Living as a nonbeliever or atheist in an Islamic milieu is daunting. Yet, a burgeoning ex-Muslim community in the Islamic world continues to find ingenious ways to assert their disbelief.
For many Americans and other Westerners, Islam is still the ultimate Other. Indeed, since 9/11, the words of nineteenth-century scholar William Muir, quoted by Edward Said in his seminal Orientalism, are truer today for the detractors of Islam: “the sword of Muhammad, and the Qur’an, are the most stubborn enemies of Civilization, Liberty, and the Truth which the world has yet known” (1979: 151). This includes the near-impossibility for most outsiders to imagine that there is any significant nonbelief, let alone atheism, in Muslim-majority countries. Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi (2015) has rightly chided Westerners for their “inability to even conceive of an Arab atheist.”
Unbeknownst to critics of Islam on both the right and the left, there has been a lively, if culturally distinct, secularist stream in Islamic societies at least since the late 1800s, for instance, in the work of Jamal a-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ’Abduh; there are also present-day high-profile former Muslims like Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, mostly writing from the relative safety of the West. Meanwhile, some of the most notorious regimes in the twentieth-century Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were secular, from Mubarak’s Egypt (which forcefully opposed the Muslim Brotherhood) to Qaddafi’s Libya and Hussein’s Iraq. But inside the Muslim world itself, as Khaled Diab of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies opines, there is a “tsunami of atheism” (2020: 18), one serious and prominent enough to alarm religious conservatives and spark a strong response.
Just how many nonbelievers there are in the midst of Islam is open to dispute and is actively disputed. An organization named Dar Al-Ifta, an Egyptian pro-religion institution, offered the absurd estimate of 2,293 total nonbelievers in all of MENA, but more reputable and less motivated sources put the number much higher. According to the World Values Survey, 7.5% of Egyptians, 15.2% of Indonesians, 16.9% of Turks, and a full 16.2% of Iranians are nonreligious (Schielke 2103: 647), and a 2012 Gallup survey proposed an equally stunning figure for Saudi Arabia—19% nonreligious and 5% atheist, comparable to the United States. The more recent 2019 Arab Barometer echoed this sense, reporting roughly one-third of Tunisians as nonreligious, along with 25% of Libyans and 15% of Algerians; at the other end of the spectrum, a mere 5% of Yemenis identified as nonreligious.
Muslims are not all religious fanatics and suicidal terrorists. They do not all hate the West and its reputed freedoms. Islam is not immune to secularization and modernization, although those processes may not take the same course in MENA as they did and do in the West.
A 2020 research by the Group Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN) indicated a similar loss of religiosity in that Islamic republic, with almost 9% avowing atheism and a firm majority favoring separation of religion from state and education (Maleki and Tamimi Arab 2020: 1-4). As Diab quoted one Saudi apostate, “We nonbelievers have meetings and groups in a lot of Saudi cities. If you go into them, then you will be shocked by the numbers and elements of society represented (2020: 18). And Egyptian activist atheist Ahmed Harqan predicted, “If the state preserved and protected the rights of minorities, the numbers of those who reveal they’re atheists would increase tenfold” (Benchemsi 2015).Of course, the state does not preserve and protect the rights of the impious minority. Quite the contrary: “In most Muslim-majority societies, today, atheism and nonreligion are strongly scandalized, and often also criminalized” (Schielke 2013: 647). In many MENA and other Muslim countries, nonbelief is legally prohibited under the label of disrespect for religion, blasphemy, or, at worst, terrorism: Saudi law, for instance, equates promoting atheism or questioning the teachings of Islam with terrorism. At least six countries—Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait, Sudan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia—make nonbelief punishable by death, even if they do not usually enforce that penalty. Outspoken nonbelievers have been arrested or hunted by the police, though.
But legal jeopardy is not the only consequence that nonbelievers and atheists face in Muslim societies. Schielke insists that, as in the Christian West, such individuals “have to fear social rejection more than state persecution,” which can include “loss of job, divorce or impossibility to marry, exclusion from the family, and in at one case it has led to assassination” (2013: 647). Meanwhile, authorities and fellow citizens may brand them as deviant and immoral if not mentally ill or demon-possessed. Ishak Ibrahim (2021) asserts that Egyptian university students who made their nonbelief known were literally ordered to receive psychiatric treatment.
Given the high social and legal cost of religious disaffiliation, why would a (former) Muslim do it? The answer is similar in many ways to nonbelievers in Christian or other societies. Most begin as earnest, even ardent theists, often seeking to know and understand their faith better. As they learn more, they start to question, and their questions are often not satisfactorily addressed. In his atheistic “coming out” story, Amir Ahmad Nasr (2013) chronicled how seekers may be chastised and threatened for asking questions. Some, like Nasr, are raised by relatively tolerant or secular parents and are exposed to Western culture and education. For others, doubts arise from “personal experiences or traumas, awareness of alternatives, struggles with scripture, a sense of alienation from or abandonment by their god, and major political events”, including the Arab Spring (Cottee 2015: 35).
Surprisingly, perhaps for some readers, former devotees’ disengagement from religion is often motivated by moral qualms against the faith: they find Islam’s social and moral injunctions unsavory, if not reprehensible. Nasr told of being taught that all Jews are evil and that Muslims should not have non-Muslim friends, not to mention the horrors committed by religious extremists, Muslim dictators, and real terrorists. Harris Sultan put it this way in his biography of deconversion: “I am not anti-religion; I am anti-misogyny, anti-slavery, anti-sexism, antiviolence, anti-ignorance, anti-child abuse, anti-oppression, and anti-war. Religion is anti-me” (2018: 11). This challenges the easy assumption that agnostics and atheists lack morality; instead, they often apply a higher moral standard to religion and judge it wanting.
How, finally, does one live as a nonbeliever or atheist in an Islamic milieu? The answer, not to be flippant, is cautiously, even more cautiously than in the West. Many former Muslims do not advertise her rejection of religion, pretending or passing among their Muslim peers. Others practice the concept of menafad (negligence, never-minding), “the act of ignoring a task, a commitment, a request or a social situation where a particular action or behavior is expected but not performed” (Al Soukkary 2015: 72) without explicit refusal or rejection. (Since Islam is regarded more as fulfillment of an obligation than avowal of a belief, one might still believe when one is not acting on the obligation.) Some, naturally, like their Western/Christian counterparts, are simply passive nonbelievers.
The internet is a likely gathering place for those who are more active or passionate in their nonbelief or atheism. Accordingly, “The Arab atheist community is largely an online phenomenon, with limited visibility offline and with virtually no umbrella groups” (Noman 2015: 1). Skeptics and doubters may congregate in chat rooms and join virtual groups and communities. They may also consume media on popular portals like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, including the “Black Ducks” talk show (black duck corresponding to black sheep in English) hosted by atheist personality Ismail Mohamed, the Arab Nonreligious Network, Arab Atheist Broadcasting, and Arab Atheists Forum and Network.
Elsässer (2021) describes several different YouTube programs with distinct approaches and appeals, from Hamed Abdel-Samad’s more didactic Hamed TV to Qusayy Bitar’s agnostic/rationalist show to Sherif Gaber’s humorous but explicitly atheistic channel (for which he was arrested in 2018). In Morocco, the Free Arabs online program also uses comedy to lampoon religion, with recurring skits like “The Fatwa Show” (featuring a clueless imam issuing silly fatwas) and “Al Bernameg” (The Show, a local variation of Jon Stewart’s comedy-news “The Daily Show”). For those brave enough to join a group or even attend a meeting, there are organizations like Ex-Muslims of Kerala (India), Council of Ex-Muslims of Morocco, Association of Atheism (Turkey), and others, including many based in the West.
Clearly, then, there are doubters, nonbelievers, and even atheists dwelling in Muslim-majority societies, as well as many in Western/Christian-majority countries. They are not going away and not staying quiet (well, not completely silent). Their existence undermines popular assumptions about Islam and Muslims in America and elsewhere. Muslims are not all religious fanatics and suicidal terrorists. They do not all hate the West and its reputed freedoms. Islam is not immune to secularization and modernization, although those processes may not take the same course in MENA as they did and do in the West.
And just as there are multiple modernities and multiple secularities, so there are multiple nonbeliefs and multiple atheisms: we should not assume that nonreligion or atheism means the same thing and works the same way in Islamic countries as in non-Islamic countries. Last but not least, skeptics, agnostics, and atheists are not evil, immoral, hateful people. Instead, they are most often reasonable and sincere individuals troubled by the unsupported truth claims and unsupportable moral claims of their birth religion, who hold religion to a truth standard and a moral standard which, in their eyes, it fails to live up to.
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Master’s Thesis, The American University in Cairo. fount.aucegypt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1210&context=etds, accessed 13 July 2022.
Benchemsi, Ahmed. 2015. “Invisible Atheists: The Spread of Disbelief in the Arab World,” New Republic
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Cottee, Simon. 2015. The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam. London: Hurst & Company.
Diab, Khaled. 2020. “Views: Arab Atheists and their Quest for Acceptance amid Religious Intolerance.”
Rowaq Arabi 25 (2): 15-24.
Elsässer, Sebastian. 2021. “Arab Nonbelievers and Freethinkers on YouTube: Re-Negotiating Intellectual
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Ibrahim, Ishak. 2021. “Atheists in Egypt: Life on the Edge of Civil Death.”
timep.org/commentary/analysis/atheists-in-egypt-life-on-the-edge-of-civil-death, accessed 9 July 2022.
Maleki, Ammar and Pooyan Tamimi Arab. 2020. “Iranians’ Attitudes Toward Religion: A 2020 Survey.”
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