Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Atheism in the Arab World

An interesting article in the venerable New Republic magazine, which I missed when it first came out earlier this year, looks at the extent of, and the reasons for, the rise in atheism in the Arab World.
It begins, a little tongue in cheek, with "official" numbers of atheists in various Arab countries, according to Cairo-based Dar Al Ifta, which identifies, with exemplary accuracy, 866 in Egypt, 325 in Morocco, 320 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 (a total of precisely 2,293 nonbelievers in a population of about 300 million). These may or may not be based on members of various Facebook atheist groups, and obviously should not be taken too seriously.
The Western stereotype of Arabs and the Muslim world makes it difficult to even conceive of an atheist Arab. While not everyone assumes that all Muslims are terrorists - yes, there are those that do - the common assumption is that Arabs are just sheep-like followers of the official line.
But, interestingly, a 2012 WIN/Gallup International poll found that Saudi Arabia, one of the most hard-line religious countries in the region, harboured well over a million people (5% of the population) who self-identify as "convinced atheists", and almost six million (19%) who self-identify as "not a religious person". In the Arab word as a whole, those who express some measure of religious doubt is estimated at 22%, which is actually higher than in South Asia (17%) and Latin America (16%). In some less theocratic Arabic countries like Lebanon, this reaches 37%.
Bear in mind that Saudi Arabia is a strictly theocratic country which, along with the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Yemen and others, upholds the sharia rule punishing apostasy of any kind with death, and regularly dispenses public floggings for the slightest misdemeanour. Saudi Arabia goes as far as characterizing atheism, and questioning the Islamic faith, as terrorist acts. In Bangladesh and elsewhere, there has been a spate of murders of high-profile atheists in recent months. Even Arab countries which have no apostasy laws, like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Oman, have strict methods of deterring religious disbelief, including substantial jail sentences, corporal punishment, enforced conversion, and even annulment of marriages.
Having said that, in practice, except in relatively small ultra­religious circles, secular lifestyles and attitudes are largely tolerated in the Arab world, in the same way as technically verboten drinking of alcohol, sex outside of marriage, and praying five times a day at fixed times are often overlooked. As the New Republic article points out, it seems it is the appearance of religiosity that is important, not the fact of it, and even outright atheism is tacitly tolerated so long as it is not claimed out loud and thrust in the face of the authorities.
Most Westerners would probably assume that the apparent rise in irreligion in the Muslim world is due to disgust with the horrors committed in the name of Islam by groups like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, but not so. Like anywhere else, the road to atheism typically begins with personal doubts and with questioning the inconsistencies and illogicalities in the Ko'ran. But in the Arab world, personally-experienced oppression and persecution in the name of Islamic beliefs is also a major factor, including experiences of the abuse of power and the physical abuse of women in particular.
I actually discovered this article through a HuffPost article about the burgeoning #ExMuslimBecause hashtag. The campaign, started recently by the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, encourages lapsed Muslims to come out on social media and explain why they left Islam. Unexpectedly, it has become hugely popular (it was the UKs top trending hashtag for a while), both among disaffected residents of Muslim-majority countries writing under pseudonyms, and among the ex-Muslim diaspora. Various different viewpoints are expressed in the tweets, many of them quite poignant and powerful. Here is a sample:
  • I was told I was a Muslim. But then I learned that religion is not a gene and being born to believers doesn't make you one (@SamSedaei)
  • i know being a woman doesn't make me lesser. I shouldn't have to worship *behind* men, or be segregated from them. (@NiceMangos)
  • No REAL God should need protection from bloggers & no REAL prophet should need protection from cartoons. (@aliamjadrizvi)
  • I'm a woman who believes in . (@SecularlyYours )
  • I'm gay and proud to be the first public figure to come out and campaign for LGBTI Rights in Afghanistan. (@nematsadat )
  • my being unveiled is NOT the cause of earthquakes or other calamities (@MaryamNamazie)
  • I couldn't handle hearing my own family say that Shi'as, my neighbours and best friends, are kuffar. (@riyamnm)
  • my own mother told me I should be killed because I didn't believe the same things she did (@YasmienMills)
  • Bacon - what other reason could there possibly be? (@Wraithiest )
  • I'm told Islam gives you freedom of thought and religion but at the same time punishes apostasy by death (@Zxop11)
  • I was indoctrinated as a child and denounced my religion as soon as I was old enough to think for myself. (@90degree_flow)
  • I simply used my brain. (@M37158)
  • I prefer reality over myth and reason over ignorance. (@musaaziz)
  • I'd rather look through a telescope than read a book that says I came out of a man's rib to be lured by a talking snake. (@SecularlyYours)
  • Misogyny, homophobia, stoning ppl to death & killing apostates don't suddenly become "respectable" when put in a holy book. (@LibMuslim)

No comments: