Iraq’s growing community of atheists no longer peripheral

Iraqis are asking questions that challenge the assumed, self-granted legitimacy that emboldens those in power to claim a monopoly on religion.
Saturday 20/07/2019
Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration demanding better public services and jobs in Basra, last March. (AP)
Mounting grievances. Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration demanding better public services and jobs in Basra, last March. (AP)

Atheists in Iraq are a growing minority no longer on the political sidelines and increasingly under the state’s radar. As their numbers grow, a critical debate is flourishing: Who might they be? What do they represent? Out of what conditions did they hatch?

The growing prevalence of atheism is not entirely disconnected from the political misdeeds of political and religious figures, warned Iraqi thinker Izzat Shahbandar.

The ruling political class, carefully propped up by religious institutions, regularly occupies television slots to downplay the uptick. The increasing prevalence of atheism and agnosticism signals a tidal public opinion change.

Defences rolled out by religious parties and government advocates, have done little to restore public faith in a class that “increasingly represents the corruption of morals, irreligion and the politicisation of religious life,” said an atheist from southern Iraq, who did not wish to be identified.

Ammar al-Hakim, head of the National Wisdom Movement, was among the first to speak out against the phenomenon in 2017, threatening to strike atheism “with an iron fist” and quash it through “rational thought.”

Iraqi writer Alaa al-Khatib noted that the office of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was equally perturbed.

A damning report by CNBC in April said that “unbelievers,” irrespective of their religious denomination, are “forced underground.”

Mohammad Jamil al-Mayahi, a member of parliament for Al-Muwatin coalition, told Al Ghad television: “Yes, there are several cases [of atheism] that have not but might grow into a wider trend… There is no place for these ‘foreign’ ideas in Iraqi society.

“It would be irrational to claim that it’s a reaction to Islamic rule…  We’re an Islamic society, not an Islamic state.”

The Iraqi street has made its position clear as popular slogans during mass protests attacked the ruling class over official abuse of religious and political authority.

The population is seething with religious entities and armed groups — claiming divinity — for having superimposed themselves onto political life.

“They overuse and misuse God’s name, police human bodies, prohibit extramarital sex and police the bodies of women,” said Fadhil, 30-year-old from Basra.

The “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” listed Iraq as one of six countries as having the lowest rate of atheism in 2013. After six years, the situation is fast changing as the tide of religiosity recedes.

Religious figures have come to represent all that’s inherently wrong in Iraqi politics and its wider society, Iraqi writer Gaith al-Tamimi said. Old and young, Tamimi said, seek to escape the imposition of dangerous religious dogmas in pursuit of their own freedom. “The philosophical debate has long been active but Iraqis are questioning the role religion serves today,” he said.

Tamimi identifies three key drivers: The extravaganza of violence perpetrated by the likes of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State; religious dogma that pits various groups against each other; and banal religious slogans and the failure of religious institutions to act against corruption.

Since 2003, the political order banished secular and democratic spaces, including those of civil society, while militias carried out assassination campaigns against “non-believers” coded as “deviants” as far as their religious philosophy teaches.

The phenomenon is global as internet access exposes people to materials that pierce the veil of legitimacy that religious institutions hide behind. In 2013, a Gallup Poll stated that 13%, of the global population identified as atheist.

In Iraq, however, vocalising belief in atheism or disbelief in Islam can be a death sentence. An increasing number of female testimonies are appearing online as women brave censorship on the topic.

Iraqi biologist Worood Zuhair, 31, from Karbala, was beaten by her brothers for having expressed doubts about her faith, Deutsche Welle reported. Zuhair was placed under police protection and, while her wounds have healed, the trauma remains virulent.

“The sense of betrayal that prevails,” said Tamimi, has suppressed the nation’s appetite for religion, a nation where religion is weaponised to gag, restrict, maim and inhibit the wider population.

Disillusionment is an expected and inevitable outcome. Godless Iraqis who have fled the country have spoken freely but those inside are subjected to violence or death at the hands of militias.

Bookkeeper Ihsan Mousa was arrested during a police raid on his library in late 2018. An official statement by the Directorate of Intelligence stated that the charge facing Mousa “is the attempt to promote and spread atheism.”

The community in the southern province of Nasriiya, where the incident took place, rallied behind Mousa. Iraqi writer Ahmad al-Saadawi criticised the arrest and the evolving saga “as trivial and stupid,” adding that “authorities are trying to build legitimacy under the imposition of a culture of prevention and control.”

Iraq’s climate of censorship, as the case of Mousa underscores, explains the existence of a sprawling, freethinking, online network of atheists. Whether online or on the ground, atheists do not seek to mirror the ignorance of Iraqi rulers by spreading hate.

Corruption and lack of civic rights or protection have bred an air of discontent or anger that security forces cannot sweep away.

Iraqis are asking questions that challenge the assumed, self-granted legitimacy that emboldens those in power to claim a monopoly on religion. State-initiated attacks on atheists are increasing but there is not a single piece of legislation that criminalises atheism or agnosticism.

Iraq’s constitution safeguards religious freedom and expression. “Just words on paper as far as I see” Abdulwaheed from Basra said when asked about constitutional protections. He described conversion as “a political reaction as the reality of life turns from bad to worse.”

The mobilising force behind the godless movement is not simply disdain for religion but a legitimate response to the corruptibility of politics and politicisation in Islam.

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