Brian Whitaker is a journalist and former Middle East editor of the British daily The Guardian. His blog, www.al-bab.com, is one of the best informed on that region. He is author of several books, including Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East (2011) and What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East (2009). The most recent – a must read – is Arabs Without God (2014). Part of his interview was included in an article about the new Arab atheists published in the Portuguese newsmagazine VISÃO. (Read more…)
Atheists (freethinkers or “heretics”), according to your book, have been present throughout Islamic history but, nowadays, this “phenomenon” is being defined as completely unprecedented. When did Arab atheists become more visible and why?
There was a period, starting in the 1970s and lasting for about 40 years, when Arab atheists were largely invisible – mainly due to the growth of religiosity and the rise of Islamist movements.
Recently, Arab atheists have become much more visible as a result of social media. The internet has given them a voice. There are numerous Facebook groups – some public, some private – and others make videos of discussions which they post on YouTube.
[On February 16, as Whitaker’s blog reports, Sherif Gaber, 22, a university student from Ismailia who had been initially arrested during a dramatic raid in October 2013 and afterwards released on bail, was given a one year prison sentence by an Egyptian court, on charges of “contempt of religion relating to activities on campus and atheists statements online”.]
Mainstream Arab media talk more about atheism too, though it is usually presented as a social problem needing government attention, along with drug-taking and homosexuality.
It’s likely, though difficult to prove, that Arab atheists are growing in numbers as well as becoming more visible. Again, the Internet is an important factor because Arabs now have online access to information about atheism that they didn’t have before. In addition to that, atheism among the younger generation seems to be partly a response to the reactionary views of many Muslim clerics, especially in Saudi Arabia.
Another factor is that popular uprisings against dictatorship have emboldened people and made them question things more. Questioning the political system leads some to question religion too – because politics and religion in the Middle East are so closely entwined.
At the same time, of course, there are many who think the solution is to have more religion, not less, and atheist activity on the internet is still tiny compared with the vast amount of religious material posted in Arabic.
There is a perception that, while Westerners (Europeans and Americans) of Muslim origin or new converts to Islam are increasingly attracted to groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, the number of atheists in Arab States is growing. How do you assess this trend?
This is one effect of what I call “the globalisation of ideas”. The development of global communications, including the internet, and international travel mean what ideas and ideologies are less restricted by geography than in the past.
National boundaries don’t obstruct their flow any more, and so they can find adherents in unlikely places. Whether we are talking about jihadists in Europe or atheists in Saudi Arabia, both are results of the same globalisation process.
How do you describe the attitudes of the Arab atheists who dare to speak freely, risking prison, torture, exile and even death, and of those who have opted to hide their convictions?
Publicly declaring yourself to be an atheist is a brave thing to do in most of the Arab countries, though the risk does vary according to local and personal circumstances.
For Arabs in particular, coming out as an atheist is similar to coming out as gay – and the consequences in both cases can be equally bad. Obviously, it’s up to the individual to decide and no one – either atheist or gay – should feel obliged to come out unless they want to. That said, it’s only when substantial numbers do come out that their rights start to be recognised.
Whether Arab atheists end up in jail is often a matter of chance. It depends on who they are, what they say, how they say it, who notices, and who complains.
Most blasphemy trials in the region do not actually involve atheists but people who have said or done something that accidentally caused offence, and some of the cases are brought for political reasons on in pursuit of grudges.
Is atheism exclusive of a younger generation and of the middle class? In which Arab state is atheism finding more followers? And which countries do you find the most ruthless and the more tolerant towards the “unbelievers”?
The activists seem to be mainly in their twenties and comparatively well educated. But there is also an older generation of atheists, probably influenced by Marxist and leftist ideas before they went out of fashion. As far as numbers are concerned, it’s impossible to say.
There has never been a survey covering all the Arab countries and in any case many Arab atheists would probably not admit their atheism to pollsters.
In Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen apostasy is a crime and in theory the death penalty can apply. However, no recent executions for apostasy have been reported in any of them and in Saudi Arabia there have been none for well over twenty years, according to the US State Department.
There is a very interesting argument in your book: that while Western atheists are more engaged in a “science-versus-religion debate”, the Arab atheists tend to focus more on the “apparent unfairness of divine justice”. Can you detail the main reasons of a long and often painful process of abandoning their faith?
[I have just submitted an article to New Humanist magazine which talks about this and you are welcome to quote it. I interviewed a Lebanese woman who had been influenced by Sartre and Camus. That was the result of having a particular teacher who was interested in them. I don’t know if any broader conclusions can be drawn from it.]
Ironically, Arab atheists living in the west sometimes become victims of Islamophobia because people assume from their appearance that they must be Muslims.
The New Atheists speak mainly to a western audience but where the Middle East is concerned their efforts are often unhelpful. I think the best way to improve the lot of atheists in the region is to make a strong case for freedom of thought and belief, on the grounds that this would benefit believers and non-believers equally.
At what extent events like the recent attack against the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo will compel Arab atheists to be more reclusive, in order to better protect themselves?
It’s probably too early to comment on the effects of the Charlie Hebdo affair.
In a region where religion, mainly Islam, permeates every aspect of human life, how do you compare the treatment reserved by society and the state to atheists compared with the one towards religious minorities or sects, like de Bahá’ís, for instance?
Sectarianism is rife in many parts of the region, partly because it can be exploited for political purposes and also because there have been no great efforts to promote tolerance. There isn’t the kind of work done to promote community relations that we find in European countries, for example.
There is of course sectarianism within Islam itself – Sunni versus Shia – which is often linked to international politics and relations with Iran. Christianity and Judaism are accepted to some extent by Muslims because they are monotheistic religions from the Abrahamic tradition.
Regimes under pressure often find it convenient to blame the country’s problems on an “enemy within” – which often results in attacks on the smallest and weakest minorities. Atheists and Baha’is both fall into that category.
In Egypt last year, a government-linked newspaper, Al-Shabab, declared that “atheists are the country’s second enemy after the Muslim Brotherhood”. And more recently the Ministry of Endowments claimed that the Bahá’í faith (which probably has no more than 3,000 followers in Egypt) “threatens Islam specifically and Egyptian society in general”.
Parts of this interview, via email and now updated, were included in an article published in the Portuguese news magazine VISÃO, on February 5, 2015