The ‘A word’ emerging?
Beirut - The words “Arab” and “atheist” rarely appear hand in hand, but they are increasingly in evidence in the Middle East as the very small minority of Arab atheists become more visible. However, their numbers are difficult to measure.
Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor at The Guardian newspaper and author of Arabs Without God, told The Arab Weekly: “The numbers appear to be growing but it’s hard to be sure and impossible to measure.
“Arab atheists are certainly becoming more visible, mainly as a result of social media, which give people an opportunity to express their views.”
But Omar Salha, a teaching fellow from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, challenged the notion that atheism was growing among Arab youth.
Citing a recent study by the Pew Research Center, Salha said: “Over 70% of young people, aged 18-34, in the Palestinian territories, Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt say religion is very important in their lives and over 55% pray several times a day.”
Salha’s comments were backed by Hassan Hammoud, a sociologist at the Lebanese American University. “I don’t think that there is a rise of atheism in Arab society, or at least if there are few cases they do not form a social phenomenon,” he said. “This is partially due to the cohesive nature of the Arab family and the Arab society, which are to a great extent determined by strong patriarchal relationships among its members, strong cohesive bonds, a set of common values and beliefs, which few members could or are allowed to escape.”
It is because of these cultural dynamics that measuring atheism quantitatively in a traditional and religious community can often fail to reflect the reality.
One high-profile case is that of Waleed al-Husseini, a Palestinian living in exile in France and author of a recently published book written in French entitled Blasphemer! The Prisons of God.
Husseini fled his home in the West Bank fearing for his safety after ten months of imprisonment by the Palestinian Authority for alleged blasphemy. Raised as a Sunni Muslim, he questioned those beliefs after discovering what he saw as injustices in the scripture.
When he first questioned Islam, he approached his teachers, and when he was still unsatisfied, he asked clerics in his hometown of Qalqilya. “I received the same responses from both… I was told these questions are ‘haram’ (sinful). They are from Satan. You should go and pray, then you will not have these questions any longer,” Husseini said. While the numbers remain low, many among the region’s atheists are putting forward the argument that atheist sentiments are growing as a result of failing local communities.
“A lot of ex-Muslims say their journey to atheism began when they started asking questions about divine justice. For example, wondering why God would punish people for being non-believers even if they were still basically good people,” Whitaker said.
The decision to come out as an atheist, rarely made on a whim, is made difficult in the Middle East. Not only is there a palpable fear of government reprimand, but more frightening for many young Arabs is the reaction from their families and surrounding communities.
Like many others, Husseini’s godlessness estranged him from his family and community.
“If you want to avoid religion, it’s much more difficult to do that in the Middle East than in many other parts of the world.
A lot of this is because of the social and governmental pressures,” Whitaker said. “Another important factor is that the system makes it very difficult for people to explore alternatives. Whether we’re talking about other religions, other interpretations of Islam or no religion at all.”
While the combination of Islamic fundamentalism, Christian disenfranchisement and rising Judeo- Zionism creates an environment that can lead to war and instability, straying from “the righteous path” is attributed almost exclusively to the society itself.
“When society is built around religion and governments acquire religious credentials to bolster their legitimacy, it’s logical that people who question the social and political systems may eventually also find themselves questioning religion,” Whitaker added.
Gino Raidy, an atheist and civil rights activist who writes Gino’s Blog in his native Lebanon, said he believes that atheism is on the rise in the region.
“Everyone loves stuff like Jon Stewart, The Simpsons and Family Guy,” he said “Bit by bit, it’s normalising something that was once taboo. Plus, the rise of religious extremism has pushed more people away from their faith,” Raidy told The Arab Weekly.
While all struggles for increased personal liberties have tough beginnings, atheists in the region are faced with an even harsher reality. Even the most liberal minds in the Arab world will say that the society is eons away from accepting such beliefs.
Where even the most universally accepted natural rights such as gender equality are struggling to break through in a culture and community so entwined in religious ideology, godlessness will continue to be the “sin” of a select group of disenfranchised.