Is freedom of and from religion possible in Kuwait? According to the U.S. State Department, laws in Kuwait severely restrict religious freedom, largely due to Islam’s status as the state religion and Sharia law as the main source of legislation. Though Kuwait’s Council of Ministers has rejected amendments by the country’s parliament to make blasphemy a capital crime, any person accused of defaming and denigrating religion is sent to prison.
Abdul Aziz Mohamed El Baz, also known as Ben Baz Aziz, is a twenty-eight-year-old Egyptian man who lived in Kuwait and was working as an accountant at the Mirrors of the Gulf Company. After learning of his online writings on religion and secularism, the owner of the company reported Aziz as a blasphemer, and on December 31, 2012, Aziz was thrown in jail by the Kuwaiti government. On February 7, 2013, he was found guilty of “contempt of religions and attempting to spread atheism,” and was sentenced to one year in jail plus forced labor, a fine, and deportation to Egypt. A Facebook group called Free BenBaz garnered over 1,200 members, including humanists from around the world. Ben Baz Aziz was freed in February of this year and continues to write at his blog and for the Arabic monthly I Think Magazine where he explains the benefits of secular values and support for LGBT minorities and atheists.
TheHumanist.com conducted an email interview with Ben Baz Aziz to get an update on his current situation and thoughts on the future of religious freedom in Kuwait.
TheHumanist.com: When did you first start writing about atheism and other liberal-progressive issues?
Ben Baz: Since 2006, but I was using a fake name. At that time there were only a few blogs and forums talking about humanism, rationalism, and atheism. Then I stopped after being threatened by a local cop who knew me very well. I discovered that all networks in Egypt were monitored by the government. Once I went back to Kuwait in 2009, I started to participate freely without fear, and I established my own website in 2010, which started to rise very fast with many readers per day. I remember in 2011 when the TV channel France 24 aired a program about atheists in the Middle East and my blog was mentioned as one of those pioneers.
TheHumanist.com: What have you written about on the topic of atheism?
Ben Baz: I published more than 55 articles on my blog (which was deactivated after some threats). I discussed liberty, humanism, democracy, freedom of religion, secularism, and LGBT rights. I was one of the few writers to discuss topics like raising children beyond religion, and how to deal with exposing your atheism inside our society. I also gave a chance for others to talk and blog about these topics.
I’ve participated in Arab Atheist Broadcast with famous atheists like Aly Aly and Bassam Al Baghdadi with my real identity to inspire others to have the courage to appear publicly. We were discussing many issues and answering the most commonly asked questions by believers.
I’m also involved with I Think Magazine, which is considered the first atheistic magazine in the Middle East, publishing scientific and philosophical articles by many esteemed writers. We are seeking international recognition. I would like to thank our boss Ayman Ghojal for his big work.
TheHumanist.com: How long had you been living in Kuwait?
Ben Baz: I was born in Kuwait in 1985 and lived there for about twenty years before moving to Egypt, but I was not able to stay out of fear. Later on, it seemed that democracy and freedom of speech in the entire Middle East was being violated by each country’s government. I thought Kuwait was a safer place, more democratic.
TheHumanist.com: Were you at all mistreated during the deportation period from Kuwait to Egypt?
Ben Baz: The deportation center was the dirtiest place I have ever seen in my life. There was little food and it was so bad. No telephones. No contact with the administration. The procedures were so slow—it took 45 days. Red Cross visited me during that awful period.
The officer handling the case delayed my papers because he considered me a blasphemer. Luckily, a friend of mine came in to complain and was able to get the process going after being delayed for an entire month!
TheHumanist.com: You’re now living in Egypt. What’s the situation like for you right now?
Ben Baz: I can’t get into details, but to sum up: daily suffering, pain, and fear.
TheHumanist.com: Are you connecting with other Egyptian atheists in the area?
Ben Baz: I can’t find atheists in my city, but in other cities there are groups of atheists. I can’t contact them right now. I face restrictions and threats.