On Being an Atheist in the Land of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad
To be an atheist or an agnostic in the Middle East is an issue seldom analyzed or even talked about. We can consider it as a taboo in the region, in which religious identities are still a way to define individuals or groups and where religion plays an important role in your every day life from marriage to inheritance laws.
Therefore, how is it like to be and to live as an atheist in this context? Can we find sources of atheism in the region’s past?
Let us start by trying to define the terms atheist: it is someone who denies the existence of God, in other words a non believer or an unbeliever and agnostic: one who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a God, one who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess true atheism.
People usually think that atheism and agnosticism are new philosophies or at least that no one in the past questioned religious dogmas, especially in the Middle East. However, against all odds, a few personalities did question loudly the infallibility of religion such as the Persian poet Omar Khayyam who wrote in the XIIth century “Deaf to religion, this is my credo” (Sourd à la religion, tel est mon credo) and who also praised wine in his books. Al Maari, a Syrian poet of the XIth century, poetically chanted “the reason is the only Imam”( Il n’est d’imam que la raison ) . I couldn’t resist the urge to share with you another poem from Al Maari:
“Faith, Heresy, Gossip and Rumor
The Koran dictated, Torah and Gospel,
These are a jumble of lying writings
which people, century after century, believe
will there be a generation
to one day follow the path of reason”
On a more recent basis, the Syrian philosopher Sadik Jalal al Azm (who proudly declares until today that he’s the only atheist intellectual in the Arab world or at least to say it out loud), was imprisoned in Beirut in 1969 for 10 days because of the publication of his books “Critique of Religious Thought”. The emeritus professor Al Azm of Modern European Philosophy at the University of Damascus always refused to leave Syria and become an intellectual in exile, despite threats and attacks from conservative groups. He is still very active on TV Shows and debates all over the Middle East, where his analysis is questioned on many issues.
On a societal scale, atheists are usually very discreet about their “non religious” faith, afraid to feel marginalized, provoke a scandal during a discussion or even suffer from violent exactions. In certain countries such as Saudi Arabia, it is even forbidden to declare oneself atheists. Most of the atheists complain about the difficulty to express openly their feelings in society: indeed, while in the family set up parents may accept this situation, it is so as long as the rest of the family is not aware of it. For example, here are a few comments found on blogs regarding atheism:
“I can discuss the existence of God with my father who can understand my arguments, But to seek an answer from conservative people like my aunts and my uncles is something fruitless. The very act of talking is a scandal in itself”
Hicham from Egypt
“My name is Yazan…I am an atheist from Jordan. My friends know about my beliefs.. My family are trying to ignore it because they respect my intellect.. (or probably they don’t see a problem… as long as I am still sociable with the extended family)”
“My name is Mehmet. I am from Turkey. I am an atheist. My family is Muslim. My friends too. When I say “I don’t believe in God” Their face is changing. Their talking style is changing to me. I don’t like this”
As in all the modern underground networks, the use of Internet is principally a way for them to express themselves and meet other atheists. Websites, forums and blogs have become indeed a safe haven for them and a way to create new sociability with people who think the same way. They sometimes meet in real life and exchange their opinions, experiences and ideas. Groups have appeared all over Facebook. such as the Arab Atheist and Agnostic Association and Arab Atheist, Agnostic and Non-Religious, as well as blogs such as the Arab Atheist or many other forums such as the Arab atheist network (www.el7ad.com
) which now counts around 11 000 members. Many discussions take place on these forums, notably on how and why they have become atheists. As there is no better explanation than their own, let us read a comment from one of them:
“Why am I liberal? I lived in a Gulf country where I was touched by the Salafist discourse, which gives more importance to the group at the expense of the individual. Back in Egypt, I met people from various backgrounds, different from each other, atheists, Baha’i, etc… This new situation and opening towards these people forced me to reconsider my choice. I finally opted for the liberal trend, namely atheism which gives more importance to the individual”
Ahmed Montasser, from Egypt
Another atheist, Youssef from Egypt, explains that although he was originally a Christian, this did not stop him from making a deep reading of the Torah and the Koran. However, two other books enlightened him: Al Nabi (the Prophet) of Khalil Gibran and the relativity theory of Einstein. Science and interest are since then essential references that shape his beliefs and anything that does not meet these criteria is unlikely according to him . In an interview conducted by an Arab journalist on an atheist from the United Arab Emirates, this latter answered this to the following question “when did you become an atheist?’”:
“After I took history and theology courses in university, I opened my eyes to the way that religion is a product of man, simply a form of control. To make a very long story short… few people came up with it, took advantage of the people they brainwashed, misled them into numerous wars for a reason that I consider very unworthy: God. In reality these were territorial and political disputes disguised as religious ones. I’m a big fan of science. No evidence, no argument.”
According to a sociologist, we have to differentiate between two types of atheists. The first category is Apostate, because they are unable to bring scientific or philosophical evidence that show the existence of God. Most of these people have a wide culture, adopt scientific methods, and follow a philosophy and its principles.
The second category, which seems most common in the Arab world, chose atheism for social, emotional or personal reasons. These are often people from conservative families and found that atheism is an opportunity to revolt against religious obligations and social constraints .
Few activists have appeared and taken more and more importance on the web, the most famous of them being the Egyptian Kareem Amer with his blog kareem903, who is still being held in prison since 2006, under the accusation of insulting Islam and the President. This former law student at the Al-Azhar University, who used to publish his articles on his blog, was critical about Islam and Egypt’s highest religious authorities, and was also very active in the defense of woman rights. Atheists are usually secularists’ partners in their struggle for a Secular State and civic law. Many other activists are also present on the web:
- Yasser George: His blog exists in an English version I Am A Proud Atheist
and in an Arabic version مجرد إنسان. His facebook group
now registers around 4000 members. He was born, raised and lived hi whole life in Al Madina, Saudi Arabia.
- Benkrishan: Writer of “The land of sand
“, a blog from the United Arab Emirates, that has beem censored it because of its atheism . He notably posted many cartoons ridiculing religion and religious authorities.
- Chihab el-Dimeshki: A Syrian lawyer, he is certainly the most important activist with his website ladeeni.net
(without religion). He launched it over ten years ago, writing stories, working on a book about Muhammad, researching on fundamentalist movements in his country. Many forums and debates have taken place on his websites.
Only religion posted here: critical thinking.
These personalities challenge the official taboo in writing and debating about the existence of God and the utility of religions in society. They invite everyone, theists and atheists, to discuss about faith and other related subjects openly and without any fear. Although we unfortunately do find some intolerant passages against various religions, it is very interesting to follow the arguments of each participant defending their own opinions.
The main message of these forums is the possibility for everyone to express himself and respect each one’s opinion.
Which sadly seems to be a rare occurrence in the Middle East.
Atheists in the Middle East are indeed a more or less a hidden community, afraid of the reaction they might trigger, whose only request is to live peacefully and express themselves freely without needing to constantly justify their atheism. They are regular people, just like the rest of the population, believers or non-believers, present in all society layers and they should not suffer any kind of discrimination for their belief, or rather, for the absence of said beliefs.
This should be a part of the education towards citizenship, which calls for equality between individuals independently from their political, religious, sexual orientation.
This concept is unfortunately still absent from countries of the region, sadly still characterized by weak democratic credentials. But let us not despair about the state of our region: believers of hope we shall remain.