IN THE PALESTINIAN town of Qalqilya, 25-year-old Waleed al-Husseini hit on an amusing if irreverent idea. He decided it was time for God to have a Facebook page — and set about creating one. He called it Ana Allah (“I am God”) and announced jokingly that in future God would be communicating directly with people via Facebook since despite having sent prophets centuries ago His message had still not got through.

The imaginary instructions from God posted by Husseini included one written in the style of Qur’anic verses forbidding people from drinking whisky mixed with Pepsi; “God” ordered them to mix it with water instead. In another post on the divine Facebook page, “God” recommended smoking hashish.

The Palestinian authorities were far from amused, however, and few days later Husseini — an IT graduate who had been unable to find a proper job since leaving university — was sitting in a cafe playing cards when two members of the secret police came in and arrested him. He spent the next ten months in jail, some of the time in solitary confinement, and today lives in exile in France, separated from his family and friends.

Others have suffered a similar fate for their anti-religious posting on the internet. Alber Saber, an Egyptian who had abandoned Coptic Christianity in favour of atheism fled to Switzerland after being imprisoned for “defamation of Islam and Christianity, insulting the divine and satirising religious rituals and sanctities and the prophets”. Kacem El Ghazzali was a Moroccan high school student who blogged anonymously about secularism. When his identity was exposed, a teacher accused him of “shaking the faith”, fellow students threw stones at him and the imam in his village denounced him from the pulpit. He went into hiding and eventually, like Saber, found refuge in Switzerland.

The story of Husseini’s conversion to atheism is in many ways typical. He grew up in Palestine in what he describes as a normal Muslim family but in secondary school he started asking questions — “questions like whether we are free to choose or not”. Without realising it at the time, he had stumbled into a debate about free will and predestination (al-qada’ wal-qadr in Arabic) which has exercised the minds of theologians for centuries. If God is all-knowing, He can surely foresee evil deeds; if He is all-powerful He must be capable of preventing them; if He is good, why does He allow evil deeds and then punish people for them? A verse in the Qur’an says: “Ye shall not will, except as Allah wills.”

Husseini put his questions to a teacher at school. “The teacher said it’s haram [forbidden] to ask about that,” he recalls. “I didn’t have an answer so I went to an imam in Qalqilya and I got the same reply.” This kind of response — that such questions should not be asked — is a familiar one in authoritarian societies and it is a response described by many other Arabs who have since abandoned religion. By prompting them to look further afield for answers, it has probably done more than anything else to set young Muslims on the road to disbelief.

With his curiosity aroused, Husseini embarked on his own research. “I went to the library in my school and the public library in my city. You can find many things there about religion but not about criticisms of religion,” he said. “I spent around four years searching because when I started with this issue I discovered more and more. Step by step I moved away from religion until I left Islam in my first year at university.”

Naively, perhaps, Husseini saw nothing particularly abnormal about his decision. He knew that plenty of famous Palestinian writers had also questioned religion in the past — among them Edward Said who was an openly-declared agnostic, plus the poet Mahmoud Darwish and the novelist Ghassan Kanafani who had also been a prominent member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But when Husseini started telling his university friends that he was no longer a Muslim, he was taken aback by their reaction. “They said ‘Oh no! It’s haram!’ They said: ‘You can do anything, but don’t leave Islam’.” Looking for reassurance, he even approached some who claimed to be Communists but their reaction was the same: “No,” they told him, “We only take from the Communists their way of fighting.”

Undeterred by that, he had started a couple of blogs — one in Arabic called Nour al-Aql (“The Light of Reason”) and another in English called Proud Atheist. “I started discussions. I was just looking for the truth,” he said. “It wasn’t much, and in the beginning nobody was following me.” In a blog post at the end of August in 2010 — two months before his arrest — Husseini wrote:

Muslims often ask me why I left Islam. What strikes me is that Muslims can’t seem to understand that renouncing Islam is a choice offered to everyone and that anyone has the right to do so. They believe anyone who leaves Islam is an agent or a spy for a western state, namely the Jewish state, and that they get paid bundles of money by the governments of these countries and their secret services. They actually don’t get that people are free to think and believe in whatever suits them …

I would like to emphasise that by writing this article I did not mean to imply that Christianity or Judaism were better than Islam, and the reader should not fool himself into thinking that I only reject Islam among religions, all of which are to me a bunch of mind-blowing legends and a pile of nonsense that compete with each other in terms of stupidity.

Husseini was eventually charged with insulting Muslims, defaming religions and inciting religious strife but it was four months before he appeared in court. In all, he says, he made more than ten court appearances and each time the case was adjourned without a full trial. He suspects his arrest was more connected with politics than religion itself — rivalries between the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza. Hamas was accusing the PA of not being religious enough, and the PA wanted to display some religious credentials.

“For the first four months I slept only two or three hours a night,” Husseini said. “All the time I was standing and they asked me things like ‘Who paid you? Are you working with the Mossad [Israeli intelligence]? Are you working with others?’ I said no, I just write my articles, my thoughts. That’s all. They thought some government was paying me, so they checked my bank account. I spent the first four months like this. Alone all the time.” He continued:

They said they arrested me because they were afraid somebody would kill me — but this was just for the media. I said how are you protecting me? If I am here just for my protection, why am I not allowed to sleep, why do I have all these questions, why am I going to the court?

After ten months’ detention he was released but told not to use the internet or make phone calls, and he had to report to the police station every evening. That was not the end of his problems, however. Whenever the authorities spotted something new on the internet criticising Islam, Husseini came under suspicion and he was repeatedly arrested. “They arrested me on Thursday evenings [the start of the Muslim weekend], because on Friday and Saturday there is no court. So I spent all the time there [under arrest] and on Sunday they would say: ‘OK, go. It’s not you.’ After this kept happening I was in touch with an American journalist in Jerusalem. She knew my story and said maybe I should leave.”

He then travelled overland to Jordan and sought help at the French embassy. “I knew France had been putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority and they knew my story,” he said. A few days later he was granted a visa allowing him to live and work in France.

RELIGION is difficult to avoid in the Middle East, even for those who try. Loudspeakers broadcasting the call to prayer, beards and veils signalling religious allegiances and the constant use of religious expressions in everyday conversation are just a few of the more obvious signs. Look a little deeper, though, and other things become apparent. Most of the Arab countries have an “official” religion and laws shaped by religious principles. In some, religious affiliation is considered important enough to be specified on everyone’s identity card and the choice may be restricted to religions that are officially recognised. Sometimes there is no choice at all: the state decides what a person’s religion shall be, based on parentage. Changing to another religion can be difficult or even illegal and marrying in a non-religious ceremony can be impossible without leaving the country.

Preoccupation with religion has its roots in the region’s history. The Middle East was the birthplace of three major faiths — Islam, Christianity and Judaism — all claiming a special relationship with one Supreme Being who is immortal, all-powerful, infinitely wise, and yet invisible to ordinary humans. These three monotheistic religions share much in common but they are also rivals. Not only that; sectarian rivalries exist within them too and conflicting interpretations of God’s will by those claiming to know the ultimate truth have caused much bloodshed over the centuries.

In countries where multiple faiths exist, such as Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, the sectarian divide is shaped by geography and birth as much as belief. Towns, villages and districts are identified by their sect: Sunni, Shia, Maronite, Druze, Alawite, etc. The question that Lebanese constantly ask when getting to know each other — “Where are you from?” — is a polite way of enquiring about their religion, and often their politics too.

The role of religion in the Middle East, and its pervasive influence, has not gone unquestioned by Arabs themselves, including some of a religious disposition. To call for freedom of belief, a secular state and an end to sectarianism does not necessarily imply a lack of religious faith and debates about these issues have become more prevalent in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

But what of those who seek to escape from religion altogether? Arab non-believers — atheists and agnostics — are not a new phenomenon but their numbers seem to be growing. They are certainly becoming more vocal and visible, largely because of the platform afforded by the internet. For them, the demand is not merely freedom of religion but freedom from religion — an altogether more radical step.

To believe in God or not, to practise a religion or not, are questions that millions of people wrestle with in their minds, sometimes for years, before making a choice. In many parts of the world it is regarded as a personal decision and nobody else’s business but, in the eyes of Arab society, openly declaring a disbelief in God or rejecting religion is a shocking and sometimes dangerous thing to do. Many choose to keep their disbelief private, if only to avoid upsetting their family. Those who pluck up the courage to be open about their atheism often adopt the language of gay rights activism and refer to it as “coming out”. The comparison is not inappropriate. In an Arab context, both atheism and homosexuality are still largely taboo and the consequences of coming out as gay or an atheist can be very similar: it can lead to being ostracised by family, friends and the local community, not to mention conflict with the law.

While it’s natural for religious families to feel some distress on learning that their loved one is destined (as they see it) for punishment in hell, in the case of an Arab who abandons Islam there are other complications. Religion in the Arab countries is not simply a matter of belief or disbelief, nor is it necessarily treated as a matter of personal choice. Islam has strong social aspects based around the concept of ummah — the community of believers — and expressions of individualism or nonconformity tend to be frowned upon. Members are expected to pull together and behave (at least in public) in ways that uphold its Islamic ethos. Thus, when someone breaks away from established norms — especially if they do so publicly — they are liable to be seen as damaging communal solidarity.

A further complication in the Middle East is that religion often forms a major component in people’s sense of identity. One survey of six Arab countries found that in four of them — Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — “Muslim” was the preferred identity, ahead of national identity and Arab identity. The exceptions were Egypt and Lebanon where national identity came first. This brings a more political dimension to the role of religion in Arab society. The Islamic revival and the growth of Islamist movements towards the end of the twentieth century was in part a defensive mechanism — a response to perceived threats from outside, especially from the west. The retreat into what popular imagination deemed to be traditional values also held out the promise of certainty in an uncertain world.

The beginning of this trend is often traced back to the Arabs’ overwhelming defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. That was a huge psychological blow which Islamists blamed on the failings of secular nationalism and a drift away from the sacred path. Several subsequent events reinforced the idea that with God on their side Muslims could become invincible: the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the success of the mujahidin in driving out Soviet forces from Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 for which the Shi’a resistance movement, Hizbullah, claimed the credit.

Treating religion as a badge of identity leads to a heightened emphasis on its outward, physical signs. For religion to be effectively linked to identity it needs to be expressed visibly, and one obvious sign of that is the increased number of women wearing the hijab compared with the 1950s and 1960s. It also tends to emphasise the minutiae of religious observance: codes of “correct” Islamic behaviour are prescribed, often down to the minutest detail, and often on the slenderest of scriptural evidence. This operates at a communal level too with efforts to create a visibly Islamic ethos in the public sphere, either through peer pressure or direct enforcement.

Alongside that is the problem of Islamophobia, particularly in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September, 2001. The stereotyping of Muslims as potential terrorists, the detention of suspects in Guantanamo Bay, plus numerous cases of discrimination or abuse, has further aroused sensitivities amid claims that Muslims in general are under attack. In such a climate, questioning of the Qur’an and its teachings is liable to be interpreted as sedition.

For Arabs who decide to embrace atheism, this background presents a host of problems. At one level there is the intellectual tussle between belief and disbelief but that is not easily separated from all the other baggage that accompanies religion in the Middle East. Arabs who renounce Islam may thus be accused of betraying their identity and culture. By asserting their right to disbelieve, atheists are also asserting the right to freedom of thought and belief — a right which belongs to everyone, including the most devout.

IN SAUDI ARABIA all citizens are officially Muslims whether they like it or not and the practising of other religions is forbidden. The image usually projected by the Saudi authorities is of a thoroughly devout country — so devout that shops have to close at prayer times and that suitably “Islamic” codes of dress and behaviour must be followed.

In 2012, however, the kingdom’s claims of holiness were severely shaken when a poll by WIN/Gallup International looked at religion and atheism in fifty-seven countries — including Saudi Arabia. Of those interviewed in the kingdom, 19% said they were not religious and 5% described themselves as convinced atheists. The percentage of self-declared atheists was higher in Saudi Arabia than in any other predominantly Muslim country covered by the survey. The figures, if they are anywhere close to being accurate, suggest that a quarter of the kingdom’s inhabitants, at least in cities (where the survey took place) have no particular interest in religion and that one person in twenty is not only an atheist but willing to admit it to a pollster — an admission which as far as many in the kingdom are concerned is a crime punishable by death.

Rather than disputing these findings, as they might have been expected to do, religious Saudis agonised over how to halt the spread of disbelief. An article in the Saudi newspaper al-Watan began:

We must fight the phenomenon of atheism with initiatives that will nip it in the bud before it takes roots in the hearts of our young men and women. This is possible only by launching a massive national campaign.

Young Saudis, the article continued, are “slipping into the dark abyss of atheism” by visiting social networking websites, reading atheist authors and some of those on scholarships at western universities are “holding dialogues” with their teachers. The article ended by calling for a national strategy to combat atheism and protect religion:

At present, efforts to contain the onslaught of atheism are limited. These are mainly concentrated on personal initiatives. There should be a participation of the entire society in dealing with this serious issue. This shall be based on a national strategy worked out by our sharia bodies to protect our religion. Like what we did in combating terrorism, we have to root out atheism [italics added].

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs and minister Sheikh Saleh al-Asheikh may shoulder the great responsibility of working out the strategy for an anti-atheist national campaign with the support of experts in this field. Specialised centres to hold dialogue with young men and women could be set up, in addition to launching an exclusive satellite channel to promote the cause. It is easier to treat cancer in its initial stage before it seeps deep into the body cells.

The writer’s call for atheism to be treated in the same way as terrorism might seem ridiculous, but the Saudi authorities were already taking the idea seriously. In January 2014, the government announced a new and extremely wide-ranging anti-terrorism law which, among many other things, outlawed “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”

In Saudi terms, equating atheism with terrorism does have a certain logic since atheism presents a challenge to the most fundamental principles of the Saudi state. The Basic Law of 1992 (the Saudi equivalent of a constitution) establishes a very clear linkage between Islam and the state:

Article 1: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God’s Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet (God’s prayers and peace be upon him) are its constitution …

Article 6: Citizens are to pay allegiance to the King in accordance with the Holy Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet, in submission and obedience …

Article 7: Government in Saudi Arabia derives power from the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s tradition.

Article 8: Government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on the premise of justice, consultation, and equality in accordance with the Islamic sharia.

Article 9: The family is the kernel of Saudi society, and its members shall be brought up on the basis of the Islamic faith …

Article 11: Saudi society will be based on the principle of adherence to God’s command …

Article 13: Education will aim at instilling the Islamic faith in the younger generation …

Article 23: The state protects Islam; it implements its sharia; it orders people to do right and shun evil; it fulfils the duty regarding God’s call.

Non-believers, if they wish to adhere to their principles, cannot accept this. By the same token, the Saudi state cannot accept non-belief without changing the basis on which it has been constructed. Short of wholesale political change, it is difficult to see how this impasse can be resolved. The government, recognising perhaps that it can influence but not totally control what people think, keeps up appearances by continuing to impose “Islamic” codes of behaviour while trying to force non-believers into silence. Even some religious scholars doubt that this will work in the long run, however.

Bullying and attacking atheists is likely to be counterproductive, Ghazi al-Maghlouth, professor of Islamic culture at al-Ahsa University, told the Saudi Gazette. “Youths who follow atheism would then react vehemently and be adamant in adhering to their beliefs. Therefore, it is essential to engage them in friendly discourse,” he said quoting a proverb — “Winning hearts is more significant than conquering cities.” Meanwhile, Yousuf al-Ghamdi, professor of belief (aqidah) at Umm al-Qura University, called for “effective” and “convincing” dialogue. “Atheism is an intellectual phenomenon and not a behavioural one and hence it should be addressed in an intellectual way,” he said.

Saudis have also begun asking themselves why there should be so much apparent disbelief in the kingdom. Inevitably, some blame foreign influences and modern innovations such as electronic games: “The enemies of Islam use this ploy to misguide our children with games promoting atheism and polytheism, besides deviating them from the divine religion of Islam.”

Other (more plausible) theories suggest Saudis are being driven away from religion by the way it is taught and by the reactionary — often comically reactionary — positions of many scholars in the kingdom. A writer in al-Madinah newspaper pointed out that schoolchildren are made to memorise long lists of the things that are haram but then, when they go out of school, they see adults breaking the rules all the time:

Our children grow up watching a great contradiction between what they are taught and what they see in real life. They observe adults indulging in many un-Islamic behaviours day in and day out.

For instance, a child may see his father being lazy in going to the mosque for prayer after hearing the adhan (prayer call). The same child is taught by his teacher in school that not performing prayer on time is an act of atheism …

The young boys and girls are taught that entertainment is haram, but they see a large number of men and women going to amusement parks or even travelling outside for entertainment.

Saudi atheist Omar Hadi thinks the scale of the revolt against religion may be even larger than the WIN/Gallup International poll suggested, though some of the apparent disbelief may be “just a knee-jerk reaction” to the “extreme limits” that Saudi society places upon its citizens. “If the same individuals moved to the west they would probably become Muslims again,” he said. Hadi (speaking under a pseudonym) continued:

The doubts that I had growing up were because of the way we were taught. They did try to explain to us but the explanations did not make sense. And then they just told us to shut up and accept it. And some people did — taking it by faith, obviously, despite the evidence.

If they want to combat that they need to get into a more refined way of teaching theology in this country. It works for the majority of people but you will always have people who are never going to believe.

I understand their dilemma, because once they start to — I use the word lightly — “reform” religion, it becomes more man-made than God-made and loses its holiness.

Saudi scholars, he said, have also done much to discredit themselves by denouncing technological innovations when they first appear and then back-tracking when they prove useful and popular:

Many religious scholars in Saudi twenty years ago said all photography is banned — it’s sinful, you will go to hell if you have your photograph taken. I know people who actually went and burned all the photographs they had of themselves. Twenty years later, the same [scholars] are all over TV and in the newsprint media and they say: “Well, maybe it wasn’t so sinful to have photographs.” So what about the people who burned all their photographs?

With any new advancement, they are so radical and extreme in the beginning. It was the same thing with the use of camera phones, cassette tapes and video players. I have [a copy of] a fatwa that says the use of a camera phone is sinful, and now everybody has them.

It’s the inconsistency in how they deal with new things that adds doubt to everything else they say.

Nowadays, statements by scholars that show them to be ignorant or out of touch also tend to reach a much larger audience than previously. They are often picked up by mainstream media from religious websites where readers presumably take them seriously. The kingdom’s mainstream media sometimes report them impartially and sometimes with opposing views, but they are clearly seen as having some entertainment value — as indicated by the unflattering photographs of the scholars that often accompany such reports. Once in the mainstream, the scholars’ words are then at the mercy of social media.

During an outbreak of the often-lethal MERS coronavirus in Saudi Arabia, al-Hayat newspaper reported a claim by Abdullah al-Amrani, a preacher in Tabuk, that he had discovered a cure through his research into “prophetic medicine”. Amrani refused to disclose the nature of his treatment but said he had also used it successfully to treat AIDS and leukaemia. Needless to say, Twitter users immediately suggested Amrani should give up medicine and stick to religion.

Another factor leading young Saudis into “the dark abyss of atheism”, according to an opinion article in al-Watan, is “holding dialogues, as in the case of some students on scholarship grants, with their teachers in western universities”. This appeared to be a veiled criticism of one of the king’s pet projects — the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme — which has proved especially unpopular with Saudi clerics and ultra-conservatives. The programme, established in 2005 and costing SR9 billion ($2.4 billion) a year, provides funds for 125,000 Saudis to study at universities abroad — mostly in the United States. About 30% of the students are female. This is officially explained as an investment in the kingdom’s economic future, to create a highly educated workforce and thus reduce dependence on foreign expertise, but it is also intended to promote social change by exposing young Saudis to other cultures — hence the opposition from traditionalists.

“From the vantage point of someone else’s culture you can truly see your own,” an article in the Saudi Gazette noted. Students taking part in the programme told the paper it had helped them “to accept different people and thoughts” and taught them “what critical thinking is” but it tended also to increase their frustrations on their return to the kingdom. One who had studied law abroad said: “Due to my profession, I have to deal with one of the most backward judicial systems in the world, which is improving at a very slow pace.” Another said she found it “really hard to get used to the chaos here [in Saudi Arabia] after getting used to a more civilised way of living” abroad.

Saud Kabli, a political scientist and columnist for al-Watan newspaper, likens the scholarship programme to Muhammed Ali Paça’s educational missions to Europe in the 1820s “which helped the build-up of modern Egypt and triggered, later on, the Arab Renaissance”. Anyone who visits Saudi Arabia today will see that Saudi youth are becoming more assertive, more open to the world and more receptive to global ideals, he said. “The youth of Saudi Arabia are a hidden force of change that will definitely change the society in the coming years, and it seems that the government realises this and even capitalises on it, probably on the hope that change will come eventually from within the society rather than forcefully from the top.”

The sort of exposure provided by the scholarship programme undoubtedly has an effect on the religious views of at least some students taking part. “Growing up in Saudi,” Omar Hadi said, “you are indoctrinated in the idea of non-Muslims being evil and they are all going to go to hell. Every single non-Muslim is out to get you. So when you go and live with them, you eat with them, you study with them, you socialise with them in a normal innocent way, you realise that they are not evil. After a while you say: ‘You know what? I’ve experienced so much kindness and generosity from these people that it’s difficult for me to believe they are going to go to hell’.”

Fears about the effects of the scholarship programme prompted one Saudi preacher to claim that “travelling to the land of infidelity for the sake of doing business or studies is forbidden except in extreme necessity” and with certain conditions, and that “whoever dies in the land of infidelity could go to hell.” Sheikh Abdullah al-Suwailem, who works for a project to rehabilitate imprisoned al-Qaeda supporters, told al-Hayat newspaper that the first of the conditions for permitting foreign travel is that a person has to be “a strong believer” with religious “immunity” so as not to fall for “desires”. “Whoever fears for himself falling for what is forbidden, such as drinking alcohol, should not travel except in the case of necessity,” he added.

Saudi Arabia, basically, is a victim of what Alvin Toffler described as “future shock”. In the space of a few decades in the twentieth century, oil discoveries transformed it from one of the world’s poorest countries into one of the wealthiest, and it is still struggling to adjust. Its society has become increasingly polarised as traditionalists fight what is probably a losing battle against the onslaught from modernity. In the absence of more rational argument for preserving the status quo, they defend it with religion and fear-mongering about immorality.

But the idea that religion is essential for a well-ordered society is demonstrably untrue. Writing in the Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Phil Zuckerman notes that “countries containing high percentages of nonbelievers are among the healthiest and wealthiest nations on earth”.

IN THE 1920s, Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, complained that a wave of atheism and lewdness was engulfing Egypt. Europeans, he said, had “founded schools and scientific and cultural institutes in the very heart of the Islamic domain which cast doubt and heresy into the very souls of its sons”. By 1994, the blame had shifted to satellite television. “These programmes, prepared by international imperialism, are part of an extensive plot to wipe out our religious and sacred values,” the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance warned. Today, though, a more favoured culprit is the internet. Its power — supposedly — to spread atheism far and wide thus becomes an argument for controlling cyberspace and punishing those who “misuse” it against religion.

The internet is certainly a valuable tool for atheists and other kinds of dissenters in the Middle East. It provides access to ideas and information that would not otherwise be available locally, it allows people to express their own thoughts in public and it enables interaction with others, either by engaging in debates or connecting with like-minded individuals. Importantly for people in the Middle East, this also takes place — mostly — outside the usual framework of government restrictions and it levels the field, giving access to everyone regardless of location and national boundaries.

There is no doubt that the internet facilitates the spread of atheist ideas (along with many others) but the internet itself is not reason for them; it is merely a vehicle. Trying to suppress atheistic thought on the internet does nothing to address the causes of people’s religious doubts and may actually increase their curiosity. People would not be seeking out this material unless they felt it had some relevance to their own situation and attempts at censorship imply a fear that religion cannot win the argument on evidence and reasoning alone. Nevertheless, it is convenient to blame the internet since there is then no need to consider whether religious doctrines and practices might play some part in driving people towards unbelief.

The main problem, according to Nasser al-Sarami, Head of Media at al-Arabiya TV channel, lies with “traditional attitudes” and an “inability to address the demands of modern times and younger generations and to become open to new ideas instead of resorting to repression and blaming freedom of expression for atheism”:

The internet and social networking websites have not come up with anything that was not already there. They have just unravelled what was hidden from us whether owing to the nature of our culture or the level of local and social awareness.

Twitter and Facebook have turned the unknown into known and offered to people a podium through which they can express their feelings as they are, without embellishment or censorship. That is when the truth we did not want to see emerged.

Another point to note is that the amount of atheistic material on the internet is minuscule compared to the vast number of Islamic websites which cover the full range from jihadism to sufism, plus others where Christians and Muslims slug it out over who has the true religion.

“The internet is a double-edged weapon because a lot of religious ideology and religious orthodoxy has also been transmitted through the internet,” said Amira Nowaira, professor of English literature at Alexandria university in Egypt. “It’s not one-way … there is a great deal of movement. One needs to remember that, because Islamism has really found a voice on the net too, with so many sites advocating ultra-orthodox views.”

Muslims were remarkably swift to adopt the internet, despite the wariness of conservative elements towards modern innovations and despite the technical difficulties (for the first few years) of producing web pages with Arabic text. By 2000 most of the well-known Islamist movements, including Hamas and the Taliban, had a presence on the web, along with many more obscure groups and individuals. One reason for this was that internet activity could be viewed as a form of da’wa — spreading the word of Islam — which many regard as a religious obligation. Some were also excited by the possibility that the internet could one day link up the billion-or-so Muslims around the world into a single religious community (or “digital ummah”) of a kind not seen since the early days of Islam.

Arab sceptics also began appearing as the social media developed. “In the decade before Twitter and Facebook, Paltalk, a video and audio group chat service founded in 1998, was all the rage in the Gulf,” Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, a prominent Emirati columnist, recalled. “Within weeks, popular Paltalk chat rooms such as ‘Humanity’ (run by a Kuwaiti) and ‘No Religionists’, dedicated to specific topics, sprang up.” One pioneering blogger in the Gulf was Ahmed Ben Kerishan, an Emirati atheist who asserted that “all religions lie” and that “secularism can set people free”.

Today, a search of Facebook reveals about a hundred pages with “mulhid” (Arabic for “atheist”) in their title, plus a couple of dozen using the English phrase “Arab atheist”. These are a very mixed bunch: some appear inactive while others have several thousand “likes”, and they include a few closed (i.e. private) groups. Outside the Middle East, ex-Muslim organisations in North America, Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand and Scandinavia have websites, and the recently-exiled atheists, Waleed al-Husseini, Kacem el-Ghazzali and Alber Saber each have their own blog.

One effect of this online activity is that non-believers scattered around the Arab countries begin to feel less isolated and may even pluck up the courage to make contact with others — though many are still fearful of doing so. The Associated Press described a typical example in Egypt:

One 40-year-old Egyptian engineer, born a Muslim, told The Associated Press he had long been an atheist but kept it a deep secret. The 2011 uprising in Egypt and its calls for radical change encouraged him to look online for others like himself. “Before the revolution, I was living a life in total solitude. I didn’t know anybody who believed like me,” he said. “Now we have more courage than we used to have”.

But the report added: “His case illustrates the limits on how far an atheist can go. Like most others interviewed by The Associated Press, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, harassment or troubles with his family. His ‘going public’ is strictly online.”

Besides the threat of reprisals from the authorities, online atheists have also faced unofficial harassment, presumably from Muslim activists — sometimes by hacking and sometimes by abusing the “report abuse” systems on social networking sites:

Bassam al-Baghdady, a Swedish atheist writer with Iraqi roots, explained that the Arab Atheists Network and other discussion groups were destroyed and deleted systematically. It is said that Islamists started campaigns through Facebook in order to “report” these pages and the profiles of its administrators. Baghdady said that his own accounts on Twitter and Facebook were blocked several times due to these reports, and many YouTube videos that he had uploaded were deleted due to their content …

Ever since 2010, social networks like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have witnessed tremendous online activity of extremist Islamist groups (Salafis), and they had two ways of dealing with atheist pages: either they destroyed and hacked the websites or they organised a “report” operation where members would continually report accounts or videos for abuse and thus automatically let the social network block the account or content.

The Arab Atheists Network survived, however, and appears to be one of the most popular websites of its kind. It now has more than 18,000 members and its online discussion forum (in Arabic) has accumulated more than a million posts.

Recently, activists have also been resorting to video. The grandly-named Arab Atheist Broadcasting is a YouTube channel which produces a two-hour discussion programme on alternate Fridays where various atheists hook up via Skype. The more popular videos have been viewed around 3,000 to 4,000 times. In a similar vein, Black Ducks is a YouTube talk show presented and directed by Ismail Mohamed, an Egyptian atheist. The aim, it says, is to encourage Egyptian atheists and non-believers “to reveal themselves and tell the world their experience, why and how they become atheists”. Black Ducks derives its name from Hans Christian Andersen’s story about an “ugly duckling” which is attacked and abused until it eventually grows into a beautiful white swan.

The Arab Atheists Library is a Facebook page providing free downloads of books, including Arabic translations of works by Baruch Spinoza, Stephen Hawking, Hannah Arendt, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. The download of Dawkins’ famous book, The God Delusion (Wahm Allah, in Arabic) is an unofficial translation by the Iraqi-born atheist, Bassam al-Baghdady. Arab writers in the online library include Mohammed Arkoun, the secular Algerian scholar, Murad Wahba, the Egyptian philosopher and Farag Fouda, the scourge of Egyptian Islamists who was assassinated in 1992.

The atheists’ library is one example of how the internet is giving Arabs access to books — and subversive ideas — that are hard to obtain by other means. Some are works by foreigners that might not get past the censors while others are old out-of-print works produced by Arabs in more liberal times. Although they are often posted on the internet with scant regard for copyright, Amira Nowaira of Alexandria university is pleased to see this happening:

Very often now you don’t find books in bookshops but they are available on the net — for free. People, out of the goodness of their hearts, just scan books and put them there. Some of the books are actually out of print.

I think it’s a good thing, even though it may not be ethically correct. Some of the books that were produced in the 1940s were completely out of print and you would never be able to find them anywhere but they are now available on the net. It’s amazing. You couldn’t even buy them if you wanted.

I don’t know if this availability of books is going to change people’s ideas — it has never happened before. When I was young we used to go to Cairo especially to buy books, or wait for the book fair. Now, you don’t have to go anywhere and I wonder what the long-term impact of that will be on things like belief and disbelief.

Omar Hadi, the Saudi atheist, is confident of the answer to that. Even though Farag Fouda died more than twenty years ago, his trenchant writing is alive again on the internet. “Just go on Twitter and everything he said is being re-quoted and re-quoted and re-quoted. His influence did not go away. Everything he said … you throw it at these religious people and they don’t know how to react to it, except by quoting the Qur’an.”

Fouda is not the only one. Hadi also takes encouragement by looking back even further to the tenth century and Mutanabbi, who many regard as the finest of the Arab poets:

Mutanabbi has a wonderful statement criticising the obsession with appearances in religion and how all other nations will be laughing at us because the only things we are concerned about is that we shave our moustaches and let our beards grow. He has other things, such as our biggest curse is that we have a group of people who think that God gave wisdom only to them.

Stuff like that from Islamic history shows there has always been some kind of resistance.

This is an extract from my book, Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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