How Can Biden Help Atheist Asylum Seekers Rejected by Sweden?
Updated: Nov 6, 2021
Sweden's unfortunate history of discrimination towards atheists endangers lives.
"You don't exist. Atheists don't exist in Morocco," Mohamed Amara said in a Zoom interview.
After receiving death threats from extremist Muslim vigilantes while in Morocco, Amara, a former Muslim, fled to Sweden during a harsh winter blizzard. However, Amara very quickly learned that Sweden had no interest in considering his asylum case.
"Atheists cannot be considered to have a need to express their views in words or active deeds in the same manner as converts," the Swedish Migration Court shared in a statement.
According to Amara, the court did not deny that he was harassed due to his criticism of Islam and the Moroccan monarchy. Instead, they suggested he "did not exhaust the local resources" in Morocco, a country that officially enforces blasphemy laws.
Blasphemy laws are any laws that prohibit blasphemy, the act of insulting or challenging religious sentiments. These types of laws are active in over seventy of all the countries in the world. According to Article 220 of Morocco's Penal Code, anyone considered to convert or "shake the faith" of a Muslim may be sentenced to prison up to three years. This is an obvious barrier to freedom of religion and speech. After all, anyone freely expressing their identity and experiences as a former Muslim could be considered guilty of blasphemy.
He emailed a letter to Moroccan embassies across Europe denouncing his Moroccan nationality, the monarchy, and Islam as a protest against the denial of his initial asylum case.
Amara also protested by burning a copy of the Quran on a YouTube video released in early May.
"This is a more legal way of them telling me to shut up and go back where I came from," Amara said in the video.
Unfortunately, Amara's story is not unique.
"The court believes that my atheism is genuine, but claims that I can live in Afghanistan anyway," Afghan blogger Emran Mohammedi wrote in his last blog post in April 2019.
Like Amara, Mohammedi was a former Muslim who became an atheist; however, he was from Afghanistan, a country that formally punishes apostasy with state-sanctioned murder. Regardless, Sweden also rejected his application for asylum.
Similarly, Khalid Saeed, a former Muslim from Pakistan, renounced Islam and declared himself an atheist. In Pakistan, this was considered blasphemy which may be punishable by death. Regardless, he was denied asylum in 2011. As a result, Humanists International released a statement to show support for Saeed.
In Morocco alone, many other atheists were unjustly targeted for their religious or nonreligious identities despite the country lacking official apostasy laws.
Whether they were targeted with false drug charges, like Mohamed Sokrate, or with blasphemy explicitly, it remains clear that atheists and those deemed not Muslim enough are most at risk due to the harassment and death threats they receive from their communities and authorities.
Many secular people abroad, especially those from Muslim backgrounds feel unheard and unrepresented or even misrepresented, in politics and media. Imad Iddine Habib, the founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Morocco, even reported his own feelings of betrayal by the "secular left."
Often, other citizens or organizations also carry out these injustices on the basis of blasphemy themselves. Due to a report filed against her by an Islamic organization, a Moroccan Italian woman was arrested, imprisoned, and fined for publishing a satirical form of the Quran on her Facebook page two years prior. It was known as Surat al-Whiskey.
The countries from where many secular people flee often fail to acknowledge the realities faced by nonreligious minorities abroad. This may be due to the misrepresentation of these minorities by their officials and their media.
Humanists International subtly pointed this out in their statement of support for Khalid Saeed.
"There are many examples that show that the risks to people dubbed 'infidels' are not only theoretical but very real, whatever officials from Pakistan may claim," they said.
Furthermore, the limits on press freedom are rooted in religious supremacy in many of these countries, including Morocco. Thus, displaying the realities of nonreligious people would not likely be permitted under the law. This fascist erasure of secular people goes against democratic ideals.
As Noam Chomsky said, "He who controls the media, controls the minds of the public."
Many secular people abroad in overwhelmingly religious countries have very little say in their media representation. They are ignored by most Western media and demonized in their home countries. As a result, the injustices they face continue to be justified and upheld within their communities.
According to the End Blasphemy Laws Coalition, publications that criticize "the monarchy, Islam and 'sacred institutions'" in Morocco are prohibited.
"This article is generally used as a political weapon against journalists, activists and artists who criticise the government and its institutions," they report.
The narratives of ex-Muslims are primarily in the hands of conservative Muslim-majority communities or countries they live in. Questioning the discriminatory practices can endanger community members. Even in Sweden, since ex-Muslims are still a minority within a larger minority, their narratives are still largely controlled by others even on the political level.
"In Sweden, there are more Islamist organizations that lobby for the interests of the ultraconservative Muslims than for progressive Muslims or ex-Muslims," Amara said.
After all, some of these ultra-religious groups displayed interest in creating separate laws for Muslims in Sweden which would negatively impact various minorities including LGBTQ+, women, and apostates.
Besides the specific discrimination and lack of empathy that secular asylum seekers receive, the barriers that exist for asylum seekers in general also impede those who are secular.
For example, there is the Dublin Regulation which establishes "the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national" according to the UN Refugee Agency.
This means asylum seekers are not permitted to seek asylum beyond the first European Union country they reach unless otherwise permitted. If the country handling their asylum case fails to act justly and threatens to deport the asylum seeker, they have very few, if any, protections.
For Amara, this means that Sweden must choose between carrying out justice or being complicit in endangering his life.
This should not be a difficult decision.
What Can Biden Do?
Secular people abroad deserve solidarity. Politicians have the opportunity to advocate against the injustices secular people face. As a matter of fact, Congress already took the first steps.
According to a press release from December 2020, U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin's House Resolution 512, "calling for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws, passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 386–3."
On the house floor, Jamie Raskin referenced many Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and others who were targeted by such laws. However, secular people, whether atheist or agnostic, deserve explicit acknowledgment in advocacy for religious freedom.
While this resolution remains an important symbol for global religious freedom, the Biden Administration and the 117th congress must implement tangible domestic and foreign policies that further the goal of this resolution.
Otherwise, it is just empty rhetoric.
The Secular Coalition of America, an advocacy group currently representing 19 different secular groups, released a "Secular Agenda" for the Biden Administration and the 117th congress. In the agenda, they asked that Congress members "advocate for the inclusion of protections for atheists and other religious minorities seeking asylum in any new legislation regarding asylum policy."
The Biden Administration and Congress must not only use their platform to address injustices faced by asylum seekers, like Amara, but they must also fight to improve the conditions of asylum seekers so that they have the resources necessary to start their new lives.
Furthermore, President Biden must use his bully pulpit to bring attention to injustices faced by asylum seekers, including those who are nonreligious. Whether such injustices are happening in the US or with our so-called allies and enemies. This includes countries like Sweden which fail to treat secular asylum seekers with basic dignity though their lives may be at risk.
Biden could begin by hosting public forums addressing religious freedom domestically and abroad. It would be especially important to ensure that such a forum involves not only the Swedish prime minister and other global leaders but also secular organizations, such as Ex-Muslims of North America.
After all, the Biden administration already held a meeting with various atheist and secular groups in the US; however, making such a forum public is essential to showing the commitment to religious liberties for all around the world. It would also bring much needed media attention to the struggles faced by secular people abroad.
By standing up for secular asylum seekers, such as Mohamed Amara, Biden would also be standing up for religious liberty for all.
Amara simply wants Sweden to follow "their own laws which are against discrimination - especially in cases of atheists and minorities that don't have lobbies to stand up for them."