Saying you don’t believe in any god can be dangerous in Pakistan. It has tough blasphemy laws and apostates from Islam could be punished by the death penalty, if fundamentalist mullahs haven’t incited a mob to murder you before your arrest. Nevertheless some Pakistani atheists are open about their non-belief, there’s even a Facebook page, and are accepted by their friends. In Karachi in 2008 I met an atheist who took his bravery a little further and infiltrated jihadi training camps. Here’s what he told me (article first published on RFI’s English website).
While Pakistan’s three largest parties are all secular, all mainstream politicians are at pains to justify their policies with reference to Islam.
Sikandria Hayat Janjua, a member of Farooq Tariq’s Labour Party, feels no such constraint. Sitting in a hotel restaurant, he rips into religion at considerable volume. Tareeq says that his outspokenness has landed him in trouble more than once. One night, after outlining a vigorous critique of Islam to a young man who was staying with him, Janjua woke up to find the shocked believer stabbing him repeatedly.
He fought him off, summoned help and was taken to hospital, where, he’s happy to report, medical science saved his life.
“I believe that we will one day conquer death,” he tells me.
Janjua’s religious skepticism dates from the death of his father, a soldier who was killed in the nominally-independent region of Azad Kashmir in 1980. His killer was not an Indian soldier defending Delhi’s rule of much of the divided state, but an Islamist who took exception to what Janjua calls his father’s “progressive views”.
Janjua joined the secular Jammu and Kashmir Student Federation and then came to Karachi University, where he now leads an organization called the Progressive Youth Front. The organisation’s relations with the Islamist student organisations are not particularly friendly.
But back home in Azad Kashmir Janjua is part of the community, so, in 2001, when a group of young men went off to an Islamist training camp, they invited him to attend. He says he went back on two other occasions, in 2003 and 2004.
Janjua says that there are five such camps in Azad Kashmir and that they take in about 180 18-22-year-old men for six-month courses in fighting for Islam, including preparation to become suicide-bombers.
“They welcome me as a muslim and took me to a barracks,” he says of his first visit.
The fajr prayers, at dawn, were followed by readings from the Koran. Janjua says the verses were selected to encourage suicide-attacks then followed by physical training.
He says he attended an international training camp at Kotly, 160 kilometres north of Islamabad, where the mullahs tried to convince him to join their version of jihad.
“They said ‘You will be in heaven, paradise, and you will be with houris [the pure and beautiful companions promised to the faithful], you will get then wine and different kinds of fruits, honey, and you will have your own luxury cars and horses …’ ”
Most of the youths who go to the camps are poor, Janjua says, attracted by promises of happiness that escapes them on earth. Some are criminals, invited to atone for their sins by sacrificing themselves for the fundamentalist cause.
“They are told that ‘You are a criminal and you will be in heaven and this is the way – that you take a jacket and finish your enemy all over the world, especially India, British, America and all the white-skins’.”
Janjua confirms reports that Pakistan’s secret services help the camps, claiming that some of the preachers were from the military. He adds that Saudi Arabia is a major financial backer.
The camps still exist, he says, but their names have changed. In 2001 they were bellicose references to the armies of the faithful.
“Now their terrorist camps are changed, like gardens and like flowers’ names, and inside the terrorist camps they are the same.”
He hopes that a PPP-led government in alliance with secular parties like the Awami National Party in the North-West Frontier Province will bring the intelligence services to heel and close the camps.
“This is my hope. Ground realities may be different,” he concludes.
To read or listen to my reports for RFI of Pakistan 2007-08 click here