What does it mean to be an Arab atheist?
An interview with Brian Whitaker, author of a book about non-belief in the Arab world.
In Arab countries, openly declaring a disbelief in God is a shocking and sometimes dangerous thing to do. In his new book, "Arabs Without God", journalist Brian Whitaker looks at the factors that lead people in this part of the world to abandon religion, and how societies dominated by faith deal with them. The book is available here. There is a Kickstarter campaign to translate the book into Arabic, which you can donate to here.
Is Arab atheism growing, and if so, why?
Arab atheists have become much more visible as a result of social media. There are numerous Facebook groups – some public, some private – and others make videos of discussions which they post on YouTube. Mainstream Arab media talk more about atheism too, though it is usually presented as a social problem needing government attention, along with drug-taking and homosexuality.
Atheists also seem to be growing in numbers. This may seem odd when organisations like al-Qaeda and ISIS attract so much attention, when there has been a huge growth in religiosity over the last few decades and Arab governments have been fostering sectarianism for their own political purposes, but the "new" Arab atheism found among the younger generation is partly a response to that, and also to the reactionary views of many Muslim clerics, especially in Saudi Arabia.
Another factor is that popular uprisings against dictatorship have emboldened people and made them question things more. Questioning the political system leads some to question religion too – because politics and religion in the Middle East are so closely entwined.
At the same time, of course, there are many who think the solution is to have more religion, not less, and atheist activity on the internet is still tiny compared with the vast amount of religious material posted in Arabic.
You write that Arab atheism is different from atheism in the west. How so?
This was one of the most fascinating things I discovered while researching the book. Western arguments for atheism tend to focus on the lack of evidence for God's existence, the scientific impossibility of miracles, and so on. They counter the biblical story of Creation with science-based ideas about the Big Bang and evolution.
Arab atheists, on the other hand, usually focus less on scientific evidence and more on logic – what they see as contradictions and irrationalities in religious teaching. For example, many of those I spoke to were troubled by the doctrine the non-Muslims will be punished eternally in hell for their disbelief, even if they are basically good people. There were also questions about why, if God is all-powerful, He doesn't prevent people from doing wrong and why, if the Qur'an is literally the word of God, God didn't express himself more clearly.
Many of the arguments used by Arab atheists today have historical roots going back 1,000 years or more. The early Arab freethinkers were not really concerned with whether God exists or not 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.
Today, the creation-versus-evolution debate doesn't seem to play much part in turning Arabs towards atheism – certainly not in the initial stages of questioning religion, unless they happen to be scientists. This is probably because Arabs in general know very little about the theory of evolution, since it isn't taught properly in schools. Out of deference to religious feelings, schools either skim over it, focusing on minor adaptations within species, or present it as just a dubious theory.
Why is atheism such a taboo in the region?
There's a collectivist and authoritarian approach to religion: conformity is encouraged, individualism is frowned upon and often equated with selfishness. This is largely derived from the Islamic concept of the ummah (community of believers) where everyone is expected to pull together and not let the side down.
It's also linked to ideas about a clash of civilisations where Arabs and Muslims are seen as under attack from the west. Declaring yourself to be an atheist may thus be viewed as a betrayal, not only of Islam but of Arab culture and society in general.
Becoming an atheist often causes family problems. It can be grounds for divorce, for example, and religious families are often genuinely distraught if, as they see it, one of their relatives is destined for hell because of his or her unbelief.
People can also lose their jobs if they come out as atheists. In Egypt earlier this year, a librarian was suspended from work after describing himself as a humanist in a TV interview.
Is that changing with, for instance, greater access to the internet?
Breaking down taboos will take time, and social media will probably play a part in that. But at present there isn’t enough support for the rights of non-believers – there are still too many people who don’t recognise it as an issue.
The internet is hugely important, for several reasons. First, it gives people access to ideas and information from outside their own countries, and in that sense it circumvents the taboos and censorship. Secondly, it has given Arab atheists a means to express themselves and link up with like-minded individuals.
That's the positive side. On the negative side, many recent arrests for blasphemy, "defaming" religion, and other religious "crimes" are the result of things people have posted on social media.
You set out the legal restrictions on freedom of belief in different Arab countries. Is this situation likely to change?
It's unlikely to change unless the regimes themselves change drastically or are overthrown. That said, the legal position is often unclear and laws may be applied arbitrarily or not at all. In theory, apostasy is a capital offence in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the UAE and Yemen but no recent executions for apostasy have been reported in any of them. They usually allow apostates to flee the country but political, religious and social pressures make it virtually impossible to repeal apostasy laws.
Some of the more recent constitutions – in Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia, for example – do pay lip service to freedom of belief but other clauses in their constitutions point in the opposite direction.
Do critics in the west have a simplified view of religious freedom (or the lack thereof) in the Arab world?
Worldwide and historically, Islam has as much internal diversity as any other religion. The scripture can be interpreted in a variety of ways and practices vary from place to place.
There are certainly critics in the west who view it as monolithic. They highlight the most extreme interpretations and try to present them as the "official" version of Islam. Also, the most dramatic forms of persecution tend to be the ones we hear about in the news. At a more mundane level, though, less-newsworthy forms of discrimination and persecution are widespread and persistent – for example, restrictions on inter-faith marriage and laws against eating in public during Ramadan (even for non-Muslims in some countries).
If you are a non-believer living in the Middle East it can be very difficult simply to have nothing to do with religion: it's very pervasive. In some of the Arab countries religious affiliation is specified on everyone’s identity card and the choice may be restricted to religions that are officially recognised. Sometimes there is no choice at all: the state decides what a person’s religion shall be, based on parentage. Changing to another religion can be difficult or even illegal and marrying in a non-religious ceremony can be impossible without leaving the country.
The book looks at Arab atheism in the context of Islamophobia. Do Arab atheists fear fuelling racist narratives?
Arab non-believers include both quietists and activists. The quietists try to free themselves from religion as much as possible without being confrontational about it. The activists openly assert their right to disbelieve and sometimes also question the beliefs of others.
For westerners, that is usually no big deal. You can question whether Jesus was the son of God, or whether he rose from the dead, and it's considered a legitimate thing to discuss.
But challenging Muslim beliefs in the same sort of way has wider ramifications because Islam, far more than Christianity, is so bound up with people's sense of identity and their culture, not to mention the geopolitics.
This brings Arab atheists under pressure from two sides. On one side they have to contend with those who say they shouldn't be questioning Islam at all. On the other side are anti-Muslim bigots in the west, often from the far right of politics, who campaign against immigration and indulge in fear-mongering about Muslims taking over the world.
How to deal with this is something that ex-Muslim organisations in Britain and the US have been agonising about. Basically, they need to develop ways of criticising Islam without stirring up hatred of Muslims as people. But it is not always easy to separate the two, for example if Muslims choose to dress in a way that indicates they have particularly extreme religious views.