(A shorter version of this article appears here in Quillette Magazine)
When I was a teenager I went through an intense period of religious belief that lasted no more than two to three years. I converted from being a fairly devout Catholic to a form of Evangelical Protestantism. Then one day I started to question everything I had believed in. I was no longer sure if I believed in the central claims of the Christian religion, regardless of the sect. Over time and through extensive reading I later concluded that Christianity's claims about the nature of the universe and man's place within it were demonstrably false and nonsensical. However, the important thing to note is that I was able to freely convert from one Christian sect to another and then abandon Christianity all together without worrying that either the state or any Christian authorities would seek to punish me for exercising my right to freedom of conscience. Also, I was able to openly discuss and air my doubts about Christianity with many Christians and whilst some Christians may become defensive and hostile to having their beliefs having the light of reason shone on them, I was never once concerned that a mob of Christians, egged on by an enraged cleric might kill me for blasphemy and apostasy. Just look at any works of art or controversial plays or films that offend Christian sensibilities, the most extreme Christians might turn out with a few placards and shout 'down with this sort of thing', whilst the rest of them will stay at home and say a well intentioned prayer and work on trying to forgive you. This is definitely a preferable scenario than being chased through the streets by a mob intent on stoning you to death for sharing a cartoon on facebook.
The reason that Christianity, especially so in the west, is less rabid and aggressive in dealing with critics and opponents is due to the influence of the Enlightenment philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with their emphasis on free speech, freedom of conscience and the rights of the individual. Before the Enlightenment, Christianity, just like Islam today, imposed severe punishments on those it believed had blasphemed or for converting to another religion or rival Christian sect.
Unfortunately, for many inhabitants of other parts of the world and even within certain communities in the west, the rights that most of us enjoy and which result from the influence of the Enlightenment, are almost non existent. According to Pew research, a majority of Muslims around the world seek to live under Sharia law which has a harsh penal code for both blasphemy and apostasy. Of these Muslims who partook in the Pew research and who favour Sharia law, the vast majority believe that apostasy, that is leaving Islam, should incur the death penalty. Even within Muslim communities in the west there is the threat of violence or at the very least ostracisation for leaving Islam within some families. I am sure there are plenty of less devout and secular Muslims in the west who wouldn't disown a family member or wish harm to them, but this doesn't detract from the fact that even in the west leaving Islam has serious consequences.
We in the west are used to hearing about young Muslim men from within our own societies who become radicalised and then seek to attack their countries of birth, or head off to the middle east to kill other Muslims and non-Muslims who don't agree with their particular version of Islam. However, we hear very little about those young Muslims who are abandoning Islam and are seeking to come to the west because they see it as an enlightened refuge that legally enshrines the right to speak and think as one chooses. Recently, I have become friends on line with a brave young Pakistani man who is seeking asylum in Europe because he lived under the imminent threat of death in his home country for being openly atheist and critical of the Islamic faith. Pakistan has very strict laws with regards to the criticism of Islam which is the official religion of the state. In order, to protect his identity, I shall not use his real name but refer to him as Martin.
The first thing that struck me about Martin's story is the impact that being an atheist and an ex-Muslim from Pakistan has had on his life. No human being should have to go in to hiding for fear of their life and be ostracised from their family because of their beliefs, whether religious or non-religious, and for having a critical opinion of belief systems of which you don't agree. However, this is exactly what happened to Martin after he openly engaged in debate with religious clerics in Pakistan. As a result he had fatwahs (religious rulings) issued against him which left him vulnerable to being killed by far right religious mobs or any enraged individual who recognised him. When he went to the police, not only could they not offer him any protection, but the state openly colludes with those who make death threats against atheists, as well as those from minority faith groups such as Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims.
"When I went to the police, the officer that I made the complaint to grabbed me by the throat and started shouting at me and telling me that I shouldn't be going against Islam and criticising the clerics."
There has been a huge rise in online atheist and secular activists in Pakistan who question Islam and it's undue influence over the state. The government have reacted by implementing cyber criminal laws which make on-line criticism of religion a criminal offence.
"Since the introduction of cyber criminal laws many atheist and secular activists have been deleting social media accounts for fear their real identities will be discovered and that they will be ostracised by their families and have religious clerics commanding their followers to kill them."
With the ongoing migrant crisis emanating from the Muslim world and as an asylum seeker himself, I was interested to know Martin's views on how the west should deal with immigration from countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan where illiberal and extreme far right religious views are common.
"I think that everyone coming to liberal democracies from any Islamic country must be questioned on their views regarding equality. Did they raise their voices for women's rights in their countries ? What are their views on the human rights violations of gays & lesbians in Islamic countries? Do they condemn the torture or killing of women, gay people, religious minorities and freethinkers in Islamic countries? What have they done to promote freedom of expression? Do they agree that religious ideas should be open to criticism like all ideas? Do they agree with Sharia law? If Muslims were to become a majority in the west would they agree with Sharia law being imposed here?
If individuals from Islamic countries agree with the values of liberal democracies then they should be allowed come and if not they shouldn't be let in. Another thing, all the preachers who belong to the Deobandi &Salafist branches of Sunni Islam must be banned from the west because they never condemn terrorism and extremism in Pakistan. They denounce the west in their mosques so why should they be allowed to come here to spread their extremist ideology and to attack the values of liberal democracies. They must not be allowed to come here."
Unfortunately, these extremist mosques are already well established in the west. When I put it to Martin that when a white, western, liberal male like myself makes the exact same points regarding immigration from the Islamic world I get denounced as a racist he just laughs and shakes his head at the absurdity of such an accusation. Unlike the regressive left, Martin has worked out that opposing and/or being critical of religious ideas isn't the same as hating people because of their skin color or ethnic origin. We discussed the fact that a screening program like the one we both advocate is not full proof in that people can always lie or tell you what they think you want to hear when being questioned.
"Ah, but you can ask questions in such a way to see whether they are hiding their real views and even if this fails and they enter you can always kick them out if you later find out they are religious extremists and not complying with the laws and values of the west."
Now, it is clear that race and ethnicity has nothing to do with Martin's views on Islamic immigration. He is clearly concerned about the effects large scale immigration from the Muslim world will have on the liberal democracy where he wants to become a citizen. After seeing how western regressive leftists denounce and ridicule former Muslims like Ayan Hirsi Ali and secular Muslims like Maajid Nawaz it is predictable that instead of listening to Martin they will question his motives and denounce him as a tool of the European far right, as opposed to an ambassador and champion of liberal enlightenment values who opposed the far right ideology of his own country and risked his life to defend those values. These regressives have never done anything riskier than unintentionally sending out a less than ideologically pure tweet to their coterie of social justice warrior mates on twitter.
Martin is merely a free thinking human being who believes that the liberal values in the west are superior to the values that are dominant in the country from which he had to flee on account of having a different opinion. The west should be prioritising and giving sanctuary to freethinkers like Martin along with secular Muslims, Christians, Ahmadiyya Muslims and even peaceful socially conservative Muslims who respect the human rights of others and oppose living under sharia law. It is immigrants like Martin that are an antidote against indigenous ultra-nationalist parties and who show that multi-ethnic societies can be vibrant and successful when they are built upon a common respect for the values of secular liberal democracy.
However, western governments have for decades not defended the values of liberal democracy. Instead, they have embraced multicultural social policies that do not encourage integration and allow parallel Islamic communities to thrive where many of its members are hostile to the values and culture of the west. If our immigration policies towards the middle east, north Africa and Asia had been regulated to ensure that we weren't importing people who are hostile to the values of liberal democracy then we wouldn't be having problems with both violent and non-violent extremism as well as the regrettable growing support for indigenous far right parties many of whose supporters are bigots and racists opposed to living in a multi ethnic society, whilst others are merely voting for these parties not because they are racist, but because none of the establishment parties are taking a tough line in dealing with Islamic extremism. However, these far right parties, such as those led by Gert Wilders in Holland, that are poised to take power are extreme and illiberal and will only exacerbate tensions within European society, but the rise of such parties lays with the disastrous immigration and multi-cultural social policies that failed to integrate Muslims and tolerated the rise of both violent and non-violent Islam across Europe.
Many individuals in western societies are unaware of the long march it took to gain the freedoms and rights they enjoy, which had to be wrestled from our own religious clerics and aristocratic classes, a battle that in countries such as Ireland is not quite yet complete. However, those on the regressive left seem to merely use these rights to criticise and denigrate their own societies for historical injustices or contemporary deficiencies,often rightly so, but at the same time not appreciating that in many countries it still isn't possible to criticise or challenge authority without risking a lengthy stay in prison or even the separation of one's head from the rest of your body in order to shut you up. The lack of a head making it somewhat more difficult to utter blasphemies.
The cohesion and long term survival of western liberal democracy entails defending our values against those values that are antithetical to our own. A part of this defence involves cohesive borders with an immigration policy that welcomes the arrival of future citizens from abroad whilst balancing it with our own long term security interests. An asylum seeker like Martin fleeing religious extremists in his own country can see the sense in such an immigration policy. I hope that Martin's application for asylum in Europe is successful. We need more people like him who are willing to defend the values of liberal democracy, as opposed to the growing number of those among us who seem incapable of appreciating the freedoms unique to liberal democracies and who do little else but denigrate the west at every turn. As Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States said, "Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty."