Coming out as an atheist in America can be a little tricky depending on where you are. Here in the Pacific Northwest (specifically, west of the Cascades), it’s almost as obligatory as buying organic and going to Voodoo Doughnuts. Rejecting religion elsewhere, like in the Bible Belt, might prove a little more hazardous, especially if you don’t want to be branded a pariah and face social or occupational ostracism. Still, you’re protected by the law and at the very least you don’t have to live in fear of being put to death for your troubles.
In the Middle East, on the other hand, it’s a different story. Open atheists can face abandonment from friends and family, while becoming targets for the more hard-lined religious groups and even members of the police and government themselves. Yet even in the face of these dangers, there’s a growing number of people in the Arab world who are openly identify as atheist during the last 10 years … even if it’s limited to the relative safety of the Internet.
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.
Young people might be inspired to “ride the wave”, assuming that the political and social changes going on around them are enough to make it easier to come out, but doing so in that part of the world is still a dangerous proposition. Being an atheist in most Arab countries isn’t illegal, but there’s plenty of laws that punish what they call “insulting” or “mocking” Islam.
Last year, Egyptian Alber Saber, a Christian who identifies as an atheist, was arrested after neighbors complained he had posted an anti-Islam film on his Facebook page. Though he denied it, he was sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy and contempt of religion.
Similarly, a Palestinian atheist, Waleed al-Husseini, was arrested in 2010 in the West Bank town of Qalqilya for allegedly mocking Islam on the Internet.
In other words, you’re not arrested and imprisoned for your atheism, only for everything you do and say as an expression of the position. That’s nice. While we’re on the topic, I’m giving away free shoes, but the laces are $100.
The article then discusses the effect of the Arab Spring and the public’s growing negative opinion of fundamentalist Islamists that have grown to power after the revolution (in places like Libya and Egypt, I assume). Given the extremely close relationship between religion and rule of law to varying degrees in the Arab world, it’s little surprise to see people questioning their spiritual beliefs as the political landscape changes around them.
It’s also mentioned that even in areas where the majority is socially and religiously conservative, non-observant Muslims are generally tolerated. You don’t have to pray, make a pilgrimage to Mecca, or fast during Ramadan. You can even hold secular views. But
God Allah help you if you go that one final step and renounce Islam altogether. In light of this relative flexibility within the confines of the religion itself, I wonder why people are making the bold – and, again, dangerous – move to come out as non-believers altogether. Personally, I think there is far less risk and almost as much payoff by identifying as a secular Muslim with the knowledge that an ever increasing percentage of people are moving in that direction. Maybe in 20-25 years, when the young generation are parents to the new Arab youth, the environment might be tolerant enough to take the step towards outright apostasy … but not now.
That’s just my opinion, anyway. It’s what I would do if I were there. Maybe it makes me a coward, but I just see it as the only practical thing to do in the context of both politics and of my own self-preservation. There’s no point in putting my life on the line to help birth a movement in a society that so clearly isn’t ready for it that it’s still imprisoning people for insulting their religion. Still, I have to applaud them for having the courage to reach out and find one another. Even in the heart of religious fundamentalism, the growth of non-belief and rationality is finding a way to thrive.