"Invisible Atheists: The spread of disbelief in the Arab world" by Ahmed Benchemsi, with iIllustrations by Brian Stauffer.
See also: http://www.freearabs.com/
From the attached article...
LAST DECEMBER, DAR AL IFTA, a venerable Cairo-based institution charged with issuing Islamic edicts, cited an obscure poll according to which the exact number of Egyptian atheists was 866. The poll provided equally precise counts of atheists in other Arab countries: 325 in Morocco, 320 in Tunisia, 242 in Iraq, 178 in Saudi Arabia, 170 in Jordan, 70 in Sudan, 56 in Syria, 34 in Libya, and 32 in Yemen. In total, exactly 2,293 nonbelievers in a population of 300 million.
Many commentators ridiculed these numbers. The Guardian asked Rabab Kamal, an Egyptian secularist activist, if she believed the 866 figure was accurate. “I could count more than that number of atheists at Al Azhar University alone,” she replied sarcastically, referring to the Cairo-based academic institution that has been a center of Sunni Islamic learning for almost 1,000 years. Brian Whitaker, a veteran Middle East correspondent and the author of Arabs Without God, wrote, “One possible clue is that the figure for Jordan (170) roughly corresponds to the membership of a Jordanian atheist group on Facebook. So it’s possible that the researchers were simply trying to identify atheists from various countries who are active in social media.”
Even by that standard, Dar Al Ifta’s figures are rather low. When I recently searched Facebook in both Arabic and English, combining the word “atheist” with names of different Arab countries, I turned up over 250 pages or groups, with memberships ranging from a few individuals to more than 11,000. And these numbers only pertain to Arab atheists (or Arabs concerned with the topic of atheism) who are committed enough to leave a trace online. “My guess is, every Egyptian family contains an atheist, or at least someone with critical ideas about Islam,” an atheist compatriot, Momen, told Egyptian historian Hamed Abdel-Samad recently. “They’re just too scared to say anything to anyone.”
While Arab states downplay the atheists among their citizens, the West is culpable in its inability to even conceive of an Arab atheist. In Western media, the question is not if Arabs are religious, but rather to what extent their (assumed) religiosity can harm the West. In Europe, the debate focuses on immigration (are “Muslim immigrants” adverse to secular freedoms?) while in the United States, the central topic is terrorism (are “Muslims” sympathetic to it?). As for the political debate, those on the right suspect “Muslims” of being hostile to individual freedoms and sympathetic to jihad, while leftists seek to exonerate “Muslims” by highlighting their “peaceful” and “moderate” religiosity. But no one is letting the Arab populations off the hook for their Muslimhood. Both sides base their argument on the premise that when it comes to Arab people, religiosity is an unquestionable given, almost an ethnic mandate embedded in their DNA.
The Arab Spring may have stalled, if not receded, but when it comes to religious beliefs and attitudes, a generational dynamic is at play. Large numbers of individuals are tilting away from the rote religiosity Westerners reflexively associate with the Arab world. In 2012, a wide-ranging WIN/Gallup International poll found that 5 percent of Saudi citizens—more than a million people—self-identify as “convinced atheists,” the same percentage as in the United States. Nineteen percent of Saudis—almost six million people—think of themselves as “not a religious person.” (In Italy, the figure is 15 percent.) These numbers are even more striking considering that many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Yemen, uphold the sharia rule punishing apostasy with death.
Capital punishment, however, is almost never put into practice; the convicted atheists spend varying periods in jail before being granted an opportunity to recant. Arab countries with no apostasy laws still have ways to deter the expression of religious disbelief. In Morocco and Algeria, prison terms await those convicted of using “means of seduction” to convert a Muslim. Egypt resorts to wide interpretations of anti-blasphemy laws to condemn outspoken atheists to jail. In Jordan and Oman, publicly leaving Islam also exposes one to a sort of civil death—a set of legal measures including the annulment of marriages and the stripping of inheritance rights.
Officially sanctioned punishments can be severe. This January, a 21-year-old Egyptian student named Karim Al Banna was given a three-year jail sentence for “insulting Islam,” because he declared he is an atheist on Facebook. His own father testified against him. In February 2012, Saudi writer Hamza Kashgari was imprisoned for almost two years without trial over three tweets addressing the prophet Muhammad; the most controversial was, “I will not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do.” The following month, a Tunisian tribunal sentenced bloggers Ghazi Beji and Jabeur Mejri to seven years for “transgressing morality, defamation and disrupting public order,” after they posted satirical comments and cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Last year, Raif Badawi, the founder of Free Saudi Liberals, a blog discussing religion, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes. And last December, Mauritanian columnist Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir was sentenced to death for penning a critique of his country’s caste system which traced its mechanisms back to decisions made by the prophet in the seventh century. The sentence is pending appeal.
Despite such draconian measures, the percentage of people who express some measure of religious doubt is higher in the Arab world (22 percent) than in South Asia (17 percent) and Latin America (16 percent). And that 22 percent is only an average; the percentage goes higher in some Arab countries, from 24 percent in Tunisia up to 37 percent in Lebanon. Considering the extent to which the Arab social and political environment impedes the expression of nonbelief, the numbers of doubters and atheists would likely be significantly higher if people felt freer to speak their minds. In January, Egyptian atheist activist Ahmed Harqan told Ahram Online, “If the state preserved and protected the rights of minorities, the numbers of those who reveal they’re atheists would increase tenfold.”
IN THE SPRING OF 2011, THE ARAB WORLD was experiencing a regionwide revolutionary convulsion. In Tunis, Cairo, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, thousands of young people took over public squares, demanding new freedoms. At the same time, Waleed Al Husseini was in a jail cell in Qalqiliya in the Palestinian West Bank. The 22-year-old had been arrested a few months earlier in a cybercafé by Palestinian intelligence agents. Al Husseini was at the café because he had decided not to blog from his home because of threats he’d received for posts on his blog Noor Al Aqel, or the Light of the Mind.
As The New York Times reported, Al Husseini had “angered the Muslim cyberworld by promoting atheism, composing spoofs of Koranic verses, skewering the lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad and chatting online using the sarcastic Web name God Almighty.” He told me he was brought before a military court because his online atheism was considered a “threat to national security.”
Al Husseini was locked up for ten months, during which he was physically abused and endlessly interrogated. Of the hundreds of questions he was asked, one stuck in his mind: “Who finances your atheism?”
“Posting my thoughts on a blog obviously didn’t require any financing,” Al Husseini told me. “But the question was an indication of their utter inability to understand that renouncing Islam was my personal choice, just as it could be anyone else’s—including them. In their minds, there had to be a foreign conspiracy behind this, preferably led by Israel. That was the only way my atheism could make sense for them.”
Al Husseini was eventually freed and fled to Jordan, where he sought refuge in the French Embassy. Today he lives in Paris and has published a memoir, Blasphémateur! Les Prisons d’Allah (Blasphemer! The Prisons of Allah). After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, he wrote an op-ed in the French daily Libération defending the slain cartoonists’ freedom of speech. The headline the editor put on it was, “I, a Muslim, Commit to Secularism.” Al Husseini, who by then had already published his memoir as an atheist and a blasphemer, commented in an amused tone, “They probably thought that putting ‘Muslim’ and ‘secularism’ together in the same sentence was bizarre enough to trigger interest.”
During a 2014 appearance on HBO’s "Real Time with Bill Maher," American author Sam Harris, a pillar of the New Atheism movement, fell into the same essentialist trap when he referred to “Muslims who are nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously.” One can only marvel at the oxymoronic complexity of that sentence. If these people don’t take Islam seriously, why then call them Muslims, “nominal” or not?
Religiously motivated trials like Al Husseini’s are always a serious affair, with the accused considered not just an enemy of God, but also of the state. All Arab regimes use religion, to various extents, as a source of legitimacy. The expression of disbelief represents, for them, an existential threat. In 2014, Saudi Arabia went as far as listing atheism and questioning the Islamic faith as terrorist acts. There is an understandable logic behind the move. “Saudi Arabia depends greatly on religious credentials, since its basic law roots the regime in Wahhabi Islam,” Whitaker, the author of Arabs Without God, told me. “If you are an atheist in Saudi Arabia, you are also a revolutionary. If atheism is allowed to flourish, the regime won’t be able to survive.”
It’s not just the authorities that consider disbelief a problem. Arab societies as a whole are not wired to accept declared atheists in their ranks. The first reason for Arab atheists to keep quiet is to not upset their relatives. Amid omnipresent religious references, claiming that you don’t believe in God is hardly seen as an expression of your singularity. Rather it is considered a challenge to society in its entirety. Religiosity in the Arab world is not just mainstream; it is the norm, to which one is supposed to adhere unquestionably, or else be deemed a “deviant”—the literal translation of mulhid, the most-used Arabic term for atheist. And since religion is seen as the cradle of morality, godless people are assumed to be devoid of a moral compass. Whitaker cites Mohammed Al Khadra, a Jordanian atheist and civil society organizer, who said, “The main view is that if someone is ... an atheist then he must be living like an animal. That’s how they see us. I have been asked so many times why wouldn’t I sleep with my mother?”
It’s even more problematic when the nonbeliever is female. “The popular association of atheism with immorality is a particular deterrent for women who have religious doubts, since in Arab society they are expected to be ‘virtuous’ and not rebellious in order to marry,” Whitaker wrote in his book.
In such a milieu, one would assume the vast majority of Arab people are devout religious practitioners. The fact of the matter is, except in relatively small ultrareligious circles, secular lifestyles and attitudes are largely tolerated in the Arab world. For example, though forbidden in Islam, drinking alcohol is commonplace, particularly among the educated middle and upper classes. Until recently in Morocco, a country that produces large quantities of wine (alongside Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan), alcohol was sold in a supermarket chain owned by King Mohammed VI, also known as the Commander of the Faithful. In a recent speech, Nabil Al Fadhl, a Kuwaiti member of parliament, deplored his country’s prohibition of alcoholic beverages, in effect since 1964, for driving young people to drink clandestinely manufactured—and thus dangerous—beverages.
Sex outside of marriage, another practice prohibited by Islam, is also unexceptional, especially in urban environments where genders have been mixing in the public space for more than half a century. In Morocco, a study determined that 800 clandestine abortions (presumably prompted by out-of-wedlock pregnancies) are performed on any given day.
Likewise, while Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day at fixed times, including twice during working hours, believers typically skip the prayers while they’re at work and perform them once back home. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most zealous Arab countries when it comes to religious protocol, shops have to close for about 15 minutes at each prayer call to allow the customers to perform their religious duty. But you can often see small crowds of people gathered on the sidewalk and waiting idly—some taking a cigarette break—until the shops reopen.
In today’s Arab world, it’s not religiosity that is mandatory; it’s the appearance of it. Nonreligious attitudes and beliefs are tolerated as long as they’re not conspicuous. As a system, social hypocrisy provides breathing room to secular lifestyles, while preserving the façade of religion. Atheism, per se, is not the problem. Claiming it out loud is. So those who publicize their atheism in the Arab world are fighting less for freedom of conscience than for freedom of speech.
It hasn’t always been so. Since the 1960s, larger-than-life Arab intellectuals, such as Palestinians Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish and the Syrian Ali Ahmad Said Esber, also known as Adonis, haven’t shied away from challenging religious orthodoxy. Abdullah Al Qasemi, a Saudi writer who died in 1996 and is considered the godfather of Gulf atheists, famously declared, “The occupation of our brains by gods is the worst form of occupation.” Back then, such statements were much less of a problem. As the Associated Press’s Diaa Hadid reported in 2013, “In the 1960s and 1970s, secular leftists were politically dominant. It wasn’t shocking to express agnosticism. ... But the region grew more conservative starting in the 1980s, Islamists became more influential, and militants lashed out against any sign of apostasy.”
Abdel-Samad, the Egyptian historian, experienced this firsthand. Today, at 43, he is a declared atheist, but he was an enthusiastic member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his university days. But while he was attending a summer camp run by the Brotherhood, doubts started to creep in. “It was meant to be some sort of collective physical and spiritual effort,” he told me. “We were each given an orange and instructed to walk in the heat for hours. After an exhausting journey in the desert, we were ordered to peel the orange. We were happy to finally get something to quench our thirst. But then, our group leader ordered us to bury the fruit in the sand, and eat the peeling. I felt utterly humiliated. The objective was obviously to break our will. This is how you make terrorists. I left the Brotherhood soon after that.” In 2013 an Egyptian extremist cleric appeared on television and issued a death fatwa against Abdel-Samad after he’d asserted that Islam had developed fascist tendencies since the time of the prophet.
[See attached article for the remaining paragraphs...]