For someone whose life is uncertain and could be under threat, he’s lively and infectiously cheerful. “It will all work out,” grins Rayan Azis (23), a young ‘lapsed’ freethinker from Afghanistan who is at risk of being deported back to his homeland. But will it really work out? He actually doesn’t want to think about it, he concedes later. Because according to the Dutch government, his country is ‘safe’.
Rayan explains that he’s fearful of being persecuted on his return. And because it’s only now that he’s been able to resume his studies in the Netherlands (at University College Amsterdam).
He looks around him in the boardroom of the Humanistisch Verbond and points to the bust of the man behind him. This is Jaap van Praag, one of the founders of the Humanistisch Verbond, who in his words wanted to establish a ‘spiritual shelter’ for freethinkers, atheists and non-believers. And in this home we now also find freethinkers from far-off countries like Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
You grew up in a family where some members were very strictly Islamic. When did you have your doubts?
It started when I began thinking about the meaning of existence. How could it be that God created the earth in six days? I thought that was peculiar. I asked my mother and my brother. Their answers were always rooted in religion. I didn’t think that was logical. Neither did stories about the prophets make things any clearer, in fact on the contrary. I begin to find their answers more and more logically untenable, and even childish.
When I said that, my mother and brother began to treat me increasingly aggressively. I shouldn’t be difficult, and I should watch my tongue.
How was it in secondary school?
I was able to express religious criticism there carefully. I struck up a relationship with Shogofa, who was a Moslem. We tried to liberate ourselves from Islam, at least that’s what I thought. Because we talked a lot about religious issues and atheism. We had less contact after secondary school because she went to a different university. Under pressure from her family, she studied Sharia Law and I opted for Technical Engineering. I learned later that she had been instructed to recruit me into radical Islam. (Editor’s note: the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service, the IND, disputes this part of Rayan’s refugee claim).
How did you have to flee?
Ultimately Shogofa betrayed me by playing a recording of a conversation between us in a mosque. Radicals then called for me to be found and killed. When I heard that, my father helped me to flee.
You’ve now been in the Netherlands for a few years. Here you have free access to all sorts of material. What inspires you?
Of course the books by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Just like Darwin, I’m convinced that life was not ‘created’ by a god. It’s all evolution. And suppose that God exists and is all-powerful. Why then is there not more love and less evil in the world? Then God would create a perfect world, and not the one we’re in now, surely?
What’s your biggest objection to religion in general and Islam in particular?
Religion is dangerous if it limits the freedom of people and causes harm to humanity, as has happened to me and many others. More than any other, Islam claims to be the only good religion. My mother and brother believe in it devoutly. Religion is of course also a tool which those in power can use to divide and control people in society. And in that sense, it’s always political. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against religion. Because everyone can have their own ‘god’, and divinity can also be interpreted in so many ways. It is precisely that freedom that every person has. I also have difficulty with the idea of sin and guilt. My mother always says that life is an examination which God has set us. And with every sin, with every morally-wrong action, you fail the exam.
But surely the principle of good and evil is useful?
For me, all conduct is acceptable as long as you don’t harm anyone else or contravene any human rights. In that respect I stand behind the ideas of John Stuart Mill. The idea of a divine reward hereafter, that’s very peculiar. If you treat people well, good things will also come to you. God is not necessary if you want to be moral.
How do you feel here?
The wonderful thing about living in the Netherlands is that I’m really free, that I can make my own choices! The Netherlands is a fantastic country. I enjoy every day that I can study here and find logical answers to my questions in science. I want to remain here, to enhance my knowledge of freethinking and to make friends.