As far as Arab society is concerned, openly declaring a disbelief in God is a shocking and sometimes dangerous thing to do. It can lead to being ostracised by family, friends and the local community – as well as charges of apostasy which in some countries carry the death penalty.
Arab atheists – or at least those prepared to declare their atheism openly – remain a tiny minority but they are gradually becoming more visible, partly because online media have now given them a voice.
Writing about this in a blog post last week, I invited Arab atheists to send me an email about their journey into disbelief. Many thanks to those who replied. One of them is posted below and I shall be posting more over the next few days or weeks.
More emails are welcome (send them to email@example.com). Please describe how you became an atheist – any particular books, etc, that influenced your decision – and, if you have told people about it, how they reacted. You can remain anonymous if you wish.
'I felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders'
by Saeed Kayyani
My name is Saeed Kayyani and I'm an Arab atheist. More specifically, I'm a gay American/Emirati atheist. I've been debating on whether or not I should come forward with my views and story with the world for a long time now. I'll admit, the thought terrifies me. I'm afraid of losing people that have a special place in my heart. More importantly, I'm afraid of ending up alone and powerless.
However, someone else in the Middle East could be experiencing something worse than me right now. Hell, several already have. Sharing my story with others will put into perspective what really happens in this part of the world (and most likely others as well). This way, some people might actually start to build up hope again. It probably won't be a game-changer, but this is a good place to start.
What I find interesting about people's perceptions about atheism is that it's generally assumed that there's one sole trigger that destroys all belief in God or gods. 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.
For me, the process began as soon as I was born. I wasn't born 100% Arab. My father is from the United Arab Emirates and my mother is from Alabama, USA. I was already classified as "different". While others would be able to adapt to this, I wasn't able to cope. Homosexuality changed the dynamic for me right from the start. I wasn't entirely American, truly Arab, or a "real Man". I don't say this in self-pity. I'm building a reference point.
The first game changer came to me while I was living in Florida with my family. I was only a painfully awkward sixth-grader at the time that was doing his best to be a good Muslim and son. Then 9/11 came. I still remember the day vividly. I was at school when an emergency assembly was called. Me and the other kids were shown a TV with the news on. It was an urgent broadcast covering a horrific terrorist attack in New York that effectively destroyed a national landmark. I was absolutely confused by the barrage of questions that my classmates were asking me afterwards.
"You're not from Afghanistan, right?"
"Do you know Osama BinLaden?"
"Is it true that the Quran says this?"
"Are your family celebrating right now?"
"Does Islam really command you to do this?"
From then on, life in America wasn't the same. Since my mother wears the hijab, she couldn't go a single day without stares. The kind of stares that say "traitor". I lost friends. I had my beliefs mocked in front of me. People started to treat my family less seriously. This feeling of "otherness" was starting to surface from my insides. However, seeing as I was the good Muslim boy, I defended Islam as much as I could.
This is significant because it is the first time that I became aware that religion could even have a different interpretation. I was always under the impression that Islam was a single entity that doesn't change. Unfortunately, my parents weren't much help in clearing things up for me. I was simply told the "We're right and they're wrong," line. Also, I was advised to not really think about this since I was "too young to understand."
In the Arab atheists series ...
A year later, we moved to the United Arab Emirates so that my father could put his newly earned PhD in psychology to good use. I didn't take the move well at all. Believe it or not, I never learned how to read, write, or speak Arabic. Because of this, I never really felt that I was part of the group. The only friends I was able to make were either Filipinos, Indians, or any possibility one could think of when one hears "Westernised Arab".
I guess one could consider this as advantage. Essentially, I was able to observe the group that I supposedly belonged to from a detached position. My judgement wasn't fogged by feelings of loyalty or group-think. But, seeing as how adolescence is notorious for its relationship with sexuality, the "gay problem" was starting to become more obvious.
Since I was doing good at school work and barely had a social life, as unfortunate as it is, not many people questioned why I never had a girlfriend. That is, until I made my first gay friend. As soon as it became obvious that I was friends with him, rumors started spreading.
"Oh my god! Did you hear!? Saeed is f****ng K***!"
"I'll tell ya. I found gay porn on his school laptop once."
"Did you know that he was molested as a kid? That's why he's so weird!"
I was even been approached by a couple of boys saying that I needed God. What's ironic about this is that this point of my life was easily the most religious. Deep feelings of guilt and pain pushed me to try to make peace with God. Around this time, I felt like I was being betrayed. I kept on asking Allah "Why is this happening to me? I don't want to feel like this anymore. Help me become clean!"
My father was no help either. Even today, he's of the persuasion that homosexuality is an illness, showing me "proof" of gay-to-straight conversions. However, with this, not only was Islam fragmented; Allah was too.
I was trying to figure out, through an Islamic perspective, what purpose did Allah have for homosexuality? I didn't buy the "He's only testing you" line. Why would the creator purposely inflict such emotional pain on his creation? Also, why would homosexuality be created and yet condemned by the very same entity?
Even with all of this though, I was still faithful. Faithful, yet a complete wreck. I was extremely lonely, anxiety-ridden, confused, and suicidal. Especially after hearing degrading anti-gay remarks from my own parents several times. My mother still considers gays disgusting with remarks such as "Ewwww!" every time they are mentioned and always makes condescending gestures and remarks (giggles and offensive jokes) to the notion the LGBT population can be considered EQUAL to heterosexuals. My father makes it more painful. When defending my gay friend one day, he made a remark that the very existence of homosexuals "rocks the throne of God". This sense of otherness that I grew up with made this experience all the more painful. Yet, I never blamed Allah one bit for his judgement.
The tipping point for me was during my first year of university. Because of money issues, I stayed in the UAE for my undergraduate degree. This proved to be useful because, if I had been anywhere else I wouldn't have been able to see peoples' reactions face-to-face. Reaction to what? To me learning about Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses affair for the first time. I was absolutely horrified at the reaction that could happen when criticising Islam or the Prophet, mocking them, questioning them, or even childishly insulting them. How in the world is DEATH warranted in this case!?
Unfortunately, I was shocked to learn that there are definitely people here in the "liberal" UAE willing to defend such atrocious behaviour. While some used the terrible excuse of "culture and tradition should be respected", others gave me Islam as an explanation. Naturally, this explanation referred to apostasy and its consequences.
After learning about apostasy in Islam, I felt a metaphorical light-bulb switch on inside me. I thought to myself, "I think I found the reason why I feel so different than other Arabs and Muslims!" My otherness allowed me to not get too attached to the group and stay away from loyalty issues. It's not positive, but it served a purpose.
Death to those that leave us? Allah really said this? Really? No. It sounded more like humans projecting themselves into the heavens. Tactics like this served a purpose in medieval times. Human purposes. Why would an all-powerful, all-mighty, and all-knowing being demand death for a lowly, pathetic, and powerless little human being that changed his mind about its existence?
I know I'm being overly dramatic about this but not only am I a dramatic person, I was honestly dumb-struck by this epiphany. I felt a weight being lifted off of my shoulders when I was finally able to gather enough courage to say to myself "I don't believe in Islam". Naturally, this was done after much more research on Islam with this new frame of mind. I was able to see things that I was blind to before. However, no other religion really felt genuine after more religious research. The concept of God felt all too human for me. A human with personality traits and quirks that aren't very becoming of something that's supposed to be perfect.
Books such as "Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and "Do They Hear You When You Cry?" by Fauziya Kassindja made this all too clear to me. However, I didn't learn to hate Islam. On its own, it's just a flawed ideology. People are what make it subversive. Also, since not all people are the same, I felt that the downright anti-Islamic/Muslim views that I've had the misfortune of coming across were unwarranted. People have the right to believe whatever they want. If your belief doesn't intrude on my rights, then I will fight for your right to believe. Honestly, I feel I would be a hypocrite if I didn't do that.
However, things didn't end there. Even though I was hiding the fact that I'm now an atheist, I still managed to rapidly gain a reputation for being "controversial" in my university. After getting into heated arguments about the more "sensitive" aspects of Islam, I decided to slowly let people know that I'm an atheist to see what happens. I have had mixed reactions. Some people were very supportive and became much more close to me afterwards; others decided it was appropriate to start screaming obscenities at me. Since I was fairly well liked by the university, I was simply given a "shut up and stay low" warning after the screaming incident.
Unfortunately though, my mother was put in the know about my reputation. After a couple of crying sessions, she started to stage interventions. I would call her efforts well intended if it weren't for the fact that she was actively trying to compare atheism to ax murder. Comical, yes. That didn't make it sting less though. I've had mullahs try to talk me out of my frame of mind several times so far. Thankfully, though, I've managed to talk my way around atheism every time. No progress was made with these interventions. Also, my father tried to stage an intervention at one point when I profusely objected to my little sister being forced to wear a hijab. It doesn't take much to conclude that I might be overstepping my boundaries and plodding dangerous territory. To make it simple, my extended family would have no qualms of reporting me to authorities in the UAE.
I feel more empowered than before, but I'd be lying if I said that it's not scary. The gay/atheist combination makes it particularly sensitive for me. Also, the future seems very uncertain. It feels like a ticking time-bomb to me as I'm already having family ask me when I'm going to marry a nice MUSLIM GIRL. All I know is that I'm going to have to grow very thick-skin and educate myself on how to stay safe so that I can be who I am AND have a proper life.
Feel free to use my real name. I'd prefer it in fact.
Posted Sunday, 11 August 2013