Arabs and atheism: the politics of disbelief

In many parts of the world whether you believe in God or not, whether you practise a religion or not, is seen as a personal choice – and a choice that everyone is free to make. This basic principle is set out in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. 

Freedom of belief also includes the freedom not to believe. As the UN Human Rights Committee made clear in 1993, the Universal Declaration “protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.”

That principle isn't applied everywhere, though, and one notable exception is the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is an obvious example. In 2014, as part of some new anti-terrorism legislation, the Saudi government decreed that promoting “atheist thought” or questioning what it called “the fundamentals” of Islam would henceforth be treated as a terrorist crime.

This is the text of a lecture given at the Bozar arts centre in Brussels on 14 February 2019. Brian Whitaker is author of the book Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East.

Ludicrous as it might seem to equate atheism with terrorism, in Saudi terms this wasn't as illogical as it might appear. The kingdom’s Basic Law – in effect, its constitution – says that government in Saudi Arabia derives its power from the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, and that Saudi society is based on the principle of obedience to God’s command. One of the consequences of establishing such an intimate connection between God, Islam and the Saudi state is that anyone who happens to reject God and Islam can't avoid also rejecting the foundations on which the Saudi state is based – hence the view that atheists are politically dangerous.

Around the same time, the Sisi regime in Egypt announced it was working on a national plan to “confront and eliminate” atheism. A government-linked newspaper stated that atheists were “the country’s second enemy after the Muslim Brotherhood”, and it quoted a psychologist saying that atheism “leads to mental imbalances and paranoia”. Since then, Egyptian officials, religious leaders and others have repeatedly claimed that atheism is a foreign plot aimed at destabilising the country.

Despite such claims there’s no reason to suppose that a wave of atheism is about to sweep across the Middle East. It’s impossible to know how many atheists there are in the region, not least because they often feel a need to keep quiet about their disbelief, but it’s generally agreed that they form a very small percentage. It’s clear, though, that atheism among Arabs has become more visible during the last few years, mainly because of the internet. While this visibility is new, atheism itself is not new in the Arab countries. 

Looking at the historical picture, we find a long tradition of home-grown religious scepticism dating back to the early centuries of Islam. We find plenty of people – probably best described as freethinkers – who objected to religion for a variety of reasons and were often very forthright in their criticisms of it. As far as actual atheism is concerned, though, the picture is less clear and this is partly for linguistic reasons because the Arabic language doesn’t have an exact equivalent of the English word “atheism”. “Atheism” in English specifically indicates a non-belief in God or gods.

The Arabic terms normally used today – ilhad for atheism and mulhid for atheist – certainly include disbelief in God but in the past they were used much more broadly to refer to heretics, apostates and other kinds of dissenters. The general concept behind the word ilhad is of deviation from the prescribed religious path, and that is the context in which it is used in the Qur’an. So it's important to recognise that when historical texts talk in Arabic about ilhad they are not necessarily talking about people denying the existence of God. 

However, some of the texts do talk about actual atheists. For example, treatises by the ninth-century theologian al-Qasim bin Ibrahim have the stated purpose of advising readers how to answer anyone who demands proof that God exists. The problem with these texts is that they denounce atheists in general without saying say who, exactly, was denying or questioning God’s existence. In a book entitled “Freethinkers of Medieval Islam”, Sarah Stroumsa comments that the atheists under attack always remain anonymous:

“We can search these texts in vain for a specific contemporaneous individual accused of denying the existence of God … The atheists themselves always remain faceless and nameless. 

“When a name does appear, it is always that of a person accused of some specific heretical doctrine which, the theologians say, is as bad as atheism or may lead to atheism – never of somebody the core of whose heresy is actually identified as atheism.”

The conclusion I draw from this is that the medieval freethinkers were generally more interested in attacking religion than disputing the existence of God. While their attacks on religion might imply disbelief in God, what they did was more subtle – and probably had more practical relevance to everyday life at the time.

In particular, they attacked the concept of divine revelation – the idea of God communicating with humans through prophets. They thought it strange that God would single out some people to be prophets instead of communicating with everyone directly. Extrapolating from that, they argued that prophets were basically charlatans and accused religious leaders of using their claimed connections with God in order to gain power over others.

Freethinkers of this kind have been described as “anti-prophetic rationalists”. The significance of their preoccupation with prophets and prophesy may not be immediately apparent but it struck directly at one of the two central claims of Islam. This becomes clear if we look at the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, which is in two parts:  “There is no god but God” and “Muhammad is the messenger of God”. Muhammad’s status as a prophet absolutely crucial here. If he is not the messenger of God, then the whole of Islam falls apart.

We can get a flavour of this anti-religious and anti-prophetic discourse by looking briefly at the work of some prominent freethinkers from the ninth to eleventh centuries, 200-400 years after the Prophet’s death.

Taking up the theme that prophets are charlatans, Ibn al-Rawandi (827-911 CE) is reported to have described the Qur’an as “the speech of an unwise being” and is said to have denounced the miracles of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad as fraudulent tricks. It wasn’t a case of trying to distinguish between real prophets and false prophets. As far as Rawandi was concerned, they were all fakes.

Meanwhile, Abu Bakr al-Razi (born 854 CE) argued that a wise God would not have singled out some people as prophets and given them influence over others. Instead, Razi is quoted as saying God “should inspire all His servants with the knowledge of whatever is beneficial or detrimental to them.”

One remarkable freethinker during the Abbasid caliphate was Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (973-1057CE), a blind poet and philosopher who was born in Syria in 973. Al-Ma’arri famously wrote that there are two types of people: those who have intelligence without religion and those who have religion without intelligence. Al-Ma’arri was a vegetarian who rejected marriage, sex and the idea of resurrection. He regarded death as deliverance from the miseries of life. He seems to have been a sort of monotheist though his concept of God amounted to little more than a belief that everything is controlled by Fate, from which there is no escape. 

A near-contemporary of al-Ma’arri was Omar Khayyam (born 1048 CE), the astronomer and mathematician, born in Persia 1048. Although noted as a scientist during his lifetime, today he is mostly associated with the Rubaiyat, a collection of verses that celebrate the pleasures of wine and also mock religious belief:

Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;

* * *

And do you think that unto such as you;
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew:
God gave the secret, and denied it me? 

Because of irreverent verses such as these, Omar Khayyam has acquired the reputation of being an atheist, though some regard him as a mystic – possibly a Sufi. There are also questions about how many of the verses attributed to Omar Khayyam were actually written by him. Regardless of who wrote them, though, the verses undoubtedly reflect ideas that could be expressed in poetry at the time. 

It's worth mentioning in passing that these would not necessarily be regarded as legitimate themes today. Given the current climate of opinion in many parts of the Middle East, people can easily get into trouble for saying such things. In 2013, for example, a renowned Turkish musician who is also an atheist, posted lines from the Rubaiyat on Twitter which resulted in him being given a suspended jail sentence for blasphemy and “inciting hatred”.

Arab atheism since the nineteenth century

It was not until the nineteenth century that forms of ilhad more clearly recognisable as atheism began to emerge in the Muslim countries, partly as a result of western influences. Alongside that, secularists were emerging too. Here are some of the more important figures:

Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1849-1902), was one of the first Arabs of modern times to argue for separating the state from religion. He advocated secular, nationalist government based on the principles of democracy, socialism, scientific thinking and tolerance. He also accused religious traditionalists of trying “to reinforce their authority over the simple-minded” by using religion to spread “submissiveness and compliance.”

The most notorious Egyptian atheist of the 1930s was Ismail Adham (1901-1940), a writer and literary critic from Alexandria. He initially ran into trouble in 1936 for a book disputing the authenticity of the hadith (the reported sayings and deeds of the Prophet). Following complaints from religious scholars his book was banned but a year later he published an even more contentious book entitled Limadha ana Mulhid? (“Why am I an Atheist?”).

One notable feature of this was how extensively Adham's book relied on science-based arguments for atheism. In essence, he was presenting science as an antidote to religion. He wrote:

“I left religions, and abandoned all [religious] beliefs, and put my faith in science and scientific logic alone. To my great surprise and amazement, I found myself happier and more confident than I had been when I had struggled with myself in the attempt to maintain my religious belief.”

Existentialist ideas were also circulating in the Arab countries around this time and Abd al-Rahman Badawi, (1917-2002), is regarded as the first existentialist Arab philosopher. Badawi was an Egyptian who also taught at universities in Libya and Kuwait, and is particularly remembered for his groundbreaking book, “A History of Atheism in Islam”, which he wrote in the 1940s.

A particularly controversial figure was Abdullah al-Qasimi (1907-1996), who has been described as the godfather [sic] of atheism among Gulf Arabs. One of his most famous statements – still quoted by Arab atheists today – is that “the occupation of our brains by gods is the worst form of occupation.” 

Qasimi had grown up in a conservative family in what is now Saudi Arabia and started off as a fairly typical Saudi religious scholar, later becoming a Salafist before eventually turning to atheism. He survived two assassination attempts. Qasimi is an interesting case because he arrived at atheism via hardcore fundamentalism – a complete reversal of his position. Shifts of this kind are not unusual and there are indications that fundamentalists are more likely than others to turn to atheism.

The reason for this probably lies in the differences between moderate or mainstream religion and fundamentalist religion. In order to maintain a large number of followers, mainstream religion has to be flexible enough to accommodate a range of opinions and differing interpretations of scripture. Fundamentalist religion, on the other hand, allows no room for manoeuvre: it’s all or nothing, and scripture has to be taken literally. The effect of this is that if a fundamentalist finds one thing in scripture that is difficult to accept, the whole ideological structure is liable to collapse.

Leftism and secularism

The decades immediately after the Second World War were the heyday of nationalism and leftism in the Arab countries. Marxism had a significant following and for intellectuals who looked towards a progressive socialist future it was a time of optimism.

In this atmosphere religion became rather unfashionable. But it was still influential enough to be a factor in the leftists' political calculations. They were wary of alienating potential supporters who happened to be religious, and so they often preferred to talk about secularism or existentialism rather than advocating atheism directly. For some of them, this was almost certainly a tactical position on the basis that arguing for secularism was less likely to cost them support than arguing for atheism.

The only historical example of Marxist-Leninist rule in the Middle East was the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), established in the south of the country after the British withdrew from Aden in 1967. Aspiring to build what was described as a “rational, socialist” society, the new Marxist regime faced the question of what to do about Islam. After an initial crackdown to bring religious institutions under state control it adopted a more sophisticated approach.

One element of that was to chip away at religion’s role in everyday life – if and when it seemed feasible. Islamic law was replaced by secular laws in most areas, including family law, but the regime held back from abolishing the Islamic inheritance system. Reform of inheritance might have been considered a priority for socialists because it contributed to inequalities in wealth, but there seem to have been fears that the public would not accept it.

Apparently for economic reasons, the Yemeni Marxists were not enthusiastic about people fasting during Ramadan or interrupting their work to pray, and South Yemen’s newspapers were the only ones among the Arab countries not to publish daily prayer times. (The timing of the five daily prayers is based on the position of the sun and changes throughout the year.)

During Ramadan, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset – which in practice means many of them get very little sleep during the night. South Yemen's official newspapers often complained about government employees staying up at night during Ramadan and then arriving late for work or reporting sick next day. State TV also made a point of broadcasting cookery programmes at times when Muslims were supposed to be fasting.

More significantly, though, the Yemeni Marxists did what most Arab regimes have done, and tried to harness Islam for their own political purposes. Basically, they argued there was no real contradiction between Islam and socialism, that Islam supported social justice and that the prophet Muhammad opposed capitalist exploitation. Rather incongruously, this led to a government-promoted brand of Islam in which traditional Islamic religious festivals were celebrated alongside the birthday of Lenin. 

The rise of Islamism

Southern Yemen, though, was a quirky example and across the Middle East as a whole, the last three decades of the twentieth century were a time of religious revival and the growth of Islamist movements. The beginning of this trend is often traced back to the Arabs’ overwhelming defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. That was a huge psychological blow which Islamists blamed on the failings of secular nationalism and a drift away from the sacred path. 

Some went so far as to argue that Muslims could prevent further military defeats and even become invincible it they stayed closer to God – and several subsequent events gave credence to this idea: 

  • The Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979; 
  • The success of the mujahidin in driving out Soviet forces from Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s; 
  • Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 for which the Shi’a resistance movement, Hizbullah, claimed the credit.

At grassroots level, the idea that the Arabs' defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967 had been caused by straying away from religion led to an extraordinary growth of religiosity. It wasn't just a matter of people praying and worshipping more but a widespread preoccupation with the minutiae of religious observances.

The basic idea was the more strictly someone followed the rules, the more likely they were to be considered a good Muslim. In this situation, the more rules there were, and the more complex they became, the more opportunities there would be for people to show off their religious credentials. Needless to say, this led to the development of all sorts of rules for how good Muslims were supposed to behave, and often they were based on very slender scriptural evidence.

For example, one Muslim website gave very detailed instructions for how men should dress. Men's clothes should cover the whole body but not reach below the ankles, and must not be tight-fitting. White and green, it said, are good colours for male clothing but red is bad, unless mixed with another colour, and you mustn't tuck your shirt inside your trousers.

This sort of thing eventually reached a peak of absurdity in Iraq where Islamist militants tried to impose “gender” segregation of vegetables. Claiming that tomatoes are feminine and cucumbers are masculine, they argued that greengrocers should not place them next to each other, and that women shouldn't buy or handle cucumbers. Needless to say, it was not a propitious time for talking about atheism or even secularism, and those who supported such ideas mostly kept quiet about them. 

Beginnings of atheist activism

Over the last few years, and especially since the Arab Spring protests in 2011, that has begun to change. Arabs who reject religion have not only become more visible but we are also seeing the first signs of organised atheist activism.

One factor behind this is migration. There are now large numbers of Muslims, and people of Muslim origin, living in the west who don't face the same constraints as they would in their ancestral homeland. They are in a position to speak more freely and also to organise. Among them are ex-Muslims in the US and Europe who have established their own campaigning organisations.

For non-believers living in the Middle East, though, a far more important factor is the internet. The main effect of the internet is that individuals who are questioning religion feel less isolated and also have access to information and discussion about atheism that was previously difficult to find. Most of the important books about atheism can now be read online, including books in Arabic that were banned or out of print, plus Arabic translations of works by western atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

As social media developed, non-religious activists gravitated towards Facebook, and at the last count there were about a hundred Facebook pages with the Arabic word “mulhid” in their title, plus a couple of dozen others using the English phrase “Arab atheist”. Some of these are public groups with several thousand “likes” while others are closed groups with restricted membership. The effect of this is to create virtual communities of non-believers that sometimes cross over into real life and support members who get into trouble. For example, a Jordanian atheist group on Facebook helped one of its members to flee the country after being threatened by his family. In addition to the Facebook groups, some activists record video discussions about atheism in Arabic and post them on YouTube. There’s also an online magazine for Arab atheists.

Inevitably, perhaps, this increased level of visibility has brought new problems. Atheist activity on social media faces regular harassment from Islamist vigilante groups – either in the form of hacking or bombarding Facebook with vexatious complaints. One tactic is to infiltrate atheist groups, post offensive content on their pages and immediately report it to Facebook before the group’s moderators have had time to spot it. During one such campaign, over a two-week period in 2016 the vigilantes succeeded in getting at least nine of the non-believers' Facebook groups suspended. A further seven Facebook groups with a combined membership of 176,000 also reported coming under attack.

It appeared that these attacks were being organised through several Muslim groups on Facebook. One of them, a closed group with 6,241 members, made no secret of its purpose, using the name “Team for Closing Pages that Offend Islam”. Other groups presented themselves in militaristic terms, with names such as “The Islamic Deterrence Organisation”, “The Islamic Army for Targeting Atheists and Crusaders” and “Fariq al-Tahadi” which roughly translates as “The Provocation Brigade”. The latter had a header image on its page showing a hooded male figure and another in a black balaclava. A note in Arabic describing the group said: “We are here as the army of Muhammad”. It added that the group would target “anyone who tries to sow division or sedition, or tries to undermine our religion and the unity of our homelands”. 

What makes Arabs turn to atheism?

A few years ago, as mentioned earlier, the Saudi and Egyptian authorities became concerned at the apparent growth of atheism in their countries. Viewing this as a threat to the social order they began to consider why it was happening and what could be done about it. In 2014, the Dar al-Ifta (a government-run religious body in Egypt) claimed to have found three factors driving people towards atheism: 

1. A reaction to the violent tactics of extremist, terrorist, jihadi and takfiri groups;
2. Disillusionment with religious doctrine, due to its exploitation by extremist groups for their own political goals;
3. Misinformation regarding religious doctrine circulated by unqualified clerics.

This explanation no doubt satisfied the Egyptian authorities, since it conveniently placed all the “blame” for atheism on extremists and unqualified clerics, and none on the political and religious establishment. Based on my own research, though, it's completely wrong. People who become atheists are rejecting religion in its entirety, not just the more outlandish versions of it. 

Among the Arab atheists that I interviewed for the book, Arabs Without God, none mentioned terrorism or jihadism as a significant factor in their decision to leave Islam. The reasons they gave were much more related to their first-hand, everyday experience of the faith – mainly as taught to them in schools and by qualified government-approved clerics. Their disillusionment was with conventional religious doctrine rather than its exploitation, as the Egyptian report put it, "by extremist groups for their own political goals".

What all the interviewees described was a gradual progression away from religion, sometimes spread over a period of years. There was no sudden “road to Damascus” moment of conversion to atheism. Almost all cited some aspect of their personal encounter with religion as the initial trigger for doubt – a feeling that something about religion as it had been taught to them, or the practices of believers, did not make sense.

Basically, there were two strands of thought, one questioning the theology, the other questioning religious practice, and the importance attached to each of these strands varied from person to person.

Typically, their theological problems began with a niggling question about some aspect of religious teaching that struck them as irrational or self-contradictory. The one most often cited in interviews was the apparent unfairness of divine justice. The picture they had acquired was of an angry and sometimes irrational Deity who makes arbitrary decisions and seems eager to punish people at the slightest opportunity. In particular, dire warnings – constantly repeated in the Qur’an – of what would happen to non-believers made them wonder why anyone who was basically a good person should be punished simply for not believing. A Saudi atheist said: 

“In Islam we are taught that all non-Muslims are going to hell. [When studying in the US] I had Jewish neighbours who were the kindest and sweetest couple, and it made me wonder why should they go to hell? And suddenly Islam started to crumble in my eyes.”

A Yemeni atheist also pointed out that whichever religion people follow is often determined more by chance than choice. He said:

“If I had been born in India there is a good chance that I would have worshipped a cow. [Being raised as] a Muslim is not something I chose, it’s a matter of demographic placing.”

An Egyptian atheist, formerly Christian, argued that people may be bad for reasons outside their control, such as their upbringing or environment – in which case why punish them when it’s not really their fault?

Alongside these questions about God’s justice or injustice, the other prominent theological issue concerned free will. A verse in the Qur’an (81:29) says: “Ye shall not will, except as God wills.” 

Free will versus predestination is something theologians have debated for centuries – in Christianity and Judaism as well as Islam. The basic paradox is this: If God is all-knowing, He can surely foresee evil deeds; if He is all-powerful He must be capable of preventing them; if He is good, why does He allow evil deeds and then punish people for them?

It’s important to emphasise that when people ask such questions they don’t usually set out deliberately to pick holes in religion; in the beginning at least, they are genuinely looking for answers. If they don’t find satisfactory answers they explore further – which tends to raise more questions … and new doubts. Interviewees described a general reluctance by families, friends and even religious teachers to engage in discussing their theological questions. 

These were some of the reactions from parents:

  • “We don’t know but God knows”
  • “Don’t ask questions like that.”
  • “You’ll know by the time you are dead.”

The story told by a young Palestinian from the West Bank was very typical. As a teenager he was puzzled about free will and asked a teacher at school. The teacher told him it was forbidden to ask such questions. He then went to an imam in his home town and got the same reply. After that he tried his school library and the town library, but without success. He said:

“I spent around four years searching because when I started with this issue I discovered more and more. Step by step I moved away from religion until I left Islam in my first year at university.”

In Saudi Arabia meanwhile, a newspaper reported that when a woman teacher in her twenties tried to discuss her doubts with a religious scholar he replied that she was mentally sick and should seek treatment.

Although theological questions were the usual starting point, some interviewees said the way religion is practised had also been a factor in their journey to disbelief, and Islam’s treatment of women was the main example cited. An Egyptian who had been active in the 2011 revolution also saw religion as an obstacle to political change, and two gay interviewees cited Muslim attitudes towards homosexuality. One of them had been grappling with the question of why God would create gay people and then condemn them.

One surprising feature of these interviews with Arab atheists was that scientific arguments about evolution and the origins of the universe which are often cited by atheists in the west played little or no part in arousing their religious doubt. Some did turn to books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other prominent western atheists but this was mostly at a later stage when the effect was mainly to reinforce existing doubts. Gamal, an Egyptian atheist, said he knew of some non-believers who used science-based arguments to question the existence of God but they were mainly students of biology or medicine, and he added: 

“The majority of the crowd that I know who subscribe to atheism, particularly here [in Egypt] have gone this way as a result of intellectual, logical or societal reasons – much more philosophical.”

Islam and the theory of evolution

It appears that Arab atheists generally pay less attention than western atheists to scientific arguments about the existence or non-existence of God. Part of the explanation is that Islam does not have the same history of conflict with science that Christianity has. During the Middle Ages Muslims were at the forefront of science, and some of it had practical relevance to their faith. Astronomy, for example, was of particular interest because Islam used a lunar calendar and, unlike the Catholic church, Muslims were not noticeably troubled by the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun. Fortunately for Islam, the Qur’an is also a lot more vague than the Bible about the process of creation. For example, unlike the Bible, the Qur'an does not say God created the earth in six days.

Publication of Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species” in 1859 drew a variety of responses from Muslims. Some immediately rejected it but others were more accommodating. For example, Hussein al-Jisr, a nineteenth-century Lebanese Shia scholar, wrote that “there is no evidence in the Qur’an to suggest whether all species were created all at once or gradually.” Noting the theological problems that Christianity was having with evolution, some Muslims even saw Darwin’s theory as an opportunity to advance the cause of Islam. Far from dismissing Darwin, some of them went so far as to claim that precursors for his ideas about evolution and natural selection could be found in the work of Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna.

This historical situation helps to explain why atheists from a Muslim background tend to be less exercised by questions about creation and evolution than atheists from a Christian background. Nevertheless, it's clear that many Muslims today – perhaps a majority – don't fully accept evolution theory. Some reject it entirely while others adopt a compromise position which allows for small changes within species – in other words, micro-evolution. If they do accept that new species can evolve, they still tend to reject the idea that humans developed as part of an evolutionary process. Because of this, evolution is an area where Arab schools and even universities nowadays tread warily and often timidly for fear of provoking complaints. The result is that most ordinary Arabs are ill-equipped to argue for or against evolution theory because they have only vague ideas about what it entails.

Life as an Arab atheist

In Arab societies, openly declaring disbelief in God is a shocking and sometimes dangerous thing to do, so the first practical question confronting those who stop believing is whether to tell anyone, or not. It’s a big decision because it can easily cause a crisis in their family. Religious families become distressed at the thought of having a relative in their midst who is destined, as they see it, for eternal punishment in hell. 

But it’s not just about religion. Atheism, in the popular imagination, is associated with immorality, which can affect a person’s marriage prospects. Female atheists in particular are often considered as unsuitable for marriage but the same can apply to men too. A Jordanian atheist described how his fiancée broke off their engagement when he told her he was a non-believer. Another complicating factor is that religion, as well as being a belief system, provides a sense of identity, and in the Middle East the link between religion and identity is especially strong. Consequently, people who distance themselves from religion are also seen as distancing themselves from the cultural identity of those around them.

Not surprisingly, then, many Arab atheists prefer to keep their disbelief private, but concealing it can be far from easy. Families, friends, neighbours and work colleagues soon notice if someone stops praying and going to the mosque or avoids fasting during Ramadan – and they start asking why.

Some, of course, are more open about their disbelief and, if they merely confide in close friends, they may get by without too many problems, though a lot depends on their personal situation. But talking about their atheism more widely – on social media, for example – can get them into serious trouble. Sherif Gaber, a student at Suez Canal University in Egypt, questioned religion in a series of posts on Facebook. These were spotted by a lecturer at the university who organised a petition which resulted in the university reporting Gaber to the local prosecutor. Gaber was then arrested in dramatic circumstances when armoured cars surrounded his home at three o’clock in the morning, and he was eventually sentenced to a year in jail for “contempt of religions”. 

Early in 2015 another Egyptian student, Karim al-Banna, was given a three-year sentence after declaring himself an atheist on Facebook. Banna’s father testified against him in court, identifying what were described as “suspect” books in his son’s possession and accusing him of “embracing extremist ideas against Islam”.

People who get into trouble in this way are not always aware of the risks. Waleed al-Husseini, a 25-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank, initially saw no reason to keep his disbelief secret. He knew that plenty of famous Palestinians had also questioned religion in the past – among them Edward Said who was an openly-declared agnostic, plus the poet Mahmoud Darwish and the novelist Ghassan Kanafani. When Husseini began posting about atheism on the internet, however, he was arrested and spent the next ten months in jail. Despite numerous court appearances he wasn’t convicted of any crime and was eventually released. The authorities continued harassing him, though, and he now lives in exile in France.

Religion and the Arab state

In Arab countries, religion – and Islam more specifically – enjoys extensive support from the state. 

  • Islam is “the religion of the state” in Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, UAE, Yemen.
  • Islamic law shapes national legislation (to varying degrees) in Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE, Yemen.
  • The constitution says head of state must be a Muslim in Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen.

One reason for having a state religion is that it helps to give unelected regimes a veneer of legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Another reason is that it creates a legal pretext for the authorities to meddle in religious affairs and exercise some control over them. It can also be a way for regimes to present themselves as defenders of Islam in the face of challenges from Islamist opposition movements.

Where freedom of thought and belief is concerned, the effect of having a state religion varies around the world, and in some countries it may not amount to very much in practice. At the very least, though, it signals an official preference for one particular kind of faith and, by implication, a lesser status for others. Although the existence of a state religion is not necessarily incompatible with human rights, a United Nations report in 2011 commented that “it seems difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of an application of the concept of an official ‘state religion’ that in practice does not have adverse effects on religious minorities, thus discriminating against their members.”

In this context it’s also worth noting some research from the United States which suggests that in the long term state support can be harmful to religion. Drawing on economic theories, the researchers saw parallels between state-sponsored industries and state-sponsored religion, arguing that in both cases shielding them from competition ultimately weakens them.

Let’s now look at some of the ways these states support religion.

Enforced religious practices: Using the power of the state to enforce fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is just one rather mundane example of the special privileges granted by Arab governments to Islam. Gulf states tend to be the most strict in enforcing Ramadan. The typical penalty for offenders is a one-month jail sentence and/or a fine, and the law applies to everyone regardless of religion. In Dubai, for example, members of the public are officially encouraged to look out for anyone eating, drinking or smoking – even in the relative privacy of their own car – and report them to the police. From a religious point of view, fasting is meant to encourage self-discipline but fasting under the threat of arrest is more about obedience than self-control and undermines the moral purpose of Ramadan.

Education: One area of more serious concern is education. There are two distinct but internationally recognised ways of teaching about religion in schools: religious instruction and religious education. Religious instruction teaches about a specific faith – the one that students are assumed to belong to. Religious education, on the other hand, aims to broaden students’ knowledge by teaching in a more neutral way about various religions and beliefs. Religious education is generally considered to promote tolerance, while religious instruction can easily have the opposite effect.

Needless to say, the focus in Arab state schools is on religious instruction. Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law, for instance, openly declares that the education system is to be used for “instilling the Islamic faith in the younger generation”.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognises that parents often want their children to receive religious instruction and says this is acceptable so long as those with other beliefs can opt out. A UN report in 2010 also said the ability to opt out should not be restricted by “onerous bureaucratic procedures” or penalties. In Kuwait, however, the government requires Islamic religious instruction for all students in state schools. This is largely based on the Sunni interpretation of Islam even though Kuwait has a substantial Shia minority – and the only way of opting out is to pay for private schooling. Iraq, meanwhile, allows opting out in theory though in practice schools may prevent it or actively discourage it.

Family law: As a general rule, Arabs have to marry in a religious ceremony – there is no established system for civil marriage and one effect of this in Lebanon is that large numbers of couples who don’t want a religious wedding make a short hop across the sea to marry in Cyprus. Arab governments also enforce the Islamic principle that a non-Muslim man cannot marry a Muslim woman unless he converts to Islam. In countries where there is significant religious diversity, such as Lebanon and Egypt, different legal systems apply to different faiths in the area of family law – marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. 

In order to operate this, the authorities need to know which religious group people belong to. In Egypt, for example, people are assumed to follow one of the three officially recognised religions – Islam, Christianity or Judaism – and are registered accordingly. In Lebanon it’s more complicated. There are 18 recognised faith groups and citizens are registered at birth as belonging to one them. In Saudi Arabia, however, it’s a lot simpler. There’s no choice and all citizens are automatically regarded by the government as Muslims. Not surprisingly, this can cause serious problems when people wish to change or abandon their registered religion.

The ‘crime’ of apostasy

Converting to Islam is extremely easy. Basically, all that’s needed is to recite the shahada – that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God. On the other hand, converting away from Islam, and getting official recognition of it, can be extremely difficult, or even impossible.

In Egypt, for example, the law says citizens can change their religious affiliation simply by registering it with the interior ministry. In theory the ministry cannot refuse and if the person is converting to Islam it’s a very straightforward process. But the courts and officials sometimes refuse to register conversions away from Islam on the grounds that this would be unconstitutional because the constitution says Islam is the religion of the state.

Any Muslim who publicly renounces Islam – whether to join another faith or to abandon religion entirely – risks being accused of apostasy. A remark attributed to the Prophet says: “He who changes his religion should be killed.” On the other hand, a verse in the Qur’an (2:256) says “There is no compulsion in religion”, so there are differences of opinion over what constitutes apostasy in Islam and what punishments, if any, should apply. A common view among mainstream Islamic scholars is that renouncing Islam is not enough, on its own, to merit execution and that the death penalty would only apply if there was also some accompanying threat to the wellbeing of the Muslim community.

There are no statutory laws against leaving Islam in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Syria or Tunisia. Meanwhile, in Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen apostasy is a crime and in theory the death penalty can apply. Even in states where apostasy is a capital crime, the governments themselves have little enthusiasm for prosecuting apostates and there have been no reported executions in recent years. Apostasy cases involving calls for the death penalty have arisen in Kuwait, Yemen and Sudan but in all of them the accused person was eventually allowed to leave the country.

The main threat where apostasy is concerned comes from religious vigilantes – either by initiating court cases or violently taking matters into their own hands. Tough action against apostates also appears to have widespread public support. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2010 showed that 84% of Egyptian Muslims believe those who leave Islam should be punished by death. 

Apostasy cases usually fall into one of two types. Some involve people who have left Islam to join another religion – predominantly Christianity. The others, perhaps most of them, involve people who still claim to be Muslim but whose views have annoyed the religious vigilantes.

In Egypt, where apostasy is not itself a crime, other laws can be used to target alleged apostates – for example the rule that prevents non-Muslim men from being married to Muslim women. One famous case in Egypt during the 1990s involved Nasr Abu Zayd, a teacher of Arabic literature at Cairo University. Abu Zayd had not renounced Islam but Islamists objected to his religious views and went to court, seeking to have him forcibly divorced on the grounds of apostasy. They eventually won their case and Abu Zayd fled from Egypt along with his newly-divorced wife.

Laws against blasphemy

Most Arab states have laws against criticising religion. This obviously restricts the rights of non-believers who wish to express an opinion but it also affects religious people who happen to have unorthodox views. There are various kinds of anti-blasphemy laws such as laws against “defaming” religions and “insulting” the prophets. Algeria has a law against publishing anything intended to “shake the faith” of Muslims, while Morocco’s 2002 media law prohibits criticism of Islam.

Laws that have no direct connection with religion can also be brought into play here. In 2013, for example, Musab Shamsah, a Kuwaiti teacher, posted a tweet which alluded to some theological differences between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. The tweet seems to have been misinterpreted by other Twitter users, and Shamsah deleted it ten minutes later and posted two further tweets clarifying what he meant – but that didn’t save him from being put on trial. He was given the maximum sentence of one year in jail for “mocking” religion but the court added a further four years for publishing offensive material contrary to the National Unity Law and for “misusing” a mobile phone – since he had posted the tweet from his phone.

Across the region, cases of this type are not infrequent. Almost all of them are instigated by ultra-religious folk who claim to have been offended, though often it seems as if the accuser is not so much offended as delighted to have found some charge to pin on the person they accuse. 

Sometimes there are indications that the case is the result of a personal quarrel or sectarian tensions within a community. One of the most bizarre Egyptian cases involved two Coptic Christian boys living in a mixed Muslim/Christian village. The boys, aged nine and ten, spent fifteen days in juvenile detention after being accused of urinating on pages of the Qur’an in the street. However, a neighbour quoted in the press said the boys were illiterate and could not have recognised the pages as coming from the Qur’an. 

In 2016, Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar was shot dead as he arrived at a court in Amman to answer charges of “insulting religion” and inciting “sectarian strife and racism”. Hattar was a controversial figure – a leftist supporter of the Assad regime in Syria – who had been arrested for sharing a cartoon on Facebook. The cartoon poked fun at a prominent financier of the Islamic State (ISIS/Daesh) who had earlier been reported killed. It depicted him living a dissolute lifestyle in heaven and being disrespectful towards God. In the ensuing fuss Hattar deleted the cartoon and apologised, saying his intention was to criticise ISIS and not to insult Islam. Despite calls on social media for him to be killed or lynched, the authorities failed to protect him. After the shooting on the courthouse steps it was Hattar’s family, rather than the police, who initially apprehended the killer, a 49-year-old imam, who was later executed for the murder.

Atheism and Islamophobia

When discussing Arab atheism it’s important to consider where the dividing line lies between legitimate criticism of Islam and Islamophobia. People who renounce Islam face a more complicated situation than those who abandon other religions. In addition to the social and legal consequences of their disbelief, they risk being caught up in battles that are not of their own choosing. One of the greatest challenges they face is how to criticise Islam without fuelling prejudice against Muslims as people.

There's a crucial distinction to be made here between the right to believe something and the belief itself. Atheists want others to respect their right to disbelieve and, by the same token, they should respect the right of Muslims to believe – much as they might disagree with their actual beliefs.

In western countries there are political organisations that seek to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment for racist or other motives. In Europe, for example, extremists of the political right focus especially on Islam in their campaigns against immigration, claiming that the continent is about to be taken over by Muslims. In this situation, ex-Muslims who become vocal about their disbelief can easily find themselves paraded as trophies by Islamophobes. 

Unfortunately that is what happened to one of the most famous ex-Muslims, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was born in Somalia, obtained political asylum in the Netherlands and now lives in the United States. Her critiques of Islam have been undermined by allowing herself to be associated with right-wing elements that have other agendas. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, ex-Muslims also face rejection by elements on the left – in particular, leftist elements that give priority to combating imperialism. 

These groups generally see assertion of a Muslim identity as part of a struggle against western influence and, up to a point, they are right about that. One result, though, is an over-sympathetic view of Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, ignoring the fact that these movements are authoritarian and repressive and advocate things that leftists would certainly reject if anyone advocated them in their own countries. While Hamas and the Brotherhood tend to be viewed by left-wing anti-imperialists as culturally authentic – and therefore valid in their regional context – Arab critics of Islam are generally dismissed as un-authentic victims of western cultural imperialism.

Mariam Namazie, a prominent ex-Muslim in Britain, describes this as the politics of betrayal: “It’s a betrayal of the dissenters and victims of Islamism but also of the very principles that the left has historically defended – social justice, egalitarianism, secularism, universalism, etc.” And so Namazie sees ex-Muslims in the west battling politically on two fronts – one to avoid being rejected by sections of the left and the other to avoid giving ammunition to the far right.

“Islamophobia” is a problematic term mainly because there is no generally accepted definition of it. It does, however, have some recognisable characteristics: 

  • Stirs up feelings of anxiety, fear, hostility and rejection towards Muslims.
  • Occurs mostly, but not entirely, in countries where people of Muslim heritage live as minorities.
  • Makes sweeping and misleading generalisations about Islam and/or Muslims in order to portray them in a negative light. 

Here’s an example from a speech by Nick Griffin, a former leader of the far-right British National Party: 

“This wicked, vicious faith has expanded from a handful of cranky lunatics about 1,300 years ago till it’s now sweeping country after country before it, all over the world. And if you read that book [the Qur’an], you’ll find that that’s what they want.”

Griffin was later tried on charges of trying to stir up racial hatred but he denied the words were racist. He told the court: 

“There’s a huge difference between criticising a religion and saying this is an attack on the people who follow it. When I criticise Islam, I criticise that religion and the culture it sets up, certainly not Muslims as a group …” 

Following a retrial Griffin was eventually cleared of all charges. What racists like Griffin have discovered is that they don’t have to talk directly about race in order to promote racist ideas. They can achieve much the same effect, and make it sound acceptable to large sections of the public, by talking about Islam instead.

Partly in response to growing Islamophobia in the west, several Muslim organisations, together with the governments of Muslim countries have been campaigning to give religions special protection from criticism. The Islamic Council of Europe, for example, issued a declaration saying no one should be allowed to “hold in contempt or ridicule the religious beliefs of others”. 

Between 1999 and 2011, mainly at the behest of Muslim countries, United Nations bodies passed a series of resolutions opposing what they called “defamation of religions”. The underlying idea was that religions, since they involve God, are different from other kinds of philosophies or ideologies and that the beliefs of their followers should not be challenged, for fear of offending them. There are several problems with this. One is that “defaming religions” is a peculiar concept in terms of the law. The purpose of defamation laws is to protect the reputations of people and they can't sensibly be applied to protecting religious beliefs or ideologies. Secondly, protecting religious believers from things that cause them offence is not a sensible use of the law. It would amount to a general licence for censorship, allowing critical opinions to be suppressed simply because someone – perhaps only one person – claimed to be offended by them.

For that reason, the European Court of Human Rights has argued that freedom of expression is so important that it should be protected even when it causes offence. In a landmark ruling in 1976, the court said that freedom of expression applies not only to ideas “that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population”. That is an essential legal principle in democratic societies because without it anyone would be able to stifle free speech simply by claiming they had been offended, shocked or disturbed. This doesn’t mean people should be free to say shocking and offensive things at the slightest opportunity, but it does mean there are occasions when they are entitled to say them.

A subsequent report from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission said it must be possible to criticise religious ideas “even if such criticism may be perceived by some as hurting their religious feelings”, but the commission added that this should not become an excuse to unduly stretch the boundaries between “genuine ‘philosophical’ discussion about religious ideas and gratuitous religious insults”. The word “gratuitous” appeared several times in the commission’s report, and it can be a useful test of whether the line has been crossed into Islamophobic territory. If something is said that causes offence we should consider whether the offending words are necessary in order to make a point or merely there to provoke people.

As far as ex-Muslims are concerned, the issue of Islamophobia mainly affects those living in the west. Non-believers in the Arab countries face an even bigger problem because they are not only in dispute with religion itself but also in dispute with societies and governments over their right to disbelieve and express their disbelief. On this broader issue of rights and liberties Arab non-believers share a common goal with many others, including political dissidents and opposition movements plus, rather tantalisingly, persecuted religious elements. They all seek the right to express their thoughts and beliefs freely – which raises the question of whether, despite their differences, atheists might ever join forces with religious people in pursuit of their rights.

But while collaboration might seem attractive in principle, there are some major obstacles. One is that in the Arab countries atheism tends to be regarded – even among other kinds of dissenters – as the most extreme form of dissent. In the eyes of many, this puts atheists and their right to express themselves beyond the bounds of acceptability. Potential allies may also be deterred out of fear that being seen to associate themselves with atheists will damage the credibility of their own campaigning. A similar situation has been seen previously in connection with gay rights, which Arab human rights activists have often been unwilling to support because of concerns about the harm it would do to their reputation.

Another potential area for collaboration between atheists and others is in calling for secularism. Secularism, besides benefiting non-believers, can also enhance the freedom of believers by preventing the state from imposing specific religious doctrines and practices. Again, though, there are difficulties because in Arab countries the concept of a secular state is widely misunderstood and is often wrongly equated with an atheist state. To make progress in that area it would be necessary to convince people that secularism is not a backdoor route to atheism but a route to freedom for believers and non-believers alike.

Prospects for change

Overall, then, it’s rather a bleak picture that doesn't hold out much prospect of real change in the short term. But it's worth noting that the privileges granted to religion in the Arab countries today also have parallels in European history. Over time, Europe has gradually become more secular and non-belief is now commonplace. In theory, similar changes could happen in the Middle East – but whether they will happen, and how soon, is still an open question.

A key point to keep in mind is that Europe’s recognition of religious freedom didn’t happen in isolation – it was the result of broader political and social changes over a long period of time. Similarly in the Middle East, the problem of freedom of belief won’t be solved quickly or in isolation. There would have to be a shift away from the prevailing social and political authoritarianism, and states would have to start disentangling their relationship with religion. It may be difficult to imagine that happening in the Arab countries, but we shouldn’t underestimate the way public discourse has opened up and challenged the status quo during the last few years. Arab governments may try to control it but modern technology makes that increasingly difficult. 

There are tentative signs of change in other areas too. The new constitutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq all pay some lip service to the principle of religious freedom, even if it’s not currently upheld in practice. Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution says “the state shall protect religion, guarantee freedom of belief and conscience and religious practices”. Egypt’s 2014 constitution says “freedom of belief is absolute” and Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution says “each individual shall have the freedom of thought, conscience, and belief”. 

For now, these may be little more than empty words but the fact that governments see a need to utter them at all perhaps offers a ray of hope for the future.