The Atlantic

The 'Underground Railroad' To Save Atheists

A vision to protect those persecuted for non-religion
Source: Henghameh Fahimi / AFP / Getty

Lubna Yaseen was a student in Baghdad when death threats forced her into exile. Her crime was to think the unthinkable and question the unquestionable—to state, openly, that she was an atheist.

Growing up in Hillah, a city in central Iraq, she developed an independent mind at a young age. “My mother is an atheist intellectual person, and she brought up me and my siblings to think for ourselves and to be open to anything,” she told me. Yaseen was particularly concerned about her teachers’ attitudes toward women. “I always asked why girls should wear a hijab and boys are not obligated to do so,” she said. Why would “God” treat the two sexes differently? She quickly learned the dangers of expressing these views: Her teachers often threw her out of their classes, and sometimes beat her.

In 2006, when Yaseen and her mother were driving home one day, al-Qaeda militants pulled them over and threatened to kill them for not wearing the hijab. Still, Yaseen’s desire to explore secular thinking grew at university. “I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Whenever there was a conversation, I talked.” She started handing out leaflets on

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