Athe­ists in Mus­lim world: Silent but grow­ing

In­for­ma­tion revo­lu­tion, atroc­i­ties of Is­lamic State plant seeds of doubt

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY GILGAMESH NABEEL

BABY­LON, IRAQ | Lara Ahmed wears a head­scarf and be­haves like a pi­ous Mus­lim.

But the 21-year-old Iraqi woman hides a se­cret from her peers at the Univer­sity of Baby­lon: her athe­ism.

“I was not con­vinced by the cre­ation story in the Qu­ran,” she said. “Be­sides, I feel re­li­gions are un­just, vi­o­late our hu­man rights and de­value women’s iden­ti­ties.”

She doesn’t dare share her strong be­liefs with strangers.

“I wear a head­scarf de­spite be­ing an athe­ist,” said Ms. Ahmed, who stud­ies bi­ol­ogy at the school, about 115 miles south of Bagh­dad. “It is dif­fi­cult not to wear it in south­ern Iraq. Few women take the risk not to cover their hair. They face ha­rass­ment every­where.”

Her fears stem from the re­marks of pow­er­ful politi­cians such as Am­mar al-Hakim, the head of Iraq’s Is­lamic Supreme Coun­cil, a ma­jor Shi­ite po­lit­i­cal party and the pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Al­liance, a Shi­ite par­lia­men­tary bloc.

“Some are re­sent­ful of Iraqi so­ci­ety’s ad­her­ence to its re­li­gious con­stants and its con­nec­tion to God Almighty,” Mr. al-Hakim said on his party’s TV chan­nel in May, claim­ing a ris­ing tide of athe­ism was threat­en­ing the Arab world. “Com­bat th­ese for­eign ideas.”

Statis­tics on athe­ism in the Mid­dle East and North Africa are hazy, but an­a­lysts say

Ms. Ahmed rep­re­sents an in­creas­ing trend based on re­cent de­vel­op­ments.

In 2014, an Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment-run Is­lamic le­gal in­sti­tute, cit­ing a du­bi­ous in­ter­na­tional study, said that only 866 athe­ists lived in the coun­try of more than 90 mil­lion. Re­cently re­leased court statis­tics say­ing thou­sands of Egyp­tian women sought di­vorce in 2015 claim­ing their hus­bands were athe­ists — one of the few ways women can ini­ti­ate di­vorce un­der Is­lam — sug­gested the num­bers might be far higher.

In 2011, the now-de­funct Kur­dish news agency AKnews pub­lished a sur­vey find­ing that 67 per­cent of Iraqis be­lieved in God and 21 per­cent said God prob­a­bly ex­isted, while 7 per­cent said they did not be­lieve in God and 4 per­cent said God prob­a­bly did not ex­ist.

To­day, the in­for­ma­tion revo­lu­tion fu­eled by the in­ter­net, the free­doms re­leased by the Arab Spring, the grow­ing power of sec­tar­ian re­li­gious par­ties and the rise of the harsh or­tho­doxy of the Is­lamic State have all fu­eled grow­ing un­be­lief in God and tra­di­tional re­li­gions, said athe­ists and oth­ers.

“For youths, who are the ma­jor­ity of new athe­ists, the sav­agery of the Is­lamic caliphate es­tab­lished by the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria in 2014 cre­ated a re­ac­tion that [has] shaken the re­li­gion’s im­age,” said Ali Ab­dulka­reem Ma­jeed, 22, a nonathe­ist Iraqi so­ci­ol­ogy stu­dent who con­ducted a study on athe­ism for a re­li­gious body that he asked not to be iden­ti­fied for his safety.

So­cial me­dia shut­down

Last year, Face­book shut down more than 50 athe­ist, Ara­bic-lan­guage pages in af­ter ex­trem­ist Mus­lim groups cam­paigned to re­move them, ac­cord­ing to a pe­ti­tion sent to Face­book by the Athe­ist Al­liance-Mid­dle East and North Africa, a U.S.-based global athe­ist fed­er­a­tion.

Many of those Face­book pages have been since been re­launched.

In March 2015, U.S.-based Iraqi and other Arab athe­ists launched the Ara­bic and English-lan­guage Free Mind tele­vi­sion and mag­a­zine web­sites, which pro­mote athe­is­tic view­points and have recorded more than 1 mil­lion vis­its so far.

That led schol­ars at Al-Azhar Univer­sity, a pre-em­i­nent Sunni Mus­lim cen­ter of learn­ing in Cairo, to call on Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sissi to push Free Mind or­ga­niz­ers to re­pent or face ex­e­cu­tion by be­head­ing. Mr. el-Sissi re­sponded by sug­gest­ing that those who in­sulted re­li­gion should lose their Egyp­tian cit­i­zen­ship.

Even so, on­line athe­ist pro­gram­ming is eas­ily avail­able in Ara­bic now.

Athe­ism is not il­le­gal in Egypt or Iraq, but of­fi­cials of­ten level blas­phemy or other charges against athe­ists in those coun­tries. Those re­ject­ing the faith face the death sen­tence in Saudi Ara­bia, Iran, the United Arab Emi­rates, Qatar, Ye­men, So­ma­lia, Su­dan and Mau­ri­ta­nia.

Many athe­ists in the re­gion say their big­ger fear is not be­ing pun­ished for their be­liefs but that they will be­come tar­gets of vi­o­lent sec­tar­ian groups seek­ing po­lit­i­cal sup­port from the faith­ful.

“It is a dis­trac­tion from the fact that Is­lamists were not able to ac­com­plish any­thing over the past 13 years,” said Faisal al-Mu­tar, a U.S.-based Iraqi hu­man rights ac­tivist who heads Ideas Beyond Bor­ders, a non­profit that sup­ports mi­nori­ties in the Mid­dle East. “So they want to cre­ate ‘an en­emy’ to keep [the] con­stituency united against and avoid be­ing held ac­count­able for their mis­takes.”

Keep­ing their be­liefs se­cret is the norm for athe­ists of all back­grounds through­out the re­gion.

In Jor­dan, an Am­man-based writer at the Free Mind Mag­a­zine — whose last name is Farouki but who asked to keep her first name se­cret — said she is nearly es­tranged from her fam­ily, an­gered by her re­bel­lion against re­li­gion. “They see me as in­sane,” said Farouki, 50. “Jor­da­ni­ans can­not ac­cept athe­ists, and it is highly pos­si­ble to be killed if you are one.”

So­cial me­dia has pro­vided athe­ists with a meet­ing place and source of in­for­ma­tion.

“Most of my athe­ist friends have not changed all of a sud­den,” said Osama Dakhel, 21, a fine arts stu­dent in Bagh­dad. “Some were so de­voted at first ex­plor­ing the re­li­gion’s minute de­tails. They start to read for Is­lamic re­form­ers. Then they start to ac­cept other opin­ions, dis­cuss athe­ists on­line and end up athe­ists.”

Ahmed Ab­dul-Aziz, 22, a med­i­cal stu­dent in up­per Egypt, also writes openly for the Free Mind Mag­a­zine on athe­ism. “It is eas­ier to an­nounce your ideas in Cairo,” he said. “No­body would look af­ter you, but in small ru­ral towns, ev­ery­one watches the other.”

Even so, Mr. Ab­dul-Aziz said, he hides his be­liefs from his own fam­ily.

“They will feel an­gry even if I call for some mod­ern Is­lamic ideas,” he said. “I am forced to at­tend the Friday prayers and fast dur­ing Ra­madan. I feel un­easy to prac­tice things I do not be­lieve in.”

Ms. Ahmed paid a price for un­wit­tingly draw­ing no­tice for not pray­ing or fasting dur­ing Ra­madan at the Univer­sity of Baby­lon. “A col­league called me an ‘in­fi­del’ and in­sisted on wak­ing me up at dawn to pray,” she said. “I faced prob­lems even for not us­ing the name of Al­lah to swear.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

PULLING AWAY: While Mus­lims cel­e­brate the hol­i­days of Is­lam, athe­ists ei­ther par­tic­i­pate in rites re­luc­tantly or face wrath of be­liev­ers.

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