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.
6 Responses to “On Being an Atheist in the Land of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad”
  1. FEM4Ever says:

    While I firmly believe in equal rights for all, with no regards to gender, religion or color, I would like to point out an issue pertaining to the Middle Eastern understanding of democracy. To a typical Middle Eastern, the ultimate evil is Atheism. And most of the Arab Atheists, as you pointed out above, do it out of revolting against norms and traditions. They adopt this belief so that they can be more 'liberal'. This is the danger of the whole situation, you then have the lay people equating 'liberalism', 'secularism' with Atheism. So they walk away from all things liberal towards the people claiming that they have the word of God: the fundamentalists. People who are tired of governments' oppression seek a way out, a solution. Focusing on the Atheist groups rights' , at least now, just gives more ammo to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood proving that if 'liberals' have their way, everybody would mutate into an infidel 'kuffar' population. People are just not ready for such a drastic leap.

  2. Paola says:

    Thank you for your comment. I just would like to say that indeed people might not be ready for accepting atheism in societies (and even, it depends on the country), but starting to talk about it is the entry point to a change in mentalities. This where advocacy is an important weapon: the more you talk about something, the more it exists and people's minds shift.

  3. FEM4Ever says:

    Paola,I agree. I was just basically venting off on one of the things that bother me the most: the whole 'secular + liberal = Atheist' thing. I think that while bringing the issue of Atheism to the spotlight, educating the masses about how these terms: what they mean, and their implications is important. Cultured people are more likely to be tolerant of 'the other'.

  4. Joseph says:

    Thank you very much for comments which are very interesting.I totally agree with your first point about the whole thing equating atheism to liberalism and secularism, it is a common attack from certain conservative groups towards progressive trends. These few conservatives groups, lacking any other proper arguments, use of these attacks to weaken their opponent. On the other side, the whole secularists + liberalism = atheism is not true as you know. It is a simplification in order to scare people. Secularists especially have been accused of atheism, while it was not the truth at all, they usually were believers, but wish for a Secular State and civic laws. A very famous secularist, progressist and believer was George Habash for example. You pointed out that people tired of governments oppression walk away towards fundamentalists, which is right, but why? Because no other forms of social or political group, hostile to the government, is allowed to gather without any security apparatus interventions. Therefore the only place to gather freely and seek refuge become the mosque or the church, and able them to gain important support.By the way we do not focus on atheist group per se, but we consider intolerance towards any community or group. We only wanted to write an article on a subject usually put aside. Intolerance in our opinion usually comes from socio economic reasons and lack of quality and content in education, especially of citizenship education, which as I said is still not a priority for Arab or Middle Eastern corrupt and unelected governments. The concept of citizenship allows everyone to live and believe in whatever they want, with borders of course. As you said education is a key element towards the acceptation of others and we Café Thawra have underlined many time the importance of education. If we enforce the concept of citizenship since the beginning of education, people will turn away of expression such as Kuffar, which will become useless. The notion of Citizenship promotes the idea of equality and respect between people and tears down intolerance. Atheists, as well as any other groups discriminated or not, would benefit from the concept of citizenship. I hope I was clear and answered to your feedbacks, thank you very much again for your comments, and continue to send us your reactions. It helps us a lot.

  5. FEM4Ever says:

    Joseph: thank you for the enlightening discussion! Yes, a focus on Citizenship, and educating people about it, will make a world of a difference. What's interesting is that I was asking a simple lady that cleans houses for a living if she's ever heard of the concept of citizenship 'moatna'; she said :'may god have mercy on our souls, it is one of these devilish new words that westerners made up to have us all turn away from God'!! It will sure be a tough task , but it's doable with much advocacy efforts.

  6. Marwan says:

    That was awesome!

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