Pakistan’s atheist community is nameless, faceless and arguably future-less. My experience has been rather limited, as I have just returned to the country. Social media’s explosive, unhindered and virtually unstoppable growth has certainly given voice to a lot of such groups, such as the recent queerpk.com. So it is not difficult to see Pakistani atheists lurking here and there, in groups and on pages on Facebook. But, in my experience, hardly anyone of them is loud-mouthed, proclaims anything unequivocally, and especially does not want to interact with fellow Pakistani atheists. Seems reasonable.
After all, persecution is Pakistan’s favourite pastime.
But my main contention is, my belief is a personal matter. Why should anyone be allowed to contest or comment on it? Leaving Islam, or apostasy, is punishable by death, so it can hardly be a matter left to your discretion, one of my friends said. Another one quipped, why do you have to wear a hat that says: I’m an atheist? Well, reasonable question. In a country where you can be killed like a dog on charges of false blasphemy and no one asks questions, no one says anything, rather there is an ill-concealed envious admiration for the killer: I once heard someone saying, if only I had been the lucky one to kill Salman Taseer!
Why would anyone want such a ghastly fate? Simple. Sew up your lips.
Sew Your Lips?
Mum should be the word. Hide your atheism, as it were.
But the whole issue is far more complicated than a simple case of sewn lips. A lot of people reading this would say, it’s not a big deal, just keep your mouth shut and get on with your life. After all, people here do all sorts of taboo things: a lot of practising Muslims drink, sleep around but keep their mouths shut, so you have almost nothing to worry about. Well, almost. It is rather difficult for people to understand that renouncing Islam is nothing compared to drinking a whole bottle of vodka, or sleeping with a different woman every night, or even killing 10 people after raping the women and mutilating the children. As long as you are a believer, do what you may, and Allah will forgive you. After of course you’ve paid the blood money or said your tauba. But not believing in Him, well, a first-class direct ticket to eternal hellfire. What is the big deal in believing in God anyway? I don’t see how it’s worse than rape, murder, corruption and so on. This is nevertheless, a digression. Coming to the question of hiding one’s atheism, well, people confront you more than you would ever want to confront them. For instance, you may have a staunchly liberal opinion on women’s rights but your interlocutor would inevitably arrive at Allah’s drawn boundaries. People would mockingly rub it your face saying, now do you wish to question even that? The tone used would suffice the need to actually utter the childish interrogative, huh, huh, huh? More religious the person, more vehement the interrogation, especially if they get a whiff that you are not as religious as they are. Even if you are drinking, you are expected to acquiesce with the notion that a grave sin is being committed and if you don’t nod, well, some eyebrows will be raised. You can also get very irritated when people use God as a pretext for their own dilly-dallying. Hey Imran, I don’t think we can get to Islamabad from Karachi in just half a tank of petrol. Don’t worry, Allah chahay tau kia nahin ho sakta (He can do whatever He wants). I can surely try to hide my atheism, but hide my irritation, certainly not. Pakistanis are more religious than they think they are. They are quite oblivious to the numerous ways in which their religion touches and downright governs their lives. When I was a Muslim, I was of the same mind. And this is also corroborated by the fact that the overwhelming majority are Muslims. Such uniformity of a single religion fuels religiocentrism.
You can, never ever, judge what a persecuted minority feels like unless you are a part of it. Period.
Respect, Blasphemy & Inconsiderateness
A friend tried to mock me by saying, okay so now that you’re an atheist your personal hygiene must be really bad, since you probably no longer wash yourself as Muslims do. When I replied with an equally jovial and rather mild comment about his Divinely sanctioned circumcision, I was instantly reminded in the strongest possible terms (with referrals to my mother and sister), that had we not known each other for fifteen years, he would have happily chopped my head off and skewered it on Minar-e-Pakistan. Was I being blasphemous?
I was once late for a meet-up and kept lying to my friend about my whereabouts. I arrived finally, an hour late, to a red faced, nostrils flared gentleman smoking a cigarette. He lashed out on me saying that you atheists are completely devoid of morality. Does your atheism (as if it were a religion) only teach you things like lying, he said. He went on for at least ten minutes blasting my religion, which was decidedly atheism. I had had enough of it, so I quietly inquired if Islam had sanctioned all the rather obscene swear words he was using for me. He turned scarlet and I narrowly avoided a physical altercation. Was I being disrespectful?
On the first day of Ramadan, when everyone is fasting, as I walked out of a bakery, I took a bite from the donut I had just bought. I had just gotten back from abroad two days ago and had completely forgotten today was the first day of Ramadan. An elderly gentleman with a silvery beard shouted at me from a distance and asked me what was I doing eating out in the open. Caught off guard, I got really confused and somewhat angry, as I am not used to being shouted at. I kept staring at him, perplexed. He walked towards me and went on to ask me, was I not fasting. I suddenly realized it was Ramadan but since I was now really angry, all I replied was with a provocative no. Then he asked me whether I was not a Muslim. I replied with a louder no. He asked me: “you’re going to go to hell anyway, why are you destroying our fast?”. People had started gathering, and I thought it best to scupper. Was I being inconsiderate? I was, by eating in public. Unintentionally. A honest mistake any Muslim could very well make. But this is where religious extremism leads simple misunderstandings.
My question: are aspects of Islam more sacred than the ones I believe in? Muslims would say, yes they are! Come on this side of the fence and see things from where I am standing, and you’ll see why I completely disagree. So if you rub the superiority of your beliefs while deriding mine, be prepared for a commensurate rebuke.
Leave Me Alone
I only want, as a Pakistani, to be left alone. Even if you staunchly believe I’m going to hell, let me. Please just don’t try to send me there straight away. I don’t go around preaching my atheism, neither should anyone bother me. And if you do, have the tolerance to listen to my arguments. Don’t call me misguided, sanctioned for death, condemned to eternal hellfire or else be prepared to listen to how stupid, superstitious and detrimental to society you are.
I guess I should understand and concede that as a Pakistani, one should not acquire a taste for luxuries such as being left alone.