Arab atheism

An advisor to Egypt's Grand Mufti caused a good deal of amusement this week by announcing, apparently in all seriousness, that there are 866 atheists in Egypt (out of a population of around 90 million).

This extremely precise information is said to have come from international research by an "independent polling and survey group" called Red C.

The same research is also said to have established that there are 320 atheists in Tunisia, 242 in Iraq, 178 in Saudi Arabia, 170 in Jordan, 70 in Sudan, 56 in Syria, 34 in Libya, and 32 in Yemen.

How they arrived at these results is a mystery, but accurate figures would require an ability to read people's minds because, as one Egyptian atheist told Mada Masr, many Arab atheists would not disclose their non-belief: "It's a matter of ensuring one's physical and psychological security."

One possible clue is that the figure for Jordan (170) roughly corresponds to the membership of a Jordanian atheist group on Facebook. So it's possible that the researchers were simply trying to identify atheists from various countries who are active in social media.

In 2012 a poll by WIN/Gallup International came up with much higher figures for several Arab countries. Five per cent of those interviewed in Saudi Arabia, 4% in the Palestinian territories and 2% in Lebanon were willing to admit to being a "convinced atheist". It that is at all accurate, the number of atheists in Saudi Arabia would not be 178 but more than one million.

Whatever the real numbers, the advisor to Egypt's Grand Mufti sees them as "a dangerous development" which "should ring alarm bells" across Egypt. The Sisi regime, meanwhile, is eager to blame the rise of atheism on the Muslim Brotherhood's performance under the one-year rule of President Morsi. In June, it said it was working on "a national plan to confront the phenomenon of atheism" and "eliminate" it. 

There is still much confusion in the Arab countries over what actually constitutes atheism. This is partly a linguistic problem because the Arabic word normally used for "atheist" (mulhid) also has broader connotations of deviant belief. Thus the Egyptian Dar al-Ifta – the official state body responsible for religious edicts – divides "atheists" into three groups:

  • Those who do not object to Islam as a religion but reject the Islamisation of politics and call for a secular state

  • Those who object to religion completely

  • Those who convert to religions other than Islam

In other words, in the eyes of Dar al-Ifta, secular Muslims and converts to Christianity count as atheists, along with people who don't believe in God. Presumably members of the Baha'i faith should also be included in that, since it is not considered to be a "heavenly" religion. Egypt's Baha'is, who probably number no more than 3,000, are the latest threat to "national security and stability", according to the Ministry of Endowments. 

In reality, the biggest threat to national security and stability comes from these official attempts to politicise atheism and religious nonconformity, and to treat them as a problem. It's also interesting how the Egyptian regime, along with those in other Arab countries, likes to imagine that its own policies play no part in driving people to atheism.

Dar al-Ifta, for instance, cites three factors behind the apparent increase in 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. 

This conveniently places all the "blame" for atheism on jihadists, takfiris, extremists, unqualified clerics, etc, and none on the political and religious establishment.

Thomas Friedman propagates a similar line in a recent column for the New York Times headed "How ISIS drives Muslims from Islam" – though he does go on to say a "significant group" of Muslims "feel that their government-backed preachers and religious hierarchies have handed them a brand of Islam that does not speak to them".

Earlier this year, while researching my book, Arabs Without God, I spent a lot of time trying to find out why some Arabs turn to atheism and none of those I spoke to mentioned terrorism or jihadism as a major factor. That's not particularly surprising, because atheism is a rejection of all forms of religion, not just the more outlandish variants of it.

Those who abandoned Islam did so because they rejected basic tenets of the faith, mainly as taught to them in schools and by government-approved clerics.

Most of them started on the road to atheism because of what they saw as irrationalities in conventional religious teaching, such as the idea of eternal punishment for non-believers, even if they are basically good people. Some even tried to discuss their doubts with religious scholars, only to be told that they shouldn't be asking such questions. This prompted further exploration in private – which tended to increase their doubts.There is also some evidence, at least in Egypt, that the popular uprisings against dictatorship have contributed to a growth in non-belief. Most Arab regimes use religious credentials as part of their claim to legitimacy, adopting (or even inventing) a version of Islam that suits their political needs. Because politics and religion in the Middle East are so closely entwined it's only to be expected that questioning the political system will lead some people to question religion too.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 12 December 2014