Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pakistan's Quest for Truth

After Rick Santorum's advocacy for procreation-only sex and the pope's anti-gay comments, it gladdens me to learn of the Pakistan Atheists and Agnostics (PAA) group. In a country known for it's strict anti-blasphemy laws, where Islamist militancy has been on the rise in recent times, the PAA is a sign -- small, but nevertheless a sign -- of hope. Their goal is to let other atheists in Pakistan know that they are not alone.

Huzrat NaKhuda founded the Facebook group a few months ago and membership now stands at over 800. His name is obviously a pseudonym, for revealing his identity might mean death. In Pakistan, blasphemy is a crime that calls for life imprisonment. But many a time, a person accused of blasphemy ends up being murdered by fundamentalists. Take the case of Salmaan Taseer, the former governor of the Punjab province in Pakistan, who was assassinated for criticizing the blasphemy law. He didn't blaspheme. He merely criticized the laws and supported Asia Bibi who was sentenced to death for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. And for this, he was shot and killed by his own bodyguard. In the face of such extremism, you have to commend Huzrat NaKhuda and all the other atheists in Pakistan for taking such a courageous step.

In an interview with The Commentator, Huzrat NaKhuda said that the battle for reason needs to be fought with urgency in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, countries that are steeped in intolerance and backward thinking. He laments the lack of development in Pakistan and blames it on the adoption of a religion as the country's identity. He believes that progress is stifled whenever any country does this. He quotes the example of Mohammed Abdus Salam, the Pakistani theoretical physicist and the country's first and only Nobel laureate. Though a devout Muslim, Abdus Salam was discriminated against and shunned in his own country because he belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, a group that was labelled non-Islamic by Pakistan.

"The nerve to claim one specific religion and one specific God out of hundreds as the real God, and rejecting all others merely because ones parents asserted so, seemed too presumptuous. That is when I started rejecting and accepting ideas based on arguments rather than scripture. Once you start doing that, it is only a matter of time."

NaKhuda thinks that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan is only partially responsible for the growing number of atheists in his country. While it has not directly increased the number of atheists/agnostics, the effect of fundamentalism has been to make closet atheists come out. But he does think that Islamic extremism in the country might have had a role in people beginning to question their own beliefs. But the biggest factors influencing the rise of atheism in Pakistan, he explained, is the Internet and social media. "People in small towns in Pakistan can listen to lectures by Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens", he says. They become more aware of the reality of the universe as opposed to outdated Islamic teachings.

In a country where children are brainwashed right from the time they are kids, where madrassas are aplenty, where honor killings are still commonplace, it is amazing and comforting to see that people have slowly but surely started to question what they see as outmoded practices and views. Some of the women in the group have rebelled against the Quran's (and most religions') discriminatory stance against women. They believe that religion is nothing more than a tool for men in power to assert control. Yet others cite injustice and disillusionment as factors that lead them in their quest for truth.

The path towards atheism, or even skepticism is a perilous one. Almost every member uses a pseudonym. Most members haven't even come out to their parents or friends. Free expression is not a birthright in Pakistan and many Muslim countries. Bodily harm, torture and even death are common punishments for unbelievers.

Most people in Pakistan don't know that there is an option to not believe in god. Three quarters of the people think that apostasy should be punishable by death. Pakistan also has very strict blasphemy laws that calls for life imprisonment or death. Huzrat NaKhuda and the PAA want to change all that. It is a journey fraught with danger. But on behalf of all rational thinkers, free thought proponents and atheists, I wish all of them the very best. Nothing would make me happier than seeing Huzrat NaKhuda and his group achieve their goals and inspire other such groups in similar radically conservative societies in the world.

To read the full interview with Huzrat NaKhuda in the Commentator:
Pakistan Today article about PAA:
Huzrat NaKhuda's journey to atheism:
The PAA website:

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