Armin Navabi is the Founder of the Atheist Republic. One of the most popular pages on Facebook for atheists that has faced repeated censorship and shutdown from Facebook authorities. He was born in Tehran and raised as a Muslim. Now, he is an ex-Muslim and an atheist living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Here is his story.
*Interview edited for clarity and readability.*
Scott Jacobsen: So, to begin, let’s talk about your background to set the framework. You were a practising Muslim. Now, you’re an ex-Muslim. What is the story there?
Armin Navabi: I was born in Tehran into a very Liberal family that was Muslim by name, but not so much in terms of devout practice. But I took it seriously when I started going to school. What happened is that from a very early age, I was very worried about ending up in hell. Hell is really terrifying. Right? Most people didn’t take it seriously. I took it very seriously.
Most people around me also didn’t really practice it. But I really, really wanted to make sure that I never ended up in hell. It was eternal torture. Most people were worried about their careers, their grades, their next party, and so on. Nobody seemed to worry about the real possibility of burning forever. Even though, they all thought this was a real thing. So it seemed to me like it should be the highest priority to avoid. Right?
Our teachers in school taught us that children are innocent. This is different from what Christians are taught, for instance. In Islam, you are not born with sin as a baby. You are innocent until you reach the age of reason. For girls, that’s 9. For boys, that’s 15. That means you’re completely pure and sinless before age 15 as a boy, right? So I thought to myself, “What about suicide? Suicide is a sin as well, but there is no sin before age 15 for boys?” So based on what I was taught, I concluded that if you commit suicide before age 15, you have not committed a sin as a boy. So you can make sure you go to heaven. To me, it seemed like a loop-hole! Right? In the system.
Navabi: [Laughing] I felt like I found a loophole. I was surprised that more people weren’t taking advantage of the loophole. I asked the religious teachers to make sure I am not missing anything. If I kill myself before 15, am I going to heaven? The only reason they gave me not to do that was to say, if you earn heaven then you can go to a higher-level heaven. But I thought, who cares if upper or lower heaven/elite heaven? You can escape hell. At age 12, I jumped out of my high school window.
Jacobsen: Oh my goodness.
Navabi: Yeah. I was not successful. For 7 months, I was in a wheelchair. I broke my left hand and fractured my back. The only reason that I never tried it again was because I saw what it did to my parents. I saw my dad cry for the first time in my life. I saw my mom in the hospital. I was like, “Okay, I am not going to do that again.” So when I became 15, I decided, “Okay, I will take this seriously. No more sinning. I will pray.” Now, I started fasting at Ramadan. I didn’t look at girls. This was the most difficult part.
Even though I was practising everything, I saw my parents as un-Islamic. They weren’t praying. I kept on trying to get them to take things seriously. I was annoyed with them. In Iran, I – like many others – watched a lot of American movies. All these people on TV– I thought – they would all go to hell. It seemed so unfair to me.
Jacobsen: Would you say the ‘unfairness’ of the ‘hell’ concept led you down this path?
Navabi: I wanted to study other religions to see what’s wrong with them. Maybe, they’re like Islam-ish – and actually had the same rules? Why were they doing all these sinful things? Maybe, I thought, they are not going to hell. I started studying the history of religions.
When I started studying religions, it became very obvious they were all changing and evolving through history. Increasingly, it started to look like they were made up. It seemed like they were political tools and that it was all strategic. One religion looked like another religion plus a mix of local culture. So I thought, “What if it is all made up?” Everything made sense as to why they would make these things up.
I started panicking and believed I would go to hell. So I prayed to God. I never questioned it before. I just accepted it. “Why? Why do I just accept it?” I asked myself. I prayed and prayed, and cried and cried. I kept going like this. “God, I don’t want to be an atheist. I don’t want to go to hell. Anything. Anything!” But eventually, I became an atheist. When I did, I didn’t know any other atheists and thought to myself. That maybe I was just crazy, and that they were seeing something that I am not seeing. By then, I was in university. So I told two of my friends, the first people I talked to about why I thought this is all made up. They became sceptics themselves after I talked to them about it. I felt that perhaps I was not crazy and so I made an online group.
Before then, I did not know many atheists. So I made a group before Facebook for Persian atheists. A bunch of people joined! I couldn’t believe! There were so many of us! That made me make it more international with Atheist Republic. Now, it is the largest atheist page in the world with 1,600,000+ followers worldwide. I was very surprised.
I thought we were alone. It has been almost 12 years now, but even now, in the Age of Social Media, we have many atheists coming to our online groups and saying something like, “Hey! I am an atheist from Manila. Any atheists in Manila?” They are always surprised by how many atheists are in their area. Now, they are supporting each other. It is a good community.
Jacobsen: What are things people can do to help atheists be open active citizens who could also happen to be ex-Muslims?
Navabi: By giving them a voice. Right now, especially with the anti-Muslim bigotry, people think that we shouldn’t bring attention to anything, anybody, who is against Islam. They shy away from that because they don’t want to be labelled a “bigot.” But by doing that, they talk about shutting down a ex-Muslim voices. Just like Muslims, ex-Muslims also could use support. And they are often targeted from both anti-Muslim bigots and Muslims themselves. They are shutting down a minority group within a minority.
Jacobsen: I heard that from Maryam Namazie before. It is very descriptive as a phrase. Would you say then, that it is a form of double-persecution?
Navabi: We are all people. Just because we are ex-Muslim, it doesn’t mean supporting us is anti-Muslim. If Muslims are being prosecuted by non-Muslims, they need support. If non-Muslims are being prosecuted by Muslims, they need support too. Right? Ex-Muslims who are here believe that this is the land of liberty and that they will find liberals here to support them.
The thing is that here they are being shunned and silenced. We want to show that these people need support without being seen as anti-Muslims. The easy way to do that is by just letting them speak, sharing their stories. Even if they are criticising Islam, that is not bigotry.
Jacobsen: How do you think liberals can extend support to the atheist community, especially the ex-muslims community?
Navabi: Invites them to your podcast, blog, YouTube channel, event, let them come on and share their stories, let others see them for the human choices they made. When you say, “Islam is oppressing people.” They might think it is a lie. But when people tell their story, they can connect the dots. Some ex-Muslims have to come here because they were activists in an Islamic country.
They are putting their lives at risk. It is important to recognize that. They are rejected by the Left because it believes they should condemn anyone who speaks against Islam. But the funny thing is that real racists and bigots target all the people who come from Islamic countries no matter what they believe, and may not have a problem with Islam as an ideology. They don’t like you because of where you come from. So you get rejected from the extreme Left and the extreme Right.
It is very important to note this – when we talk about Islam, we are not talking about people. We are talking about the ideology. When we go to somebody and don’t agree with them on economics or a scientific topic, they don’t think about it as a personal attack, but when it comes to religion, and especially Islam, then for some reason it becomes bigotry.
It is taken as a personal attack. Firstly that means they are not recognizing people who are actual bigots, whose views then become louder. Secondly, if you can’t challenge people’s ideology, the only voice against it will come from people who are actual bigots. You are removing the discussion out of the equation. You are removing people who don’t hate Muslims but just want to have civil debates with them. I hope this changes and I hope we can start to have better discussions about the religion itself.
Jacobsen: Thank you very much for your time, Armin.