Atheists can’t claim asylum in the U.S. … Why?

For the first time in its history, the United Kingdom has granted asylum to someone strictly on the basis of his atheism.  This story has been going around the blogosphere quite a bit.

In short, a young Afghan man who was brought up Muslim was brought to England when he was 16 to escape the conflict there.  During his time in England, he gradually distanced himself from Islam until he finally decided he was atheist.

His lawyers argued that since the punishment for apostasy under sharia law (and by extension, Afghan law) is death, to send him back to Afghanistan would put him in significant danger.  Since Islam is so ubiquitous in Afghan life, it was decided that hiding his beliefs would cause him undue hardship, and thus he was granted asylum.

Mark one for Great Britain being amazing!  I loved reading this story.  However, there was a bit at the end that made me perk up a bit.  According to the article,

“The status of atheism under the 1951 refugee convention is not consistently applied by countries around the world. Australia has accepted atheism as grounds for asylum for those fleeing religious persecution in Afghanistan. But the US courts have dismissed claims, ruling that atheists do not have defined beliefs or practices for purposes of American asylum regulations.”

Wait, what was that?  What do you mean the US won’t get someone asylum because they’re atheist?  Do you have any idea the way other countries treat atheists?  Trust me, it’s pretty bad.

There was a recent study done by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) shows the level of persecution that atheists face in most countries in the world.  The study doesn’t pull punches in its findings, either. President of the IHEU, Sonja Eggerickx, said,

“This report shows that the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers although they have signed UN agreements to treat all citizens equally,”

For example, there are 13 nations that execute people for the “crime” of being atheist, according to the report.  Not for doing anything, or even saying anything.  Just being an atheist is punishable by death.  I couldn’t ever visit nations like Pakistan, Maldives, or Nigeria because under their laws, I should be killed just for who I am.

While not all nations execute atheists, plenty of others aren’t much better.  many nations have blasphemy laws – some call for the death penalty.  In Saudi Arabia, the punishment for blasphemy is beheading, and they often get a confession through torture.

Even in countries that have less severe punishments for blasphemy still force atheists to pay sharp penalties if they speak out about their beliefs.  Take the example of four atheist bloggers in Bangladesh.  They were indicted under charges of , “defaming Islam, Prophet Mohammed and other religions through their Internet writings.”  One of them, Asif Mohiuddin, was stabbed multiple times by Muslims angered over his writing, but police arrested him instead of trying to find his attackers.  The four could face up to 14 years in prison for writing about what they believe.

(As a quick aside, I would like to say that I have such a deep level of respect for Mohiuddin, his three colleagues, and any other blogger out there who puts their life on the life for their writing.  I spend a lot of time criticizing America for the way atheists are treated here, but I’m painfully aware that my writings don’t put me in any real danger.   I’m not likely to be stabbed for what I write here.  The bravery these other atheists around the world show daily is incredible, and I want to acknowledge that.  Keep up the fight, all of you.)

It’s not only Muslims who put their religious beliefs above the rights of others.  In India, skeptic and rationalist Sanal Edamaruku was (and is) famous for debunking mystical claims made by people of all religions – sometimes in the most absurd and amusing ways.  When he was asked to inspect the supposed miracle of a statue at a Catholic church which was dripping water from its feet, he conclude the water was actually coming from some faulty plumbing.  The Catholic church in Mumbai promptly filed a claim of blasphemy against him.  Edamaruku was forced to flee to Finland to avoid arrest and imprisonment.

Hostility towards atheists isn’t limited to the Middle East, either.  According to the IHEU report, numerous countries in Europe – including Austria, Greece, Malta, and Poland – punish blasphemy with up to 3 years in prison.   In Greece, a man was recently arrested for mocking a Greek Orthodox monk on Facebook.

In total, 94 of the 198 nations in the world have laws against apostasy, blasphemy, or defamation of religion.  Often these rules are strictly enforced with brutal penalties.  Being an outspoken or active atheist is a dangerous business in much of the world.

But how does that apply to asylum law?  It’s complicated.  Asylum law was first internationally codified in 1951 in response to the many people displaced by World War II.  The United Nations first defined what a refugee is, though the original definition only applied to those who were already displaced in the early 50’s.  In 1967, the UN expanded the definition to include future refugees, and the US adopted the UN’s definition in the Refugee Act of 1980.  In it, a refugee is defined as,

“any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

So long as a person can establish that s/he falls under one of the five protected grounds (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion), and that there’s a “well founded fear of persecution”, they can claim asylum in the US.

It would seem simple, then, that atheists would have grounds based on their religion, and a well established record of persecution globally towards atheists.  However, asylum laws are stricter than other statues in that claiming to be a part of a religion is not enough.  Asylees must prove that they are a part of a religion.  And since there’s no established ideology or practices for atheists, they have a tough time proving they actually are atheists.

So, by the established precedent, atheists are not grounds to claim asylum in America.  There are other suggested workarounds, but as the law stands, the US government will not give atheists asylum on the grounds of religious persecution.

The world is a dangerous place for atheists.  By withholding asylum from atheists – but granting it to people of other religions on the basis of persecution – the US is allowing atheists to come to harm, it is protecting others from.  The courts have established that aliens who have established themselves here are granted the benefits of Constitutional protection (pg 24).

The Supreme Court has made it clear in the case Torasco v Watkins that the Constitution protects non-belief equally to belief.  In the brief, the court stated,

“We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person “to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.” Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.”

Therefore by granting asylum based on the beliefs of religious people, but refusing asylum based on the non-belief of atheists, the government is violating the First Amendment rights of atheist asylees.

Since the danger to atheists around the world is so clearly established, to grant asylum unequally to the religious and the non-religious is not only unconscionable, but also unconstitutional.  This has to end now.

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