This article appears in the Witness section of the Spring 2018 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.
Could you identify the teachings of Plato or Aristotle? In how much detail? For most of us, these questions are not a matter of life or death. Yet this was the situation Hamza bin Walayat found himself in. Walayat is a Pakistani man who renounced his Muslim faith and became a humanist. He applied for asylum in the UK, saying that he would be at risk in Pakistan because of his renunciation of religion. In Pakistan, blasphemy is a crime punishable by death and honour killing by families is not uncommon. Walayat – who has lived in the UK since 2011 – says he has received death threats from relatives in Pakistan.
In his interview with the Home Office, Walayat was asked questions about the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. He failed to answer correctly, and his asylum claim was rejected. The Home Office said that his knowledge of humanism was “rudimentary at best” and dismissed the idea he would face persecution for his beliefs. But the severe risk of violence faced by atheists in Pakistan is well documented. Those considered apostates often fall victim to mob violence, which is tacitly endorsed by the state and its harsh blasphemy laws. In March last year, a student who described himself as a humanist on social media was murdered at his university.
According to the Home Office, Walayat was able to give a “basic definition” of humanism but could not identify “any famous Greek philosophers who were humanistic”. Of course, this demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of humanism, which is not a canonical belief system with set texts, but a broad-based value system. In a letter in support of Walayat’s asylum application, Bob Churchill, of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, said: “For many, the broad descriptive ‘humanist’ is just a softer way of saying atheist, especially if you come from a place where identifying as atheist may be regarded as a deeply offensive statement.” Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK (an organisation of which Walayat is a member), said that the decision set a “dangerous precedent for non-religious people fleeing persecution”.
A group of 120 leading philosophers – including A. C. Grayling and Julian Baggini – have written to the Home Office to refute the decision. They wrote: “Knowledge of Plato and Aristotle is not a reliable test for whether someone is a humanist.”