Somali atheists in the diaspora are running a Facebook group to challenge their community’s Islamic beliefs, but they often receive death threats, writes journalist Layla Mahmood.
“I am going to kill you. I am going to find you. I am going to cut your head off,” was one of the threats that Ayaanle, a Canada-based Somali atheist, received.
“[But] that’s kind of normal,” the founder of the True Somali Freedom Page (TSFP) says sardonically as he talks about the death threats that clog his inbox.
The popular Facebook group, which has more than 80,000 members, is predominantly led by atheists, or “ex-Muslims”, as they refer to themselves.
It was initially inspired to create a safe space for religious discussion and now promotes all forms of freedom for Somalis who feel marginalised by mainstream Somali culture.
Ayaanle did not want to give his full name. He told me how the movement began.
Ejected from group
Around 2016, he stumbled across a Somali Facebook group that purported to be a space for free speech and debate.
“I got into a discussion about religion and everybody just erupted. They went ballistic. They made me feel like I killed someone.”
He was swiftly removed from the group, a common experience for those who express contrary views in this kind of Somali forum.
‘A space to be free’
Ayaanle then felt the only way forward was to create a new platform, with new rules.
“I wanted [the TSFP] to be a place where… people could be free to say whatever they liked.”
A driving force for Ayaanle stemmed from his belief that contemporary Somali discussions about religion had become increasingly restrictive in the aftermath of Somalia’s decades-long civil war.
“Islam is untouchable. You cannot criticise or say anything about Islam.
“Right now the young people are changing, they are a little more tolerant to debates and criticism.
“[But] many of those who grew up in Somalia and came to the West during and after the civil war accept the idea that if someone criticises Islam they should be killed. They really think it’s something valid.”
Hence the death threats that he has received.
“That’s one of the things I want to put out there and what I have the page for – to show that Islam is not untouchable. It can be criticised, it can be debated and it can be talked about openly.”
In Somalia and the breakaway state of Somaliland, blasphemy is a jailable offence, and the TSFP has set out to challenge this.
It campaigned and raised money for the academic Mahmoud Jama Ahmed-Hamdi. He was a university lecturer who was arrested for writing a Facebook post that questioned the validity of praying to God as a means of relieving the drought in 2019.
He served 10 months in prison before receiving a presidential pardon, but is still at risk from vigilante attacks. One prominent imam called for his execution.
The case demonstrates the complexity of how power operates in Somalia and Somaliland, with the line between religious leaders and government being significantly blurred.
Fear of exposure
Somalis have not only been using the group as a platform to debate, but, in some cases, as a means of survival.
Some of the most at-risk groups in Somalia who have put messages on the TSFP are Christians, atheists and LGBT individuals.
These are people who grapple with the constant fear of being exposed and are subjected to attacks and imprisonment.
One way that the TSFP helps is through raising money and the cash has bought plane tickets and helped with living expenses.
This was the case when a Somali Christian woman in Kenya used her publicly accessible identity to leave a comment on the TSFP.
Her identity was quickly discovered and a video of her being dragged out of a taxi in Kenya was widely shared on Somali internet channels. The attackers threatened to expose her because of her criticisms of the Prophet Muhammad on the page.
The TSFP arranged for her to be moved to a different country, where she has now found safety in a Christian community.
But it is not just non-Muslims, ex-Muslims or LGBT individuals who reach out to the group.
A Somali man living in Sudan contacted the TSFP after being physically attacked on the street by a group of men who he believed ascribed to Wahhabism – a form of Islam that is often associated with a more rigorous and extreme interpretation of the Koran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
He was discovered, following criticisms on Facebook that he made about some Hadith, statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The TSFP arranged for him to be relocated from Sudan to a safer place.
The volume of requests that the group’s administrators get means that those who want help have to be carefully vetted.
“We research and investigate,” Kahaa Dhinn, a Norway-based women’s advocate who has become a leading figure on the page, says.
“We ask their tribe name and their family names. We then look at their Facebook profile and talk to people in the group to see if anyone knows them. If they don’t tell us who their tribe is, we know they’re lying.”
Kahaa collaborates with the TSFP but has a separate Facebook and YouTube account, which she uses as a platform to talk about issues affecting the Somali community.
‘I know where you live’
Her main focus is to empower Somali women, but like Ayaanle, she is also an outspoken atheist, which has made her a target.
“They threatened to kill me with knives and said ‘the Muslims will kill you and you will die in their hands’.
But the threats appear not to dampen her conviction: “I’m not afraid of them. They want to silence me through fear.”
Her fearlessness is emboldened by the knowledge that she lives in a country where threats have consequences.
In Somalia, killings and attacks rarely get investigated but in Norway she has got the police involved.
“Two of the guys who threatened me were using their real profiles and the police were able to arrest them,” she says.
Ayaanle echoes this sentiment but knows that there are some who are not so lucky.
“A lot of Somalis who are on the page don’t show their faces – the ones who say they are non-believers – because they’re scared for their lives,” he says.
‘I feel relieved’
The fact that Ayaanle and Kahaa have distanced themselves from Islam has not meant that they have distanced themselves from being Somali, despite the two being intertwined.
“I actually feel more Somali, like I have my real identity back,” says Kahaa.
But Ayaanle stresses that the group’s intended aim is not to convert Somali Muslims into atheists, or into any other non-conformist identity, but to create an environment that promotes freedom of expression and speech. Something he believes Somalis need now more than ever.
“So, it’s small steps. But we are winning some hearts. We really believe that people should believe what they want to believe and be who they want to be.”