Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar is a secular humanist who fled from Iraq as a refugee. Photo by Ken Chitwood

Iraqi refugee works to make life safer for secular humanists

 Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar is a secular humanist who fled from Iraq as a refugee. Photo by Ken Chitwood

Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar is a secular humanist who fled from Iraq as a refugee. Photo by Ken Chitwood

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(RNS) Nine months ago, Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar stepped off of a plane at Los Angeles International Airport partly curious, partly fearful about where his life was headed. Now, the 22-year-old Al-Mutar lives in the heart of his adopted nation, leads an international organization and is making waves as a speaker, including at an upcoming event at Harvard.

Most people assume that because Al-Mutar is an Iraqi refugee, he is Muslim. This is not the case. Al-Mutar is a secular humanist, and an outspoken one at that. Reared in a moderate Muslim family that encouraged him to think for himself and make up his own mind, Al-Mutar said he became an atheist at an early age.

Though Islam is taught in public school in Iraq, Al-Mutar said “reading philosophy, keeping an open mind, being curious about the world, made me finish all my education in Iraq without losing my brain in the process.”

Earlier this year, Al-Mutar left Lebanon where he had been living since fleeing Iraq in 2009. He received asylum in the U.S., partly due to his conflict with Islamists over his secular humanist identity and partly because his brother, cousin and best friend were killed in sectarian violence there.

After landing at LAX, Al-Mutar spent some months in Houston before moving to Washington, D.C., where he now lives and runs the Global Secular Humanist Movement, a group that aims to use reason, evidence and scientific methods of inquiry -- rather than faith and mysticism -- in seeking solutions to human problems. On Facebook, the movement has 221,000 fans, and as Al-Mutar speaks at national events, that number continues to grow.

“Faisal’s story of secularity was forged in adversity,” said Dierdre Wilson, a Houston-area humanist. “While we in the U.S. feel persecuted, Faisal knows what it means to be victimized for being an atheist. That makes his work compelling.”

Al-Mutar founded a precursor to the GSHM while still living in Iraq, with the mission of addressing the absence of recognition and legal protections for secular humanists.

While organizations in the U.S. such as American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Secular Coalition for America fight legal battles on behalf of atheists, nontheists throughout the world still struggle for basic rights.

Al-Mutar points to seven countries where he said “the state can execute you for being an atheist.”

The International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Freedom of Thought 2012 report details a worldwide increase in arrests for blasphemy; laws that deny atheists’ right to exist; revocation of citizenship for atheists; laws that criminalize criticism of religion; and executions or killings for people who renunciate faith in God.

Living in Iraq as a humanist activist, Al-Mutar received death threats from al-Qaida elements and the Mahdi Army, two influential and powerful religious militias operating in Iraq. While it is not a crime to be an atheist in Iraq, religious militias take matters into their own hands.

Still, it would be wrong to assume there is widespread persecution of irreligious people in the Middle East, said Abdul Sattar Jawad, visiting professor at Duke University and an expert in Middle Eastern studies.

Jawad said that although there are religious leaders in the Middle East who hate or dislike nonobservant people, most of the violence is carried out by “extremists.”

“As a secularist myself, atheism can be tolerated if one doesn’t oppose the ruling families, parties, firebrand clerics, politicians and despotic rulers and governments in the Middle East,” Jawad said.

Still, Al-Mutar said that things are not as they should be, and global secular humanism has a long way to go.

Al-Mutar will speak at the opening of the 3,200-square-foot Humanist Hub, a gathering spot for “godless congregations” across the U.S., on Harvard Square on Dec. 8, joining the likes of Daniel Dennett, Deborah Feldman and Marya Hornbacher.  

Enjoying the hospitality of humanists here in the States, Al-Mutar no longer fears for his life as an outspoken atheist, but he has a message for those still living in terror because of their nonbelief.

“Wherever you are, I truly appreciate what you do for making your respective countries a better place,” he said. “We are here for you.”