"I don’t have big ideals. I just want to be human and be free to think, speak, write and laugh. But that's difficult because everyone wants to interfere in your life."
Ayman took part in Syria’s 2011 revolution, as an activist and atheist. When the revolution was suppressed so brutally he fled to the Netherlands through Egypt and Turkey, with his wife and three children. To the distress of his wife, he continues to campaign for freedom of thought, speech and action. Even though that risks his life. Where does he find the courage to develop his own thoughts and express them, against all the odds?
Ayman (39) lives in the Netherlands with his wife and three daughters, after being granted refugee status. He took part in Syria’s 2011 revolution as a human rights activist, atheist and advocate of secularism. The revolution was suppressed, President Assad instituted Islamic Sharia law, and closed theatres and the only public library. He also opened 20,000 mosques and 750 Al-Assad Koranic schools. Since 2011 Ayman has worked for the Violations Documentation Centre Syria, an organisation documenting violence, torture, murder and disappearances in Syria by analysing photographs, films and other data. He is the founder and chief editor of I Think Magazine, the first Arab online magazine for atheist activists. He also works with AdHoc, an international organisation of secularists against terrorism and radicalism, campaigning for a culture of freedom.
How did you lose your faith?
My parents are Muslim, but my mother gave me scientific books about evolution and similar subjects. I studied English literature and read a lot. Because Syria is so poor, I spent two years in Saudi Arabia. There I realised that Mecca is not a holy place, rather a very ordinary place, where people circle around a stone. I became a conscious atheist. Because I didn’t pray or attend the mosque, the religious police arrested me one day and detained me for six hours. Back in Syria, I found new friends through the internet: freethinkers and atheists. Together in small groups we discussed our ideas and our desire for freedom. In secret. Because even if the law doesn’t officially prohibit criticism of religion, there are always people ready to commit violence against nonbelievers.
Revolution and resistance
I had high hopes for the revolution, but friends were arrested and I saw three demonstrators beaten to death by government troops. I started to film violence secretly, and to work with others to document it. I literally counted heads and hands, torn by explosions. I saw thousands of pictures and videos of violence. It’s really difficult, especially when involving children. But someone has to do it. Perhaps one day this material will be used in court as evidence against perpetrators. The Syrian regime is worse than IS. In Caesar’s Pictures you can see 11,000 photographs of people who were tortured in Syrian prisons.
These days in Syria it’s almost impossible to find the books I read on evolution as a child. President Assad, himself an Alawite, uses Islam to control the people. I launched the atheistic online publication I Think Magazine as a counter-movement. I’m very proud of it; we now have followers in six or seven Arab countries!
What do you believe in?
I believe in my kids, in being kind to others, and that you may think and say anything, as long as you don’t harm anyone physically. Freethought has cost me a lot though: I lost relationships with family, friends, neighbours. The documentary we have made [‘Nonbelieving. Freethinkers on the Run’] could cost me my life. Just because of my thoughts! But life’s not worth living if you live in fear and keep your mouth shut as you’re told. What sort of example do you then set? I teach my children that freedom has no limits, and that freedom of speech is absolute.
What’s your balance between freedom and personal security? Your children need you, after all.
They also need a better world. My wife wants security and so she hates what I’m doing. And yes, of course I’m afraid too. But if I dare, others may dare too. Just as I dare because others have dared before me. If we speak freely and learn from each other to be free, the world becomes more human. If we stay quiet through fear we move backwards as humanity. That’s when we start burning witches again.
What do you want to achieve?
I don’t want to be famous, well-known or a leader. I have no big ideals. I just want to live my life, and to think, speak, write and laugh freely. And I want to have more courage to set a good example for my daughters. They shouldn’t do what the community wants them to do, or what religion says, but what they themselves want to do. That’s the basis for human rights.
I’ve met many people who want to think and speak freely. But they are threatened, put in prison or are even killed if they do. Arabs are particularly bad in this, giving each other no freedom, demanding that one behaves as a Muslim. Even here in the Netherlands. They have even killed 22 non-Arabs in Europe, like Theo van Gogh. Humankind is the worst and most stupid species on earth!
With other secular activists for freedom that I located on the internet, we organise conferences – this year in Brussels and Rome – and lobby against anti-blasphemy laws. In the end it will help, but it happens in very small steps.
Ayman features in the HUMAN documentary ‘Nonbelieving. Freethinkers on the Run (airing on 13 December at 22.55 on the Dutch channel NPO 2). He is an active member of the Dutch Humanist Association’s Freethinkers Group for ex-Muslim refugees.