On social media and the web, hundreds of Arabic forums are promoting atheism to an ever increasing number of followers.
A recent study conducted by WIN/Gallup International suggested 5 percent of Saudis surveyed were atheists. In January 2016, Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, the top Muslim religious authority in the land, said there were 866 atheists in Egypt, prompting derision at the time, not only because it is impossible to survey people based on ideas in their heads, but also because the numbers are substantially higher in Egypt.
There have been recent reports of a growing atheism trend among young Arabs in reaction to the growth of religious fundamentalism at the expense of rational thinking. Ultimately, however, atheism is an epistemological and philosophical choice first and foremost.
Blog posts, hot waters
When Qasem al-Ghazali, a young Moroccan blogger wrote about some of his ideas and beliefs, including professing his atheism, he was quickly subjected to bullying and harassment.
He was soon expelled from the school where he taught in Morocco, after a colleague led a campaign to have him sacked. He was also kicked out of his family’s home, and Ghazali soon became a persona non grata in the Kingdom.
“I left Morocco in 2011 after being harassed and after receiving death threats. I was expelled from the school because of my blog and the themes I wrote about,” he told Raseef22.
“Everyone knows the state of the freedom of thought and expression in our societies,” he added. “If activists can be harassed for expressing dissenting views, we can only imagine what kind of dangers those who reject religious beliefs could face.”
From memorizing the Koran to renouncing God
Amin Bukhliq, another young Moroccan, faced a similar fate when he started expressing his atheistic views. “I grew up in a semi-conservative family. My father was a former communist activist,” he told R22 in an interview in France, where he currently lives.
“I was forced to attend Koran seminaries when I was a child before school. My grandmother made me go to the mosque for the first time; I had grown up in her house before I moved to my father’s home,” he added.
Amin managed to memorize four parts of the Koran, and continued to be a practicing Muslim until early 2010. In that year, he started high school and became acquainted with philosophy and the “bold questions some of the leading philosophers had raised.”
Amin was greatly impressed by Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead”. He was also interested in Descartes’s call for questioning everything. “I was convinced of their ideas and decided to dig deeper below the surface of religion and theology, and the closest religion to me was Islam.”
Arab atheists are often subjected to bullying and harrassment
Amin embarked on a journey that got him to study the most important works of Koranic exegesis, such as those of al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir, as well as various books on Islamic jurisprudence and Hadith.
“As my studies of the Koran became more advanced, I started questioning its divine origins,” he told Raseef22, citing the example of the curses against Abu Lahab, an enemy of Muhammad, contained in the Koran in Surat al-Massad. “No God can curse a human like humans would each other, there are other examples that when I understood well I had to dismiss for their clash with logic and science,” he said.
Amin did not stop there. He decided to engage with his friends, and urge them to follow in his footsteps. “Many started to avoid talking to me, fearing for their beliefs, so I started using Facebook,” he said. "I was surprised to find many similar-minded people, who shared their ideas on God, the Prophet, and Islam.”
Qassim al-Ghazali was one of those. Amin was a follower of his blog, where he met other atheists. They tried to discuss what can be done to make their voices heard. “We were aware that in Morocco, we are ruled under a diluted version of Sharia, with primitive laws limiting personal freedoms.”
The congress of former Muslims
After we met, Amin said, “we decided to establish a congress for former Muslims in Morocco, to lobby for a secular state and rights for minorities in Morocco.”
Since then, members of the group have appeared on talk shows on international television outlets. But they were also harassed on the streets whenever they were recognized, “by ordinary people who think they are fighting vice by hitting us and calling us deviants and devil worshipers,” Amin says.
In the end, Amin decided it was impossible to coexist with this much ignorance and intolerance, as he puts it. He applied for a student visa in 2014 and traveled to France.
Athir al-Ani, an Iraqi blogger, has a different story. When he left Iraq, he was still a Muslim but had a few questions about his faith. He remained in this state for a whole year in Germany.
“I had had doubts (about religion) since I was 13, but I could not put my finger on the problem; was (the flaw) in religion, exegesis, clerics, Muhammad or in God himself?” he told Raseef22.
After years of doubt, Athir tried to re-interpret Islam. However, “I was shocked that the Koran itself was problematic and that I would be considered an apostate by the standards of orthodox Islam if I believed in any real reformation,” Athir explained.
The Iraqi youth found out through his discussions that even denying the authenticity of established sayings of the Prophet would make him a heretic in the eyes of most clerics. A year after he arrived in Germany, he discovered a major Arab atheists website (Al-Ladiniyeen al-Arab). “I became addicted to reading it for months, and found answers to many of my questions,” he said.
Many think if Athir had not left Iraq, he could have very well have ended up dead.
Pursued by harassment
Although they had left their home countries, many Arab atheists live in fear. Immigration is not always a good idea, Qassem al-Ghazali said, “especially with the growth of Salafist groups in Europe.”
Ghazali believes these groups have taken advantage of European freedoms and laws that give them the right to organize, and blames the “naivety” of liberals and leftists who do not dare criticize Islamists fearing to cause offense.
“We have extremist Islamists active in the West, so despite fleeing extremism, atheists can still find themselves threatened by the same ideologies abroad.”
Groupthink hinders free thought
Athir al-Ani says he does not believe atheist-focused groups are a good idea. “Free thought requires individualism, and every group framework undermines the freedom of thought even if it were an atheistic one,” he told Raseef22.
Qassem al-Ghazali agrees. “Atheists should not be grouped together in any framework. They are already fleeing groupthink and narrow affiliations.”
However, a counter-argument may be that some organizations that advocate for freedom of thought and the rights of atheists have had success. Many were able to reach the UN Human Rights Council to defend people like Mauritanian writer Mohamed Ould Cheikh and bloggers from Egypt and Saudi Arabia who were jailed for apostasy or for insulting religion.