For Atheists In Pakistan, Secularism Is The Way Forward

In the aftermath of the Peshawar attacks, non-believers feel that Pakistan must separate the state from the mosque to achieve peace.

ByManisha Pande
For Atheists In Pakistan, Secularism Is The Way Forward
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In the aftermath of the Peshawar killings, civil society in Pakistan, and indeed the world over, came together to denounce the massacre carried out by Tehrik-e-Taliban.

Most of the condemnation, at least from within Pakistan, has come with a sort of explanation – about how the Peshawar attack was against the basic tenets of Islam. While the relationship between terror and Islam, or religion for that matter, is tenuous, questions about the idea of Islam – and in particular its role in countries where legislation is based on the Koran – need to be asked.

This is what two prominent atheists and sceptics had to say in the aftermath of the Peshawar attacks. Atheists in Pakistan have for long asserted how the freedom to not practice Islam doesn’t exist, and how being a non-believer in the country leads to persecution, more often than not, by the state itself.

We speak to two non-believers in Pakistan, who argue that much as we try, it is difficult to keep the mosque and the state separate in Pakistan, but that is the only way ahead.


Saima Baig, 44, Karachi

“…people talk about respecting all religions. No one talks about those seeking freedom from religion.”

Immediately, after the Peshawar attack on December 16, people on my Facebook feed — all of them moderate Muslims — started saying, as they always do, that the Talibani terrorists who perpetrated the massacre of innocent children were not Muslims because no Muslim would do such a thing.

This “no true Scotsman” argument is rampant when something like this happens. In response, I wrote this on behalf of the extremists: “You cherry pick your verses from the Quran and we will cherry pick ours. Do not call us non-Muslims, we are as Muslim as you are. From, the Islamists.”

Needless to say, as the news of the Peshawar killing unfolded and the death toll rose to over 100 children, I was struck with shock, horror and extreme anger. I felt helpless and dejected at the fact that we as a nation have let Islamic extremism come this far.

The atmosphere in the country since then is of sadness and anger. People have finally decided to speak up against religious fundamentalism. They are now not only talking about this tragic event but also about the general mindset in the country that has allowed for the persecution of other religious groups.

There is still a long way to go though. There needs to be a complete change of mindset in Pakistani society both in terms of nationalism and Islam.

Being an atheist is my choice and it surprises me that people who are educated and have read the Quran could even consider believing in it. However, I feel that if you want to believe, it is up to you, so long as it is separated from the business of the state and from education. Based on this, reform in Islam is extremely important. By this, I mean rejecting the doctrine of jihad and the superiority of Muslims over others.

I know a number of atheists through social media, but many of them tend to remain anonymous to protect themselves from getting booked under blasphemy laws.

Secularism, I feel, should be priority number one. Pray if you must, just keep your doctrine in your homes and your mosques. Reform is necessary though because the mullahs in the mosques spread Islamism with impunity and that must be stopped.

Interestingly, even now (and before when other religious minorities were killed), people talk about respecting all religions. No one talks about those seeking freedom from religion. I am privileged that I live among the educated and my friends and family accept my choice, even if they tend to think of my atheism as strange.

I do have some friends who still do believe that I will go to hell and they have told me so – over cocktails. According to them, they will be forgiven because they are Muslims, but I will not be.


Zohaib Javed, 30, currently in the UK, Pakistani origin

“…the situation still doesn’t seem to show any signs of changing for atheists and minorities.”

My immediate reaction to the Peshawar killing was not of surprise but of huge sadness. Sadness because there was this huge loss of innocent lives who went to school to invest in a future, but never got to see another day.

Why was I not surprised? That’d have to be owing to what was already transpiring in Pakistan, especially the areas where the Taliban were more in numbers.

Most of the liberals as well as the irreligious have constantly tried to bring to attention the problems of Islamic fundamentalists and this is the end result.

I wouldn’t say that people have fully realised the dangers of what religious fundamentalism can bring to the table, but December 16  has left a deep impact on many. In fact, vigils took place in Islamabad near the Lal Masjid (which you might say was one of the places for Taliban recruits) and the ones who attended even went on to protest against Maulana Abdul Aziz, the cleric of Lal Masjid and lodged an FIR (First Information Report) against him.

From what I’ve known, the public is in a state of shock as well as angry over the whole incident. Quite a few who, initially used to defend the actions of the Taliban, are now demanding their eradication. Yet at the same time, there are people who are willing to defend and justify the actions of these fundamentalists — such as the politician-cum-cleric Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman.

There are still many who are influenced by religious fundamentalism, but I feel moderate Muslims are slowly deviating from it. Even though they might still be ascribing to conservative teachings, they do not want the Taliban in the country. You have your fundamentalist, Islamists and conservative Muslims who’d say that whatever they do is in accordance to Islam. Then you’ve got your moderate Muslims, who while not acknowledging the acts of the Taliban still play apologists when acts of terror are committed, defending certain teachings of the religion that in this today’s time and age don’t warrant defending.

It’s actually the liberal/secular Muslims who openly go out to challenge certain teachings of the religion and even stand up for reform.

As an atheist, I wouldn’t agree with what religion teaches you or claims to be true. Howeverm, from a realistic perspective, there are certain reasons why people might hold on to them, probably for fear of losing their sense of identity and purpose.

It might not be feasible to remove religion altogether in a country like Pakistan, but I do see a greater need for it to move away from being a theocratic state and place emphasis on being a secular nation. We’re reaching that point where Islamic reformation is much required, but I think it will be a long struggle ahead.

I am an atheist and we are always under constant threat of falling victim to attacks in Pakistan pretty much like how the religious minorities have whenever Islam was criticised or challenged. The country’s Constitution already has blasphemy laws established that have targeted minorities in the country. Any attempt to challenge and change those laws were met with dire consequences.

We saw it when the former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer tried to challenge it while defending Asia Bibi and was assassinated by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, who was hailed a hero by many. You might also know about how the Ahmadis are always persecuted and how the law explicitly states punishments for them, and there’s the more recent case of the Christian couple that was killed and burned alive by an angry mob for alleged ‘blasphemy’.

For atheists, it has been the same case. There is an ongoing trial of Junaid Hafeez who has been imprisoned for ‘defiling’ the name of Muhammad. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was given death threats and subsequently murdered for taking his case. As it stands, he faces a hard time finding a lawyer to defend him.

Given the recent attack, the situation still doesn’t seem to show any signs of changing for atheists and minorities. It is an issue that needs to be highlighted and doesn’t always get the same level of coverage that it merits.

Many Pakistanis are deeply saddened by the incident and outrightly condemn the attacks. But at the same time I’m also willing to say that there are the conservatives and extremists who are siding with the Taliban.


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