A Different Kind of War Story: Afghan Atheism, Religious Freedom and the Mythology of Sanctuary

The UK Home Office’s recent decision to grant asylum to a young Afghan man on the grounds of his atheism has been the subject of significant media interest and debate. In this blog post NSRN  director Stacey Gutkowski considers some of the wider cultural narratives contained within coverage of this case.

Last week the case of a 23 year old Afghan man who was granted asylum in the United Kingdom received significant attention in the British and some English-language international press. He first claimed asylum in the UK in 2007 at the age of 16 on the grounds of being an unaccompanied minor, having fled violence against his family. This claim was rejected but he was granted discretionary leave to remain until 2013 (Dugan 2014). Over the intervening years living in the UK – a country in which 65% of the population identify as having little or no religious orientation (Siegers 2010) – he gradually came to identify as an atheist. The Home Office accepted the claim made on the applicant’s behalf that there would be no way for him to conduct a discreetly nonreligious way of life in Afghanistan:

“Afghanistan is a Muslim dominated country where religion underpins every aspect of everyday life. Furthermore, in Afghanistan, and even in Kabul, life is lived in such a way that everyone is connected with everyone else. There is no sense of privacy and his lack of beliefs would become very quickly known” (quoted in Bingham 2014).

While this is the first case on public record worldwide in which an atheist has been granted asylum on these grounds, Article 10 of the European Council’s 2011 treaty on asylum designates atheism as possible grounds for fear of religious persecution (Pizzi 2014). Commentators have suggested that this might set a new legal precedent both for the UK and other European countries. It has been welcomed by advocates of nonreligious freedom (BBC 2014; Goldsmith 2014).

We know little about the nonreligious orientation of the man himself other than his claim to lost faith and the label ‘atheist’ in the Home Office submission. Scholars have shown that identity, belief and practice are fluid, and even something as seemingly straight-forward as ‘loss of faith’ is far from it. Indeed, Austin-Broos (2003: 1) cautions that religious conversion (including de-conversion) should not be read as syncretism nor as an absolute breach. Rather, it is an ongoing process of ‘passage’, reordering and re-orientation of identity. However, the purpose of these observations here is not to look so much at the case itself, as the story of an individual life, but to read the case as a window into the wider narratives and stories British society tells itself about its participation in the 13 year ISAF campaign in Afghanistan.

In 2012, 289 Afghans in the UK were granted refugee status, humanitarian protection, discretionary leave, or leave on the grounds of family or private life, and 596 were refused (Refugee Council 2013). That this story out of so many has attracted such media attention reveals much about a particular historical moment in which the UK is facing a draw-down of forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Notably, little mention is made of the war in the media coverage of the case, though scholars suggest that refugees are particularly revealing figures of the mechanisms of sovereign politics (Owens 2009).

This case is part of a larger war story, much of which has been told in the West in religious and cultural – rather than political, historical and economic – terms. The potency of the larger cultural narratives at work in this recent media story becomes apparent when we consider how much of the Afghan war has been read in the West in terms of a ready-made explanation, in which Afghans, particularly Afghan women, are saved from the clutches of Taliban ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ (Hirschkind and Mahmood 2002). Media representations of the case also reaffirms stereotypes of ‘dangerous levels’ of religiosity in Afghanistan which, in Bhabha’s terms, ‘vacillates’ between being known and needing to be ‘anxiously repeated’ (1994: 18). This simplistic narrative, which relies on a range of long-standing Orientalist tropes, as well as liberal salvation narratives (Vogler and Markell 2003) reduces the complexity of the war as well as the multiple and often contradictory ways in which humans achieve meaning and freedom in community (Abu-Lughod 2002). This tendency in the West to read of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and an archipelago of global sites grouped under the heading ‘terror’ through the lens of religion and culture has shaped how those wars have been viewed by Western publics and conducted by Western policymakers.

However, it is possible to critique this reduction to religion-and-culture while simultaneously observing how this narrative has in turn shaped the Western societies engaged in the post-9/11 wars. One of the ways in which this has manifested itself in the West has included fascination with stories of Western converts to Islam (Gutkowski 2013), including the British journalist Yvonne Ridley, held captive by the Taliban and released in 2003 and Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (Sacirbey 2011). Though Khalil and Balici (2007: 118) point out, conversion is more common in ‘frontier zones’, in which there is intense, sustained contact and syncretism between cultures, there is no evidence to suggest that conversions have increased in the 13 years since 9/11. This echoes an old colonial fascination with ‘going native’ as well as much older fears of forced religious conversion in times of war. This has been long absent from the Western experience with the notable exception of the Croat fascist Ustaše during the Second World War (Biondich 2005).

This story of ‘de-conversion’ also has an important, but subtle security component underpinning the narrative. Scholars have suggested that conversion is often read as religiously, culturally, politically and ‘racially’ threatening. A de-conversion from Islam to a nonreligious orientation, in British cultural terms, gestures towards the reverse: towards the safe affirmation in and of the plural but largely nonreligious British majority and away from the disruption or threat which Muslim Otherness represents. Remember that during empire conversions to Christianity – making ‘them’ more ‘like us’ – was part of the production of modern imperial subjects and the ‘necessary’ re-ordering of those societies (Viswanathan 1998). Times have changed but a subtle sense of relief in ‘their’ desire to become more ‘like us’ still underpins British – and indeed Western – cultural narratives.

When viewed in this light, as a footnote in a long and complicated history, it is helpful perhaps to interrogate the myth of sanctuary which has featured in media coverage of the case as an instance of the protection of (non)religious freedom. The narrative of religious freedom – whether it is freedom to practice or freedom from other people’s practice – has underpinned US foreign policy since the late 1990s (Hurd 2012) and more recently featured in British policy as well. The narrative of religious freedom is part of a complicated and politically problematic story of Western participation in the 9/11 wars, and as such we might be more circumspect in and interrogative of instances of its repetition.


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Pizzi, M. 2014 ‘UK grants asylum to Afghan atheist’, Al Jazeera, 14 January.
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Siegers, P. 2010. ‘A Multiple Group Latent Class Analysis of Religious Orientations in Europe,’ in Eldad Davidov, Peter Schmidt and Jaak Billiet eds. Cross-Cultural Analysis: Methods and Applications. New York: Routledge.
Viswanathan, G. 1998. Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity and Belief. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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