Arab atheists, though few, inch out of the shadows

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Rafat Awad fervently preached Islam at his university, encouraging his fellow students to read the Quran and pray. But throughout, the young Palestinian-born pharmacist had gnawing doubts. The more he tried to resolve them, the more they grew.


Finally he told his parents, both devout Muslims, that he was an atheist. They brought home clerics to talk with him, trying in vain to bring him back to the faith. Finally, they gave up.

"It was the domino effect — you hit the first pin and it keeps on going and going," Said Awad, 23, who grew up in the United Arab Emirates and lives there. "I thought: It doesn't make sense anymore. I became a new person then."

An openly self-described atheist is an extreme rarity in the Arab world, where the Muslim majority is on the whole deeply conservative. It's socially tolerated to not be actively religious, to decide not to pray or carry out other acts of faith, or to have secular attitudes. But to outright declare oneself an atheist can lead to ostracism by family and friends, and if too public can draw retaliation from Islamist hard-liners or even authorities.

Still, this tiny minority has taken small steps out of the shadows. Groups on social media networks began to emerge in the mid-2000s. Now, the Arab Spring that began in early 2011 has given a further push: The heady atmosphere of "revolution" with its ideas of greater freedoms of speech and questioning of long-held taboos has encouraged this opening.

Written By: Diaa Hadid
continue to source article at thejakartapost.com

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  1. A good article, albeit one which dodges the kuranic penalty (death) for apostasy, as well as Awad’s good fortune, in existing outside such jurisdiction. Even the title is, for mine, too suggestive that every subject of the muslim world can simply rely upon free thought, to escape the faith. The truth is evidently darker and more horrific. I hold optimism as intrinsic to wanting to undo history’s crimes, but deliberate obliviousness or ‘rose coloured glasses’ get us no further.

  2. First of all, I have to confess something: I am an atheist. In the second place, I would like to send my congratulations to all of those who guide their lives according to their counciousness and do not accept to be “drived” by any kind of religion and even ideology. At last, I am very happy for not being an Arab atheist…

  3. An interesting aside. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was considered in his time to be a “not religiously observant man,” and after his death a Pakistan court ruled that “Jinnah’s secular Muslim faith made him neither Shia nor Sunni,” which seems pretty much to indicate that he believed little if anything. He was probably an atheist, and setting up Pakistan was driven by a fear of Hindu obscurantist chauvinism, rather than a commitment to Islam.

    Who’d have thought that 66 years down the road, his baby would turn out to be one of the centres of Islamic militancy, with large areas dominated by Jihadist terrorists?

  4. I was recently invited to join an atheist group on Facebook by a Pakistani, and I cheerfully did. From a recent post asking everyone to state country and age, I see the membership is global and ranges from teens to post-retirement oldies. I don’t know to what extent such groups are monitored or can be monitored, but they seem like a wonderful way to spread scepticism. Some of the most vehement posts are from ex-muslims, presumably because the stupidities of all three western religions seem even more blatant in Islam, particularly with regard to the treatment of women. This Pakistani recently posted a quote from the Quran stating that when men go to hell, their wives go to hell too, even if they are innocent. And today there was a hadith saying that most of the people in hell were women (which makes sense: all the naughty single girls and all the bad-guys’ wives.)

    I would encourage people to join those groups to provide encouragement and good arguments.

  5. @Kevin Murrell It is not an interesting but a misleading text. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a great man and not to forget his companions Allam Muhammad Iqbal, Liaqat Ali Khan, Sir Sayed Ahmad Khan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah always talked about Muslims and not about people of subcontinent. How can you dare to say, ” he believed little if anything”.. because of his ideology millions migrated from the one corner of the subcontinent to the other. His ideology was that Muslims and HIndus have different culture, history and future and of course based on religion ( Islam & Hinduism) . He wore pant, coat, tie and hat. Mustafa Kamal ( Ataturk) , the founder of the “modern turky” also wore pant, coat and tie… and the difference betwenn Mr. Jinnah and Ataturk ist not to overlook. …. … .. .. I would suggest, read and listen to some speeches of him to support your poor theory…

    • In reply to #10 by ShbAfzal:

      @Kevin Murrell It is not an interesting but a misleading text. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a great man and not to forget his companions Allam Muhammad Iqbal, Liaqat Ali Khan, Sir Sayed Ahmad Khan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah always talked about Muslims and not about people of subcontinent. How can you dare t…

      Well…I did imperial history in school, and over my life I have read a good deal of stuff about India and Pakistan. But I’m getting older, so I took the trouble to check my facts on Wikipedia before I wrote the post #3.

      I dare to say that he believed little if anything, because the courts and historians say so. I have always been told that he was an atheist, though I doubt that he ever said that. Atheism was very common in those times, among the leaders of Congress.

      I know that he talked about Muslims as a community, and as I said, based on his very pertinent fear of Hindu chauvinism. He was always reluctant to split India, and persisted with his membership of Congress, until he came to the realisation that the Muslim community was effectively being shut out of power. In 1946 he even agreed to join an interim all India government with Congress, which later collapsed

      His cultural preferences are also open to question. He spent a good part of his life in London and rubbed shoulders comfortably there with the great and powerful. Personally he spoke English from preference, wore western clothes, with the exception of his cute hat and drank alcohol.

      He had no intention of forming a religious state in Pakistan: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan … You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

      I don’t know much about his mates, and I never mentioned them in my posting, but as you say in your post, I’m sure that they were all fine fellows.

      Ataturk I know less about, but I do know that he wanted Turkey to be secular and Western, a desire which has not yet been achieved.

      All of this information is available in outline from Wikipedia. I agree that he was a great man, but I always think that splitting is easier than cobbling together. Probably, in the circumstances, he had no other choice.

  6. Power to them all. The risks and penalties stated by the arcticle are maybe even understated, sadly. As far as escaping faith goes, our fellow primates born in muslim countries have it hardest by far. In the struggle to see our species leave religion behind, I can’t help but feel very lucky, inheriting the starting point of being born into relatively mild ‘first-world’ christianity. Even more lucky am I, to have genetically received the mental capacity to realise as much.

    Another thing the article reminded me of, is that we should direct our energies and attentions to where they are most needed. Shouting someone down, for praying, in modern-day England, seems pathetic, when considering the real fight our middle-eastern cousins are engaged in.

    What I often find myself thinking, is that the tendency for new atheists to jump, gloves off, into petty jabs at ‘first world’ anglicans and catholics is to exhibit shoddy priorities. I would never deny the threat posed by low-christian sects e.g. westboro baptists etc, but even so…
    Many incantations of islam take away so many more freedoms, demand so much more, and penalise so horribly and barbarically. We should acknowledge that comfortable, familiar, comedy-laden articles on christian nutters, embody a luxury denied to the muslim world. Are many of us athiests throwing our efforts into vilifying the common cold, whilst leaving ebola to cure itself?
    Even on the best anti-religious forums like this one, and the RDFRS Facebook page, you will see countless times as many pictures or topics against clichéd ‘god’ or ‘jesus’, as you do against mohammed.(Might have seen mohammed once in the last year?) It seems cowardly, or at best, lazy. Should my comment on this article, this time, pass moderation, I’d love to hear opinions.

    • In reply to #15 by Timothy McNamara:

      What I often find myself thinking, is that the tendency for new atheists to jump, gloves off, into petty jabs at ‘first world’ anglicans and catholics is to exhibit shoddy priorities.

      Not at all. It’s the same supernatural nonsense that is the basis for the faith of the urbane monsignore and the beardy mullah. It’s only reasonable that we should take issue with the cultural manifestation of the nonsense which we are familiar with and which is part of our own upbringing and education. The dangers of arguing against Islam is that knowledge of it is all to often gained from the fanatically prejudiced views of Islamophobic organizations.

      • In reply to #16 by aldous:

        Yes, yes. Supernatural belief is Earth’s problem, not religion. The priest at the pub in Ireland is as much a danger to lives, unwhipped backs, intact necks and unstoned ribcages as the mullah in northern Pakistan. And why yes, we are all too stretched already, what are we to know of foreign problems. The priority must be to run our mouths at those within our district, so that our supporting evidence comes from soundwaves emitted by our opponents’ actual vocal chords.

        “Islamaphobia” What a great word. ‘Phobias’ are an irrational fear of something. Fear of the worst example of religion surviving today, and its often-times sickening enforcement is purely logical.

    • In reply to #15 by Timothy McNamara:

      Power to them all. The risks and penalties stated by the arcticle are maybe even understated, sadly. As far as escaping faith goes, our fellow primates born in muslim countries have it hardest by far. In the struggle to see our species leave religion behind, I can’t help but feel very lucky, inherit…

      Timothy, I agree with every word you say.

      Many people on the site seem to revel in crass, sneering and insensitive posts, which do not advance rational thinking, and only dig the opposition further into their beliefs. Good people are sometimes attacked in condescending or arrogant terms. Thoughtful, non-confrontational pieces like yours, often do not cause a ripple or gain a single “like.” It’s sad, we could be doing so much more with our time and energy.

      Meanwhile, while we revel in jibes and cheap shots, untold numbers of people are suffering and dying, as a result their refusal to conform to religion.

      • In reply to #17 by Kevin Murrell:

        It’s quite true that you will find uninformed and crass remarks by atheists on this site but nothing to match the supernatural crackpottery that is at the basis of religious faith. This is a legitimate target of ridicule and irreverence towards religious ideology is the right and necessary attitude.

        However, there is a distinction to be made between ideas and the people who hold them. It is a fundamental principle of secular humanism that people should have freedom of belief and expression. This does not mean that we have to be respectful of beliefs that don’t deserve respect. As has been said, “I respect you too much as a person to respect your ridiculous beliefs.”

        That being said, I don’t find that religious faith is an issue at the level of personal relationships at all. I would no more berate somebody for going to church than for going to the golf course. It’s their hobby, their choice and an indulgent smile, or maybe even a pretence of taking an interest, is a fair response. Or even showing a genuine interest. And if golfers or Christians do useful charitable work, I would applaud them equally.

        On the question of the suffering which is promoted by religion when it sanctifies barbaric practices, that is often not a matter of combatting ideas but of economic development and access to education. For example, child marriage occurs in societies where girls are sold off to ensure their future and relieve the pressure on the family’s meagre resources. Raising families out of poverty and developing a society where educated women are a valuable and valued asset is the way to go and not focussing on religious beliefs.

        • In reply to #18 by aldous:

          In reply to #17 by Kevin Murrell:

          It’s quite true that you will find uninformed and crass remarks by atheists on this site but nothing to match the supernatural crackpottery that is at the basis of religious faith. This is a legitimate target of ridicule and irreverence towards religious ideology i…

          Supernatural crackpottery is of course a legitimate target, but that does not necessarily mean that it is a wise or humane target. The Lusitania was probably a legitimate target.

          • In reply to #19 by Kevin Murrell:

            The Lusitania was probably a legitimate target.

            If you put irreverence towards religious beliefs on a par with an act of war, you stifle freedom of speech on the issue. As I said, there is a distinction between ideas and the people who hold them. A person’s religious ideology may very well have no more relevance to our attitude towards them than any other hobby they might have. When religion is not just a private matter but enters the public sphere and demands rights and privileges, as it does, that’s another matter.

            For example, in the UK, religious institutions receive tax breaks for the specific purpose of preaching poppycock. They also have the privilege, within the state education system, of being funded by taxpayers so that they can control schools for the express purpose of inculcating their preferred religious beliefs. The validity or otherwise of the religious ideology is, therefore, relevant. Granted diplomacy is needed in a political campaign, and an organization, such as the National Secular Society, quite correctly, does not argue in ideological terms but on social, economic and educational grounds. In a forum, such as this one, we are giving our opinions and not trying to persuade the general public or the government, so satire is perfectly in order.

  7. I lived in Turkey from 2007-2012, and I’m glad this article stipulates that the problems are mainly in the ARAB Muslim world. Turkey is 99% Muslim, but I can’t imagine anybody there being beaten for being an atheist.

    I married a Muslim Turk and was openly atheist. Our marriage license listed me as an atheist, at my request. I was out to neighbors, and would even casually slip it into conversation with people I met while walking my dogs in the neighborhood. (An educated part of Istanbul where only a handful of women wore headscarves.)

    I actually got a far more welcoming reception there–no problems at all–than when I mention this in Christianized America. In fact, a good number of the people I talked to admitted that they were “pretty much atheist” too, and that they’d never set foot in a mosque, nor had any interest in religion.

    The Turks, while 99% Muslim, are very tolerant of other religions. I knew quite a few Jewish and Christian Turks (and foreigners) who were married to Muslim Turks, and this is not considered to be an issue in any way. And apparently, atheism is not a problem, either, at least in the part of Istanbul where I lived. I think most Turks would be as shocked and disgusted as Americans to learn about the issues with apostates in the Arab world.

    • In reply to #21 by sharon.yildiz:

      I lived in Turkey from 2007-2012, and I’m glad this article stipulates that the problems are mainly in the ARAB Muslim world. Turkey is 99% Muslim, but I can’t imagine anybody there being beaten for being an atheist.

      Turkey is officially a secular state. The other point your post illustrates is the importance of income level and education.

  8. In reply to #24 by Smill:

    In reply to aldous, post 23. No, but they will beat you for being Kurdish. You are aware of Turkey’s human rights record in this respect? Secular doesn’t mean humane.

    Secular refers to neutrality about religion. As you say, secularism isn’t enough. It has to also be a truly democratic state.

  9. Many Arabs are becoming atheists. The wave of reason has reached the middle east. Arabs used to live in closed societies where they get only little chance to get to know opposing thoughts. Things are different today.

    • In reply to #26 by Oday the ex muslim:

      Many Arabs are becoming atheists. The wave of reason has reached the middle east. Arabs used to live in closed societies where they get only little chance to get to know opposing thoughts. Things are different today.

      Good news about Arabs. Let’s hope the message spreads to the entire Islamic world. And the less developed Christian countries as well. And to those of other faiths, Hindu, Mormon and the rest.

  10. I live in Iraq and I’m an atheist ! I was a devoted muslim before, but through reading in molecular biology as part of my curriculum in medicine and my gnawing doubts most of those principles about creation and universe have changed dramatically in my mind.

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