Atheists in Muslim world: Silent but growing
Information revolution, atrocities of Islamic State plant seeds of doubt
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.
While Muslims celebrate the holidays of Islam, atheists either participate in rites reluctantly or face believers’ wrath.