Persecuted for his beliefs: the experience of an atheist refugee

ehf

Posted on the 18/12/18

Karrar Hamza Al Asfoor is a 31 years old Iraqi activist who was the first person to be granted asylum in Greece because he is an atheist. Back home, he was actively engaged in promoting atheism. This prompted Ismalist groups to threaten him. He fled to Europe in order to find safety and be able to continue his activist work. Karrar is also a representative of Netherlands based Nasawiya feminist organization.

We had the honor to meet him in Brussels and we asked him to tell us a little bit more about himself, his work and how he feels now that he is in Europe.


When you grow up in our society, there is no chance for asking questions or having doubts. Religion surrounds you. It’s everywhere. Losing one’s faith is difficult and scary.


EHF: How did you become an atheist?

When I was four years old, my mother told me about the night journey of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed who traveled through the whole universe on a flying horse. My reaction was that I laughed: already at that young age, I had to conclude that that was a myth. What struck me is how afraid my mother got, as she feared God’s punishment for this lack of respect. I got very scared and started to cry.

Already at that age, I experienced the fact that religion was taboo and there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed even though many questions went unanswered. For instance, how come everyone around me was so sure that the right way to heaven is the one prescribed by Islam, while, in the meantime, there are so many other religions? Were those people wrong? Weren’t they thinking the same about us?

I grew up in a religious family but I was not practicing Islam as such. For me, it was more a spiritual feeling. In 2015 however, I was looking for views about the meaning of life on the internet when I came across a page on Facebook. This page was criticizing religion. As I kept reading, many of the questions from my childhood came back to me. I started critically examining Islam, got agnostic for a few months until I ultimately relinquished my faith completely.

Did this have an impact on your social life?

Iraq has a very patriarchal, religious and tribal society. Living in such a society is exhausting for anyone but in the case of a non-believer, it’s a total nightmare.

I lost my social life. I could not fit into the society and I therefore spent most of my time in my room, alone, in front of the laptop. I built up my own world on social media. I laughed, I cried and I made friends on social media. Most of them had fake identities because being openly atheist in a Muslim society could lead to their murder. I, however, could not stay in the shadow. I decided to be active with my real identity.

I engaged in a number of debates on social media in different atheist Facebook groups. I wanted to contribute to changing society. So I joined these groups and became the admin of 4 of them. Some were public groups, others were closed ones. One of the biggest was called The world of feminism and atheism. It had almost 100 thousand members.


Many atheists are persecuted. Some of them are kicked out of their house, others are beaten or imprisoned and others are killed. Many incidents go undocumented because the honor of the family has to be protected.


That is truly impressive! How does this work in practice?

When you grow up in our society, there is no chance for asking questions or having doubts. Religion surrounds you. It’s everywhere. Losing one’s faith is difficult and scary. So we try to attract people to these groups, engage in debates with them and try to convert them into atheists. The idea is to try and open the eyes of as many people as possible so that one day we can declare a secular state.

Of course, this is not easy; often we end up with insults or being cursed. In these cases, we try shock therapy by openly disrespecting some religious symbols and showing that nothing happens. God’s revenge or punishment is not coming…

You also work on women’s rights. Can you tell us about that?

Women’s situation is horrible. They completely lack rights and protection in Iraq as well as in other countries in the MENA region.

What they think, how they behave or what they wear is not up to them. Many spend their whole life among four walls. They are subject to violence, rape, and honor killings.

Most of the time, there is no criminal or media investigation because respecting the honor of the family is the most important under tribal and religious rule. The family should not suffer public shame.

So with other activists like Dareen Hasan and Worood Zuhair, we try to help as many women as we can. Sadly however, all we manage to achieve is raising awareness because the situation is totally beyond our resources.


When I arrived last year, Kos Solidarity offered me an opportunity to deliver a public speech in front of 80 people. It was the very first time in my life that I criticized Islam in public. It was an awesome feeling. I really can’t describe it. The taste of freedom is so different from anything else. I just wanted to speak after all, and they gave me the chance to do so!


And then, the threats came…

Indeed. I started receiving death threats constantly for both activities. I did not take them very seriously at the beginning but when I joined a gym in my neighborhood and three men came to threaten to kill me if I don’t suspend my social media activism, I got scared. One of them said “we are aware of your activism on Facebook, remove all your groups and pages and keep your atheism for yourself or otherwise, we will cut you in pieces and throw you to the dogs”.

Many atheists are persecuted. Some of them are kicked out of their house, others are beaten or imprisoned and others are killed. Many incidents go undocumented because the honor of the family has to be protected..

So I got home, I was extremely scared. I did not sleep that night as I realized how unfair the situation was. Indeed, no one could help me: even the authorities were part of the system. There is no rule of law, the country is controlled by tribes and Islamic militias. So, I decided to flee.

How did you arrive to Europe and how did the asylum procedure go?

Initially, I escaped to Turkey and from there I took a boat to Greece. It was a terrible experience. I however was optimistic as I knew I was on my way towards a land of freedom where I would be able to say what I want without being in danger.

The asylum procedure was extremely complex but I received help from the EHF, the IHEU, the Greek Humanist Union, the Council of Ex-muslims of Britain, the Atheist Union of Greece and Kos Solidarity. What really helped was that I had proof of my atheism thanks to my activity on social media. For others however, this is impossible as most atheists in Iraq keep their beliefs secret. So when the asylum authorities ask for proof, they can’t provide any.


I live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of other refugees. Many of them are Muslim. So, I have to do most of my activity in secret. Therefore, I still have to censor myself in my immediate surroundings, despite having arrived to Europe.


And how is life in Greece now? Are you still engaged in activism?

It is more difficult than I expected. Integrating is difficult. Apart from one time, I have received no support and I can’t find a job.

Housing-wise, it’s very complicated. Back on Kos Island, while I was waiting for my asylum papers, I could not stay at the refugee camp because it was full of Muslims and I was afraid. So I went to a hotel. Now, I am told that since I was not at the refugee camp, I cannot register for housing. I am also in contact with the Solidarity Now organization to apply for housing and join their mini business management course. I have to look for recommendations and contacts for that, else I heard my application might fail. So, for the moment, I depend on money sent to me by my family. But they will not be able to support me forever.

Although Greece is a quite religious country, the situation is incomparable to Middle Eastern countries. When I arrived last year, Kos Solidarity offered me an opportunity to deliver a public speech in front of 80 people. It was the very first time in my life that I criticized Islam in public. It was an awesome feeling. I really can’t describe it. The taste of freedom is so different from anything else. I just wanted to speak after all, and they gave me the chance to do so!

Greek people are very welcoming. People often immediately assume that I am Muslim. I understood this when in restaurants, they inform me about the food containing pork. However, when I tell them that I am an atheist, they understand. In the end, there is no difference: Muslim, Christian or atheist, we are all humans and they are not afraid of me.

And how about the death threats? Did they stop?

No. I still receive death threats on social media. They do not necessarily come only from Iraq though. They come from Arabic-speaking countries or even Arabic-speaking people in Europe or other countries.

At least I am not in the country anymore. The issue however is that I live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of other refugees. Many of them are Muslim. So, I have to do most of my activity in secret. Therefore, I still have to censor myself in my immediate surroundings, despite having arrived to Europe.

Of course, I continue being active in my Facebook groups and hope that I will be able to turn many people into atheists. We are however facing a number of issues online. Islamists use Facebook’s Terms of Services to their advantage. First, most of our members understandably use fake identities and this is not in line with Facebook’s rules. So Islamists report our groups or individual accounts and Facebook closes them down.

Furthermore, they also report our posts, groups, accounts and pages as containing hate speech or nudity. Criticizing ideas, religions and ideologies is however not hate speech. We also do not propagate nudity-related content. Some of my friends have to create accounts on daily basis.

Even if sometimes – rarely though – groups are restored, this harassment is extremely exhausting. It strongly hinders our efforts to enlighten people. In the meantime, Islamists have everything from large media corporations and hundreds of satellite channels to uncountable financial resources.

We tried to reach out to Facebook several times in the past but failed because Facebook does not provide any means of direct organizational contact for such specific issues. Also, these reports are regionally processed by their office in Dubai. This can explain why Islamist argumentation works. We are an oppressed minority and until a solution is found, Facebook is part of this oppression.

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