IN SAUDI ARABIA all citizens are officially Muslims whether they like it or not, and the practising of other religions is forbidden. The image usually projected by the Saudi authorities is of a thoroughly devout country – so devout that shops have to close at prayer times and that suitably “Islamic” codes of dress and behaviour must be followed.
In 2012, however, the kingdom’s claims of holiness were severely shaken when a poll by WIN/Gallup International looked at religion and atheism in fifty-seven countries – including Saudi Arabia. Of those interviewed in the kingdom, 19% said they were not religious and 5% described themselves as convinced atheists.[i] The percentage of self-declared atheists was higher in Saudi Arabia than in any other predominantly Muslim country covered by the survey. The figures, if they are anywhere close to being accurate, suggest that a quarter of the kingdom’s inhabitants, at least in cities (where the survey took place) have no particular interest in religion and that one person in twenty is not only an atheist but willing to admit it to a pollster – an admission which as far as many in the kingdom are concerned is a crime punishable by death.
Rather than disputing these findings, as they might have been expected to do, religious Saudis agonised over how to halt the spread of disbelief. An article in the Saudi newspaper al-Watan began:
We must fight the phenomenon of atheism with initiatives that will nip it in the bud before it takes roots in the hearts of our young men and women. This is possible only by launching a massive national campaign.
Young Saudis, the article continued, are “slipping into the dark abyss of atheism” by visiting social networking websites, reading atheist authors and – among those on scholarships at western universities – “holding dialogues” with their teachers. The article ended by calling for a national strategy to combat atheism and protect religion:
At present, efforts to contain the onslaught of atheism are limited. These are mainly concentrated on personal initiatives. There should be a participation of the entire society in dealing with this serious issue. This shall be based on a national strategy worked out by our sharia bodies to protect our religion. Like what we did in combating terrorism, we have to root out atheism [italics added].
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs and minister Sheikh Saleh al-Asheikh may shoulder the great responsibility of working out the strategy for an anti-atheist national campaign with the support of experts in this field. Specialised centres to hold dialogue with young men and women could be set up, in addition to launching an exclusive satellite channel to promote the cause. It is easier to treat cancer in its initial stage before it seeps deep into the body cells.[ii]
The writer’s call for atheism to be treated in the same way as terrorism might seem ridiculous, but the Saudi authorities were already taking that idea seriously. In January 2014, the government announced a new and extremely wide-ranging anti-terrorism law which, among many other things, outlawed “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”[iii]
In Saudi terms, equating atheism with terrorism does have a certain logic since atheism presents a challenge to the most fundamental principles of the Saudi state. The Basic Law of 1992 (the Saudi equivalent of a constitution) establishes a very clear linkage between Islam and the state:
Article 1: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet (God’s prayers and peace be upon him) are its constitution …
Article 6: Citizens are to pay allegiance to the King in accordance with the Holy Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet, in submission and obedience …
Article 7: Government in Saudi Arabia derives power from the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s tradition.
Article 8: Government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on the premise of justice, consultation, and equality in accordance with the Islamic sharia.
Article 9: The family is the kernel of Saudi society, and its members shall be brought up on the basis of the Islamic faith …
Article 11: Saudi society will be based on the principle of adherence to God’s command …
Article 13: Education will aim at instilling the Islamic faith in the younger generation …
Article 23: The state protects Islam; it implements its sharia; it orders people to do right and shun evil; it fulfils the duty regarding God’s call.[iv]
Non-believers, if they wish to adhere to their principles, cannot accept this. By the same token, the Saudi state cannot accept non-belief without changing the basis on which it has been constructed. Short of wholesale political change, it is difficult to see how this impasse can be resolved. The government, recognising perhaps that it can influence but not totally control what people think, keeps up appearances by continuing to impose “Islamic” codes of behaviour while trying to force non-believers into silence. Even some religious scholars doubt that this will work in the long run, however.
Bullying and attacking atheists is likely to be counterproductive, Ghazi al-Maghlouth, professor of Islamic culture at al-Ahsa University, told the Saudi Gazette. “Youths who follow atheism would then react vehemently and be adamant in adhering to their beliefs. Therefore, it is essential to engage them in friendly discourse,” he said quoting a proverb – “Winning hearts is more significant than conquering cities.” Meanwhile, Yousuf al-Ghamdi, Professor of Belief (aqidah) at Umm al-Qura University, called for “effective” and “convincing” dialogue. “Atheism is an intellectual phenomenon and not a behavioural one and hence it should be addressed in an intellectual way,” he said.[v]
A further step in that direction came in 2014 when the Islamic University of Madina established a “Certainty Centre” to address people’s religious doubts. The centre said it was developing “a variety of preventive programmes” aimed at atheists and others with “non-religious tendencies”. Although this was said to be available to everyone, its main focus was clearly directed towards young people – and persuading them to “return to the right path”. This sounded rather similar to earlier programmes in Saudi Arabia and Yemen which sought to “reform” jihadists through dialogue rather than punishment. The Certainty Centre urged those with religious doubts to make contact through instant messaging or email. Although it said they would not be required to identify themselves, inviting Saudis – in effect – to admit to the crime of apostasy was perhaps rather a lot to expect.[vi]
Reasons for loss of faith
SAUDIS have also begun asking themselves why there should be so much apparent disbelief in the kingdom. Inevitably, some blame modern innovations such as electronic games: “The enemies of Islam use this ploy to misguide our children with games promoting atheism and polytheism, besides deviating them from the divine religion of Islam.”[vii] Others see sinister foreign interests at work: “Undoubtedly, there are outside players who are working day and night to spread atheism in the Arab world with the help of certain satellite TV channels, social media websites and radio.”[viii]
More plausible theories suggest Saudis are being driven away from religion by the way it is taught and by the reactionary – often comically reactionary – positions of many scholars in the kingdom. A writer in al-Madinah newspaper pointed out that schoolchildren are made to memorise long lists of the things that are haram (forbidden) but then, when they go out of school, they see adults breaking the rules all the time:
Our children grow up watching a great contradiction between what they are taught and what they see in real life. They observe adults indulging in many un-Islamic behaviours day in and day out.
For instance, a child may see his father being lazy in going to the mosque for prayer after hearing the adhan (prayer call). The same child is taught by his teacher in school that not performing prayer on time is an act of atheism ...
The young boys and girls are taught that entertainment is haram, but they see a large number of men and women going to amusement parks or even travelling outside for entertainment.[ix]
Saudi atheist Omar Hadi thinks the scale of the revolt against religion may be even larger than the WIN/Gallup International poll suggested, though some of the apparent disbelief may be “just a knee-jerk reaction” to the “extreme limits” that Saudi society places upon its citizens. “If the same individuals moved to the west they would probably become Muslims again,” he said. Hadi (speaking under a pseudonym) continued:
The doubts that I had growing up were because of the way we were taught. They did try to explain to us but the explanations did not make sense. And then they just told us to shut up and accept it. And some people did – taking it by faith, obviously, despite the evidence.
If they want to combat that they need to get into a more refined way of teaching theology in this country. It works for the majority of people but you will always have people who are never going to believe.
I understand their dilemma, because once they start to – I use the word lightly – “reform” religion, it becomes more man-made than God-made and loses its holiness.[x]
Saudi scholars, he said, have also done much to discredit themselves by denouncing technological innovations when they first appear and then back-tracking when they prove useful and popular:
Many religious scholars in Saudi twenty years ago said all photography is banned – it’s sinful, you will go to hell if you have your photograph taken. I know people who actually went and burned all the photographs they had of themselves. Twenty years later, the same [scholars] are all over TV and in the newsprint media and they say: “Well, maybe it wasn’t so sinful to have photographs.” So what about the people who burned all their photographs?
With any new advancement, they are so radical and extreme in the beginning. It was the same thing with the use of camera phones, cassette tapes and video players. I have [a copy of] a fatwa that says the use of a camera phone is sinful, and now everybody has them.
It’s the inconsistency in how they deal with new things that adds doubt to everything else they say.
Nowadays, statements by scholars that show them to be ignorant or out of touch also tend to reach a much larger audience than previously. They are often picked up by mainstream media from religious websites where readers presumably take them seriously. The kingdom’s mainstream media sometimes report them impartially and sometimes with opposing views, but outlandish scholarly opinions are clearly seen as having some entertainment value – as indicated by the unflattering photographs of the scholars that often accompany such reports. Once in the mainstream, the scholars’ words are then at the mercy of social media.
During an outbreak of the often-lethal MERS coronavirus in Saudi Arabia, al-Hayat newspaper reported a claim by Abdullah al-Amrani, a preacher in Tabuk, that he had discovered a cure through his research into “prophetic medicine”. Amrani refused to disclose the nature of his treatment but said he had also used it successfully to treat AIDS and leukaemia.[xi] Needless to say, Twitter users immediately suggested Amrani should give up medicine and stick to religion. Meanwhile, a senior Saudi cleric pondered the question of whether people who died from MERS could be classified as martyrs. He announced that they could not, unless the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak to be an epidemic.
On another occasion, Sheikh Saleh bin Saad al-Luhaydan, an opponent of the campaign for Saudi women to be allowed to drive, claimed scientific research had shown that driving “automatically affects” women’s ovaries and “rolls up” their pelvis. This, he said, is why women who continuously drive cars give birth to children “with clinical disorders of varying degrees”. Al-Arabiya, the Saudi-owned news channel, reported his remarks along with some mocking comments that had been posted on Twitter and a statement from the head of the religious police saying “Islamic sharia does not have a text forbidding women driving.”[xii] Luhaydan’s claim about driving damaging the ovaries was also ridiculed in a song by Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi-born comedian, and two of his friends. Entitled “No Woman, No Drive”, and sung to the tune of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”, it was played more than eleven million times when posted on YouTube.[xiii]
Another factor leading young Saudis into “the dark abyss of atheism”, according to an opinion article in al-Watan, is “holding dialogues, as in the case of some students on scholarship grants, with their teachers in western universities”.[xiv] This appeared to be a veiled criticism of one of the king’s pet projects – the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme – which has proved especially unpopular with Saudi clerics and ultra-conservatives. The programme, established in 2005 and costing SR9 billion ($2.4 billion) a year, provides funds for 125,000 Saudis to study at universities abroad – mostly in the United States. About 30% of the students are female. This is officially explained as an investment in the kingdom’s economic future, to create a highly educated workforce and thus reduce dependence on foreign expertise, but it is also intended to promote social change by exposing young Saudis to other cultures – hence the opposition from traditionalists.
“From the vantage point of someone else’s culture you can truly see your own,” an article in the Saudi Gazette noted. Students taking part in the programme told the paper it had helped them “to accept different people and thoughts” and taught them “what critical thinking is” but it tended also to increase their frustrations on their return to the kingdom. One who had studied law abroad said: “Due to my profession, I have to deal with one of the most backward judicial systems in the world, which is improving at a very slow pace.” Another said she found it “really hard to get used to the chaos here [in Saudi Arabia] after getting used to a more civilised way of living” abroad.[xv]
Saud Kabli, a political scientist and columnist for al-Watan newspaper, likens the scholarship programme to Muhammed Ali Paça’s educational missions to Europe in the 1820s “which helped the build-up of modern Egypt and triggered, later on, the Arab Renaissance”. Anyone who visits Saudi Arabia today will see that Saudi youth are becoming more assertive, more open to the world and more receptive to global ideals, he said. “The youth of Saudi Arabia are a hidden force of change that will definitely change the society in the coming years, and it seems that the government realises this and even capitalises on it, probably on the hope that change will come eventually from within the society rather than forcefully from the top.”[xvi]
The sort of exposure provided by the scholarship programme undoubtedly has an effect on the religious views of at least some students taking part. “Growing up in Saudi,” Omar Hadi said, “you are indoctrinated in the idea of non-Muslims being evil and they are all going to go to hell. Every single non-Muslim is out to get you. So when you go and live with them, you eat with them, you study with them, you socialise with them in a normal innocent way, you realise that they are not evil. After a while you say: ‘You know what? I’ve experienced so much kindness and generosity from these people that it’s difficult for me to believe they are going to go to hell’.”
Fears about the effects of the scholarship programme prompted one Saudi preacher to claim that “travelling to the land of infidelity for the sake of doing business or studies is forbidden except in extreme necessity” and with certain conditions, and that “whoever dies in the land of infidelity could go to hell.” Sheikh Abdullah al-Suwailem, who works for a project to rehabilitate imprisoned al-Qaeda supporters, told al-Hayat newspaper that the first of the conditions for permitting foreign travel is that a person has to be “a strong believer” with religious “immunity” so as not to fall for “desires”. “Whoever fears for himself falling for what is forbidden, such as drinking alcohol, should not travel except in the case of necessity,” he added.[xvii]
Saudi Arabia, basically, is a victim of what Alvin Toffler described as “future shock”. In the space of a few decades in the twentieth century, oil discoveries transformed it from one of the world’s poorest countries into one of the wealthiest, and it is still struggling to adjust. Its society has become increasingly polarised as traditionalists fight what is probably a losing battle against the onslaught from modernity. In the absence of more rational argument for preserving the status quo, they defend it with religion and fear-mongering about immorality.
But the idea that religion is essential for a well-ordered society is demonstrably untrue. Writing in the Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Phil Zuckerman notes that “countries containing high percentages of nonbelievers are among the healthiest and wealthiest nations on earth”. Zuckerman looked at the worldwide ranking of countries in terms of religious belief and compared this with their ranking in the UN’s Human Development Index. The results were striking. Among the 25 top-ranked countries in the Human Development Index, all but one (Ireland) had very high percentages of organic atheism.[xviii] At the other end of the scale, the bottom 50 countries in the index had very low levels of atheism. More specifically, and drawing on other data, Zuckerman found:
- Of the 40 poorest countries, all but one (Vietnam) are highly religious.
- Of the 35 countries with the highest youth illiteracy rates, all are highly religious.
- Non-religious countries have the lowest infant mortality rates and religious countries have the highest.
- The ten countries with the highest levels of gender equality are all strongly atheistic while the ten with the lowest levels are all highly religious.
- The countries with the highest homicide rates are all highly religious, while the lowest homicide rates tend to be in highly secular countries.
- The more religious countries do appear to have lower suicide rates but this could be partly due to religious taboos against recording such deaths as suicide.
While the evidence clearly shows that widespread atheism does not lead to social breakdown, Zuckerman does not claim atheism is responsible for the benefits seen in less religious societies: “Rather, societal health seems to cause widespread atheism, and societal insecurity seems to cause widespread belief in God.”
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[i]. Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism. WIN/Gallup International, 2012. http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/14/file/14.pdf
[ii]. Qassem, Abdul Aziz: “Fighting atheist tendencies.” English translation from al-Watan newspaper, re-published in English by the Saudi Gazette, 20 February 2014. http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentid=20...
[iii]. “Saudi Arabia: New Terrorism Regulations Assault Rights.” Human Rights Watch, 20 March 2014. https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/03/20/saudi-arabia-new-terrorism-regulatio...
[v]. “Containing atheism.” Saudi Gazette, 12 April 2014. http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentid=20...
[vi]. Whitaker, Brian: “Saudis combat atheism with ‘certainty’.” Al-bab.com, 17 December 2014. http://al-bab.com/blog/2014/12/saudis-combat-atheism-certainty-0
[vii]. Baras, Abdurahman: “Academics warn against adverse impact of e-games on children.” Okaz/Saudi Gazette, 6 December 2013. http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentid=20...
[viii]. Al-Amoudi, Muhammad Omar: “Why are there so many atheists in the Arab world?” Saudi Gazette, 22 April 2016. http://saudigazette.com.sa/opinion/local-viewpoint/many-atheists-arab-wo...
[ix]. Muayyad, Shams al-: “The absence of role models.” Al-Madinah, republished in English by the Saudi Gazette, 7 May 2014. http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentid=20...
[x]. Author’s interview, May 2014. Omar Hadi is a pseudonym.
[xii]. “Driving affects ovaries and pelvis, Saudi sheikh warns women.” Al-Arabiya, 28 September 2013. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/variety/2013/09/28/Driving-affects-ovary...
[xiii]. Whitaker, Brian: “Subverting Saudi Arabia through song.” Blog post, 31 October 2013. http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2013/october/subverting-saudi-arabia-through-...
[xiv]. Qassem, Abdul Aziz: “Fighting atheist tendencies.” Al-Watan newspaper; republished in English by the Saudi Gazette, 20 February 2014. http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentid=20...
[xv]. Bashraheel, Laura: “Scholarship students: Big dreams, slow change.” Saudi Gazette, 11 March 2013. http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentid=20...
[xvi]. Author’s email correspondence with Kabli, October 2013.
[xvii]. “Fatwa prohibiting travelling abroad causes controversy in Saudi Arabia.” Al-Arabiya, 6 May 2014. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/features/2014/05/06/Fatwa-pr...
[xviii]. Zuckerman uses the term “organic atheism” to distinguish it from “coercive atheism” in countries like North Korea, which he excluded from the comparison.