For Refugee Week, Humanists UK has interviewed Hamza bin Walayat – the young humanist who in 2018 was famously rejected for asylum on spurious grounds by the Home Office – on his experience of the asylum system and what it’s like to be a refugee.
At the time, Humanists UK took up his case and successfully fought for reforms of the UK asylum process for claimants fleeing persecution on the basis of their religion or non-religious beliefs.
Hamza, you obviously had a very high-profile experience with the UK Home Office, when they quite shockingly said you couldn’t be a humanist because you didn’t know about Plato and Aristotle.
But let’s go back a bit further in time and ask you about your story. What is the situation like for humanists in Pakistan? When did you first realise you weren’t safe any more, and how did you feel at the time?
The situation for the non-religious – including humanists – in Pakistan is pretty bad. It is one of the worst countries to be a humanist. So bad in fact, it’s simply not possible.
Leaving Islam in Pakistan is a crime that carries a death sentence. Saying or writing anything that could be interpreted as against Islam, or just being non-religious, is considered blasphemy – a crime which carries the death penalty. Though shocking to someone living in the UK, it is not necessary that evidence is presented in order to bring a charge against someone – an allegation is enough for you to be arrested and charged. As we have seen in the case of Asia Bibi – a Pakistani Christian woman who spent 10 years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy – it does not matter if you are guilty of the offence or not. There is always the threat of vigilante violence even when granted impunity. I have followed her case in the media and was pleased that she is safe and has been granted asylum in Canada.
I grew up in a very conservative Islamic family in Pakistan. I was required to pray and fast as a child. Even though I knew from a young age that I did not believe in God or agree with Islamic teachings, I was forced to learn and practise. The more I learnt, the more questions I had. When I asked questions, I would be beaten by my teachers and father. I was told that there was something wrong with me for doing so. Gradually the dismissals turned into threats. I resented being made to pray and used to find excuses so I wouldn’t have to do it. In order to stay alive however, I learned not to ask questions and to stay quiet.
When I came to the UK, I felt like I was alive! I felt free from religion and I was no longer forced to attend mosques or pray – I could explore my own beliefs without fear of violence. In search of my own identity, I studied various other religions but nothing made sense. During my search, I came across humanism and it was a light bulb moment! I finally had a term I could describe myself with – ‘humanist’.
I applied for asylum in the UK because I received death threats from my family and the wider community in Pakistan when they found out that I had left Islam. My father is an influential and well-connected military officer, so for me there was no question of me staying in Pakistan. The threats would follow me no matter where I went – I felt helpless and scared and I contacted authorities for help.
How did it feel when the Home Office initially rejected you following that now-famous interview?
I was devastated and scared for my life – I felt helpless and very angry. My claim was rejected because I was asked in my interview to prove my humanism by naming Greek Philosophers who were humanists. My claim for asylum was rejected because I did not name Plato or Aristotle (who were not even humanists as confirmed later by 150 philosophers). I am sure you will agree that this is an unfair way to assess whether someone is genuinely an apostate – revealing a much bigger problem with the way non-religious cases were handled by the Home Office and a general lack of understanding about non-religious people, their beliefs, and the issues that apostates face.
(You can read more about Hamza’s case here.)
When this initially happened, did you feel supported by other humanists?
I received remarkable support from Humanists UK who started the ‘Save Hamza’ campaign. This had a huge impact not only on me in my asylum case, but on kick-starting wider reform within the Home Office to improve the standards and knowledge of their asylum assessors.
Humanists UK created a petition which had 12,500 signatories and co-organised a joint letter signed by 150 philosophers around the world which was hand-delivered to the-then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and also sent to the then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd MP. My case, which was eventually raised in the parliament, led to a major and largely successful campaign for reform of how the Home Office deals with non-religious asylum seekers, including new compulsory training for assessors on religion or belief claims.
(You can read more on these reforms here.)
In 2019, you were elected to the Board Trustees of Humanists UK. There’s quite a nice arc to your story: from the Home Office questioning if you were really a humanist… to helping run one of the world’s most high-profile humanist organisations. Do you see yourself as bringing any particular insights or perspectives to the Board?
It is an honour to support Humanists UK and most importantly to get a good understanding of the challenges faced by the humanist community. Due to my direct experience of being an apostate and campaigning both in the UK and internationally, I believe I bring a unique insight to the Board. I am passionate about the cause which makes it incredibly rewarding! It can’t get much better than that.
What else have you been doing since you got your permanent leave to remain in the UK?
I volunteer for Faith to Faithless, organising apostate socials and providing peer support in Greater Manchester where I live, and I have trained as a non-religious pastoral carer. It gives me a real sense of accomplishment.
I have also given talks in various parts of the UK on various subjects, and given the national and international media attention I received as a result of my case, I have become a point of contact for fellow apostates. I also work with a homeless charity in Manchester and during the pandemic, I’ve further volunteered as a community responder to support the local effort.
I am also pursuing a career in computer science!
Hamza, thank you for your time.
The pleasure is mine. Thank you for saving my life.