Fighting for freedom of speech, loud and clear

As an atheist activist and anonymous blogger in Morocco, Kacem El Ghazzali defended freedom of belief and speech in Muslim countries. When his identity was discovered, he was kicked out of school, beaten, threatened with death and – eventually – forced to flee his homeland.

Since 2011, El Ghazzali has continued his fight from Switzerland, where he was granted asylum and now serves as the international representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the UN Human Rights Council. He receives e-mails daily from young people in the Arab world who are fighting for freedom of speech and religion. El Ghazzali introduces their stories to the UN, keeps in touch with them, and makes them feel that they are not alone. “People who are ready to take a risk and speak out for human rights are the only guarantee that the future can be different,” El Ghazzali says. 

“People who are ready to take a risk and speak out for human rights are the only guarantee that the future can be different.”

Leaving Morocco was not an easy journey for El Ghazzali, he admits. Raised in a small rural village, he attended a religious school. Confronting his community and his family over his atheism was a real challenge. In a society where traditional mindsets prevail, he believes his case has helped inspire other young people in Muslim countries.

El Ghazzali says that his fight is not against religion itself, but against its use as a political and ideological tool. He is confident that a transition from a religious state, where Sharia law rules, to a secular state is possible. “It might happen fast,” he says. The agents of change will be young people he calls “Zuckerberg’s generation” who have access to a globalized world through the Internet and are able to exchange information with peers abroad. They are atheists, secular Muslims, moderate Muslims, and others who “are defending human rights universally,” he says. “This is a generation which is the hope not only of the Muslim world but for all the world.”

In countries like Tunisia, Morocco and even Saudi Arabia, el Ghazzali sees growing numbers of people who call themselves secularists along with the strengthening of the civil society. These people are talking openly about issues that were taboo just a few years ago. They are part of an intellectual revolution, he says: “Teenagers are aware that the way to make changes in not necessary a classical protest, but also building a movement.” 

“This is a generation which is the hope not only of the Muslim world but for all the world.”

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