Atheism in the Islamic World

Atheism is, first and foremost, illegal; punishable by death if you were born into a Muslim family. The Economist reports:

Sharia law, which covers only Muslims unless incorporated into national law, assumes people are born into their parents’ religion. Thus ex-Muslim atheists are guilty of apostasy—a hudud crime against God, like adultery and drinking alcohol. Potential sanctions can be severe: eight states, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Sudan have the death penalty on their statute books for such offences.

Despite the amount of opposition, atheist groups have found an outlet for their views using social media. Those involved live in fear that their skepticism will be exposed, sparking vigilante attacks when the government refuses to prosecute. Even the anonymity of the web can fail to shield them from reprisals:

Many, like Kacem el-Ghazzali, a Moroccan, reckon the only solution is to escape abroad. The 23-year-old was granted asylum in Switzerland after people found out he was the author of an anonymous blog, Atheistica.com. Even in non-Muslim lands ex-believers are scared of being open, says Nahla Mahmoud, a 25-year-old Sudanese atheist who fled to Britain in 2010. “Muslim communities here don’t feel comfortable with having an ex-Muslim around,” she says, noting that extremists living in the West may harass non-believers there too.

Facebook groups for atheists, mostly pseudonymous, exist in almost every Muslim country. Social media give non-believers more clout—but also make them more conspicuous, and therefore vulnerable. But the real blame lies with religious intolerance. In the 1950s and 1960s secularism and tolerance prevailed in many majority-Muslim countries; today religion pervades public and political life. Sami Zubaida, a scholar at London’s Birkbeck College, speaks of increasing polarisation, with “growing religiosity at one end of the spectrum and growing atheism and secularism at the other.”

The rise to power of Islamist parties after the Arab revolutions is likely to make life more miserable still for those who leave Islam. New rulers in Tunisia and Egypt have jailed several young people who have been outspoken about their lack of belief. Such cases occurred before the revolutions, but seem to have become more common. Alber Saber Ayad, an Egyptian Christian activist who ran a Facebook page for atheists, has been in custody since September for “insulting religion”. His alleged offence was posting a link to an infamous YouTube video that caused protests in the Islamic world that month. He was arrested by a Christian policeman: Egypt’s Coptic church does not look kindly on atheism either.

The Muslim world is in great need of their own Enlightenment. The Arab Spring has not ushered in Jeffersonian Democracy, where freedom of speech, press, and religion are cornerstones of society. Instead, the people have voted in theocrats no better than the dictators they sought to replace.

The comfort level of atheists in countries full of believers is a good yardstick of true freedom. My hope for the Islamic world is that true religious tolerance can be achieved some day. There was a time when the West was no better than this. Secular forces wrestled political control from Christianity in Europe, ending centuries of persecution for though crime. New ideas flooded into society, moving superstition and myth to margins of public discourse.

There is no reason to expect this will not happen in the Islamic world. It may not occur in my lifetime, but I believe it will happen.

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