Arabs Without God: Chapter 7

Chapter 7: Godless on the internet

THE DEVELOPMENT of the internet created a space for previously unheard voices – a space that was largely beyond the control of governments. Because of its accessibility and the difficulty of regulating it, the internet became a haven for non-orthodox opinions as well as more mainstream ideas. Among Muslims, it provided a space for Islamic discourse that was outside the hands of the scholarly elite and often more radical in character.

By 2000 most of the well-known Islamist movements, including Hamas and the Taliban, had a presence on the web, along with many more obscure groups and individuals. One reason was that internet activity could be viewed as a form of da‘wa – spreading the word of Islam – which many regard as a religious obligation. Some were also excited by the possibility that the internet could one day link up the billion-or-so Muslims around the world into a single religious community (or “digital ummah”) of a kind not seen since the early days of Islam.[i]

This unregulated space also proved attractive to those who questioned religion but whereas Muslims often had other outlets for activism (such as mosques), for doubters and unbelievers it was – and still is – virtually the only one. In the words of Helmi Noman, “The Arab atheist community is largely an online phenomenon, with limited visibility offline and with virtually no umbrella groups. It exists in unfriendly, if not hostile, political, social, religious, and legal environments.”[ii]

The internet has thus become a vital tool for atheists and other kinds of dissenters in the Middle East. It allows dissemination of ideas and information that would not otherwise be available locally, it gives people a platform to express their thoughts in public and it enables interaction with others, either by engaging in debates or connecting with like-minded individuals. Importantly for people in the Middle East, this also takes place – mostly – outside the usual framework of government restrictions and potentially it can be accessed by anyone, regardless of location and national boundaries.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Arab sceptics as well as religious believers were early adopters of the internet. “In the decade before Twitter and Facebook, Paltalk – a video and audio group chat service founded in 1998 – was all the rage in the Gulf,” Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, a prominent Emirati columnist, recalled. “Within weeks, popular Paltalk chat rooms such as ‘Humanity’ (run by a Kuwaiti) and ‘No Religionists’, dedicated to specific topics, sprang up.” One pioneering blogger in the Gulf was Ahmed Ben Kerishan, an Emirati atheist who asserted that “all religions lie” and that “secularism can set people free”.[iii]

As social media developed, activists gravitated towards Facebook, and today a search reveals about a hundred Facebook pages with “mulhid” (Arabic for “atheist”) in their title, plus a couple of dozen using the English phrase “Arab atheist”. Some of these appear inactive while others have several thousand “likes”, and they include a few closed (i.e. private) groups.

Meanwhile, others set up their own specific websites – among them the Arab Non-Religious Network ( which posted this mission statement in Arabic:

The Arab non-religious group is a free and independent intellectual humanist group. It is not affiliated with a [particular] strand or faction and does not represent a state or [political] party.

We defend the right of humans to think and decide on their own convictions, and to express them freely without fear of persecution, prosecution or moral judgment.

We do not believe in a power above the power of reason. No idea or principle is sacred except freedom. There is no prerogative for any personality or individual except the conscience of mere humans.

We do not advocate violence, nor do we advocate forcing anyone to adopt a particular way of thinking.

We are working for enlightenment against extremism, terrorism, hatred, intolerance and the lack of reason that religion produces.

The door to membership of this group is wide open to everyone who believes in the right of humans to think and choose.[iv]

Outside the Middle East, ex-Muslim organisations in North America, Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand and Scandinavia established websites, as did several exiled atheists – Waleed al-Husseini, Kacem el-Ghazzali and Alber Saber.

The main significance of these websites was that they existed – mostly in Arabic – and could be found without much difficulty by any Arabs who happened to be interested. Potentially, this also meant that non-believers scattered around the Arab countries could begin to feel less isolated and might even pluck up the courage to make contact with others – though many were still fearful of doing so.

However, the amount of atheistic material on the internet was minuscule compared to the vast number of Islamic websites which covered the full range from jihadism to sufism, plus others where Christians and Muslims slugged it out over who has the true religion.

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.

“The internet is a double-edged weapon because a lot of religious ideology and religious orthodoxy has also been transmitted through the internet,” said Amira Nowaira, professor of English literature at Alexandria university in Egypt. “It’s not one-way … One needs to remember that, because Islamism has really found a voice on the net too.”

Another use for the internet noted by Professor Nowaira, especially in the Arab countries, was re-publishing books that were hard to find by other means. Some were works by foreigners that might not get past the censors while others were old out-of-print works produced by Arabs in more liberal times. Although they were often posted on the internet with scant regard for copyright, Nowaira said she was pleased to see this happening:

Very often now you don’t find books in bookshops but they are available on the net – for free. People, out of the goodness of their hearts, just scan books and put them there. Some of the books are actually out of print.

I think it’s a good thing, even though it may not be ethically correct. Some of the books that were produced in the 1940s were completely out of print and you would never be able to find them anywhere but they are now available on the net. It’s amazing. You couldn’t even buy them if you wanted.

Religious and political dissenters played an important part in this. A Facebook page called The Arab Atheists Library provided links to free downloads of books by both western and Arab writers. They included Arabic translations of works by Baruch Spinoza, Stephen Hawking, Hannah Arendt, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins.[v] The download of Dawkins’ famous book, The God Delusion (Wahm al-Ilah, in Arabic) was an unofficial translation by the Iraqi-born atheist, Bassam al-Baghdady. Arab writers in the online library included Mohammed Arkoun, the secular Algerian scholar, Murad Wahba, the Egyptian philosopher and Farag Fouda, the scourge of Egyptian Islamists who was assassinated in 1992.

One effect of this was to demonstrate that sceptical thought by Arabs has its own distinct heritage – and to raise awareness of it. Even though Farag Fouda had died more than twenty years earlier, his trenchant writing came alive again on the internet. Saudi atheist Omar Hadi commented: “Just go on Twitter and everything he said is being re-quoted and re-quoted and re-quoted. His influence did not go away. Everything he said ... you throw it at these religious people and they don’t know how to react to it, except by quoting the Qur’an.”

Hadi also took encouragement by looking back even further to the tenth century and Mutanabbi, who many regard as the finest of the Arab poets:

Mutanabbi has a wonderful statement criticising the obsession with appearances in religion and how all other nations will be laughing at us because the only things we are concerned about is that we shave our moustaches and let our beards grow.[vi] He has other things, such as our biggest curse is that we have a group of people who think that God gave wisdom only to them.

Stuff like that from Islamic history shows there has always been some kind of resistance.

Beyond the written word, atheists also began resorting to home-made video. One example was the grandly-named Arab Atheist Broadcasting, a YouTube channel producing a two-hour discussion programme on alternate Fridays where various atheists could hook up via Skype. The more popular of these videos had been viewed around 3,000 to 4,000 times.[vii] Meanwhile, two Egyptian atheists, husband and wife Ahmed Harqan and Nada Madour, turned their bedroom into a makeshift studio for Free Mind TV.[viii] “Broadcasts” recorded in Egypt were then sent to friends in the United States for editing and posting online.[ix]

Another Egyptian initiative was Black Ducks, a YouTube talk show presented and directed by atheist Ismail Mohamed. The aim, it said, was to encourage Egyptian atheists and non-believers “to reveal themselves and tell the world their experience, why and how they become atheists”.[x] Black Ducks derived its name from Hans Christian Andersen’s story about an “ugly duckling” which was attacked and abused until it eventually grew into a beautiful white swan.

An atheist community in Jordan

JORDAN has a small atheist community linked through a Facebook group. It started in 2013 with thirty members, rising to 100 a year later. Ages ranged from sixteen to forty-four, and about 40% of members were female. “Some of the older ones have been atheists for years, others have just found out,” organiser Mohammed al-Khadra said.

He added that he knew of a further 100 or so Jordanian atheists who were not in the group. “The reason why we don’t have all 200 on the list is because we still have bigots when it comes to homosexuality, politics, etc, so I tried to collect people who are open-minded. I learned that being an atheist doesn’t always change the whole mindset of the person. You can find atheists here [in Jordan] who are homophobic or have extreme fascistic political views.”

Although Khadra was willing to be identified in an interview (“I am at the point where I no longer care”), the group itself remained largely underground. Most people were afraid for their jobs or their families, he said.

At a government level, Jordan is less restrictive than many Arab countries though people can still be jailed for blasphemy or stripped of civil rights if they leave Islam. But the main problem in Jordan comes from society and families. Atheism, like sexual transgression, is considered an offence against “honour” in some families and thus punishable by death at the hands of relatives, especially when the atheist is female.

One man, an atheist who was also gay and a former imam, had a narrow escape after he appeared in a Black Ducks video talking about his sexuality and religion.[xi] “He was few hours away from being killed,” Khadra said. “I managed with the help of my members and his mother to get him out of the house. I got him to Lebanon.”

He continued:

I have a friend who lost his wife because he told her he was an atheist. I myself lost my fiancée for being an atheist. I couldn’t lie to her so I told her I am not a Muslim. She was fine with it at first then in a couple of months she said “You don’t pray, you are not a Muslim, so you must have bad morals.”

The main view is that if someone is not a Muslim he or she must have bad morals. If he is an atheist then he must be living like an animal. That’s how they see us. I have been asked so many times why wouldn’t I sleep with my mother.

The Jordanian government, meanwhile, has to keep looking over its shoulder at the Islamist opposition – offering them a sop from time to time:

Every once in a while when they want to appease the opposition over something, they select someone to put on trial for blasphemy.

Islam Samhan, a Muslim poet, was jailed after the opposition made claims against him. Since the government doesn’t give [the opposition] their larger claims, such as ruling entirely by sharia law, they give them these smaller ones just to keep things rolling.

Samhan was arrested for “insulting the prophets” after publishing a book of poetry that was deemed to be blasphemous.[xii]

One function of the Jordanian group is to provide mutual support for its members, along with discussing Islam and Islamist movements – especially the Islamists, Khadra said:

Islam itself is not a threat. I don’t fight Islam, I fight Islamists. I disagree with Muslims but I don’t have any problem with them believing in what they wish. Islam or any religion can cause harm to any society but the main threat is Islamism since it only takes one theocrat with an atomic arsenal to prove my point.

The idea that God wants a nation in his name and orders it to kill and destroy other humans is the most dangerous in the whole dogma. It’s the main idea that Islamists are working on.

Nevertheless, Khadra said he was encouraged by the number of atheist groups developing in other countries around the region. “Groups such as mine are everywhere now. If we can get the Muslim Brotherhood away from us and be defended by the state you will see us everywhere. Until that day we have to stay underground.”[xiii]

Facebook and Twitter have “made it easy to find people who debate and are interested in secular values,” a Saudi atheist told William Bauer in an interview for Your Middle East. “I was shocked to meet older people in their forties and fifties who been hiding their atheism for decades,” he continued. “They said that only recently with the young generation in their twenties had they found other people who think like them and were able to find social group[s] that they can talk and debate about their ideas in.”[xiv]

The Associated Press described a typical example in Egypt:

One 40-year-old Egyptian engineer, born a Muslim, told The Associated Press he had long been an atheist but kept it a deep secret. The 2011 uprising in Egypt and its calls for radical change encouraged him to look online for others like himself. “Before the revolution, I was living a life in total solitude. I didn’t know anybody who believed like me,” he said. “Now we have more courage than we used to have”.[xv]

But the report added: “His case illustrates the limits on how far an atheist can go. Like most others interviewed by The Associated Press, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, harassment or troubles with his family. His ‘going public’ is strictly online.”

The anonymity of online forums is important for Arab atheists because it allows them to engage in free discussion without undue risk.  “We are all unknown soldiers,” the administrator of the Arab Atheist Network – using the pseudonym Enki – explained. “I don’t know who you are, and you don’t know who I am. We all gather in this place wearing masks to hide our identities so that we are able to express ourselves and write with no fear.”[xvi]

Although forum members may recognise each other only by their pseudonyms, the need for anonymity – driven by shared feelings of exclusion and persecution – can also create bonds between them and a supportive community. At the same time, though, these online communities are a reminder of what is not yet possible in the real world. The need for anonymity, Noman suggests, can make it difficult to develop enough social capital for them to become visible and protected. Equally, the degree of anonymity needed can be seen as a measure of society’s tolerance – or lack of it.

Battles in cyberspace

IN THE 1920s, Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, complained that a wave of atheism and lewdness was engulfing Egypt. Europeans, he said, had “founded schools and scientific and cultural institutes in the very heart of the Islamic domain which cast doubt and heresy into the very souls of its sons”.[xvii] By 1994, the blame had shifted to satellite television. “These programmes, prepared by international imperialism, are part of an extensive plot to wipe out our religious and sacred values,” the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance warned.[xviii] Today, though, a more favoured culprit is the internet. Its power – supposedly – to spread atheism far and wide thus becomes an argument for controlling cyberspace and punishing those who “misuse” it against religion.

There is no doubt that the internet facilitates the spread of atheist ideas (along with many others) but the internet itself is not a reason for them; it is merely a vehicle. Trying to suppress atheistic thought on the internet does nothing to address the causes of people’s religious doubts and may actually increase their curiosity. People would not be seeking out this material unless they felt it had some relevance to their own situation, and attempts at censorship imply a fear that religion cannot win the argument on evidence and reasoning alone. Nevertheless, it is convenient to blame the internet since there is then no need to consider whether religious doctrines and practices might play some part in driving people towards unbelief.

The main problem, according to Nasser al-Sarami, Head of Media at al-Arabiya TV channel, lies with “traditional attitudes” and an “inability to address the demands of modern times and younger generations, and to become open to new ideas instead of resorting to repression and blaming freedom of expression for atheism”:

The internet and social networking websites have not come up with anything that was not already there. They have just unravelled what was hidden from us whether owing to the nature of our culture or the level of local and social awareness.

Twitter and Facebook have turned the unknown into known and offered to people a podium through which they can express their feelings as they are, without embellishment or censorship. That is when the truth we did not want to see emerged.[xix]

Social media, The Economist magazine noted, “give non-believers more clout but also make them more conspicuous, and therefore vulnerable.” Most of those arrested in the Middle East for “defaming” religion have got into trouble as a result of their internet activity. The real blame for this, The Economist continued, lies with religious intolerance. “In the 1950s and 1960s secularism and tolerance prevailed in many majority-Muslim countries; today religion pervades public and political life. Sami Zubaida, a scholar at London’s Birkbeck College, speaks of increasing polarisation, with ‘growing religiosity at one end of the spectrum and growing atheism and secularism at the other’.”[xx]

Increased visibility, whether online or offline, exposes Arab atheists to possible retaliation from multiple directions: from governments, from the local religious establishment, and from vigilantes. Where governments are concerned, the issue is not so much atheism as subversive thought in general. They aim to keep public discourse within “acceptable” (but often vaguely-defined) limits, and this can include suppression of unwelcome religious ideas as well as the anti-religious ones.

On the internet, filtering of “objectionable” content by Arab governments is commonplace and numerous laws have been introduced against “defaming” religions, “insulting” prophets, etc. These are usually interpreted so broadly that they can be applied to almost any type of discussion about religion that the authorities disapprove of.[xxi]

Most Arab governments claim some kind of religious credentials to compensate for their lack of democratic legitimacy – which in turn makes them susceptible to pressures from the religious establishment and sometimes from Islamist opposition movements too. The relationship here, though, is often a complex one and subject to constant two-way negotiation: governments and scholarly bodies may try to influence each other, and if Islamists threaten trouble the government may offer something to placate them.

While religious elements happily use the internet to promote their own agendas, they also highlight its potential (in the hands of others) to erode moral and religious values and undermine the social fabric. That, of course, includes atheism which is popularly associated with immorality. To some extent it’s a case of religious elements trying to protect what they see as their own turf, and another of their concerns is proselytising by rivals:

An article published on several Arabic websites warned of foreign efforts to Christianise Muslims through the use of “thousands” of websites, which have allegedly increased by 1,200 per cent ... Other articles encourage Muslims to “combat” online Christianisation efforts, especially after the establishment of the Internet Evangelism Coalition, an initiative set up by the Billy Graham Center in 1999, to “stimulate and accelerate web-evangelism within the worldwide Body of Christ”.[xxii]

In practice, though, religious groups have no direct power over the internet. They can, however, agitate for government controls and their fulminations can also encourage individual believers to take matters into their own hands. Besides the threat of action by the authorities, online atheists have also faced unofficial harassment from Muslim activists – sometimes by hacking and sometimes by abusing the “report abuse” systems on social networking sites:

Bassam al-Baghdady, a Swedish atheist writer with Iraqi roots, explained that the Arab Atheists Network and other discussion groups were destroyed and deleted systematically. It is said that Islamists started campaigns through Facebook in order to “report” these pages and the profiles of its administrators. Baghdady said that his own accounts on Twitter and Facebook were blocked several times due to these reports, and many YouTube videos that he had uploaded were deleted due to their content …

Ever since 2010, social networks like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have witnessed tremendous online activity of extremist Islamist groups (Salafis), and they had two ways of dealing with atheist pages: either they destroyed and hacked the websites or they organised a “report” operation where members would continually report accounts or videos for abuse and thus automatically let the social network block the account or content.[xxiii]

Online harassment of Arab atheists and secularists is a regular occurrence but over a two-week period in February 2016 it reached unprecedented levels. Concerted action by Muslim vigilantes succeeded in getting at least nine of the non-believers' Facebook groups – with a combined membership of more than 128,000 – suspended. A further seven Facebook groups with a combined membership of 176,000 also reported coming under attack. The suspended groups included:

  • Arab Atheists Network (Shabaka al-Mulhidin al-Arab): 23,500 members
  • Arab Atheists Forum and Network (Shabaka wa Muntada al-Mulhidin al-Arab): 9,200 members
  • Radical Atheists without Borders (Mulhidun Radikaliyun bi-la Hudud): 23,500 members
  • Arab Atheists Syndicate (Niqaba al-Mulhidin al-Arab): 11,000 members
  • Arab Atheists Syndicate – backup (Niqaba al-Mulhidin al-Arab al-Ihtiyati): 5,000 members
  • Humanitarian Non-Religious (Al-Insaniyya al-Ladiniyya): 32,000 members
  • Human Atheists (Insaniyun Mulhidun): 11,000 members
  • Arab Atheists Forum and Network (Shabaka wa Muntada al-Mulhidin al- Arab): 6,400 members.
  • Mind and Discussion (Al-Aql wal-Hiwar): 6,500 members.

The attackers appeared to be using two basic techniques. One was to bombard Facebook with vexatious complaints, accusing the atheist/secularist groups of hate speech and other breaches of Facebook’s “community standards” – though the affected groups insisted that they did not allow hate speech and had been taking steps to prevent it.

Usama al-Binni of the Arab Atheists Network, one of the groups that was shut down and later restored, explained: “What we are doing is criticising religion in a way that is no different than any other intellectual, sober, criticism. We actually have rules that are far more stringent than Facebook’s as far as personal attacks, cursing and stuff of that sort, are concerned, and so it seems like the whole thing is happening in a ridiculous way.”

A second form of attack was to infiltrate the groups and deliberately post offensive material in order to complain about it to Facebook. Sometimes the attackers made efforts to conceal the offensive material so that complaints could be made to Facebook before the group administrators were likely to spot it. “They post something that looks innocuous – something like pictures of destruction in Syria,” Binni said. “They would post maybe 30 pictures, and the pictures that you would see on the outside would be just regular pictures of destruction. But then if you scroll through the pictures when you get to picture 23 or 24 you would start seeing porn.”

Binni, a Jordanian-born physicist and translator, added that some of the atheist groups had tried to protect themselves by creating backup groups that they could switch to if the main group got shut down, but that was becoming less effective. His own group, he said, had a reserve [backup] group that was kept dormant for several months but when that was also targeted they had to change it from a “closed” group to a “secret” one – which greatly restricted its usefulness.

 “There are also some [individual] pages that have been targeted as well, and now they are trying to get our personal accounts,” Binni continued. “We have been getting death threats and all sorts of weird characters that appear to be hackers or wannabe hackers that keep cursing and saying things privately but so far they haven’t been able to do anything to us or to our accounts.”

In the light of the February 2016 attacks, administrators from the affected atheist/secularist groups began working together to document what was happening and try to persuade Facebook to review its policy for handling complaints about abuse. “We’re not going to let them [the vigilantes] enforce their censorship over us on Facebook,” Binni said. “This is going too far. If this is not terrorism I don’t know what is. For years we’ve been doing this defensively, but now it’s a survival issue.”

Administrators of the atheist/secularist groups named five Muslim Facebook groups as being involved in the attacks, though they suspected there were more. One of them, a closed group with 6,241 members, made no secret of its purpose, using the name “Team for Closing Pages that Offend Islam”. Other groups called themselves “The Islamic Deterrence Organisation” and “The Islamic Army for Targeting Atheists and Crusaders”.

Two closed groups, which appeared to be duplicates (both named “Fariq al-Tahadi”) had enormous numbers of members: 439,876 in one case and 498,898 in the other. “Fariq al-Tahadi” translates as “the team of challenge” or “the team of provocation” and on Facebook it couched itself in military/jihadist terms. Its header image at the time showed a hooded male figure and another in a black balaclava. A note in Arabic describing the group said: “We are here as the army of Muhammad”. It added that the group would target “anyone who tries to sow division or sedition, or tries to undermine our religion and the unity of our homelands”.[xxiv]

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[i]. For more about Islam and the early years of the internet see: Bunt, Gary: Virtually Islamic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000.

[ii]. Noman, Helmi: “Arab Religious Skeptics Online: Anonymity, Autonomy, and Discourse in a Hostile Environment”.  Berkman Center for Internet & Society Research, 2015.

[iii]. Qassemi, Sultan Sooud al-: “Gulf atheism in the age of social media.” Al-Monitor, 3 March 2014. Ben Kerishan’s Land of Sands blog is archived at

[vi]. The translated verse says: “Is it the goal of religion that you should pluck out your beards, O community whose ignorance is a laughing-stock to other nations?” See: Arberry, A J: Poems of Mutanabbi. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967. p116

[ix]. Ateyya, Ahmed: “Egyptian atheists launch web video series”. Al-Monitor, 18 May 2015.

[xii]. “Jordanian poet prepares for jail.” The National, 2 September 2009.

[xiii]. Author’s interview and email exchange with Mohammed al-Khadra, September 2014.

[xiv]. Bauer, William: “Interview with a Saudi atheist.” Your Middle East, 30 April 2013.

[xv]. Jebreili, Kamran: “Arab atheists inch out of shadows despite persecution in Mideast.” Associated Press, 3 August 2013.

[xvi]. Translated and quoted by Helmi Noman in “Arab Religious Skeptics Online: Anonymity, Autonomy, and Discourse in a Hostile Environment”.  Berkman Center for Internet & Society Research, 2015.

[xvii]. Banna, Hassan al-: “Between Yesterday and Today”.

[xviii]. Shaffer, Brenda (ed): The Limits of Culture: Islam and Foreign Policy. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 2006, p 63

[xix]. Sarami, Nasser al-: “Saudi Arabia: A wave of atheism or a misunderstanding.” Al-Arabiya, 23 May 2012.

[xx]. “Ex-Muslim atheists are becoming more outspoken, but tolerance is still rare.” The Economist, 24 November, 2012.

[xxi]. For more details see: Noman,Helmi: “In The Name Of God: Faith-Based Internet Censorship In Majority Muslim Countries”. OpenNet Initiative, 2011.

[xxii]. Noman,Helmi: “In The Name Of God: Faith-Based Internet Censorship In Majority Muslim Countries”. OpenNet Initiative, 2011.

[xxiii]. Alyasery, Mazin and Hussein, Gehad: “Online war on Atheism in the Arab world.” Your Middle East, 29 April 2013.