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Waleed Al-Husseini : Blasphemy Is My Right

  Waleed Al-Husseini:“Blasphemy Is My Right”
 Because he came out as an atheist, Palestinian writer Waleed Al Husseini was brutally repressed by his country’s secret police. Now in exile in Paris, he tells Free Arabs about his trial and tribulations.

Author of the book Blasphémateur! Les Prisons D’Allah (Grasset, 2015), Waleed Al-Husseini has been making headlines in Francophonic circles. The Palestinian exile in Paris was the first person to have been arrested in the West Bank for leaving Islam, a physical and psychological ordeal that never deterred him from speaking his mind. Proof of such perseverance is his founding of the Council of Ex-Muslims of France as soon as he set foot in Paris. Still awaiting an update of his refugee status by French authorities, Waleed spoke to Free Arabs about his journey out of Islam, the trials of his detention and persecution, and his firm belief in the necessity of a radical reform in Arab intellectual life.

“I was raised Muslim. But as early as age 13, my mind started to wander. There were a lot of existential questions in my teenager’s head. But to much of my dismay, the answers given to me back then by authority figures – elders, Imams, teachers – were not convincing at all. Nor were the simplistic explanations of Islamic references. I understood that I had to take matters into my own hands. So I began reading the books I could get my hands on. The discovery of the elementary notion of Evolution was mind-blowing. Books like Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Darwin’s The Origin Of Species opened my eyes to a whole new paradigm. By age 17, I graduated high school and enrolled in university as an IT student. My atheism, although still secret, had fully blossomed. The secrecy couldn’t have lasted for long anyway. The Arab blogosphere of culture and ideas embraced me with open arms…

The idea that Palestinian public opinion would be hostile to my atheist coming out still surprises me to this day. For a culture living under constant Israeli oppression, you would think that Palestinian intellectual life would be marked by defiance of the mainstream. And in many ways, it is. Intellectuals like Mahmoud Darwich never hid their doubt of all things religious to their readers. But one must not forget the nature of the societies they are addressing, I guess. Palestinian society, despite being united in resistance, is quite sectarian. Very early in my blogging days, I started getting intimidating comments and threats online. I stopped writing from home and instead blogged from scattered, random locations. One of those was the cybercafé I was arrested in on November 2nd, 2010.

I was treated as an enemy of the state. You’d think I was a spy. My arrest was performed by Palestinian intelligence officers, who locked me up in one of their facilities. During more than ten months of “investigation,” I was beaten, tortured and smeared at will. Thinking back, I do not believe the men interrogating me were conceptually equipped to understand that atheism can be a conscious, personal choice. Theories of conspiracy and foreign meddling loomed over my head for the entire duration of my incarceration. I was asked about who was financing my atheism. They pressed on with the scenario of Israeli involvement. In their minds, this could have been nothing but a plot. Palestinian atheist? It cannot be!

To make matters worse, the tribunal tasked with delivering my sentence was a military one. The reason? My online atheism was a “threat to national security!” The trial kept going on and off for about six months. And who were those witnesses summoned by the tribunal to testify against me? The very people who spent weeks physically abusing me and asking me the most absurd questions. It was quite a laughable situation.

I was released in September 2011 as part of the batch of prisoners pardoned on the occasion of the Eid Al Adha religious holiday. The release was no indication that I would be cut some slack, however. Palestinian intelligence was still sending its men to watch over me, under the dubious claim that they wanted to “protect” me against any popular retaliation. I was also summoned to intelligence headquarters for further questioning. By 2011, news of my persecution had gained international traction. I was told for instance that former French Minister of Foreign Affairs Michelle Alliot-Marie had called for my release twice. Exhausted of all the negative attention and with that knowledge in mind, I set my escape plan in motion…
The men interrogating me were not conceptually equipped to understand that atheism can be a conscious, personal choice. Theories of conspiracy and foreign meddling loomed over my head during my incarceration. I was asked about who was financing my atheism 
Getting out of the West Bank and into Jordan was way easier than I thought, for the very obvious reason that Palestinian security services have no control over what is going on at the border. For a short moment, Israeli soldiers turned from oppressors to liberators: they let me cross the gate without any hassle. Why not? They didn’t have anything against me. My government did.

Things went smoothly from then on. I was hosted by an aunt of mine who lives in Amman and was able to apply for asylum at the French Embassy there. French authorities were already aware of my case, courtesy of the international mobilization for my release. The French Republic granted me temporary asylum as a political refugee. As soon as I could, I flew to Paris. But then, what to do next? Whatever I had so strongly fought for had to amount to something. The idea of a book on my experience as an Arab atheist was already simmering in my mind. But in the meantime, there was a more urgent endeavor awaiting my undertaking.

An atheist is surely not a stranger in Paris, bastion of the secular Republic. But an outspoken Arab Ex-Muslim atheist? Quite the opposite. The contradiction in France was striking: the law may be on the side of those who want to leave Islam, but their immediate social entourage rarely is. The pressure to conform that French citizens of Muslim upbringing face is real. Bringing their narratives into the spotlight was necessary. It is in that respect that I co-founded the Council of Ex-Muslims of France with 14 other ex-Muslims in July 2013. As there were already Ex-Muslim chapters in North America and the UK, having one in Paris was the least we could do. In less than two years, our membership quadrupled.

Was I stubborn, hard-headed or uncompromising? Not really. I was just standing my ground. My decision to do so was merely motivated by a deep conviction that I was not doing anything wrong at all. I am also relieved that being overwhelmingly outnumbered did not trigger any doubts regarding my atheism. The latter was a personal achievement of mine, and under no circumstances was I going to give up on it. Letting go of Islam is psychologically exhausting enough. Going back to it was out of the question.

Arab societies must grapple with the necessity to criticize bad ideas. All bad ideas, including the ones propagated by Islam and other religions. Free speech is a universal human right. That makes blasphemy the right of any breathing human being. I choose to exercise that right at will, just like Islamists choose to spend their time insulting anything un-Islamic. I mean what is the difference there?
Even in the Middle East and North Africa, I am certain that I am no way an outcast or a minority. There are so many young Arabs like me who have long considered Islam a thing of the past and started arguing their way out of it. But where they live, they can only do that using nicknames online. And all I can do is urge them to be more tenacious. It’s worth it.”

* Zouhair Mazouz is Free Arabs’ assistant editor.


  1. No Punishment for Blasphemy
    [Qur'an 3:187] "... you shall surely hear many hurtful things from those who were given the Book before you and from those who set up equals to God. But if you show fortitude and act righteously, that indeed is a matter of strong determination."
    [Qur'an 6:69] "And when you see those who trifle with our signs then turn thou away from them until then engage in a discourse other than that and if Satan cause thee to forget then sit not, after recollection, with the unjust people."
    What happened to this person? Bonus question: who read his funeral?
    [Qur'an 63:9] "They say, ‘If we return to Medina, the one most honourable will surely drive out therefrom the one most mean;’ while true honour belongs to Allah and to His Messenger and the believers; but the hypocrites know not."

  2. You might try rethinking the whole "oppression" by Israel thing. You might find it one of many lies you were fed over the years.


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