In Iran, the effects of Islam can be seen and felt everywhere: at school, in family life. What was it like to grow up there?
When I was a child, until I was about ten, I believed everything they taught me. My mother got me thinking – she was starting to have her doubts. I began asking questions, addressing people like our religious instructors, for example. But they weren’t pleased and I wasn’t allowed to ask questions like that anymore. Even just a simple question was seen as a denial of Islam, or an attack on it. By the time I was at high school, I had lost my faith, but I had learned that it was better not to tell people about it because it was too dangerous. I saw how religion was used to repress people but I didn’t actually want to get involved in politics or religion. However, you can’t escape it in Iran: Islam is everywhere.
In Iran, you would be in terrible danger because you burnt a Quran. Why did you do that?
I wasn’t aiming to insult Muslims; it was more like a symbolic act for myself, to express my freedom, to show that I’m not a Muslim anymore. The video was on my laptop and I shared it with other unbelievers and some religious friends.
If you were asked to do a tattoo that depicts your “struggle” as an unbeliever, what would it look like?
I see religion as a prison that devaluates people, so I’d probably draw a figure with a tree or plant growing out of his head, or a bird flying out of a (caged) head. I’ll show you when I finished it … (laughs).
How safe do you feel in the Netherlands?
When I arrived in the Netherlands, I was still too frightened to talk about my convictions, but I feel safer now and I am no longer afraid of expressing my views. Of course, I’m still careful, because danger still lurks; the same goes for people who have converted to Christianity too.
How do you manage to keep smiling?
I love surfing the Internet – it’s gives me a wonderful sense of freedom, without the filters or blocks Iran uses. I have a few female friends I like to do yoga with, or I take dogs for a walk. You see, it’s illegal to have a dog in Iran.
What do you see for your future?
I want to live my life in freedom and show the world who I am – a tattoo artist, not a criminal.
Ali is a member of a group set up by the Dutch Humanist League to help freethinking, unbelieving refugees; they meet several times a year. For more information, visit www.nieuwevrijdenkers.nl. and if you want to see more about the difficult position of unbelievers in the Netherlands, watch 2DOC by HUMAN Ongelovig - “Vrijdenkers op de vlucht” (December 13, 10.55 p.m. on NPO2)