Arabs Without God: Chapter 5

By Brian Whitaker

Chapter 5: Losing their religion

ATHEISM is a response to religion, and without religion no one would bother to become an atheist. Without religion, God would be an unknown concept and there would be no particular reason for anyone to question His existence; belief and disbelief would both turn into non-belief. This has been the fate of earlier religions, now abandoned. Today, nobody spends time arguing about the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, because they faded into irrelevance long ago.

The role of religion in the development – even the unintentional promotion – of atheism is perhaps so obvious as to be easily overlooked, but it is important to keep this in mind when considering why and how people become atheists. Being an atheist means having no belief in God but becoming an atheist involves a conscious rejection of God. Some non-believers might thus be described as atheists merely by default, since they have never faced a conscious choice; religion has made little or no impact on their lives and, for them, God is scarcely any different from Zeus or Apollo.[i]

In the Arab countries, however, atheism is almost always a deliberate choice – often with a price attached. Belief is the norm and in many cases it is belief by default: society not only expects people to believe but also tries to shield them from ideas that might lead them to doubt. Despite these pressures, though, some do slip through the net – and apparently in increasing numbers. So how does it happen?

“It’s generally assumed that there’s one sole trigger that destroys all belief in God or gods,” said Saeed Kayyani, an Emirati atheist. “I disagree. From my own and others’ experiences, I find it to be more of a complex process that involves several factors within yourself and your environment.”[ii] He added: “It’s an internal journey of how ideas and events are processed and what a person’s feelings are about the conclusions. It’s like two piles of straw being weighed on a scale. The quality, structure, and material of the scale is what decides a person’s religiosity.”[iii]

Mirza Ghalib was a pious Muslim from India who went to work in Saudi Arabia and returned home an atheist. In an article posted on the internet he said his journey to disbelief began when Arab colleagues in the kingdom teased him “for not being a perfect Muslim”. This surprised him because in India he had been taught to pray five times a day and to read the Qur’an daily in Arabic. As far as he was concerned, he was a good Muslim “according to the Indian standard of Islam”.

Up to that point Ghalib had only read the Qur’an in Arabic, which he had been told was “the language of Paradise” and would bring him more virtue, even though he did not understand Arabic. But as a result of the taunts from colleagues he decided to read it in his mother tongue, Urdu, “so that I could understand its meaning and could become a more pious, a better, Muslim”. Instead, he was shocked by what he found: “Many of the verses seemed barbaric.”

He was also appalled by some of the cultural practices he found in Saudi Arabia – practices which are often legitimised on religious grounds:

I witnessed an old man, aged over 75 years, with his two wives alive, [who] took a third [wife] – a 17-year-old Jordanian girl (because the “cost” [dowry] of the girl is comparatively cheaper in Jordan). As he returned with the young bride, he was given a very warm welcome by his well-educated sons, aged between 40 and 50. They took him on their shoulders, clapping and singing. They [didn’t] even bother about the fate of their own mothers. They shared the joyful moments by praising their father’s “manliness” with their neighbours and friends. The language they used to glorify their father’s “manliness” can’t be explained here, as it is too crude, pornographic. Given the sons were well-educated, we can’t blame their lack of education for such behaviour.

Returning to India after a decade in Saudi Arabia, Ghalib said he then set about trying to convince his aged parents that they had been misled about Islam – and eventually succeeded.

[My father] repeatedly asked me, like an innocent child, about the outcome of his 80 years of worship of Islam, and the valuable time he had spent in five-time daily prayers, midnight prayers and other Islamic deeds. I consoled him by saying not to worry about the past; instead, I encouraged him to feel happier, as he [had] been freed of the fear of all alleged punishments and tortures during death, in the grave and in the hereafter. He was convinced, but still he couldn’t tolerate the way he had been cheated by the mullahs all his life. He thanked me for rescuing him from the fear of the horror of the Islamic grave and the hell.

Sadly, I … lost my beloved father within a few months of his enlightenment about Islam, as he was unable to come to terms with the shock, which not only perished his faith but also deteriorated his health. I felt a sense of guilt … but when I recall his last days, I also feel satisfied that he faced his bodily end on earth with confidence, without the fear of tortures and hellfire as taught in Islam … For a Muslim, getting to the truth about Islam is the toughest battle in life. And the shock they get when they find out the truth can be tough to come to terms with.[iv]

Research in the United States suggests a religious environment “plays a fundamental role in the construction of an atheist identity”. Among forty American atheists who were interviewed, thirty-five had an upbringing that lay between “somewhat religious” and “extremely religious”. The study, by Jesse Smith of Colorado University, noted: “Even those few who were raised in families without much religion (or no religion at all) nevertheless encountered, and were influenced by, the high levels of religiosity and belief present in the general milieu of American culture.”[v]

Arabs Without God is available in paperback from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK). It is also available in Arabic (online, free of charge) and in Italian under the title Arabi Senza Dio.

Other evidence that religion can be a trigger on the road to atheism came from a Pew survey in 2010 which found that in a test of religious knowledge American atheists and agnostics performed better than Protestants and Catholics. This was only partly explained by differences in their general levels of education.[vi] According to one of the authors of the Pew survey, about three-quarters of the atheists and agnostics had been raised as Christians. Their knowledge of religion suggested they had thought about it in some depth before deciding to abandon it. This prompted Dave Silverman of the American Atheists organisation to comment:

I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.[vii]

Based on the interviews with American atheists about their journey into disbelief, Smith proposed a four-stage process …

(1) the starting point: the ubiquity of theism

(2) questioning theism

(3) rejecting theism

(4) “coming out” as an atheist

In interviews for this book, Arab non-believers broadly confirmed that pattern, though with some differences. They described a similar story of 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, was not quite right.

Typically, it began with a niggling question about an aspect of religious teaching that struck them as illogical or self-contradictory. They would then explore the question further, often in the sincere hope of finding an answer. Instead of providing an answer, however, the exploration process merely raised more questions … and new doubts.

Although questions about doctrine were the usual starting point, some said they had also been influenced by the way religion is practised – Islam’s treatment of women was one example cited – while an Egyptian activist saw religion as an impediment to revolution and hence a factor in his move towards atheism.

Based on that, it might be imagined that the most extreme forms of religious practice – acts of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam or the activities of ISIS/Daesh and similar groups – would have a powerful effect. In an article headed “How ISIS drives Muslims from Islam”, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote:

The Islamic State has visibly attracted young Muslims from all over the world to its violent movement to build a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But here’s what’s less visible – the online backlash against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, by young Muslims declaring their opposition to rule by Islamic law, or sharia, and even proudly avowing their atheism.[viii]

In a similar vein, the Egyptian Dar al-Ifta (a government body) cited three factors behind the apparent growth of atheism:

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

Conveniently for the Egyptian authorities, this placed all the “blame” for atheism on jihadists, takfiris, extremists, unqualified clerics, etc, and none on the political and religious establishment.

However, it’s doubtful whether the actions of ISIS and other militants have really done much to turn Muslims into atheists. Atheism, after all, is a rejection of religion in general, not just the more outlandish variants of it, and as far as most Muslims are concerned ISIS can be rejected without rejecting Islam as a whole. Among the Arab atheists interviewed for this book, none mentioned terrorism or jihadism as a significant factor in their decision to leave Islam. Their reasons were much more related to their first-hand, everyday experience of the faith – mainly as taught to them in schools and by government-approved clerics.

The science-versus-religion debates that have become so familiar in the west played little or no part in the initial stages of religious doubt among Arab interviewees unless they had a particular interest in science. Some later turned to books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other prominent western atheists but by that stage the effect was mainly to reinforce existing doubts and provide a more coherent framework for their growing disbelief. Gamal, an Egyptian atheist, said: “I have seen a number of people, students of biology and medicine, who appear to be very well read and up to date on books that are questioning the existence of God based on science, but 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.”[x]

Smith’s study speaks of Americans questioning and then rejecting “theism” as they progress towards atheism but this is not strictly accurate in the case of Arab interviewees. Initially, their questions were not so much about the possibility of God’s existence as about whether God could exist in the form described by organised religions. A few, while rejecting organised religion, still maintained a vague belief in some kind of deity or expressed a yearning for “spirituality”.

Divine dictatorship

IN INTERVIEWS, the issue most often cited by Arabs as their first step on the road to disbelief was the apparent unfairness of divine justice. The picture they had acquired was of an irascible and sometimes irrational Deity who behaves in much the same way as an Arab dictator or an old-fashioned family patriarch – an anthropomorphic figure who makes arbitrary decisions and seems eager to punish people at the slightest opportunity. Dire warnings – constantly repeated in the Qur’an – of what would happen to non-believers had clearly made a strong impression on them in childhood.

“The idea of eternal hell was very disturbing to me,” said Mohammed Ramadan, an Egyptian. “I was nine when I asked my parents why would God punish us for ever when we live for an average of only 70 years.”

At school, Ahmad Saeed, a Yemeni, asked his teachers why God would punish people simply for not believing in Him – and found the answers far from satisfactory: “They would just reply to me that this is what God says, so we are not supposed to question.” He continued: “I always used to argue that if I were born in a secular country, if I were not born in Yemen or a Middle Eastern country, I would not have been a Muslim. 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.”

A Saudi who is known on Twitter as “Arab Atheist” was troubled by the question of why seemingly decent non-Muslims should be punished by God. Arriving in the US to study at a Jesuit college, he began to realise “how similar all religions are” in their basic teachings. “In Islam,” he said, “we are taught that all non-Muslims are going to hell. 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.”

Ramast, an Egyptian raised in the Coptic church who objects to being described as Arab (“People call Egypt an Arab country for religious reasons, which I don’t have”), grappled with a similar problem:

It started with one question. It was very simple: if good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell, then what makes a person good and what makes a person bad? Could it be the environment? But God created that environment. Could it be the way he was raised? But God chose his parents and the way he would be raised. Whatever the reason you come up with, you will eventually say “But God created that” and so logically it is not the person’s fault if he is bad or good.

I couldn’t find an answer to this question but it didn’t make me immediately change, it just made me doubt and open my mind a little bit. I was thirteen, fourteen, something like that. At that time I was very religious and thinking a lot about these things.

Such questions are probably as old as monotheism itself, and a thousand-year-old story illustrates the conundrum. It concerns a dispute between Abu Ali Muhammad al-Jubba’i, a Muslim theologian of the Mu’tazilite school who died around 915CE, and his pupil, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari:

Ash’ari proposed to Jubba’i the case of three brothers, one of whom was a true believer, virtuous and pious; the second an infidel, a debauchee and a reprobate; and the third an infant; they all died, and Ash’ari wished to know what had become of them.

To this Jubba’i answered: “The virtuous brother holds a high station in Paradise; the infidel is in the depths of Hell, and the child is among those who have obtained salvation [i.e. spared from Hell but excluded from Paradise].”

“Suppose, now,” said Ash’ari, “that the child should wish to ascend to the place occupied by his virtuous brother, would he be allowed to do so?”

“No,” replied Jubba’i, “it would be said to him: ‘Thy brother arrived at this place through his numerous works of obedience towards God, and thou hast no such works to set forward’.”

“Suppose, then,” said Ash’ari, “that the child say: ‘That is not my fault; you did not let me live long enough, neither did you give me the means of proving my obedience’.”

“In that case,” answered Jubba’i, “the Almighty would say: ‘I knew that if I had allowed thee to live, thou wouldst have been disobedient and incurred the severe punishment [of Hell]; I therefore acted for thy advantage’.”

“Well,” said Ash’ari, “and suppose the infidel brother were to say: ‘O God of the universe, since you know what awaited him, you must have known what awaited me; why then did you act for his advantage and not for mine?’ “ Jubba’i had not a word to offer in reply. [xi]

Reem Abdel-Razek, another Egyptian, was curious to know where animals fitted into the system of reward and punishment. “In Islam we are taught that humans are being put through a sort of test to see if they will go to hell or heaven,” she said. “There is a lot of suffering in the world and whenever I talk about human suffering it’s always attributed to that test. But when I talk about animals I don’t understand how God would create such a huge amount of suffering without any reason.” As a child, when she asked about animals eating other animals, she was told that in the afterlife the animals that had been eaten would get their revenge, but then turn to dust. “It didn’t make sense to me.”

Abdullah, a Kuwaiti, said:

The first thing I started questioning was “what is God”, specifically. What is God as an entity? That was when I was about 12 and things didn’t add up, because I always got “You’ll figure that out by the time you are dead.” I’m talking about mum, who was supposed to be an expert on the faith itself, and it seemed such bullshit. It kind of progressed from there and slowly slid downhill until I was sixteen when I had one of my friends pass away because of a car accident and that’s where I started questioning even more and more. It started to kind of dominate my life – “I want to know, I want to know.”

Several interviewees said they were pushed further along the road to disbelief by reactions from other people when they asked questions such as these. Instead of offering answers, Ahmad Saeed said, they would “have this perspective that ‘We don’t know but God knows’.”

In Egypt, Reem Abdel-Razek found it wasn’t just a matter of being told “Don’t ask questions like that.” She said the reaction from people around her was often hostile. “That made me more curious, because it was rather defensive. It was as if I was attacking them – which I wasn’t. I think deep down they felt I was right, and this hit a nerve with them because they didn’t want to think about these things.”

But defensiveness is not the only response to questioning of beliefs. An article in the Saudi newspaper, al-Watan, told of a woman teacher in her twenties who tried to discuss her doubts with a scholar. He replied that she was mentally sick and should seek treatment.[xii]

In Bahrain, Nabila had the unusual experience of being raised by parents who were “basically atheists”. Her father belonged to an underground Marxist-Leninist group and her mother was an active feminist but for safety reasons they concealed this from the children. “They were wired to keep everything secret.” Thus, for the first few years of her life, Nabila assumed she was a Muslim like other children at her school. Even so, there were things about her home life that puzzled her.

I used to ask my parents all the time: “Why don’t you pray?” “Why aren’t you fasting?” and my mum would give me these excuses. She would say: “We do pray, inside our rooms.” OK, why aren’t you fasting? My mum would say: “I have an ulcer and your father can’t quit smoking” – these very silly excuses, but for a while I bought them.

Of course, we heard stories here and there about my dad’s friends. For instance, we grew up with two kids who were like brothers to us, who had lost their father in 1986 in prison. We always wondered why they didn’t have a father and what we were told as kids was that he was a martyr who had fought in Palestine. I think my father told me when I was twelve or thirteen that he had actually died in prison in Bahrain but even then he did not give me details about how or why, and I had no idea there were actual parties working underground.

Meanwhile, Nabila’s grandmother assumed the task of trying to turn her into a good Muslim, encouraging her to learn the Qur’an by heart.

She told me to memorise it. I tried to memorise it but I couldn’t. She said: “How do you memorise your schoolwork?” I said “Because I understand it. I don’t understand this.”

So she tried to explain it to me and after she was explaining it I started to have these questions. She told me God has created everything, God knows everything, he knows whatever is unknown to us, and things like that.

I said: “Wait. You’re saying God knows everything. He knows that I am going to be born, he knows every single action I’ll do, everything I’ll say. So if he knows everything, he knows I’m going to make a mistake. Why punish me for it?”

She said: “No, it’s not like that. He puts paths in front of you and you get to choose.”

I said: “So He doesn’t know my choice and He doesn’t know everything.”

That’s how I started to have my doubts. How can you say He’s forgiving and merciful and everything when He’s a strict punisher? There was no logic for me.

Sarah Way, from a Syrian Alawite family living in Kuwait, also had problems with the Qur’an – especially what she saw as its lack of clarity when she began reading it on her own. “The problems for me were more than just God,” she said. “There was stuff in the Qur’an that made me think ‘Why can’t it just be clear?’ There were contradictions in it and the whole idea of God is that it’s supposed to be someone or something divine. But errors don’t happen in something divine. Even the tiniest error makes it invalid.”

She continued: “Before I read it I had no idea there was such a thing as an ex-Muslim. I thought that I was just a bad Muslim. Then I thought, ‘Oh! Wait! It doesn’t have to be this way’.” Today, though, she prefers to be called an atheist rather than an ex-Muslim. “The more I think about it, the more I think why should I be an ‘ex’ of something I didn’t even choose? Even though I’ve shown interest in religion at a lot of points in my life, when I look back I feel I wasn’t showing interest because I had faith, I was showing interest because it was peer pressure.”[xiii]

Among the Arabs interviewed for this book, abandoning religion was mostly a private, thoughtful and sometimes lonely journey. It was largely an intellectual process but also one that was shaped, to varying extent, by their personal experiences of religion. Contrary to popular notions in the Middle East, none viewed atheism as an excuse for a dissolute lifestyle.

Another popular idea – usually expressed in terms of conspiracy theory – is that Arab atheists have succumbed to “westernisation” or “foreign influences”. There does seem to be a degree of truth in this if the conspiracy element is removed, though it certainly does not apply in all cases and, where it does apply, it is usually more a matter of Arabs having their eyes opened through contact with non-Muslims or new ways of thinking than direct attempts by foreigners to lure them away from Islam.

Yemeni Ahmad Saeed, for example, said the change in his beliefs came when he started reading “from outside the perspective of Islam” and began debating on the internet “with people who are atheists and deists and agnostics”. The debates were in English, he said, “because most of the people who speak Arabic are Muslims and at that point I didn’t want to argue with Muslims because it would be pointless. I wanted to look at it from a different perspective, from a different point of view.”

He joined an online discussion forum called “Atheist vs Theist” which had 30,000 members. “I spent a lot of hours on this group, and when I joined I was 100% theist – I believed in God – but I found I have zero evidence to prove that God exists. Then I realised that all religions are organised by men and the idea of a God is man-made.”

Mohammed Ramadan said his eyes were opened mainly after he moved from a state school to a private university in Egypt and “started to see a whole different kind people, richer people who travelled a lot to places like Canada – Egyptians who had mixed origins, with totally different ideas”. The biggest influence on his views at that time was a friend with whom he shared a dormitory. “He was an atheist, although at the time he didn’t know it. We argued a lot and I was on the other side of the argument, but also at the same time I realised I was talking to someone who confirmed some of my inner doubts.” He continued:

The very first discussion was about certain things that are morally accepted only being accepted by the social circle you are surrounded with. Then I came up with a stupid thing like “Would you allow your sister to be in a bikini somewhere in Europe?” and he said: “Of course, yes.”

And when he said that, I said: “What do you mean? How could you allow your sister to expose herself like that?” We had a long argument about ethics and morals. That was basically one of the first triggers.

Interestingly, though, one of Mohammed’s cousins arrived at atheism by a very different route – from hardcore Salafism. “That was a very powerful story for me because he didn’t travel and he never met anyone who was an atheist,” Mohammed said. “He was always in the village until he finished his studies. He kind of went on his own to discover this.”

Mohammed also has a theory about what happened to his cousin. While some Muslims retain their belief by interpreting scripture flexibly, Salafis do not have that option. “Salafis can’t use the argument of not reading the Qur’an in a literal sense. They tell you it is the direct word of God – it has to be taken literally and we have to follow it word by word,” he said. This all-or-nothing approach means that if they find one thing in scripture that is difficult to accept, the whole ideological structure is liable to fall apart. Mohammed said his cousin seems happier now but “being where he is in Egypt, surrounded by family and all that, he can’t do everything he would like. One of the things he did was to shave his beard. That was quite shocking for his family. He stopped praying, and it has become obvious that he doesn’t pray. Last time we spoke, he told me: ‘Remember to bring some ham’.”

In Syria, Hashem al-Shamy came from a Sunni Muslim family, though not a particularly devout one: they viewed religion as “a cultural and traditional norm”, he said. His father, who had no qualms about drinking alcohol, attended Friday prayers – but basically as a social event.

Nevertheless, Hashem was sent to one of the many primary schools in Damascus organised by the Qubaysiyat, a religious movement run by women and supportive of the Assad regime. “Their version of Islam is very much mainstream, the one that is accepted by the government generally speaking, which is not contentious,” he explained. Being uncontentious included not mentioning that the Qur’an had been revealed to the Prophet bit by bit over a long period rather than as a finished book and that there were multiple versions for a while, or talking about the differences within Islam – Sunni, Shia, Alawi, etc. It was only after Hashem entered secondary school that he became aware of what he regards as some inconvenient facts about the faith and its diversity.

Presenting Islam as a solid monolith was a deliberate policy of the Assad regime, and there were political reasons behind it (discussed in Chapter Eight). Reflecting on it now, Hashem feels he and his classmates were lied to. “As Muslims from Syria’s Sunni society we were patronised, we weren’t told the truth because there is this presumption by the scholars that it’s too much to handle – the fact that there were disagreements between the Companions [of the Prophet] and Ali [his son-in-law] that drove the Shia from the Sunnis, how the Qur’an was transmitted, how we were presented with one version of Islam and weren’t told about Druzes and Shias and Isma’ilis and others.”

He continued: “The government didn’t want to have this discussion, and on the family or social level there was no discussion either. I felt there must be something substantially wrong if you are not told about these things from the beginning. There are a lot of shortcomings in religion and they would like to hide them away as long as they can, so that you to embrace religion as it’s presented to you, and by the time you discover there are lots of issues the dogma will be already in place.”

As he grew up, though, Hashem did go through phases of getting closer to religion but was eventually put off by the people involved. At the age of sixteen, during the summer holidays, he was briefly drawn into what were officially known as the Hafez al-Assad Circles of Religion:

They taught you how to read the Qur’an properly and how to memorise it. They taught you about the hadith and being a good Muslim in a general sense. There were also social activities and sports and picnics. Some of my friends started going and they asked me if I wanted to come along. My parents were OK with that … initially.

The programme was approved by the Syrian government, with preachers appointed by the Ministry of Endowments, but most of those involved in the teaching were young men in their early twenties.

They started trying to get me to go more regularly and soon I was going there twice a day, then three times. Then I started going at the weekend, and eventually going for the dawn prayers, around five in the morning. At that point my dad got really anxious. If I wanted to pray, he said, I could pray at home. He was asking me about the people I was meeting with, and all that.

I started realising that the job of these circles was only to recruit us. They didn’t have any real interest in caring for our affairs or teaching us. They just needed to meet a target of having enough young men coming to the mosque, and then when that was reached they moved on to the next group.

For Hashem, the top-down approach that he found in the Hafez al-Assad Circles of Religion echoed that of Assad’s Baath party. Both were focused on the number of people they could recruit. It was basically a one-way relationship, he said, with no real interest in getting a view from the bottom.  

I started seeing the interaction between the older ones and how they kind of looked down on the people beneath them, and how this whole thing was not organic – it didn’t feel right to me.

I kept doing it for about a month-and-a-half on a daily basis, so I dedicated a lot of time to praying and memorising. They even wanted me to start teaching ten-year-olds. But didn’t feel I wanted to do it, so I stopped going. Then they started sending friends, saying “Why did you stop coming?”

I kept going to the Friday prayers. I would run into the same people and I saw the relationship changing, how I was now seen as an outsider – even worse, because I was someone who had been inside and now betrayed them.

Hashem’s first glimpse of a different world came when he spent a year studying in Latvia. “The former Soviet Union states are very atheist, so people drink, they eat pork, they sleep around,” he said – adding that he chose not to join in any of those activities, at first because of religious inhibitions though later for more cultural reasons. “I was always thinking my family in Syria would be disappointed, how would I explain it to them? So for a whole year I didn’t drink or do anything like that.”

His first experience of alcohol came in Lebanon in 2004. “I used to visit friends at the American University of Beirut and every time they tried to persuade me to drink I would say “No, no, I don’t want to do it.” And then all of a sudden I just told them, OK. The first night that I drank I didn’t stop speaking for about six hours and I think they regretted encouraging me after that.” But he did not regret his decision. “I felt that I had missed out on some good times, that I should have done it earlier. It didn’t change anything about my life – I don’t feel less about myself as a person now that I’m drinking.”

Later, in Madrid, he started meeting girls but, perhaps surprisingly, still refused to eat pork.

I just felt that pork was a red line for me. My friends would try to understand where I was coming from, they would tell me: “You don’t have a problem drinking or sleeping with girls, so what’s the issue with pork?” I think pork or pigs in the Arab world are just associated with everything that’s bad or nasty or dirty. It’s not like drinking, where you either drink or don’t drink. With meat, you can eat lamb, or beef or chicken. I started eating pork, I think, in 2008 and it was the same realisation as with drinking.

As Hashem’s drift away from religion continued, he eventually declared himself an atheist, though his family still do not know. “I don’t think I will tell them,” he said. “I don’t need to open a can of worms about this.” The problem, he believes, is not because of religion itself but because “on a social level there is a difference between being a passive Muslim and an active atheist”:

Sometimes I get into a discussion with my mother and I once told her: “If you believe God exists and He cares about us what the hell is going on in Syria and other countries?” It’s a useless discussion but I put these rhetorical questions every now and then.

At the end of the day, though, to her I’m still a Muslim even if I have issues with some aspects of Islam. I can say I don’t pray, I don’t fast but if I tell her I am an atheist there’s going to be a total collapse. They are still in a state of denial and that, I think, applies to society as a whole, not just our family.[xiv]

Punishment of non-believers

FOR MUSLIM ex-believers, one especially problematic aspect of divine punishment is the doctrine that atheists and people from other faiths will suffer in hell. Thus, people who have never had an opportunity even to consider becoming Muslims, plus others who have considered Islam honestly but not been convinced by the evidence, all face eternal damnation – simply for not believing. Furthermore, many of the damned appear, by any normal standards, to lead civilised and largely blameless lives. “I came to the conclusion,” Ahmad Saeed said, “that religion is just a matter of where you are born and what [religion] your parents tell you that you are supposed to be”.

A common reply to Saaed’s argument is that people who don’t believe in God have no “moral compass” (or, in the case of other faiths, the wrong moral compass) and consequently drift into sin. However, according to Sheikh Muhammad al-Munajjid, a prominent Saudi scholar who claimed that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was God’s vengeance for “immorality”, atheism is a sin in itself – and a particularly heinous sin, worse even than idolatry or polytheism. In his view, idolators and polytheists are less bad than atheists because they recognise God up to a point, even if their worship is mis-directed:

The atheist who denies the existence of Allah and rejects His Messengers and disbelieves in the Last Day is in a greater state of kufr [disbelief] and his beliefs are more reprehensible … [The atheist] is stubborn and arrogant to an extent that cannot be imagined or accepted by sound human nature. Such a person would transgress every sacred limit and fall into every sin; his worldview would be distorted to an inconceivable level.[xv]

Munajjid goes on to quote a fatwa from Abd al-Aziz Bin Baz, the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, that Muslims should take particular care not to eat meat from animals slaughtered by Communists: “Meat slaughtered by Communists is haraam and is like the meat of the Magians and idol worshippers; in fact their meat is even more haraam, because their degree of kufr is greater due to their atheism and denial of the Creator.”

In the words of another scholar quoted by a Saudi newspaper, “Upholding religious values is the only solution for the growing moral degradation and cultural anarchy in the modern society.”[xvi]

Despite many frequent assertions of this kind, there is no real evidence that atheists in general behave any worse (or better) than believers, though both tend to claim moral superiority. Ideas about morality – such as fairness and justice – were of central importance to the Arab interviewees in their questioning of religion. This tallies closely with the findings of Smith’s study of American atheists where participants “saw themselves as good and moral individuals” but doubted that this had been inherited from religious rules and practices: “They each in some way observed – and criticised – the idea that people need religion to be moral and good.” The atheists in the American study also held broadly conventional views about right and wrong – “They all considered actions such as lying, cheating, stealing, murder, and basically anything else that harms other human beings to be immoral.”

The key difference here is in the way atheists approach questions of morality. By rejecting belief in God, they set aside pre-ordained rules and instead make ethical judgements based on their own reasoning. Many argue that this is a better method because choices are based on what they consider to be right rather than what they have been told to do under the threat of punishment. One of the participants in Smith’s study commented:

Many religious people … don’t realise that you can simply choose to act moral, and define an ethical framework on a rational basis. They think it has to be something that God told you to do, and that you’ll be punished for not doing it. You know, a very simple reward/response kind of scenario … if you’re doing something because of fear of being punished, that completely removes what I consider a moral dimension.

‘Coming out’ as an atheist

THE PROGRESSION outlined in Smith’s study of American atheists culminated in a “coming out” phase. From the initial stages of questioning God and religion, they moved to “a more deliberate and active stage of rejection” and finally started openly describing themselves as atheists in the presence of others.

In societies where religion predominates, “coming out” as an atheist can be a difficult step, even in America. “Because of the stigmatised and deviant status of atheism, it can initially be difficult to claim the identity in a social setting,” Smith writes. Although the American constitution separates religion from the state, the US is nevertheless one of the world’s most religious countries. The phrase “In God we trust” appears on its banknotes and religion often influences politics. It was not until 2007 that Pete Stark became the first openly atheist member of Congress and there are many who still doubt that an openly-declared atheist could ever be elected as president. Sixty per cent of Americans describe themselves as religious and only 5% as atheists. This helps to explain why, even though freedom of speech and religious liberty are fundamental principles of the American constitution, some atheists still hesitate to come out in the United States. Ultimately, though, coming out proved a positive experience for those who decided to make the leap, Smith says. “Finally, despite any initial reticence, as interviewees began to claim atheism overtly in social interactions, a concomitant sense of empowerment, confidence, and new sense of self emerged.”

This, of course, is something that few Arabs can currently aspire to. The hazards of coming out are far greater, and for those who do the result can be disastrous. Nevertheless, individuals’ circumstances vary, largely dependent on the attitudes of family, friends and the local community. Most interviewees for this book asked not to be identified by their real name – often to avoid upsetting their families. “I’ve lost some friends because of my views and I am still resisting the urge to tell my parents,” Mohammed Ramadan said. “I can imagine my father having a heart attack or something. I do care about my parents and I don’t want to hurt them. They wouldn’t do anything to me but I would live the rest of my life with regret, having hurt them so much. At least, I’m happy with the fact that they know I don’t pray. And I sometimes tell white lies to please them.”

Since many families would be distressed by the thought of having a non-believer in their midst, relatives do not usually seek to have their worst fears confirmed, and so a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach tends to suit both sides.” We don’t talk much,” Badra, a Lebanese agnostic, said:

My policy was not to let them get involved in my private life. At the age of eighteen I left the house and went to university in Beirut, so it was easier for me to distance myself and I stopped fasting [during Ramadan]. They know that I think differently but I don’t shout my beliefs – I don’t want to hurt them. They know that I question the existence of God but they prefer to ignore this. They avoid admitting it, because it would hurt. Even if I told my mother something really definitive – that I don’t want to be buried in the family cemetery, that I want to be cremated, or something like that – she might simply ignore it or still think I have a chance to be a believer like her.

Worried families sometimes console themselves with the hope that their wayward relative will eventually repent and return to the fold. “Many of my friends and family members think it is a phase that I’ll grow out of,” Arab Atheist said. “But I am almost fifty years old, I’ve been an atheist for twenty-four years and it is not a phase – because once you know it, you can’t unknow it.” Unlike most of the others, though, he does argue about religion with his Saudi relatives. “We have heated discussions regularly but unfortunately many lack the scientific literacy to understand what I’m talking about and have been brainwashed and indoctrinated to the point of no return.”[xvii] But despite being “out” to his family and despite posting frequently on Twitter, Arab Atheist fears he would be threatened if his name became known. “My identity is top secret, and I don’t share it with anyone. I take many precautions in protecting it,” he told an Emirati journalist.[xviii]

In Yemen, Ahmad Saeed told his parents he thinks there may be no God, but they just shrugged. “They basically told me: ‘You can believe in science, you can believe in evolution theory, you can believe in the Big Bang, but all these scientific theories are the creation of God’. My family are conservative but they are not absolute, so they tell me the more I read about science the more I am going to believe in God in the future.” In discussions with Muslim friends, though, Ahmad is more circumspect about his disbelief:

Usually I tell these friends that I am deist, that I believe in God but I don’t believe in Islam. I try not to shock them by saying I don’t believe in God, because they will just think that everything I say is ridiculous and that Satan has brainwashed me. So usually I tell them yes, I believe in God, I think God is awesome, I’m not an atheist so don’t worry … but I think Islam and all the religions in the world have given God a bad name. That’s the point of view that I argue with my friends, but I can’t talk about being an atheist because they will just think I’m going to hell. That’s how much they have been brainwashed. I have just one atheist friend – this is how small the society of atheists is in Yemen.

Spotting other non-believers or striking up conversations about atheism can be a tricky business, as Sarah discovered in Kuwait. She would often become curious about people who seemed to avoid using traditional religious expressions like “Ma sha’ Allah” (“Whatever God wills”) in everyday speech, but appearances could be deceptive:

I have met people who appeared to be non-religious but when it came down to it they were religious. There were a lot of people who would drink and party and listen to all the cool music – the same music that I listened to. People who I thought were just like me ... until religion showed up.

I have a good friend who is the coolest girl ever. She’s so badass and westernised and I thought she was my best friend. She once found out my internet account, my Reddit account, and she called me a heathen. She told me how I was going to go to hell and I was like “Ooooooh!”

And then there are people who I am too scared to open the topic with. It’s so weird that we don’t talk about it. In Kuwait I only know a few people who I can openly talk about this in front of. Definitely less than 10 people.

There are some people who we never say the word “atheist” in front of, but we imply. We imply our lack of belief to each other. You might make a joke that’s a bit blasphemous – not too much, just a little joke. Even if they laugh at the joke you are still unsure. The laughing, the tone, do they have a sense of humour? Do they think you are just making a joke or do they know that you are trying to say something? Behind every joke there’s an element of truth. This is the hard part.

In Bahrain, Nabila says she has gradually become less restrained. “At the beginning it was very hard, and it still is with a lot of people. But as I grow older I’m starting to realise that I have had enough of being quiet about it. I do have conversations and I do have them with a lot of Muslims who are open to conversation. When I joined my job there was a person who didn’t want to listen when this kind of conversation came up ... but today we can talk about it normally and joke about it. So there are these people who believe because they are too scared to not believe. It think it terrifies them – the idea of the possibility that it might not be true.”

Ramast, the Egyptian ex-Christian, said he does not brag about his disbelief though he has updated the religion section on his Facebook page where friends can find out if they check. He doesn’t criticise religion, he said, because it fulfils a human psychological need:

Religion is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing, otherwise people wouldn’t have created it. It doesn’t matter whether I need it or not, because now I know it’s not true.

I like Santa Claus and wish he would come every year to my house and leave gifts. But I know it’s not true. I wish I didn’t know, but I do know. You cannot undo this. And you shouldn’t go telling other people that Santa doesn’t exist. Don’t criticise religion. Let them be happy unless their religion is affecting them in a bad way, like killing each other. But if they are happy, leave them. If it’s working, don’t fix it.

His Egyptian compatriot, Reem Abdel-Razek, sees nothing to be gained by keeping quiet, however:

Eventually, when people start speaking up, these laws [against atheism, blasphemy, etc] are not going to be enforced. They can’t enforce it on everybody but if it’s just one person saying something then they will lock him up.

In Egypt I know a lot of people who believe exactly what I believe but they will never come out, and so the general idea is that there are just a few and that if they are locked up or killed there won’t be any. But the reality is that there are a lot more and if they start speaking up things will have to change.

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[i]. Michael Martin, in his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge University Press, 2007) described these two types of non-belief as negative atheism and positive atheism.

[ii]. Kayyani, Saeed: “I felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders”. Blog post, 11 August 2013.

[iii]. Author’s email correspondence with Kayyani.

[iv]. Ghalib, Mirza: “From Islam to atheism after a stint of employment in Saudi Arabia.”

[v]. Smith, Jesse M: “Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism.” Sociology of Religion, 2011, vol 72 (2), pp 215-237.

[vi]. “US Religious Knowledge Survey.” Rew Research, 28 September 2010.

[vii]. “How Ignorant About Religion Are Religious Americans?” Friendly Atheist blog, 27 September 2010.

[viii]. Friedman, Thomas: “How ISIS drives Muslims from Islam”. New York Times, 6 December 2014.

[ix]. “Survey claims 866 atheists in Egypt, highest in Arab world.” Mada Masr, 10 December 2014.

[x]. Author’s interview, April 2014. Gamal is a pseudonym.

[xi]. The story, related by Ibn Khallikan, is quoted in Nicholson, R A: A Literary History of the Arabs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. pp 377-378.

[xii]. Qassem, Abdul Aziz: “Fighting atheist tendencies.” English translation from al-Watan newspaper, re-published in English by the Saudi Gazette, 20 February.

[xiii]. Author’s interview, May 2014. Sarah Way is a pseudonym.

[xiv]. Author’s interview, September 2014. Hashem al-Shamy is a pseudonym.

[xv]. Munajjid, Muhammad: “Atheism is a greater sin than shirk.” Islam Q & A website.

[xvi]. Cheruppa, Hassan: “Religion is solution for moral degradation: Scholar.” Saudi Gazette, 30 January 2014.

[xvii]. Author’s email correspondence, March 2014.

[xviii]. Qassemi, Sultan Sooud al-: “Gulf atheism in the age of social media.” Al-Monitor, 3 March 2014.