Atheism as a Basis for Asylum in the United States

In many countries, especially those with an established state religion, atheists are often the targets of violence and face systematic oppression. For example, in Islamic countries with theocratic governments, denying Islam is traditionally punished by death for men and life imprisonment for women. See Elizabeth R. Blandon, Asylum for Atheists: The Intersection of Three Protected Grounds 16 (AILA Agora – Voice Magazine May/June 2013). In fact, at least seven countries still have laws that allow the death penalty to be imposed on atheists. These nations include Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. See Robert Evans, Atheists Around the World Suffer Persecution, Discrimination: Report, Reuters, Dec. 9, 2012. In a range of other countries, including as Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait and Jordan, publication of atheist or humanist views on religion are totally banned or strictly limited under laws prohibiting “blasphemy”. Id. Further, a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 84% of Muslims in Egypt and 86% in Jordan backed the death penalty for apostates. Muslim Publics Divided on Hamas and Hezbollah: Most Embrace a Role for Islam in Politics, Pew Center for Research, Dec. 2, 2010.

In many of these countries, citizens have to register as members of one of a small number of officially-recognized religions. In Indonesia, for example, citizens must declare themselves as one of six religions, and atheism and agnosticism are not among those listed. Atheists and Islam: No God, not even Allah – Ex-Muslim atheists are becoming more outspoken, but tolerance is still rare, The Economist, Nov. 24, 2012. Atheists are therefore forced to lie to obtain their official documents without which it is impossible to go to school, receive medical treatment, travel abroad or drive. Evans, Atheists Around the World. Even in many places where laws may be more lenient, religious authorities and social attitudes may create a dangerous environment for atheists. For example, as recounted in a November 24, 2012 issue of The Economist: “A mob attacked Alexander Aan even before an Indonesian court…jailed him for two and a half years for ‘inciting religious hatred.’ His crime was to write “God does not exist” on a Facebook group he had founded for atheists.” The Economist, Atheists and Islam.

The rise to power of several Islamist parties following the Arab revolutions is likely to exacerbate the already dismal reality of being an atheist in these countries. It has been reported that new governments installed following the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have jailed several individuals who were outspoken about their beliefs. Id. For example, Alber Saber Ayad, an Egyptian who ran a Facebook page for atheists, was jailed for “insulting religion”. Id.

Individuals who have experienced this type treatment in the past, or believe that they will upon returning to their home country, may be eligible to apply for asylum in the United States. In the United States, the Attorney General has the authority to grant asylum to individuals who fear returning to their country because of “persecution or well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” INA §208(b)(1). While clearly not a race or nationality, valid arguments can be made that atheism constitutes a religion, political opinion, or social group.

Atheism as a Religion

The United Nations’ Guidelines on International Protection define religion as to include atheistic beliefs: “Beliefs may take the form of convictions or values about the divine or ultimate reality or the spiritual destiny of humankind. Claimants may also be considered heretics, apostates, schismatic, pagan or superstitious, even by other adherents of their religious tradition and be persecuted for that reason.” See United Nations, Guidelines on International Protection: Religion-Based Refugee Claims under Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees at 3, U.N. Doc. HCR/GIP/04/06. However, there is still an inherent contradiction in claiming that atheism is a religion as it is generally defined by its rejection of religious movements and cannot be characterized by any one ideology or set of beliefs. Further, at least one Circuit has held that asylum applicants must demonstrate that they are dedicated to both the “beliefs and practices” of a particular group. See Canas-Segovia v. INS, 970 F.2d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1992). The lack of uniformity in belief and practice, coupled with the absence of a universally accepted philosophy dictated by a governing body amongst those who ascribe to atheism, makes the argument that it is a religion tenuous at best.

Atheism as a Political Opinion

The argument that atheism is a political opinion for asylum purposes rests on a more solid legal footing. The validity of this argument is based on the fact that the oppression and abuse faced by atheists in some countries is the direct result of their inherent opposition to government policies based on the dogma of the dominant religion. For example, the government of Pakistan represses all speech that is not in the “interest and glory of Islam.” See International Religious Freedom Report for 2011, Executive Summary, as cited by Blandon, Asylum for Atheists at 19. Laws and regulations like this create an environment where there is little difference between the state and the state religion. Often time state and religious leaders are one and the same. An atheist simply voicing his opinion or explaining his point of view can be persecuted by the government for having an opinion that differs from the state. This is the epitome of being punished for a political opinion. However, it is important to note that persecution on account of political opinions requires persecution on account of the victim’s political opinion, not the persecutors. See INS v. Elias-Zacaris, 502 U.S. 478, 482 (1992). Also of importance to is that individuals may be persecuted for imputed political opinions that they may not actually hold but are believed to hold. Individuals can be harmed in many countries simple because they do not conform to the beliefs of the majority. No actual opinion may be necessary, only an opinion imputed due lack of conformity.

Atheism as a Social Group

That leaves persecution on account of membership in a particular social group. To qualify for asylum on this basis, an individual must demonstrate that the persecution is directed at him or her due to membership in a group of people who all share a common, immutable characteristic. See Matter of Acosta, 19 I&N Dec. 211, 233 (BIA 1985). Whether or not individuals with certain characteristics will qualify as a social group is to be determined on a case-by-case basis. However, whatever the common characteristic that defines the group, it must either be one that the members of the group either cannot change or should not be required to change because it is “fundamental to their individual identities or consciences.” Acosta, 19 I&N Dec. at 233. It is axiomatic that an individual should not be forced by a state to change his religion to avoid punishment as there are few things more fundamental to an individual’s identity and consciousness than their religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

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