For a few years as a teenager I was a devout Christian. I even converted from one Christian sect to another before I entirely abandoned religious belief.
Contrast my experience with that of any Muslim wishing to abandon their religion in most parts of the world and it is clear that leaving Christianity and leaving Islam are two very different affairs. In leaving Islam you might not just lose your religion but also your life in the process.
The reason that Christianity, especially so in the west, is less rabid and aggressive in dealing with critics and opponents is due to the influence of the Enlightenment philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with their emphasis on free speech, freedom of conscience and the rights of the individual. Before the Enlightenment, Christianity, just like Islam today, imposed severe punishments on those it believed had blasphemed or for converting to another religion or rival Christian sect.
Unfortunately, for many inhabitants of other parts of the world and even within certain communities in the west, the rights that most of us enjoy and which result from the influence of the Enlightenment, are almost non existent. According to Pew research, a majority of Muslims around the world seek to live under Sharia law which has a harsh penal code for both blasphemy and apostasy. Of these Muslims who partook in the Pew research and who favour Sharia law, the vast majority believe that apostasy, that is leaving Islam, should incur the death penalty. Even within Muslim communities in the west there is the threat of violence or at the very least ostracisation for leaving Islam within some families. I am sure there are plenty of Muslims in the west who wouldn’t disown a family member or wish harm to them, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that even in the west leaving Islam has serious consequences.
Recently, I have become friends on line with a brave young Pakistani man who is seeking asylum in Europe because he lived under the imminent threat of death in his home country for being openly atheist and critical of the Islamic faith. Pakistan has very strict laws with regards to the criticism of Islam which is the official religion of the state. In order, to protect his identity, I shall not use his real name but refer to him as ‘Martin’.
After openly engaging in debate with religious clerics in Pakistan and being critical of Islam Martin had to go in to hiding. He had fatwahs (religious rulings) issued against him which left him vulnerable to being killed by far right religious mobs or any enraged individual who recognised him. When he went to the police, not only could they not offer him any protection, but the state openly colludes with those who make death threats against atheists, as well as those from minority faith groups such as Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims.
He told me:
“When I went to the police, the officer that I made the complaint to grabbed me by the throat and started shouting at me and telling me that I shouldn’t be going against Islam and criticising the clerics.”
There has been a huge rise in online atheist and secular activists in Pakistan who question Islam and it’s undue influence over the state. The government has reacted by implementing cyber criminal laws which make on-line criticism of religion a criminal offence.
“Since the introduction of cyber criminal laws many atheist and secular activists have been deleting social media accounts for fear their real identities will be discovered and that they will be ostracised by their families and have religious clerics commanding their followers to kill them.”
With the ongoing migrant crisis emanating from the Muslim world and as an asylum seeker himself, I was interested to know Martin’s views on how the west should deal with immigration from countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan where illiberal and extreme far right religious views are common.
“I think that everyone coming to liberal democracies from any Islamic country must be questioned on their views regarding equality and the rights of women, gay people, atheists and freethinkers and those of other religious beliefs.
If individuals from Islamic countries agree with the values of liberal democracies then they should be allowed come and if not they shouldn’t be let in.”
When I put it to Martin that when a white, western, liberal male like myself makes the exact same points regarding immigration from the Islamic world I get denounced as a racist he just laughs and shakes his head at the absurdity of such an accusation. Unlike the regressive left, Martin has worked out that opposing and/or being critical of religious ideas isn’t the same as hating people because of their skin color or ethnic origin. We discussed the fact that a screening program like the one we both advocate is not full proof in that people can always lie or tell you what they think you want to hear when being questioned.
“Ah, but you can ask questions in such a way to see whether they are hiding their real views and even if this fails and they enter you can always kick them out if you later find out they are religious extremists and not complying with the laws and values of the west.”
Now, it is clear that race and ethnicity have nothing to do with Martin’s views on Islamic immigration. He is clearly concerned about the effects large scale immigration from the Muslim world will have on the liberal democracy where he wants to become a citizen. After seeing how western regressive leftists denounce and ridicule former Muslims like Ayan Hirsi Ali and secular Muslims like Maajid Nawaz it is predictable that instead of listening to Martin they will question his motives and denounce him as a tool of the European far right, as opposed to an ambassador and champion of liberal enlightenment values who opposed the far right ideology of his own country and risked his life to defend those values. These regressives have never done anything riskier than unintentionally sending out a less than ideologically pure tweet to their coterie of social justice warrior mates on twitter.
Martin is merely a free thinking human being who believes that the liberal values in the west are superior to the values that are dominant in the country from which he had to flee on account of having a different opinion. The west should be prioritising and giving sanctuary to freethinkers like Martin along with secular Muslims, Christians, Ahmadiyya Muslims and even peaceful socially conservative Muslims who respect the human rights of others and oppose living under sharia law. It is immigrants like Martin that are an antidote against indigenous ultra-nationalist parties and who show that multi-ethnic societies can be vibrant and successful when they are built upon a common respect for the values of secular liberal democracy.
Many individuals in western societies are ignorant of the historical struggle to gain the freedoms and rights they enjoy. Liberty had to be wrestled from our own religious clerics and aristocratic classes, and it is a battle that in countries such as Ireland is not yet quite complete. However, those on the regressive left seem to merely use these rights to criticise and denigrate their own societies for historical injustices or contemporary deficiencies, often rightly so, but at the same time not appreciating that in many countries it still isn’t possible to criticise or challenge authority without risking a lengthy stay in prison or even decapitation in order to shut you up.
The cohesion and long term survival of western liberal democracy entails defending our values against those values that are antithetical to our own. A part of this defence involves cohesive borders with an immigration policy that welcomes the arrival of future citizens from abroad whilst balancing it with our own long term security interests. An asylum seeker like Martin fleeing religious extremists in his own country can see the sense in such an immigration policy. I hope that Martin’s application for asylum in Europe is successful. We need more people like him who are willing to defend the values of liberal democracy, as opposed to the growing number of those among us who seem incapable of appreciating the freedoms unique to liberal democracies and who do little else but denigrate the west at every turn. As Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States said, “Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty.”
AR Devine is a blogger, writer and author. His previous blog “Working with the Underclass” written under the pseudonym of Winston Smith won the Orwell Prize in 2010.