Freethinking perilous in a non-free country

FFRF’s Nonbelief Relief gave a $5,000 relief stipend to the author of this article, who is remaining anonymous because of threats against her. To save her life, she and a family member were brought over to the United States from Iraq in June, with the help of the State Department. She had appeared on the “The Rubin Report” to discuss her situation and the dangers of living in Iraq as a nonbeliever. She received death threats after the show aired, and the video has been removed from “The Rubin Report” site. The audio is still available, however.

This is her story.

By Lubna

My name is Lubna, and I am a 25-year-old Iraqi student who was living in Baghdad, where I was working toward a masters degree in chemical engineering.

I was raised by my mother, who is a mechanical engineer and driven by the values of goodness, science and reason. As a rationalist, she believes that the human mind, rather than God, is the key to life and knowledge. It’s not the most popular view in Iraq and it caused her to be scorned by her family. So my mother married not out of love, but to escape her family and the terror and abuse of her father and brother.

However, my father was a lazy, selfish and irresponsible person. So, it was my mother who worked hard to take care of her children and her family while my father sat home like a king, taking her paycheck, treating her poorly, and repeatedly subjecting her and my older sister to beatings. After many years of abuse, my mother applied for a divorce, which, in most parts of the Middle East, requires surrendering your rights and your reputation in the community.

Nevertheless, she did what she had to do to raise my siblings and me, teaching us to always rely on our intelligence and hard work. A brave and intelligent woman, my mother always rejected Islam. She has always been a role model, instilling in me the importance of believing in myself and my own sense of reason and justice.

Controlled by militia

In 2004, militias took over governmental buildings, companies, and controlled virtually every aspect of life in the community. They also controlled social customs, including requirements for women to dress modestly and wear a hijab.

When my mother went to work one day, an al-Mahdi militiaman ordered her to put on a hijab or she would not be allowed to work. My mother always refused to wear a head cover, and in this case her passionate rebuff created a stir. Soon, his superior joined the fray and they both mocked and then physically abused her. Her instinct was to fight back, however futile, but fortunately her fellow employees held and protected her. Though she did not tell us at the time, I soon found out from other students in school who were laughing about it and insulting me in school.
A couple of years later in 2006, my mother and I had to pass through an al-Qaida checkpoint on the way home. As the bus pulled to the side of the road, a number of passengers admonished her to put on a hijab for fear the militants might execute her as an apostate. Again, she refused and instead looked at me, fully aware of the consequences. “Lubna, I’m sorry, but I will not do it!” she said.

Her convictions were more important to her than her life. And in that moment, with the real possibility she might be executed, she not only refused to surrender her principles, but scolded others for asking her to do so. I will always remember that moment vividly — perhaps the most significant in my life.

At an early age, and particularly from that point forward, I wanted to emulate my mother. My sense of curiosity and justice had me asking more questions about religion, God and Islam. Of course, we were forced to study Islam in school, including the Quran and Hadiths. But the teachers would always get angry when I asked questions or refused to accept that girls should be forced to wear headscarves when boys had no such obligations.

For this, I was kicked out of two different schools and instead studied Islam on my own, where I quickly found the teachings ridiculous, as nothing compared to science, reason and the possibilities of the human mind.

Declared my nonbelief

While my mother understood this well before I did, she encouraged my siblings and me to attend the required religious instruction in order to focus on completing our education. I resisted initially, but later understood and accepted her advice. Still, I felt the need to declare my nonbelief to my friends in high school and my community, which caused a great deal of conflict. I lost virtually all of my friends and became a somewhat hated figure.

In spite of this rather significant impediment, I was a good student and managed to gain acceptance into a chemical engineering program in college. I had hoped for a minimal level of acceptance for my views in college, but when I declared my atheism to fellow students, I was once again isolated and subjected to repeated verbal abuse.

Though I lived under very dangerous and poor conditions, I refused to renounce my atheism. I refused to be escorted by my brother in public. And I refused to wear a hijab.

Predictably, I was subjected not only to verbal abuse, but physical violence. I had been assaulted many times, not only because of my refusal to wear a hijab, but because I was not particularly shy about arguing for my rights or criticizing the Quran and Islam, which is illegal under the Sharia. There have been many circumstances where the al-Mahdi militia had asked me to wear a hijab and, like my mother, I refused. On one particular occasion, I was slapped for telling a militia member he had no right to tell me what to believe. And, like my mother, I tried to fight back until others intervened to separate us.

Though I was consistently stopped at checkpoints and verbally and sometimes physically abused, and though one cannot help but experience moments of gloom and despair, I was proud and fortunate for my mother and my family and happy with the person I became. I chose not to worship an imaginary being but to respect and emulate human beings such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan and Sam Harris. My beliefs are fortified by my upbringing and the values imparted to me by my mother. My passionate embrace of science and my contempt for an oppressive and irrational belief system work in synergy to foster a relentless pursuit of logic, reason and desire to learn.

Follies of religion

It was thus I came to realize the follies of the Quran and Hadiths, and the obvious fact that the Quran was written not by “Allah,” but by human beings — and human beings of very limited sophistication. Where women are reduced to slaves; where we are encouraged to believe in absurdities rather than to ask questions; and to fear and hate non-Muslims. Everything in Islam seems designed to freeze the brain rather than allow it to flourish in its own natural logic.

Unlike religion, science compels us to believe not because of faith, but because of reason and evidence. And while science does not explain all phenomena in nature, religion explains nothing. There is nothing more to learn, where in science the search is never-ending!

I have spoken my mind and my thoughts without fear. I’ve discussed my opinions about religions and Islam and how religions affected our lives, and how Islam is an aggressive and radical ideology, how it’s destroying our lives, our future, how it built the darkness and fear in our life for centuries and still does.

I openly shared my thoughts. I do believe it’s our duty to speak and show people we can change. We can build a free space where everyone has the choice to choose what they believe in, when the logic and sense are our guides in this universe. We have been born without knowing “God” and religions. We came into this world where our families and communities taught us what is “God.” What are religions? We have been taught to accept what others wanted us to think and that completely destroyed the human sense of curiosity.

Constant death threats

In Baghdad, I was known for my activities and opinions. I openly discussed atheism. I criticized Islam and called it an ideology of terrorism that created all the discrimination we live in nowadays. Born a female and insisting on continuing my education without fear, I was under constant death threats. I was hit for being a girl, not wearing a headscarf. It’s very dangerous for a girl to be publicly atheist. Why must I hide my true identity while Muslims are free to kill atheists and freethinkers and criticize and discriminate against Christians and Jews and all the religions and beliefs that are not Islam?

Why is it important for me to declare that I’m an atheist, knowing the situation is deadly? For me, it’s important to show my identity; otherwise I’m just like them. It’s important for us humans to have our own identities and principles. I faced death threats and received threats that they want to kill me and kill all the atheists and seculars — whoever dares to speak up against Islam. I tried to be focused on what I do and on my studies, but at the same time I couldn’t sit and do nothing.

I believe when one starts to talk others, we can make a movement in my country. I continued to do what I believe in, to share, talk and post in social media. It was horrible to live a life when death and darkness is all that I saw and felt. But that didn’t stop me from my goal: to get people to act and speak up now, to save what’s left, to save the humanity.

Shared my story

In February of 2016, I got to share my story, my thoughts with the world in an interview by Dave Rubin of “The Rubin Report.” I explained how my mother, a divorced woman, raised four children by her own and how my father would hit her and treat her very badly, like many stories women have in my country and the Middle East. I shared my thoughts about Islam and Iraqi government.

The interview was shared widely after receiving positive feedback from people. Lots of people started to realize how it’s important for me and individual activists, atheists and freethinkers like me in the Middle East and in closed societies to speak up and act now.

But at the same time it was potentially deadly for me. I received a lot of death threats. There was an order to shed my blood. It was horrible for me and for those who are close to me.

I’m still struggling to describe how I felt and how I feel now. I spent days and nights alone, always changing places. I couldn’t speak or talk. I missed my own voice. I was convinced that I would end up being killed — it was only a matter of time. I didn’t care about myself, but the one I love and about the cause. I tried to stay alive so that I have the chance to speak again and share my story with people, to open their eyes about what is going on.

Great people and friends were the light to me to stay alive and to have hope in this world. I couldn’t believe how this universe gave me the chance to know these great people. I owe them my life, for their patience, for their endless efforts and support, for their humanity, for their kindness, their love. I’m very grateful to all of you.

I’m trying to heal myself from what I have been through and focus on living normally. I will continue what I do to the end. I do believe in what I do. I hope all of the free people in the free world will help and act to save humanity for future generations.

Freedom From Religion Foundation