Stefan Paintner works for Atheist Refugee Relief. Here we learn more about some of the issues and difficulties of refugees, and the manner in which organizations can help support them to safety. This issue, apart from religion, will continue to increase as a problem for many years.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become involved, originally, with Atheist Refugee Relief?
Stefan Paintner: In 2015, when the big refugee migration came to Germany, we thought it would be important for us as an atheist group to also get involved in the social work that had to be done at the time. In Germany a lot of the social sector is run by the church, even though the population is not very religious. When we started getting involved, we met Rana Ahmad, a Saudi activist who got famous when she published a photo of her hand holding a notice with “Atheist Republic” written on it, inside of Mecca with the Kaaba in the background. She connected us with atheists in the camps in Germany. Together we tried to help them with a network of secular organizations like the GBS (Giordano Bruno Stiftung) that has local groups all over Germany.
Jacobsen: How have these efforts through Atheist Refugee Relief provided a basis solidifying moral precepts on top of the standard and mostly correct notion of atheism as a negative/rejecting belief?
Paintner: Through our practical work and our self-conception we increasingly succeed in convincing people that we are not just atheists, but atheists who care. This is the best way to promote atheism and humanism. We stand for human rights and humanist values. Also the atheists from the Islamic countries who have come to us, they all share the same basic values. If you really believe in the individual rights of every human being, you cannot be religious because many values would be excluded as a sin like for example homosexuality. A key element of humanism is also that there are no final truths, everything must always be up for discussion so that values and rules can improve further. So atheism is just a side effect of these values.
Jacobsen: What are some of the more prominent cases of atheist refugees?
Paintner: Regarding people, of course, it is Rana, the co-founder of the Atheist Refugee Relief, who also came here as a refugee herself. But we are also working with Worood Zuhair, a very powerful feminist activist from Kerbala, Iraq. Hisham is an atheist from Egypt who openly spoke about his humanist views on Egyptian television. Amed Sherwan, an Iraqi atheist who was tortured in Erbil because of his disbelief in Allah, he was 15 years old at that time. Munshi is an activist from Bangladesh, whose friends were murdered by Islamists. Hind Albolooki, a brave woman who managed to escape Dubai. And many, many more.
But it is also very important to raise awareness for the situation of ex-Muslim atheists. We were the first to expose the Saudi attempts to pressure Saudi refugees inside of Germany to go back to their home country or that their families tried to abduct them. But our main political success was to bring the criminal and Islamistic activities of the Shia militia “Al Salam 313” inside of Europe to the big media. Without the information we received from atheists we are in contact with, Europe would still not be aware of the serious threats that these militarily trained extremists pose to western societies. We even spoke about this in the EU parliament.
Jacobsen: Why is ProtonMail utilized by Atheist Refugee Relief?
Paintner: It was a recommendation by another activist. The data is stored in encrypted form and is therefore not accessible by third parties. When we communicate with other ProtonMail users, we can guarantee end-to-end encryption and the traffic cannot be monitored. Secure communication is crucial for many of our contacts.
Jacobsen: What is the right to self-determination for atheists in the context of religious societies? Also, what does this mean in theoretical and practical terms?
Paintner: They have to pretend to be religious, since it is not possible to leave Islam (currently, we are only in contact with ex-Muslims). If you do so you are guilty of apostasy and in 13 Islamic countries this is punishable by death. But also the threat and the pressure by their family can be enormous, especially for women. Women suffer the most, because if they don’t behave as a good Muslim, they might get beaten, tortured or even killed. Even small criticism can have harsh consequences, even here in Germany. One example is the atheist activist Yahya Ekhou from Mauritania. He posted a harmless comment regarding an accident in Egypt and the next day the Imam of the main mosque in Nouakchott (capital of Mauritania) announced a death fatwa against him. He is now in constant fear of his life, here in Germany.
Jacobsen: How many countries have the death penalty for apostasy or for leaving the faith? What countries? Why those nations?
Paintner: There are 13 countries that have the death penalty on apostasy (according to “WorldAtlas”). The most prominent is Saudi-Arabia, where atheists are terrorists by definition. And yet there are many living as atheists in the closet, as many people told us, who made it out of the Kingdom. The other countries are Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The Islamic countries (except Turkey) have different degrees of fundamentalist legislation, but they are all based on the Sharia. Thus, in Islamic countries there will always be some laws against blasphemy, apostasy or the like, and the consequences are unacceptable in terms of human rights.
Jacobsen: What religions persecute atheists per capita – thus, even if one accounts for total adherent differences between the world major religions and the world minor religions – the most as a matter of course, as a matter of fact? Why?
Paintner: Until now we are in contact with Ex-Muslims only, who had to flee their country but they are still not safe in Germany. We support people from 19 different Islamic countries. In the world, we observe that Muslims share a very high degree of identification with their religion. Anti-Western sentiments and anti-Semitism are also very common, so if someone embraces the values of enlightenment she or he is considered a traitor. It is worse when for women, because beyond that, they put shame on the family and the community, maybe simply by living a free and modern life-style. >This is why these atheist activists need special protection that we try to provide by hiding their address or transferring them to other regions of Germany.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved and help with ARR?
Paintner: The core of the organisation in Cologne is just about ten people. Now we are founding many regional groups. So we will be located not only in Cologne, but also in Munich, Stuttgart, Hamburg and more are coming. And we also have a highly active group in Austria. We need people to bring the problems of the atheist refugees to public attention and to support local refugees. We are all volunteers and depend on donations.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Paintner: It is very important for the atheist community to support the ones who are fighting to liberate their countries from religious terror. They pay a high price for this. They lose their friends, their home, their family, their community – everything. It is our duty to support them, because you don’t get freedom for free.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Stefan.
Paintner: It has been my pleasure.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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