Humanists, atheists, and non-religious people in Sri Lanka face discrimination and persecution every day, especially if they come from a Muslim background. Even though Sri Lanka is not a Muslim country (the majority of the population is Buddhist), the strong presence of Islamic militants, fundamentalists, and extremists is still very powerful and dangerous.
Rishvin Ismath’s story illustrates the dangers nonreligious people can face. After years of activism as an Islamic preacher, Rishvin left Islam in 2013 and founded the Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka in 2016 (the only explicitly non-religious organization in the country). There was a dramatic backlash from Islamic terrorist groups, who tried to kill Rishvin at least six times, as confirmed by the Sri Lankan police to Rishvin himself in 2019.
Rishivin’s story is at the same time inspiring and worrying. On the one hand, it shows his courage and determination since, after the unexpected public outing in 2019, he is considered to be the only outspoken ex-Muslim in his country. On the other hand, it tells us bluntly how harsh and life-threatening the life of Sri Lankan humanists can be when they end up on the radar of religious fundamentalist groups.
In this regard, Rishvin himself stressed the importance of Humanists International’s work to defend humanists at risk, like him, around the world:
“Humanists at risk badly need support, and this support can only come from outside. I see Humanists International as the main connector, capable of giving oxygen to humanists at risk around the world. I know the value of the work of Humanists International, and that’s why I ask everyone to support its work to support persecuted humanists”.
It is hard to recap in a few words everything Rishvin talked about during the one-hour interview, so please watch the full video interview with Rishvin on Humanists International’s website. This is a brief summary of Rishvin’s story.
Born during the Sri Lankan Civil War, Rishvin was forced to leave his hometown at the age of ten by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who threatened his family at gunpoint. The family ended up in a city dominated by Islamist groups and, at school, Rishvin was taught that music is “blasphemous” (Haram), that the appropriate punishment for “apostasy” (Riddha) is “murder”, and so on.
After studying foreign languages at university, he started working with tourists in the coastal area of Sri Lanka. But the 2004 tsunami changed his life. Rishvin had a near-death experience which led him into an existential and religious crisis. He left his job, moved back home, and started studying the Quran and the Hadiths under the guidance of Mullahs. This journey into Islam brought Rishvin to Saudi Arabia in 2009, because he considered all other countries “un-Islamic”.
It was only in 2011 that a seed of doubt started growing in Rishvin’s mind. Back in Sri Lanka, he was put in charge of an Islamist Facebook group. In this position, Rishvin read the constructive criticism from atheists about Islam. Slowly, he lost his faith but didn’t reveal himself as a humanist, fearing for his safety.
In 2016, after receiving death threats online, Rishvin founded the Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka, the only specifically nonreligious organization in the country, working in hiding to promote humanist values and provide a safe space for ex-Muslims. He even reported to the police that ISIS was getting stronger in Sri Lanka and that the possibility of a terrorist attack was increasing. Unfortunately, the police ignored these warnings.
In 2019, the situation escalated quickly for Rishvin. After the Easter suicide bomber attacks in Colombo, Rishvin appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee to give a statement, made in front of the media. The video of Rishvin’s statement went viral and he was revealed as an ex-Muslim.
Since then, Rishvin has been living in hiding. Humanists International is closely following his case and will keep supporting him until he is free and safe.