Over the past few years, Secular Rescue has seen an increasing number of urgent requests for aid and other forms of assistance from threatened atheists—typically ex-Muslims—residing in the northern regions of Africa. This part of the world has seen a resurgence in extremism and anti-atheist violence since the so-called Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in late 2010 and then spread into nearby Morocco and Libya and then to Oman, Yemen, and Egypt in early 2011. Since then, instability and corruption have been the norm, with militias in control of many areas. Scant progress in civil and economic reform has been compounded by ethnic, sectarian, and tribal violence.
For some of the more publicly outspoken nonbelievers, and especially ex-Muslims, in these failed states, the spring of hope has become a summer wasteland of fear and oppression. Power vacuums have ushered in religious authoritarians who rule under the banner of faith and righteousness, leaving minorities and freethinkers exposed to the worst kinds of discrimination.
One of these brave secularists, who goes by the name Hassan (an alias), reached out to Secular Rescue in early 2020. He told us of the daily harassment and assaults, the death and rape threats, and his inability to work and live in peace and safety with his family because of his well-known atheism. At the time, Hassan had only the equivalent of $70 to his name, and his need for relocation was evident, which we determined by investigating his claims, listening to threats made against him, and viewing evidence of the physical abuse that was inflicted upon him by community members.
Hassan renounced his faith in Islam nearly ten years ago when he was still a teenager. His doubt began to grow when he was bullied in school, which led him to question his faith in a religion that failed to protect or feed him and his family. Years later, when his older sister was brutally assaulted, Hassan’s doubt turned to clarity.
In 2017, he was outed as an ex-Muslim, which elicited numerous instances of physical and emotional abuse inside a refugee camp. A year later, he was attacked on three separate occasions by extremists who accused him of being a kafir (infidel). They beat him badly, breaking his nose and arm and fracturing his skull, and after the last attack, he was beaten unconscious and left for dead.
When he woke in a hospital and began to recuperate, he took a stand and notified the police, who brought him into the station to identify his attackers face-to-face. The police were not inclined to protect him. His attackers threatened his family to the point that he asked the case to be dropped.
By year’s end, however, Hassan was awarded a scholarship at a renowned university in Kenya and relocated from the Dadaab Refugee Camp to Nairobi, far enough from his family to keep them safe. He would also send back money he made from online research and translations work, along with parts of his scholarship funds. But his relocation to Kenya became known to his previous assailants, who had been looking into his whereabouts, actively seeking to have him killed or jailed for his open apostasy and public criticisms of Islam.
Hassan increased his activism on behalf of atheists and human rights, to the point that he was interviewed on podcasts and YouTube channels. He now runs a blog that focuses on atheism and human rights issues, while volunteering for other rescue-oriented organizations, helping several other ex-Muslims escape persecution and oppression in other African nations.
And yet Hassan was arrested as recently as two months ago, although he was later released because of a lack of evidence.
“They came to my place of lodging, made me lay on the floor of my room, and held a gun against the back of my head.[They] ransacked my room, looking for guns and anything illegal,” he told Secular Rescue. “I was paraded through town and taken for questioning at the police station. I was told that someone had reported me as being a member of Alshabab, planning to bomb Nairobi city.”
He was informed that even if they didn’t find him guilty, they would look for other things to charge him with. They later discovered that someone had lied to the police about the incident—perhaps the same Muslims from the rehab center with whom he has had problems in the past due to his work helping young people forcibly held there.
Secular Rescue has been providing Hassan financial support for transitional living assistance. These funds have allowed him to pay for food, rent, and other basic living expenses until his security situation improves. Despite the immense difficulties associated with the pandemic as it relates to border-crossings and visa acquisitions, Secular Rescue will continue to support Hassan into 2021 and work on relocating him to safer, long-term destinations until he finds a place of safety, peace, and possibility.
Matthew Cravatta is the director of Secular Rescue, a program of CFI specifically designed to provide emergency assistance to atheist writers, bloggers, publishers, and activists who face threats due to their beliefs or expressions regarding religion. Learn more at secular-rescue.org.