Atheist Afghan receives asylum in the UK – for fear of religious persecution

The Home Office has granted asylum to a man in fear of his life because he no longer believes in God and wishes to live his life without publicly practising Islam. How many others are there who will need protection because of their lack of religious faith

The official line on Afghanistan, as British troops prepare to depart after a deployment that began (unbelievably) more than twelve years ago, is that everything is just fine. "Mission accomplished" said David Cameron last month as he spoke to soldiers still based at Camp Bastion in Helmand province. "We have more than played our part in helping to rebuild this country and making it safe," he added.

It would indeed be nice to think that a country whose constitution was framed in the full glare of international scrutiny and whose government has been propped up and supported by key UN powers would be one in which basic human rights were respected.

So it must be at the very least embarrassing that our own Home Office, not an institution often accused these days of being a soft touch, has granted asylum to a man in fear of his life because he no longer believes in God and wishes to live his life without publicly practising Islam.  According to the man's legal team, he fears for his safety even in the UK (where he has lived for the past seven years) should his name become known; if he returned to Afghanistan he would face persecution, even possibly a death sentence for blasphemy or apostasy under Sharia law. Even living "discreetly" as an atheist might prove impossible, it was argued, given that "every aspect of daily life and culture in Afghanistan is permeated by Islam".

This last point suggests that the Home Office may have applied a precedent created in a case decided by the European Court of Justice in September 2012.  Two Amahdis - members of a community that suffers systematic discrimination in Pakistan - successfully argued that laws penalising Ahmadis engaging in proselytism or even describing themselves as Muslims (which they believe themselves to be) amounted to persecution.

The German government argued that such restrictions on the public practice of faith did not constitute persecution for the purposes of the right of asylum. The ECJ disagreed. It ruled that both public and private exercise of religious freedom was protected under the EU asylum directive: "where it is established that, upon his return to his country of origin, the person concerned will engage in a religious practice which will expose him to a real risk of persecution, he should be granted refugee status" . The court went on to state that "national authorities cannot reasonably expect the applicant to abstain from the manifestation or practice of certain religious acts" to escape persecution.

Such reasoning would apply equally, or even more, to people not publicly practising any religion in places where this would place them in personal danger or threaten them with severe legal sanctions.

Is Afghanistan such a country, even after twelve years of international intervention and the loss of many of our own soldiers' lives?

Officially, at least, the Afghan constitution guarantees freedom of religion, if only for Afghans who have a religion. While declaring Islam to be the "sacred religion of Afghanistan", the country's constitution promises that "followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rights". It says nothing about the rights of non-believers, however. A US State Department report in 2012, moreover, concluded that other provisions of Afghan law contradicted these fine words.

It noted that "in situations where the constitution and penal code are silent, including apostasy and blasphemy, courts relied on interpretations of Islamic law, some of which conflict with the country’s international commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights". In particular, "conversion from Islam is considered apostasy and is punishable by death under some interpretations of Islamic law in the country". While there seemed to be no one currently facing death in the country for blasphemy or as an apostate, the report declared that "the right to change one’s religion was not respected either in law or in practice". It also suggested that people accused of such "crimes" found it difficult to obtain legal representation "due to most Afghan lawyers’ personal objection to defending apostates".

Even if the present Afghan government doesn't actively persecute non-believers, it would seem to have very little control over those who might. As Patrick Cockburn recently commented, "the main problem in Afghanistan is not the strength of the Taliban but the weakness of the government".

Today's case is unusual in that it's said to be the first in this country in which lack of religion, rather than adherence to a persecuted minority faith, has been used as a ground for a successful asylum application. Indeed, the news has moved the British Humanist Association's Andrew Copson to make the questionable assertion that "Freedom of belief for humanists, atheists and other non-religious people is... too often neglected by Western governments who focus too narrowly on the rights of Christians abroad, as we have seen recently".

This will come as a surprise to many disappointed by the British government's slowness in responding to the plight of Christian communities in countries where they face systemic persecution, exile or death, especially in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring - a process that, as William Dalrymple recently wrote, has "rapidly turned into a Christian winter". But Copson is undoubtedly right to point out that freedom of religion and freedom from religion are equally important. In fact, they are essentially the same thing. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the "right to freedom of thought, "conscience and religion", a right that, importantly, "includes the freedom to change one's religion or belief".

This much, indeed, seems obvious. We tend to think of religious belief (or lack thereof) as being essentially a matter of personal conscience. The notion of forcing someone to adhere to a particular religious doctrine strikes most people in the developed world as fairly absurd, however natural it may once seemed to, say, Henry VIII. Indeed, the idea of the religious conscience wasn't invented during the European Enlightenment: a much-quoted verse of the Quran proclaims that there should be "no compulsion in religion". Yet in many parts of the world, including in some major Western allies such as Saudi Arabia, the right to criticise or publicly dissent from the prevailing religion scarcely exists. A report prepared last year by the International Humanist and Ethical Union declared that "the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers... In the worst cases, the state denies the rights of atheists to exist, or seeks total control over their beliefs and actions."

This suggests that, potentially, there may be millions of people who could, like the unnamed Afghan man, justifiably claim a well-grounded fear of persecution because of their lack of religious faith.
 

 

A mosque is silouetted at sunset in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Getty
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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.