It was dim inside the mosque. I watched as the men, followed by the women, faced Mecca. Sacred Arabic syllables filled the room. Though they were just sounds, they moved the adherents around like a powerful magnet. I imitated these movements, but I did not understand their significance. As I fell onto to my knees and stretched my hands out in front of me, I did not realize I was submitting myself to Allah. Islam means submission. I learned this not from my Muslim childhood but from atheist philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. In his book Breaking the Spell, he posits that religions spread through memes.
I had begun to realize that those afternoons in the stuffy mosque, singing Quranic scripture, were a form of indoctrination. Like a virus infecting a host, religion attempted to cloud my thinking. A set of strict morals, attitudes and principles were bestowed upon me against my will. For much of my childhood, I had mistakenly identified as Muslim, when, in fact, I was a child of Muslim parents.
In 1995, after my grandfather and uncle had been brutally killed for voicing criticism of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime, my father fled Iraq and immigrated to the United States, where free speech is enshrined in the Constitution. My mother, also a refugee, narrowly escaped genocide in the Bosnian War, where ethnic minorities were slaughtered and devoid of their religious freedoms.
As a multicultural first-generation American, I hold dear the freedoms afforded by the U.S. Constitution. I advocate for secularism because my lineage testifies to the atrocities of religious violence. My parents lost a national identity as a direct consequence of sectarianism. Otherwise beautiful countries, with vibrant cultures and profound histories, were reduced to rubble. If it weren’t for the religiously motivated genocide against Muslims in Bosnia and the Shia-Sunni schism in Iraq, perhaps my parents would not have immigrated to the United States as refugees.
As a gay person, my entire being is demonized not only through claims made in archaic religious text, but also through religious demagoguery that champions the so-called sanctity of marriage between husband and wife. By being openly gay and atheist in Bosnian and Iraqi-American communities, I am often met with adversity.
For instance, I had finally mustered the courage to post about Pride Month on my Instagram, adding a rainbow flag to my bio. One of my father’s real estate clients happened to see this, and he fired my dad for raising a gay son. Discriminatory acts in the same vein are quite common.
As a teenager, I felt conflicted trying to connect the disparate pieces of my identity: gay, atheist, Bosnian, Iraqi, American. Now, as a young adult, I celebrate my complexity. To address the fundamental issues of our generation, we must first understand ourselves. We are all complex.
The issues I am most passionate about — climate change, economic justice, LGBTQ+ equality — cannot be addressed without the separation of church and state. The rise of religious fundamentalism, coupled with the extraordinary lobbying power of religious interest groups, calls for secular action.
My involvement in activism did not start until I learned what is at stake. When I learned that religious arguments were being used to attack individual rights, I joined Arizona State University’s Secular Student Alliance (SSA) in January 2021 and immediately got involved. The chapter president granted me membership, even though I was then a high school senior.
We started by lobbying Arizona State House and Senate members to vote against bills that impinge on Americans’ religious freedoms. Notably, I fought against HB 2140, a near-total abortion ban.
This past summer, I interned for Rep. Ruben Gallego, who represents Arizona’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. I assisted with federal casework and coordinated with federal agencies on the behalf of constituents.
My atheist activist initiatives are not limited to legislation.
• Cognizant of theist resistance to mental health education, I started a mental health campaign at my high school. I began by placing an op-ed in my school newspaper, which addressed cultural prejudices regarding mental health, many of which are rooted in religious beliefs. I also launched a virtual emotional support group with the aim of addressing the emotional needs of students through science-based, secular approaches rather than ones rooted in religious dogma.
• I joined MoveOn, a leading progressive public advocacy group. On March 31, 2020, as part of the Recovery Recess, I hosted an event for the Thrive and For the People Act. I spoke about how the passage of a transformational infrastructure package can put 15 million Americans in family-sustaining climate jobs, deliver real climate solutions and advance racial, Indigenous, gender and econ omic justice.
• I was the co-founder and president of the Freedom Liberation Caucus of Ironwood, a nonpartisan political discussion club. As president, I hosted seminar discussions and encouraged a diverse cohort of students to find common ground on controversial issues in an effort to combat censorship.
• I entered the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) 2020-2021 Free Speech Essay Competition. Out of 3,000 essays nationally, mine placed second.
• I protested at the Stop the Filibuster rally, where over 200 activists organized to condemn Sen. Kyrsten Sinema for her vehement defense of the Jim Crow relic.
• My op-ed, “Let’s talk about Christian nationalism,” has been published by Secular AZ’s newsletter. Legal Director Dianne Post has even invited me to become a board member of Secular Communities For Arizona.
We cannot just imagine a better world — we must build it ourselves. In accordance with the SSA’s mission, I will do everything in my power to promote secular values and bring a world governed by reason, logic and freethought into fruition.
Sami is a first-generation college student who is a political science major at Arizona State University.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation thanks FFRF Member Al Luneman for making possible this scholarship.