July 22, 2016
BY: ELLIOT FRIEDLAND
Syed Ahsan Gilani is an activist and a free thinker born and raised in Pakistan. He spent his early youth as a practicing Sunni Muslim. In his late-teens, He began to read the Quran critically and left religion soon after.
In 2012, he co-founded the Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan, where he advocates for the acceptance of religious dissent and works to create support group for those who have left Islam. He is now the spokesperson for that organization.
Clarion Project: Your manifesto states you “insist that no one be pigeonholed as Muslims with culturally relative rights” what are culturally relative rights and why don’t you like them?
Syed Ahsan Gilani: Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual person’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others but unfortunately it is not like this among Muslims. They are not ready to give us our rights. They want to tie us with their so-called religious values & they want to impose it on us.
We don’t encourage it because every person has their own choice to spend their life in their own way. It’s his basic right weather he spend his life with religion or without religion.
If he spend his life with religion then he has right to choose the specific religion. But sadly Muslims consider only Islam is the true religion, Islam is the prior one.
They don’t allow others to cross the edge of Islam. We are against this mindset.
Clarion: In what specific ways does your organization work to support freethinking in Pakistan?
Gilani: AAAP is the first organization of Pakistan for Atheist & Agnostic. The main purpose of this organization is to support people & give them a platform to speak, to share their ideas & thoughts.
People need this because it’s not allowed in Pakistan to speak openly against religion.
There is not even freedom to discuss these things with families.
If anyone gets in trouble then we support to find him a safe place. In many cases families boycott people socially, so we help them to manage their lives smoothly & in easy way.
Our main purpose is to motivate people & help them realize they are not alone.
To all atheists and agnostics in Pakistan: We are standing with you. And we will never leave you in any trouble.
Clarion: What is the most difficult thing about your work?
Gilani: The most difficult thing for atheists is to speak openly in public. Being a Pakistani & an atheist is such a risky combination. Anyone who speaks & criticizes religion openly can legally be persecuted using blasphemy law, so people have to hide their real identities & names.
It is also difficult thing to face rude behavior from Muslims who abuse us. They call us kafir (Infidels), traitors.
They see us as such a lower level of human being. We receive death threats on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s really difficult to decide how to save our lives from these Islamists.
Clarion: Are there any religious figures or organizations that you work with to support your goals of separating religion and state in Pakistan?
Gilani: Yes we have some religious scholars (Ex-Muslims now) with strong Muslim backgrounds. They are helping us, but they also feel fear Muslim society & their families as well. Because once Islamists get to know that they are atheists, their lives will be in in danger.
Many people cannot show their real identities & names because of fear.
But they are really willing to stand with the slogan (Religion should be separate from the state).
Clarion: Where do atheists and agnostics congregate to discuss religion and non-belief? Are these spaces growing? Are they safe?
Gilani: Yes we arrange different meetings. But we convene in secret meetings after finding a safe place.
It’s simply not safe to discuss atheism openly in a public place & gather at a place that is not secure enough.
Sometimes we conduct Skype meetings also.
Clarion: What do atheists and agnostics in Pakistan need from those who support their rights who live in other countries, particularly in the West?
Gilani: We need to convey our message to those who are atheist from Pakistan but are now settled in West countries. We want them to help Pakistani atheists by raising their voices on international forums.
Apart from that we also want other organizations to put pressure on Pakistan to end Blasphemy law.
We want to create a situation where people can live their lives with no fear.