Imagine living with the constant fear that an angry mob would torture you to death if they found out you are a free thinking person.
That’s how many agnostics and atheists live in Pakistan. Being Pakistani and an atheist is undoubtedly a dangerous combination. This does not even begin to make sense until you bring the context into the picture, which is a religious verdict about apostates being punishable by death. So much for 'thinking freely or differently’. This religious ruling is the prime factor that puts the life of Pakistani atheists in danger. In fact ‘thinking’ is just as big of a sin in Pakistan as thinking differently. You are doomed if you decide to use your so-called god-given mental faculties and engage in critical thinking because thinking in matters of faith is a sin in itself.
Despite the fact that revealing yourself as an atheist in Pakistan is like having a death wish, some are brave enough to publicise their atheism. Yet most atheists living in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have no choice but to live in disguise as Muslims. They are often called ‘in-closet atheists’ which is not far from reality. The constant dread, dismay and the pressures have taken a significant mental toll on atheists in Pakistan as religion takes hold on the majority of Muslims in the country.
Another significant factor jeopardising the life of atheists living in Pakistan is the Penal code of Pakistan, which has laws decreeing the death penalty for various religious offences. This may or may not come as a surprise to free thinking people all over the world, but the famous ‘Blasphemy Law’ proposes death penalty for merely defiling the ‘sacred’ name of Holy Prophet Muhammad. So far many innocent people have fallen prey to the draconian law of blasphemy:
”An estimated number of 1,274 people have been charged under the stringent blasphemy laws of Pakistan between 1986, from when they were included in the Constitution by General Zia ul Haq, until 2010.” (Source: Dawn News)
The exhaustive list of people accused, jailed and even killed by radical Islamists ‘in the name of Allah’ can be accessed here.
As if blasphemy law wasn't enough, an apostasy bill proposing death penalty for ‘apostates’ (Muslims who choose to renounce their religion) was proposed by MMA (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal - coalition of religious and theocratic parties) in 2006 which was later passed on to Standing Committee by the National Assembly of Pakistan.
Come to think of it, it's not the state or the laws that are dangerous; it’s the majority of inhabitants of Pakistan who believe it's their duty to hunt you down and kill you for blasphemy and apostasy by taking law in their own hands. It’s the mindset of the Muslim inhabitants of Pakistan that feeds the problem. According to a report published on in 29 July 2010 by Pew Research Center, 82% of Pakistanis favour stoning adulterers and 76% favour the death penalty for people who leave Islam. That says a lot about the doomed future of atheists in Pakistan as well as the doomed future of the country itself. That also says a lot about how peaceful Islam is and how pure 'the land of pure (Pakistan)' is.
Who is to blame for fostering this mindset in the majority Muslim community is a different story and it will take another article to expand on that. But to cut the long story short, the main culprit is religion. Seeing the numerous target and mass killings, not to mention honour killings, all done in the name of religion, it’s evident that religion has harmed Pakistan and its inhabitants far more than anything else.
Interestingly enough, Islam is claimed to be a ‘religion of peace’ and considering how, according to Muslims, Holy Prophet Muhammad preached tolerance and forbade violence, one would think that Pakistan being an Islamic state would show tolerance towards the minorities. But the truth is Muslims are exceptionally intolerant and discriminate against those who don’t think like them. This is apparent in actions of the extremist fundamental Muslims over the past few decades.
For example, in August 2009, seven Christians were burnt alive in Gojra town of Lahore, Punjab, over alleged desecration of Quran. Also, in March 2013 125 Christian houses were burnt over alleged blasphemy in Lahore. Even though the Muslims still assert that they are ‘peaceful’ and ‘tolerant’, the inconsistency between their words and actions is evident.
As one would expect taking into account the violence and bloodshed it generates, Islam has received much criticism from many well known figures including Richard Dawkins: "I'm reasonably optimistic in America and Europe. I'm pessimistic about the Islamic world. I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world, and I fear that we have a very difficult struggle there."
Not surprisingly though, criticism too is not handled well in Pakistan and riots can be initiated as soon as someone publicly criticises or condemns Islam or a religious figure. This issue is crucial because it poses dangers for many people, but the most substantial issue, undeniably, is the role of government as well as the judiciary, which are both legally responsible for regulating the malicious and violent behaviour of people. However, no such action has been taken so far on the part of government or judiciary. Another key issue is the role of security services, which have been as inactive as the government. Apparently the authorities are either blind, or they endorse the brutality of the enraged masses. Given that the authorities are adherents of Islam, it’s not surprising that they would consider letting the locals bring down their own version of justice on these secular ex-Muslims.
The crux of the matter is, although Pakistan exercises comparatively less extreme ways to ‘punish’ people for ‘thinking’ than other Islamic States, it is still not a safe haven for citizens who have chosen to abandon religion and move towards scientific, moral and ethical ways. Without a secular and liberal heading for Pakistan, people from other faiths and free-thinkers are never going to be safe, and will always be classed as second class citizens, amongst the Islamists.