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The Home Office has rejected a claim for asylum on the grounds that the claimant, when asked to name ancient Greek philosophers who were humanists, did not name Plato and Aristotle. The claimant, Hamza bin Walayat, an ex-Muslim ‘apostate’ and member of Humanists UK, would as a humanist would face ostracism, violence, and persecution if returned to his native Pakistan. During an interview as part of his assessment process, the Home Office summary of which has been seen by Humanists UK and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), he was subjected to an extraordinary line of questioning including on the semantics of whether humanism can be a considered a religion and tested on his knowledge of classical philosophy.
Hamza bin Walayat has received death threats from members of his family and community in Pakistan, because of his humanist beliefs and for his rejection of Islam, a crime that carries the death penalty in that country. He has a long-term British partner, and has made the UK his home since arriving in 2011.
Humanists UK and IHEU, who both offered evidence in support of this claim, have criticised the Home Office’s handling of this case, which shows a profound and dangerous lack of understanding about humanism and non-religious beliefs, and the persecution faced by those who hold them.
Conceptually misunderstanding persecution of humanists
The questions pursued in the interview with Hamza reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of equality and human rights protections by the Home Office with regards to non-religious people. He was asked what his religion is and said he is a humanist and that humanists are non-religious, only to then be chastised for stating ‘your religion as Humanist despite knowing that this is not a religion.’
Semantics aside, it has been long established in the Equality Act 2010 that references by authorities to religion must be read as including references to those with non-religious beliefs. The law protects non-religious people from discrimination experienced because of their beliefs, just as it protects religious people. Humanism is a philosophical belief system which encompasses a wide range of beliefs about the importance of life and ethical standards, without being focused on belief in an external deity. The fact that humanists do not subscribe to a set of beliefs that includes a deity does not mean humanism isn’t treated the same as religions for the purposes of prevention of persecution.
Along this line of reasoning, the Home Office further mistakenly claimed that the ‘1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is not one that engages the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Convention, as it is not based in the fear of persecution in Pakistan [and presumably everywhere else] because of race, religion…’ The lack of understanding around the meaning of ‘religion’ in this context, crucially that it applies equally to those who face persecution because they do not hold religious beliefs, is dangerous. If it weren’t inaccurate, it would leave non-religious people without adequate legal protection.
Violence and persecution experienced by humanists
There are currently 13 countries, including Pakistan, where being a humanist is considered to be apostasy and is punishable by death. In a further nine countries, humanists can face the same penalty for committing blasphemy. Specifically in Pakistan, there have been forced disappearances, abuse, arrests, and several atheist websites and social media accounts forced offline after a Government crackdown on blasphemers in 2017. In March last year, a student who had stated that he was a humanist on his Facebook page was murdered by a mob at his university. Under the arguments put forward by the Home Office, because the victims did not hold a belief in an external deity, this simply does not categorise as persecution.
Knowledge of classical philosophers used as a test for ‘non-religiousness’
The Home Office also sought to test the ‘non-religiousness’ of Hamza by asking him to name ancient Greek philosophers who had held humanistic worldviews. When he failed to name Plato and Aristotle, it was deemed that his knowledge was ‘not of a level that would be expected of a genuine follower of humanism.’ This line of questioning is unfair and problematic for several reasons. Firstly, Plato is not a humanist. His questioning of then-conventional beliefs may in some ways have contributed to the history of humanist thought but some of his ideas (for example his totalitarianism) are profoundly un-humanist. But even if it weren’t for this glaring error, it is unlikely that a religious claimant would be treated in the same manner. It is not expected that a Christian should be able to answer questions about St Thomas Aquinas or know who drafted the Nicene Creed in order to demonstrate their religious status. For some, a knowledge of the history of their belief system may be of personal interest, but it is a not a means of determining the strength of their convictions. This is the same for humanists.
Secondly, these questions imply that the Home Office is treating humanism as a monolithic, doctrinaire-positive tradition. Humanism is not a ‘canonical’ belief system, where adherents must learn and follow a strict set of behaviour codes. As a descriptive term a humanist can be someone who has simply rejected religious belief but holds some positive conception of human values. Such an individual may well not even have heard of humanism. Therefore, one does not ‘follow’ humanism in the sense implied.
Humanists UK Chief Executive and IHEU President Andrew Copson commented,
‘We are appalled by the way the Home Office has handled Hamza’s claim for asylum; it sets a dangerous precedent for non-religious people fleeing persecution. The Home Office is simply incorrect to claim that non-religious people seeking asylum don’t get the same protection in law as religious people do. Further, the questions put to Hamza not only reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of humanism, but also show that the Home Office, as a public body, is failing in its duty under the Equality Act 2010. Humanists UK will be writing to the Minister of State for Immigration to address these concerns.’
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0781 55 89 636.
Read more about Humanists UK’s international campaigns: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/international-campaigns/
At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.
Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/