*Original publication in Canadian Atheist.*
Fauzia Ilyas is the Founder and President of the Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan. This is an extremely dangerous country for freethinkers, especially women of the freethought community with the explicit title of atheist or agnostic, as known to most readers here. When we look at the contexts for women’s rights or for freedom of thought, Pakistan remains one of the worst. Fauzia deserves praise in the light of the difficult circumstances and the bravery to utilize a public platform while pronouncing public rights to freedom of belief and, in particular, to not believe, often, forced or coerced beliefs, whether by family, community, or state.
Here, we talk about her life, views, and work through the Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did the Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan form?
Fauzia Ilyas: Actually it is directly interlinked with my thoughts, ideas and questions which I used to raise about religion. While trying to search for answers to those questions, and analyze their credibility and authenticity, I realized that there was no proper platform where people like me could go and have a discussion over religion, especially about Islam. It brought me to the conclusion that it’s very crucial to have a platform where we all can express our thoughts and share it with other like-minded people. Therefore, in 2012, Atheist and Agnostic Alliance Pakistan was established by me and my partner.
Jacobsen: What were the risks in founding it?
Ilyas: Just imagine for a while, a country with 97% Muslim population, a country which came into existence by so-called Islamic values. A country where you are being welcomed if you convert to Islam; however, if you leave that religion, or even if you raise any doubt or an ordinary question over Islam, you would be in hell(-ish) difficulties. So it was the same case with AAAP. When this organization was established, there was a lot of criticism, threats to life, and compromised security. We’re approached by law enforcement authorities. The blasphemy cases were initiated against me and my partner. It left us with the only option to leave Pakistan, so we left and now we’re in The Netherlands.
Jacobsen: What have been the major developments and successes of AAAP?
Ilyas: I think the major development is the establishment of AAAP itself, which was the very first organization of Pakistan, working for ex-Muslims and Atheists. People now know that ex-Muslims exist in Pakistan too. Secondly, it’s getting quite familiar within the social platforms that one can raise a question over the authenticity of the religion and its so-called values. But please count and consider the criticism and threats equally here :), but it is even more.
Lastly, people can talk to like-minded people and express their thoughts freely over religion. This organization can be considered as an effective tool to normalize the concept relates to questioning religion. And it’s definitely not wrong.
Jacobsen: Who is ‘Ayaz Nizami’?
Ilyas: Ayaz Nizami was Vice President of AAAP. He is a blogger who translated materials critical of Islam in English to Urdu for publishing. Nizami founded the website realisticapproach.org, a website in Urdu about irreligon.
Jacobsen: What happened to him? Why?
Ilyas: He was arrested in 2017 by the Federal Investigation Agency of Pakistan because of his views and thoughts over Islam. He used to talk about equality, freedom, and fundamental rights, which is not wrong; but in a state like Pakistan, it’s a crime.
Jacobsen: How does his case reflect others like those of the Ismail family and other secular and human rights activists in Pakistan?
Ilyas: This is definitely about the fundamental rights, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. To accuse its own citizens and suppressing their rights, what message Pakistan is conveying to the whole world? These are shameful acts and I definitely condemn it. It’s a negative obligation of the state to not interfere in rights and let people freely exercise their rights; and on the other hand, it is also a positive obligation of the state to do something in order to protect its citizen. But, unfortunately, the state of Pakistan, itself is lacking in fulfilling its obligations.
Jacobsen: How can people support ‘Ayaz’?
Ilyas: First of all, people should know that it’s not wrong to raise questions over religion. They should understand that human lives are more precious than any religion. They should raise their voices in favour of those who’re in prison and taken just because of their expressions towards Islam. There’s a long list of these people. Not only Ayaz Nizami but also Junaid Hafeez and many others. So people should realize if they won’t stand up for their own rights, no one would ever realize it that how important those rights are.
Jacobsen: What forms of pressure on governments work?
Ilyas: The realization of fundamental rights is very important and Pakistan should understand the importance of those rights. So I think we should never give up to raise our voices, we should keep it raising until it’s heard. I am also trying to raise this issue on every possible platform where I consider it could be heard. I think it’s not a problem of Pakistan only. There are many other Islamic states whose laws are enacted in a way that they are used as a tool to suppress human rights. So I think there should be international involvement too. United Nations and European countries should also realize the need to talk over this issue and definitely introduce a practical mechanism under which it can be assured that people wouldn’t be accused just because of their thoughts. And finally, blasphemy laws must be ended.
Jacobsen: How has the international community taken part in these efforts for Pakistani human rights activists?
Ilyas: Well, the recent development was made in the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was also accused in the blasphemy law. If we analyze the ground reality it was all about international pressure. But that’s not the only case. I mean it’s not enough. The international community should also realize that Asia Bibi is not the only case that needed attention. In fact, many people are suffering in prison, waiting for their trials. They also need protection, especially the protection of their fundamental rights.
Jacobsen: Any recommended activists’ cases who also need support and coverage?
Ilyas: As I mentioned earlier there’s a long list of those who had been killed by Islamists and violent mobs. Mishaal Khan is such a prominent name, the Christian couple was also set on fire. That’s also a prominent case. In these cases, justice should prevail. Furthermore, Junaid Hafeez, Ayaz Nizami, and many more should be released as soon as possible.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Fauzia.
Ilyas: Thanks to you too!!