Arabs Without God: Chapter 1
By Brian Whitaker
Denying God, subverting society
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 a 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.”[i]
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.”[ii]
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.[iii]
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 [in jail] 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.[iv]
Alber Saber, an Egyptian atheist from a Coptic Christian family, was also driven into exile because of his internet postings. “I started to speak about politics and religions when I was in my first year at university,” he recalls. “I had a website on Geocities and I was writing some articles … I was trying to share my ideas.” As his views became known around the university in Beni Suef, Islamists started threatening him and, he says, made three attempts to kill him. But instead of dealing with these threats, the police guarding the university advised him to give up his studies there: “They said: ‘Alber, you haven’t to come to this university again. We can’t make you safe, we can’t support you. You have to leave’.” He took their advice, transferred to another college and switched his studies from philosophy to computer science.
Saber’s problems resumed after the 2011 revolution in Egypt when his internet postings came to the attention of Islamists again. “Many people tried to share bad things about me,” he said.
In 2012, a 14-minute video called “Innocence of Muslims”, which had been produced in the United States, triggered protests by Muslims in many countries. In Cairo, the US embassy was besieged by demonstrators and riots spreading around the world left a total of 50 people dead. The viciously anti-Muslim video, which had been posted on YouTube and was supposedly the trailer for a full-length film, was described by an article in Vanity Fair as “exceptionally amateurish, with disjointed dialogue, jumpy editing, and performances that would have looked melodramatic even in a silent movie”. The clip, the article added, was “clearly designed to offend Muslims, portraying Muhammad as a bloodthirsty murderer and Lothario and paedophile with omnidirectional sexual appetites”.[v] News of the video caused the Egyptian rumour mill to go into overdrive. “Some Islamic websites said that it was to be a big movie, about two hours long, and it would be shown free in all cinemas in America on 11 September [the anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks in 2001],” Saber said. “Many of my friends asked me about it.”
The rumours were untrue and, according to Saber, he merely wanted to set the record straight:
I shared this movie [on the internet] and I explained what happened — that it was a fake story and that the ‘movie’ was not a movie, it was a very bad video clip. I shared the film, not to insult Islam but because the movie was very bad and the story was not good and the quality of the video was not good. I explained the true story.
Before long, Saber’s phone number, his photograph and his home address had been circulated through social media.
People started calling me and sending SMS messages saying we will kill you, we will punish you, we will come to your home … They told me you are insulting Islam, blah, blah, blah. I told them no, it is not true. I have my blog, you can read my writing and you can watch my videos. I am just comparing between religions. I studied philosophy and religions, so I am discussing these subjects.
A crowd gathered outside his home — “about 200 or 300 people, I don’t know exactly,” he said. “We called the police. The police didn’t care at first but in the next half hour people were starting to break the door of our home and our neighbours called the police many times. Then the police came and arrested me.”
Saber was charged under Article 98 of the Egyptian penal code which criminalises using religion to “promote extremist thoughts with the intention of creating dissent or insulting an Abrahamic religion” or “undermining national unity”. According to the charge sheet, he had “insulted God and cast doubt on the books of the Abrahamic religions” and “denied the existence of God and His creation of mankind.” He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. When released on bail, he fled to Switzerland.
In a way, though, Saber, Ghazzali and Husseini could count themselves lucky. Omar Batawil was an 18-year-old Yemeni whose posts on Facebook brought accusations of atheism and apostasy, along with death threats. Although apparently not actually an atheist, he was certainly an outspoken critic of obscurantism and fundamentalism.
“If you see the mosques spreading bitterness, hatred and racism among souls in the name of religion,” he wrote, “know that these are not places of worship for the veneration of God but places for the veneration of His preachers.” Another of his Facebook posts said:
They accuse me of atheism!
Oh you people, I see God in the flowers,
And you see Him in the graveyards,
That is the difference between me and you.
On the evening of 24 April 2016, Omar Batawil was abducted in front of his home in the Crater district of Aden. His body was found a day later in another part of the city. He had been shot.
When religion becomes inescapable
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.
“Correct” religious practice is something that countless individuals (as well as the authorities) take upon themselves to police — what Egyptian journalist Magdi Abdelhadi refers to as “micro-vigilantism”. In a blog post, Abdelhadi described how the cashier at a car service centre objected to writing his father’s first name on the paperwork because the spelling shown on his identification documents was allegedly un-Islamic. A female friend had also been harangued by a taxi driver for not covering her hair. When she replied that she was a Coptic Christian the driver insisted that she should still wear hijab because the Virgin Mary had covered her hair. This kind of harassment, incidentally, was a tactic adopted in the 1920s by Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who used to pester people with anonymous notes if he thought they were not sufficiently observant Muslims. Abdelhadi continued:
My neighbour, who has turned his garden into a small mosque with a loudspeaker strung up on the lamppost outside his house, has been joined by yet another neighbour, a few blocks away, with twoloudspeakers perched on the roof of his villa and pointing to two different directions. He occasionally lets his little boy exercise his call-to-prayer skills on the neighbourhood — which could mean four in the morning with the added exhortation that “prayer is better than sleep”.
I suspect the local council official could not enforce the law after I lodged a complaint — either because he, like my neighbours, believes they are right and the state is wrong, or that he couldn’t care less. Or both. I may never find out. However, when I again called to remind him that the problem has not been resolved, I noticed he had an Islamic ring tone on his mobile …
For those who don’t know, the call to prayer is actually broadcast on Egyptian state radio and TV (and most private networks). The prayer times are also published in all daily newspapers. You can also get a smartphone app with recorded calls to prayer with the exact timing for each … five times a day for your entire life. So there is something else at work here other than reminding people. It’s more about bullying and claiming the public space.[vi]
Most 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 can be 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 2011 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.[vii] 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.
Another sign is emphasis on 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, aroused sensitivities further 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.
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[i]. Qur’an 81:29.
[ii]. Author’s interview, May 2014.
[iii]. Husseini, Waleed al-: “Why I left Islam.” Proud Atheist blog, 30 August 2010. http://proud-a.blogspot.com/2010/08/why-i-left-islam.html
[iv]. While living in France, Husseini wrote a book about his experiences, published in French as Blasphémateur ! (Paris: Éditions Grasset, 2015) and in English as The Blasphemer: The Price I Paid for Rejecting Islam (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2017).
[v]. Gross, Michael Joseph: “Disaster Movie.” Vanity Fair, 27 December, 2012. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/12/making-of-innocence-of-muslims
[vi]. Abdelhadi, Magdy: “The age of unreason.” Blog post, 16 April 2014. http://maegdi.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/the-age-of-unreason/
[vii]. “Arab Attitudes Towards Political and Social Issues, Foreign Policy and the Media.” Poll conducted jointly by the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and Zogby International, May 2004.