The Moroccan apostate Kacem el-Ghazzali left Islam and became an atheist, and is now a political refugee in Switzerland. As reported by Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, he spoke at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy last month. The following interview with Mr. El-Ghazzali was published by Die Welt, and has been translated by JLH.
Elisabeth sends this introduction:
In February, I had the pleasure of listening to Kacem’s speech at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. He is a young man from Morocco who dared to speak his mind and received death threats as a result. He currently resides in Switzerland, seeking asylum and hoping for the best. As JLH succinctly notes (and whom we thank for the translation):
“A quite sophisticated understanding of what the Enlightenment did and why it was able to do it, versus the amorphous situation in Islam, with no temporal central authority to institute reform.”
The translated interview:
“We Atheists Are Creating a Parallel Society”
by Olivier Jeges
In his blogs, Moroccan Kacem el-Ghazzali openly and assertively professes his atheism. Because he can no longer believe in Islam, he receives death threats and had to leave his homeland.
Two years ago, in February 2011, Kacem el-Ghazzali fled to Switzerland. He had to leave his homeland, Morocco, because he no longer believed in Islam and had publicly professed atheism. Since then, he has continued to receive death threats. Now the 22 year-old is writing two blogs with a worldwide readership from exile — one on political Islam and one on human rights subjects.
Interest in his essays is great. More than 13,000 users on Facebook follow him. At the summit on human rights and democracy in Geneva this year, he gave a talk about his experiences as an atheist in Morocco. In an interview, Kacem el-Ghazzali talks about his life in Western society, his criticism of Islam and what it means, that he has had to leave his homeland for political reasons.
DW: Scarcely any Moroccan will profess his atheism as self-confidently as you. When did you decide to turn away from your religion? El-G: Essentially, it was less a moment in time than a process. Belief is often the result of a particular culture. Religion is at the center in our countries, or to put it better, it is the heart of this culture. I turned away from Islam when I began to question this culture. It is a culture that controls everything: our personal relations, our thoughts, even our imagination and our dreams. A culture that does not allow us to be different, or think differently. A culture that sticks its nose into everything. DW: What do these thoughts mean for you? El-G: When I became aware of this problem, I concluded that religion — not just Islam — is one of the greatest obstacles on the path to modernity. That is, it makes no sense, on the one hand, to call for respect for human rights while, on the other hand, religious texts call for the killing of infidels, bullying women and oppressing minorities. DW: How did your family react? El-G: It was a shock for my family. All of them were concerned. They didn’t really know what was happening. They were all of one opinion, but no one stood up for me. Not even when protest demonstrations against me were organized in front of my house. So I had to leave my home and my town and go into hiding until I had the entry permit for Switzerland. DW: Are you still in contact with your family? El-G: Yes, there is communication, But is it positive communication? Unfortunately not. The only positive conversations are on the telephone with my mother when I ask her about recipes. DW: You have been living in Switzerland for two years. Have you found a job? Do you have friends? El-G: I am not an economic refugee. Finding a job is not a priority. I would like to study. I get a little money from the Swiss state and that is enough to pay for books, food and an internet connection. Yes, working and earning my own money would mean being independent. But first, I want to study. I am frugal. I am not even thinking about buying a car, renting a big apartment or sending large amounts of money to my home country, as so many refugees do. DW: Could you or would you like to travel back to your homeland? El-G: I will certainly travel there if Morocco has healed itself of the cancer of Islamism, whose adherents want to kill me. And if my country accepts me and does not wish to take away my right to live as an atheist. If Morocco respects universal human rights and becomes a secular state, I will consider visiting there or even living there again. DW: Do you have any estimation of how many people in Arab territory share your view of religion?
El-G: Because atheism is such a great taboo in Arabic countries, it is hard to say how high the number of atheists there is. Sometimes, atheists are not even acquainted with each other. Everyone thinks of his own life and safety first, before he openly admits to being an atheist. Yet recently some voices have been heard. Most of them use the social networks to exchange thoughts and talk openly about their lack of faith and their views on Islam and religions in general. That sends a good signal to the West, which has thought for years that all the people in Arab countries are alike and are satisfied with one another. Nonetheless, we atheists are a parallel society which must stay in hiding out of fear. DW: What do you think of the so-called “Arab Spring? Can you discern positive changes? El-G: The beauty of Spring comes from various colors. Unfortunately, the supporters of the Arab Spring do not know these distinctions. They want everyone to think the same, dress the same and pray at the same time. Most of the supporters of the Arab Spring do not believe in human rights as the West understands them. For them, democracy is just a ladder for the climb to power. Then they fasten knives to the treads so that no other political parties can climb the ladder. What is happening in the Arab World now is comparable to what Europe went through in the 17th and 18th century. The difference is that this phase at that time brought forth enlightened philosophers and thinkers. In the Near East, on the contrary, the supporters of divine laws and the followers of Islam are coming to power. DW: But couldn’t Islam reform as happened with Christianity? El-G: In my opinion, there can be no reformation or enlightenment in Sunni or Shiite Islam, because there is no church to be reformed. In Islam, we are subject to the power of a sacred book and the instructions it gives. Identity and understanding of self come from the Koran. If Muslims could use their reason without the instructions of a book which is recognized as the Word of God, then we could talk about enlightenment. But today most Muslims are against the ideas of the Western Enlightenment. And they do not know that Muslims would be capable of achieving the same rights as the people in Western society. Historically, there were several attempts at reform in Islam, but they were not welcomed. Any moderate Muslim who would like to reform Islam should admit to himself that terror and violence are in the Koran. The unmitigated horror. But no Muslim could admit that the Koran is a politically- and historically-determined book — and not the word of Allah. DW: What are your plans for the future? El-G: I hope for and dream of the day when religious freedom and human rights come to Arab lands. I am working for that. I have dedicated my life to that. And in the meantime, I will drink a couple of beers every week with my girlfriend.
Update: The spelling of Kacem el-Ghazzali’s name has been changed to the correct one, at his request.