The rise of atheism in Pakistan

Counter-extremism expert, Ghaffar Hussain catches up with 'Hazrat Nakhuda' - founder of the 'Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics' Facebook group

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Ghaffar Hussain
On 9 January 2012 11:15

An increasing number of young Pakistani’s are adopting Atheism and openly questioning the existence of a God. Many analysts have attributed this trend to the rise of Islamist militancy in Pakistan as well as access to social media and other technological tools that allow people to share and explore new ideas.

A Facebook group called ‘Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics’ was launched a few months ago and has already attracted over 800 members. I caught up with the founder of this group, a young Pakistani Technologist operating under the pseudonym ‘Hazrat Nakhuda’, in order to discuss this new phenomenon.

Ghaffar: What inspired you to launch the Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics group?

Hazrat Nakhuda: Atheist groups and movements are a global trend. PAA is a part of that but it is different. The problem is that most of the groups for freethinkers are in secular countries. In my view the battle for reason, rationality and freethinking doesn’t need to be fought (with urgency) in England, Holland or Canada. It is here, in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia where we need to fight the battle for reason. It is here where the battle will be the most hard-hitting, it is here where reason needs to triumph, and it is here where we can’t afford to lose.

Almost every Muslim-majority country is under-developed economically or socially. I believe that when a religion is adopted by a state it stifles progress. Pakistanis are running 40,000 Madrasas but 30 percent of the children under the age of 5 are malnourished.

We missed our millennium goals to eradicate polio because we couldn’t run the refrigerators that housed the vaccine, but we spent a fortune on the ‘Islamic bomb’.

This country would praise Mumtaz Qadri (the murderer of Salman Taseer), and yet marginalize the only Nobel laureate of the country because he was from minority sect.

If you want to see how much a hindrance religion can be in the progress of a nation, look at Pakistan.

G: What led you to questioning religion and ultimately becoming an Atheist?

HN: I was an Islam Apologist. The thing that got me started was the idea that the reason I was a Muslim was simply because I was born into a Muslim Family.

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.

G: Is your approach ontological, scientific or more political?

HN: Initially it was ontological. Now it is more political and scientific.

G: How open are you about your view and your activities in Pakistan?

HN: Within my circle of friends I am very open. My family knows I don’t believe in God but they don’t know that I am in a leading role in such an organization. Obviously I use a pseudonym that alone should tell you how open I can be.

G: Would you say Atheism is on the increase in Pakistan?

HN: It is on the rise. Not as much as I hoped to but it is on the rise. There is a huge amount of closet atheists in Pakistan. For every member of the organization I get an email from five others telling me that they want to join but can’t.

G: And why do you think it’s on the rise?

HNWhy is it on the rise? Well if I had to put forward what I see as the most pertinent reason, it would have to be the internet and social media. We are connected like nothing else. A boy in a small town outside Lahore can watch a lecture by Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens. Ten years ago it wasn’t that easy.

Another reason is the fact that Pakistanis are obsessed with trying to prove to the world that Islam is right. When people like that go to online forums to debate other people they get asked questions that, as a born Muslim, they don’t ask themselves.

G: What is the profile of your average member?

HN: The majority of the members are young, between the ages of 16 and 32. Most of them are urban Middle class and Educated; doctors, engineers, computer programmers, lawyers, business persons, artists, and so on. Most of the members also tend to be from the three major cities: Lahore, Karachi & Islamabad.

But we have people from as far away as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). There is also a huge overseas Pakistani population. Interest areas range from politics, economics to domestic issues.  

G: What kind of response have you had from Pakistani Muslims?

HN: So far it is encouraging. But there is the odd individual who expresses his desire to behead me.

G: How much of this trend is attributable to political events and the rise of Islamist militancy in the region?

HN: The rise of Islamist militancy has made more ‘closet’ atheists ‘come out’. Has it made more people in Pakistan become atheist/agnostics? No it hasn’t. It has in some cases put people on the path to questioning their own faith but not to abandoning it.  I find that almost all people abandon faith because of scientific and philosophical arguments rather than geo-political events.

G: How has social media and the internet aided your work?

HN: It is the backbone of everything we do. It is how members interact with each other. All this started out on forums and groups on the social media.

G: What are your plans for the future?

HN: Right now most Pakistanis aren’t even aware that there is an option to not believe in God; they don’t question the existence of God and generally don’t believe that Atheists exist. What is more, according to a Gallup poll, 78 percent of Pakistanis believe that a person who leaves Islam should be killed. And finally, Pakistan has very strict blasphemy laws. If I get to change these three things in my life time, I would die a happy man. 

Ghaffar Hussain is a leading independent counter-extremism expert 

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