I come from a Christian background; Pakistani Christians are a very small minority that is persecuted in many ways. I always had a skeptical mind. This was due to my mother; she is a staunch Catholic who engages in theological debates with our pPotestant friends, which mostly involve respect for Mother Mary and baptism, etc.
In my teens, I always looked for wisdom in the Bible, and I also got involved in Protestant Catholic discussions in my later years. I read the Bible carefully and critically trying to prove that Catholicism was the right form of Christianity, although this was always a kind of self-appeasement.
During my college days, I studied both Catholic and Protestant points of view and reached a conclusion that both were wrong in some ways but also right in others. It was a time of hardship; my father was the only breadwinner and I, being the eldest, worked after school. Life was truly hard; I couldn’t pay enough attention to my studies. Pakistani Christians are poor; they’re given petty jobs as cleaners and sewage workers. My own family comes from an extremely humble background, converted from probably low caste Hindus when missionaries came to the subcontinent during British rule. Baptism records in the Catholic parish of our hometown, Faisalabad, show that our family most likely converted sometime in the late 1800s, but it may have been before that.
In the early 2000s, Dr. Zakir Naik, an Indian Muslim apologist, became very popular in Pakistan. His programs were televised on cable TV, which was newly started in Pakistan. Naik was extremely critical of Christianity. Due to his speeches, I tried to find answers for his questions and find out mistakes and problems in the Islamic faith. This started a process that later ignited a critical view of Christianity in my mind.
I was enrolled in the master’s in geology program in 2006 at the University of Punjab. In my first semester, I learned about the evidence and theories of formation of the solar system. It is mentioned in the book of Genesis, Chapter One, that the sun was created after the earth and plants; this was a huge blow for my faith. I became an agnostic or nonbeliever for the first time in 2006, but it was a temporary phase; I soon reverted to Christianity.
I completed my MSC in 2008 and shifted to Islamabad as jobs in the oilfield were easier to acquire there, but I was jobless for a while. I found a job in late 2008 and lost it in the fall of 2009. At that time, I prayed and fasted and desperately wanted a job in my own field of geology. During this phase, I started to think that Protestantism was the true faith and I was being punished because I was reluctant to accept it. I got baptized in the near freezing water of Rawal Dam in Islamabad on December 13, 2009. I caught a severe cold and was in bed for many days.
At this point, I thought that God was not showing me the way; everything I was doing out of the purity of my heart, I was being punished for. In the midst of emotions and confusion, I decided that I would read the Bible and Christianity in a critical light. The most disturbing thing for me was slavery, which was present throughout the Bible in different forms, and the Bible never truly condemned slavery.
Over the course of the next few days, I became a nonbeliever in Christianity. The day I realized that Jesus was a normal human being and God didn’t exist was the saddest day of my life; I thought life was meaningless. Even ending my life felt like a suitable thing to do. I thought every emotion—love, truth, and justice—was meaningless; the sadness was overwhelming. I thought life was useless and meaningless. Loss of faith drove me into despair; I was depressed and stressed. Being raised in a religious setting, God was the strongest pillar in my hard life. I had been through many thicks and thins of my life believing that my friend in the sky was looking out for me. I had always found solace in prayer. I liked to talk to Jesus, but now Jesus was absent. God was dead. I was alone, and hope was nowhere to be found. I had lost my most trusted companion. It was difficult. At times, I felt I was unable to breathe; I literally wept in my bed at night. It was a time of mourning. It felt as if I were mourning my own death, but I was mourning the death of someone who never existed. Sometimes I thought of praying, but I knew it was useless self-talk. I became confined to my room for many days. I didn’t bathe and couldn’t eat; the sorrow was overwhelming. I was heartbroken like never before.
The building of my being was burnt to ash, but eventually I was at peace. I was able to reflect upon the happenings of my life in a new light. I became confident. I started to trust myself; I started to believe in hard work. I realized rationalism was important; I tried to think about logic and science behind simple things. I was looking at myself in a new way. I was trying to realize the depth and gravity of my feelings and emotions. I was rationally thinking about my insecurities, my weaknesses and strengths, my failures and successes. All of a sudden everything was clear; it was like a shroud had been removed from my thoughts. For the first time, I felt a hunger to explore, to read, and to learn about the mysteries of the cosmos. Reading had become a prayer for me. I was searching for books in bookshops, and there was always a book next to my pillow. I read Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Bertrand Russell. Cosmology and evolution had become my key interests. Everything was making sense, but I was also becoming aware of my own ignorance; it was a self-realization. It pained me that human beings are just specks of dust on the face of the cosmos. We are here, but we will vanish like the gusts of wind; we are here but we will not be here after a short time. I realized every life was important; even animals deserve respect. The right to live is what should be granted to every living being. Consciousness is a gift; its value is beyond comprehension. So all humans have the right to live their lives to the fullest; they must be free to choose who they love and how they live. Unjust social and religious confines have made human beings into slaves; much of the pain that humanity feels can be attributed to these. The grandeur of the cosmos made me realize the value of life, and then I came to the realization that life is worth living. Faith in humanity and life is too important.
For the next three years, I felt extremely alone. I never discussed my atheism with my friends, though my family was aware of my disbelief to some extent. I would never discuss my views on religion with any Muslims because they are very rigidly religious. I would discuss problems in Christianity from time to time with my friends.
Being a nonbeliever is not an easy thing in Pakistan, as religion is a person’s identity. Blasphemy laws make freedom of expression impossible for freethinkers and atheists. Atheists and freethinkers from Pakistan cannot even disclose their disbelief to friends and family, often choosing social media to express themselves using aliases and pen names. These people also meet secretly at houses and hotels and stay in touch with each other using social media and by phone. Over the years a small public but silent community has emerged; many in this community have become close friends. Many have fallen in love, gotten married, and are raising their children as nonbelievers, but publicly they are known as non-practicing Muslims. Freethinkers and atheists have faced many problems in Pakistan. These people whom I call my people have been extremely vibrant on social media: condemning violations of human rights, raising voices for secularism, supporting women’s and minority rights, and bringing to light all kinds of problems that exist in Pakistan.
In 2013, I came across the Facebook group Pakistani Freethinkers, which was run by Ghulam Rasool, Ayaz Nizami, and Haji Mast Ali. Through this group, I got involved with the social media freethinker movement, eventually becoming an admin. I also maintain a WordPress blog and my page نوائے سروش Nawa-e-Sarosh on Facebook. Time and again, the Pakistani Freethinkers Facebook page has been blocked from access from inside Pakistan. Because of this we created a new group each time; we have lost six groups so far. Pakistani Freethinkers has been active on Facebook since 2013. It is an atheist Facebook group, run by prominent atheist bloggers and writers from Pakistan. The group uses Urdu as the primary language and is followed by liberal, secular, religious, and atheist Pakistanis. In 2017, Pakistani authorities started a crackdown against Pakistani Freethinkers and our admins were arrested. I would have been arrested if I had stayed in Pakistan, so I fled Pakistan and am living a life in exile at the moment, which is hard, but I am surviving to shine again. I hope my friends get out of jail; they are on trial for blasphemy.
Pakistani Freethinkers has played a vital role for secularism in Pakistan. When I started with this group in 2014, there were very few voices on social media trying to spread the secular message, but after five years there are thousands of people who can be heard. For the first time, it is being accepted that atheists and nonbelievers exist in Pakistan. Rightist news channel anchors, such as Orya Maqbool Jan and Aamir Liaquat, have done many programs discussing the problem of atheism in Pakistan.
Pakistan is a nation divided by many social barriers. In such a segregated society, social media has become a breath of fresh air. Atheists do not expose their real names and identities and instead use pen names and aliases for their Facebook and Twitter profiles. They regularly ask difficult questions for which the religious have no answers, forcing them to think and question what they believe in. I know many people who at first were involved in debate with us—they were believers—but over time this debate made them question what they believed and now they are nonbelievers. Today they are asking the same questions; they are trying to bring people to the light, and they are bringing people out of religious hatred and irrationalism.
Our movement is very young; we have decades of work to do. We need to inspire enough people to start a mainstream movement for rationalism and freethought in Pakistan. Pakistan’s gravest problems are related to religious thought; a theocratic Pakistani state is at the helm of most of the problems that we are facing. Religious confines have obstructed the foresight. These confines are acting as chains for freedom of speech. They have made people into zombies that want to blow themselves up and won’t hesitate to kill anyone who differs from their religious point of view. Pakistani minorities are persecuted in the name of religion and accused of blasphemy. Indoctrination is extreme; even schools, colleges, and universities are producing religious hardliners rather than rational thinkers. Sectarianism has reached a lethal level; even different sects of Islam consider one another infidel and heretic.
Pakistan was formed in the name of Islam, but the experiment has failed. The Islamic state is failing in everything: institutions have devolved, democracy is a scam, a dictatorship has prevailed in the past even now behind the scenes, the military is running state affairs, and democratic governments are mere puppets only having a fraction of the power that they are supposed to have. Religious extremism is on the rise; matters of blasphemy and declaring infidel are more important than building dams and canals. Matters of hijab are more important than infant and mother mortality. Buying arms is more important than building schools, colleges, universities, and hospitals. Population control policy has failed thanks to religious indoctrination, which teaches using contraceptives is a sin. Pakistan is failing as a state, but few realize that religion is a huge contributing factor in this failure. It might already be too late, but hope is still there that the effects can be reversed. First Pakistanis have to realize where the fault lies.
We had heard horrible stories about living in exile. But nothing is more important than saving one’s life; we felt we had no option but to flee Pakistan. Only now have we realized that those stories were just a tip of the iceberg. Living alone without any social, emotional, or financial help isn’t easy; complications pile up quickly when all these issues multiply each other. My family and I were emotionally shattered, financially broken, and were literally on the edge of starvation. Then due to all these pressures, and to having so little social support – no friends or family around in this totally strange world – my wife fell ill. It was almost the last nail in our financial coffin. That is when Secular Rescue came, literally, to our rescue.
I got in touch with Secular Rescue via the Center for Inquiry (CFI). The program provided us financial support when we needed the most.
Now we are waiting for our Asylum hearing, which seems to be taking an eternity. While we wait, I have no words to thank CFI and Secular Rescue. Without their support, it wouldn’t have been able to continue my mission of promoting secularism and Rationalism. I offer my thanks to everyone who has played a part in it. Anyone who can afford to and cares for humanity should donate to CFI and Secular Rescue. I sincerely and truly hope that one day I shall be able to do the same to help those who need it the most.