The Invisible Atheists of the Arab World

From The New Republic comes an interesting look at the rarely acknowledged world of nonbelievers in the Middle East, namely in Arab countries. Though still a largely religious and conservative region, the ranks of secular people, including  atheists, is growing quickly and to significant proportions — stereotypes notwithstanding.

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.

…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”.

Arab societies, though far from free and liberal by Western standards, are a lot more progressive and pluralistic than many would assume. Though nonbelievers still have it tough, and face both social and political repercussions, they find themselves in environments that are increasingly more accommodating to their lifestyle.

The fact of the matter is, except in relatively small ultra-­religious 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.

All this sounds very familiar, not unlike what has happened (and is still happening) in the developed world. But unlike in most parts of the world, secularism in the Arab world takes on a more political tone, which reflects the degree to which religion is intertwined with the ruling elites (especially in the Gulf). To be secular, especially openly atheist, is to challenge the status quo of the powers that be, who use religion as a tool of control.

I recommend reading the rest of the article to get a full picture of the political and social implications of secularism growing in one of the world’s most religious regions. Feel free to weigh in.

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