Iranian atheist Soheil Arabi who was on death row for blasphemy and is currently in internal exile after 8 years in prison in Iran was awarded the Freethought Champions Award at Celebrating Dissent 2022 organised by Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and Freethought Lebanon.

In his acceptance video, he said: “I have no regrets that I have been in prison for 8 years, despite the fact that I have lost my health because I think we have paved the way collectively together for liberation. I am a drop in this sea and glad to be part of the society of enlightenment.”  He added, “When one is not free, then you cannot have a normal and meaningful life, you cannot choose; women cannot choose their dress, men cannot even decide on the shape of their beard. We were dead already; we are trying to be alive again.” See Maryam Namazie’s interview with Soheil Arabi on the situation of atheists in Iran.

Transcript of the Interview is below:

Maryam Namazie: Soheil Arabi, it’s an honour to have you with us. Congratulations on the Freethinkers’ Award at Celebrating Dissent 2022.

Tell us about your personal circumstances, as well as your mother’s who bravely campaigned on your behalf. You were in prison for 8 years for apostasy, freethinking and for defending political prisoners. You are now in internal exile in Iran.

Soheil Arabi: Hello. I am also very pleased to be with you. I must say that freethinkers, new thinkers and dissidents here in Iran are all in a prison and facing torture. Some prison torture chambers have the signs “Prison” at its gates but other places have no visible sign. From very beginning of becoming an atheist, apostates are subject to mistreatment by their family, school, university and society at large. As soon as we begin to express our opinion, certainly the torture and mistreatment intensifies and our task becomes more difficult.

In my 8 years in prison, nothing was new. The only difference was that it was formally called a prison. Really from the day we become apostates, the torture against us starts. In prison, this is more formal.

As far as my mother is concerned, she has been sentenced to imprisonment for defending me and when I was sentenced to death, she suffered a heart attack. Recently, she also suffered a brain haemorrhage when she was called for interrogation. Putting pressure on the families of political prisoners has become part and parcel of the prisoner’s torture, unfortunately.

Maryam Namazie: I am sorry to hear. Please convey our warmest wishes to your mother and family. She has given all of us courage for the support she has given you and other political prisoners. You mentioned the pressures on you and your family. This is reality of life for freethinkers and dissidents who are living in Iran. You have worked hard both inside the prison and now whilst in internal exile, to expose prison conditions of freethinkers imprisoned in the Islamic regime of Iran. Would you give more details about their conditions in prison in Iran?

Soheil Arabi: There are many types of political prisoners in Iran and the treatment and pressure on them is different. For example, those who want reform but still believe in an Islamic regime receive lesser sentences and their treatment is different in prison compared to those who completely oppose the ideology of the government and those who are secular and believe that rules and laws should be earthly not divine. Those who believe in fundamental changes suffer many more tortures if they are not executed. Execution has become more difficult for the regime, not because they are more tolerant, but because people are supporting us. A decade ago, any apostate would be executed for declaring that they have left Islam. Fortunately, support from the people and international support have led to slight improvements in the situation. Pressure on the atheist prisoner is much more than on anyone else, more than pressure on a murderer or someone who has undertaken a major fraud or someone who has planted a bomb. For example, when I was sentenced to death, my mother asked the prosecutor “why do you want to execute my son? He has not killed anyone!” The prosecutor responded: “a murderer kills one person, where you son has murdered the government!” You see their view is that anyone who is engaged in enlightenment is killing a government. That is why they take the most severe revenge against the prisoner.

Maryam Namazie: You point out an important issue that enlightenment is important. It is a fact about Iranian society that freethinking, enlightenment and atheism have significantly grown. Why do you think this is happening and how does this reflect in prisons?

Soheil Arabi: The government is very much terrified of enlightenment. This is because the political economy of the Islamic regime is based on religion. If you take away religion from the Islamic regime, if you remove superstition, then the state cannot survive. A democratic system will replace it where there is no room for mullahs and Basijis. They will be replaced with specialists and experts. Therefore, the regime’s survival is based on maintaining superstition and they are frightened of enlightenment. Fortunately, despite dangers and difficulties, the enlightenment and legacy of generations before us and in particular with the social media, enlightenment has flourished in Iran and I can safely say that 80% of our young generation do not believe in these superstitions. You rarely see anyone who believes in the religion, prays or independently decides to wear the hijab. People despise the religious government and fortunately even those who previously believed in religion have today turned their backs on religion. Thanks to social media networks and enlightenment work and sacrifices that our friends have made in these years. In fact, the Achilles heel of this government is enlightenment, the more awareness there is among people the more difficult it is for a religious government based on superstition.

Maryam Namazie: You as the most famous atheist of Iran and I think one the famous atheists of the world. Despite all the dangers you face both in prison and currently in internal exile in Iran why would you still continue to carry on?

Soheil Arabi: I started this work with a blog called “A generation that no longer wants to be burnt!” because our generation and our previous generation were really burnt by the fire of religion and theocracy. All of our lives were endangered by religion. From our birth, they whispered Shahada in our ears. We have had no choice – not even control of our hairstyle, dress. We were robbed by religion. In short, our lives were burnt. The day we began to mutiny against this servitude, we said to ourselves that we may suffer but at least our children and the generation after us could possibly have a better life. Fortunately, we have so far succeeded. With our pens we have overcome the prison, hanging rope, truncheon and boots. With solidarity, our generation has overcome a thousand-year-old reactionary entity. I have no regrets that I have been in prison for 8 years, despite the fact that I have lost my health because I think we have paved the way collectively together for liberation. I am a drop in this sea and glad to be part of the society of enlightenment.

Maryam Namazie: You already responded to this in some ways but is it worth it?

Soheil Arabi: We had truly nothing to lose but our chains. We were turned into walking corpses. When one is not free, then you cannot have a normal and meaningful life, you cannot choose; women cannot choose their dress, men cannot even decide on the shape of their beard. We were dead already; we are trying to be alive again. Even if you want to see the individual benefit, it was worth it. Even though we viewed it as part of a moral question that one must protest injustice while alive; one should not be expected to live under indignity. This is a moral question that one should not live under indignity. Even if you look at it from an economic point of view benefit point of view, we were killed many times under this government’s rule. They had taken away our choices. Without our permission we have been assigned as Muslims and our right to leave religion removed. For this very reason we broke our chains and we did the right thing. If we kept silent, the burnt generations would have followed us. I am really pleased to have achieved this a lot sooner.  When I was criticising religion relentlessly, I thought I would get executed and only after 50 or 100 years might it have in impact. However, and fortunately, because of unity and solidarity and the advantage offered us by the new technology, we have achieved our goals a lot sooner. The younger generation born two decades after us, have more enquiring minds and will not accept the religious peddlers, they are a thoughtful generation. This truly has given me relief.

Maryam Namazie: You earlier referred to the importance of freethinking and freedom of conscience and also the importance of the right to insult the sacred and apostasy for progress in a society. The more advanced a society, the more respect for freedom to think and conscience. In your view, what is the significance of criticising, ridiculing and challenging of these laws for Iran and freethinking in the world?

Soheil Arabi: It is important for this to become a global movement as this is not just an issue for the people of Iran, rather it is important for all of the Middle East; many places in the world are grappling with this issue.

The cost of iconoclasm is very high; is a matter of life and death. If we turn this into a global movement and if we succeed to turn it into a right for people across the world to have the right to criticise, mock and question everything, we would certainly have a better world in the future and life would be easier for all of us.

Islam and generally theocracy has many victims and its wining card has been prohibition of questioning. When we were children, any question to the religious teacher would be met with physical punishment and ridiculed. They would put a rubbish bin on our head to teach us a lesson and threaten us. Questioning has been banned in Iran; insulting the sacred is prohibited. Although we have paid a great price with many executed and imprisoned, but we have to a great extent broken the taboo!

I think the solution is to turn this into a global movement and create a base and support for atheists and freethinking prisoners via global protest and activity to turn this into a practical right for everyone across the world to be able to challenge anything and have the right not to have a religion and to leave a religion. These are important for our plan for the future whilst the problem still remains.

Maryam Namazie: You mentioned that the support you received in Iran and globally helped you while in prison and saved you from certain death. What is the significance of this solidarity and unity and what message do you have for those who can hear you. What can they do?

Soheil Arabi: When I was arrested and sentenced to death in 2013, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unit published a plan to fight atheists. A number of people were executed. Some were members of “The Campaign to Remember” or Facebook activists who were exposing and mocking the sacred as a means of enlightenment. Many were executed or given long term sentences. In that year I was sentenced to death, Ali Rastani was executed at that very time for asking simple questions.

I remember whilst in interrogation, they used to beat me severely and when I was becoming unconscious, I could hear the head torturer saying – “don’t kill him here; he should be hanged legally so he becomes a lesson for others not to mock our Imans and insult the sacred.” They had a clear plan to carry out the execution legally to use it as media propaganda. Fortunately, this happened at the time that Twitter had become prevalent and social media was used extensively in Iran and we were lucky that we managed to send information out and people were very supportive. There were a number of Twitter campaigns that came to the attention of the public and the people of the world responded. From that moment, the prison authorities and officials changed their approach. Previously it was with threats, but now they were trying to make me confess that I was on the US’ payroll and receiving funding to justify my execution. Since they failed to force me make to a false confession and under immense public and international pressure they said they would commute the death sentence but wanted me to refrain from engaging and the media. They were petrified of people’s united and coordinated protest about my plight. This certainly made it costly for the authorities.

The security forces have two strategies. Firstly, to stamp out and suppress any opposing or dissenting voice by making people fearful; the other strategy is led by more pragmatic approach to minimise the cost and risk for the regime. Where there is extensive and widespread support the second strategy group will become a dominate approach to reduce the cost and risk for the government. Extensive and coordinated support and if it becomes a global response certainly has an impact. We currently have Yousef Mehrdad and Sadolah Fazeli at risk of execution on charges of insulting the representative of god and leader of the Islamic regime. They are in Arak city torture chambers and are suffering hard times. Sexual assault, rape and torture are used against political prisoners and the prisoners face a really harsh and difficult condition for working for enlightenment. We therefore must work together to support them and make it really costly for the regime to suppress freethinkers. One very useful way is to use social media, particularly international protest and coordinated Twitter action to engage all the world.

Maryam Namazie: Thank you Soheil Arabi for talking to us and congratulations again on your award.

Soheil Arabi: Thank you. I accept this award on behalf of all the brave women who fighting compulsory veiling and all the mothers who are supporting their children and to all of those people who are fighting this injustice and hope very soon we get rid of these oppressors!

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