Ali “the infidel” was a tattoo artist in Iran, a dangerous career choice in a country where Islam dictates every part of life. In the Netherlands, he feels safer and freer: he enjoys surfing the Internet without filters, doing yoga with female friends or taking a dog for a walk. Even so, he finds it hard to stop censuring himself.
Ali was born in Iran. He has been in the Netherlands for seven months, but still hasn’t been given a residence permit. That means he can’t attend any education. However, he is trying to learn Dutch and in another seven months he will know whether he can stay here or not.

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 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)

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