Atheism in the Arab World

The dictators' scourge: Of 'heresy' and humanists

Posing as guardians of the faith, many Arabic regimes abuse their religious power in order to compensate for their states′ lack of democratic legitimacy. Hardly surprising, then, that they regard as atheism as an existential danger. Essay by Brian Whitaker

Religious disbelief is viewed with alarm in most Arab countries. Two government ministries in Egypt have been ordered to produce a national plan to ″confront and eliminate″ atheism. In Saudi Arabia, the most recent anti-terrorism law classifies ″calling for atheist thought″ as a terrorist offence.

This hounding of non-believers might seem especially strange at a time when concerns are high about those who kill in the name of religion, but Arab societies have a general aversion to nonconformity and the regimes that rule them often promote an official version of Islam that suits their political needs. Thus both jihadism and atheism – though very different in character – are viewed as forms of social or political deviance, with fears raised in the Arab media that those who reject God and religion will bring chaos and immorality if their ideas gain a foothold.

In six Arab countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen – apostasy is punishable by death. There have been no executions in recent years, but people deemed to have “insulted” religion, often in trivial ways, can face long prison sentences.

Crackdown on atheists, humanists, Islamists

In Egypt, where the military chief Abdul Fattah el-Sisi seized power in 2013, ousting an Islamist president, the new regime has been simultaneously cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, suspected religious extremists and atheists. Among other things, a café in Cairo which was allegedly frequented by atheists has been shut down and a college librarian who talked about humanism in a TV programme is facing dismissal from his job and may go on trial for ″promoting atheistic ideas″.

Graffiti in Cairo showing former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi behind bars (photo: Reuters)
Atheists and Muslim Brothers – ever the scapegoats: the emergence of an ″atheist threat″ in Egypt played into the hands of the regime′s political communications strategy. This development is officially presented as the sorry outcome following twelve months of being governed by the Muslim Brotherhood under Mohammed Morsi

Arab atheists are becoming more visible, largely due to social media. There is also a perception that their numbers are growing. In 2012 a poll by WIN/Gallup International that looked at religion in 57 countries caused particular alarm in Saudi Arabia, which, as the birthplace of Islam, claims to be the holiest of the Arab countries. Of those interviewed there, 19 percent said they were not religious and 5 percent described themselves as convinced atheists.

In Egypt, the emergence of an atheist ″menace″ fits the government’s political narrative. It is presented as an unfortunate result of 12 months’ misrule by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a similar vein, some analysts have suggested that IS, while attracting some Muslims to fight, is driving others away from Islam. There is very little evidence to support such theories. Atheists, after all, disagree with religion in general, not simply with the more outlandish forms of it. The problematic aspects of Islam, as expressed by those who leave the faith, tend to be rather different from those highlighted in western media.

In 2014, researching my book Arabs Without God, I tried to find out why some Arabs turn to atheism. No one I spoke to mentioned terrorism as a major factor. Those who abandoned Islam did so because they rejected basic tenets of the faith, mainly as taught to them in schools and by government-approved clerics.

In interviews, they mostly described a gradual progression away from religion, sometimes spread over years; there was no sudden “road to Damascus” moment of conversion to atheism. Typically, it began with a niggling question about some aspect of religious teaching that struck them as illogical and often they had hoped to resolve these discrepancies to have a better understanding of their faith.

A wrathful merciless God

The issue most often cited by Arabs as their first step on the road to disbelief was the apparent unfairness of divine justice. The picture they had acquired was of an irascible and sometimes irrational deity who behaves in much the same way as an Arab dictator or an old-fashioned family patriarch – an anthropomorphic figure who makes arbitrary decisions and seems eager to punish people at the slightest opportunity. Dire warnings, constantly repeated in the Koran, of what would happen to non-believers had clearly made a strong impression on them in childhood.

Muslim woman reading the Koran (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Rejection of a punitive and authoritarian God: ″prior to turning away from their faith, the picture many atheists had acquired was of an irascible and sometimes irrational deity who behaves in much the same way as an Arab dictator or an old-fashioned family patriarch – an anthropomorphic figure who makes arbitrary decisions and seems eager to punish people at the slightest opportunity. Dire warnings, constantly repeated in the Koran, of what would happen to non-believers had clearly made a strong impression on them in childhood,″ writes Whitaker

Given the way Islam is often invoked to justify gender inequality – the discriminatory inheritance rules, for example and subordination under the guise of female “modesty” – it might be argued that women in the Middle East have more reasons than men for abandoning religion. Some certainly do rebel and leave, but social conditions created by the patriarchal system make it difficult for others even to contemplate doing so. For vast numbers of Arab women, choosing between belief and non-belief is not a realistic option.

One striking difference between Arab non-believers and those in the West is that scientific arguments about evolution and the origins of the universe, a major part of Western atheist discourse, play only a minor role in Arabs’ drift away from religion – at least in the earlier stages. Generally, their initial questioning is not so much about the possibility (or otherwise) of God’s existence as about whether God could exist in the form described by organised religions.

Residual vague belief in a deity

Cover of Brian Whitaker′s ″Arabs without God″ (published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
British journalist Brian Whitaker attempted in his book Arabs Without God to find out why some Arabs turn to atheism. No one he spoke to mentioned terrorism as a major factor. According to Whitaker, those who abandoned Islam did so because they rejected basic tenets of the faith, mainly as taught to them in schools and by government-approved clerics

A few, while rejecting the God of Islam, maintain a vague belief in a deity or express a yearning for “spirituality”. In different circumstances, some might have explored other belief systems or “New Age” religion but the opportunities are severely restricted in the Middle East.

Most Muslim countries tolerate Christianity and Judaism up to a point, referring to them as the “heavenly” religions, but others are not usually recognised or allowed – though they may be practised surreptitiously. In Kuwait, there are yoga classes and “healing centres” run by Buddhists but they don’t advertise their religious connections.

Secularists and ″progressive″ Muslims

Some Muslims also make a tactical decision not to break with religion completely, presenting themselves as secularists, “progressive” Muslims or Muslim “reformers”.

They feel that more can be achieved by challenging oppressive religious practices than by questioning the existence of God, since they are unlikely to be listened to if they are known to be atheists.

While there’s little doubt that an Islamic reformation would benefit the Middle East socially and politically, atheists cannot advocate this without sacrificing their principles.

Progressive versions of Islam generally view the Koran in its historical context, arguing that rules which applied in the time of the Prophet can be reinterpreted today in the light of changing circumstances – but that involves accepting the Koran as the supreme scriptural authority.

The status of the Koran is a particularly important issue for both followers and opponents of Islam. Whereas Christians usually consider the Bible as divinely inspired but written by humans, the Koran is claimed to be the actual words of God, as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic).

For atheists from a Muslim background, disputing the authenticity of the Koran and the Prophet often seems more relevant than questioning God – and there is a long tradition of doing so. Two notable figures of the ninth and tenth centuries, Ibn al-Rawandi and Abu Bakr al-Razi (both Persian), have often been labelled as atheists, though it would be more accurate to describe them as anti-prophetic rationalists.

They were not concerned with whether God exists (and had little scientific knowledge on which to build a case) but they were very sceptical about prophets, including Muhammad. With various people claiming to be prophets and often contradicting each other, logic suggested they couldn’t all have a hotline to God. So the question was which of them – if any – were genuine.

Collage featuring Gallileo Gallilei (source: DW)
Although there is a long history of conflicts between science and Christianity, Muslims have not generally regarded scientific discoveries as a threat. The famous occasion in 1633 when Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was forced by the Roman Catholic Church to recant his “heretical” belief that the earth revolves around the sun has no Islamic equivalent

Then, as now, the arguments of non-believers tended to rely on irrationality in religious doctrine rather than questioning the evidence for God’s existence. This is where atheist reactions to Islam and to Christianity diverge.

Although there is a long history of conflicts between science and Christianity, Muslims have not generally regarded scientific discoveries as a threat. The famous occasion in 1633 when Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was forced by the Roman Catholic Church to recant his “heretical” belief that the earth revolves around the sun has no Islamic equivalent. Muslims’ historical eagerness to engage with science was connected to their faith. Astronomy was of particular interest since they used a lunar calendar and needed to ascertain the direction of Mecca when praying.

Darwin′s theory of evolution under lock and key

Publication of Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species in 1859 drew a mixed response from Muslims. Some, including the Grand Mufti of Egypt, relished the problems that Darwin’s theory caused for Christianity, arguing that Islam was relatively free from conflicts over science and thus more capable of taking things in its stride.

Today, Muslim opposition to Darwinism is growing, probably due to the trend towards religious conservatism and literal interpretations of scripture since the 1970s. As a result, evolution is an area where Arab schools, universities and media tread warily for fear of provoking complaints.

In the Middle East the God question is far more than a matter for intellectual debate. Because politics and religion are so closely entwined, challenging religion can mean challenging the politics too. Most Arab regimes use religious credentials to compensate for their lack of electoral legitimacy, adopting and promoting whatever version of Islam assists their self-preservation.

Brian Whitaker

© MPC Journal 2017

Brian Whitaker is a British journalist and former Middle East editor of the Guardian.

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