Mystery of the ‘jailed atheist’ in Saudi Arabia

Britain’s three worst newspapers — the Daily Express, the Sun and the Daily Mail — along with the dreadful Jihadwatch website and the Russian Sputnik propaganda site have suddenly become excited about the plight of atheists in Saudi Arabia.

During the last few days they have all reported that the kingdom has sentenced a 28-year-old man to 10 years’ imprisonment, 2,000 lashes and a fine of around £4,000 for professing his atheism in 600 tweets on Twitter.

This seems to be a case of reporters not enquiring too deeply for fear of discovering some facts that might spoil a good story.

The first problem with this tale is that it’s six months old — unless this is the second time that Saudi Arabia has sentenced a 28-year-old man to 10 years’ imprisonment, 2,000 lashes and a fine of around £4,000 for professing his atheism in 600 tweets on Twitter. Here’s the original story, as published by the Independent last February.

The second problem with the story is that the convicted atheist was not named in the original report by the Saudi newspaper, al-Watan, and he hasn’t been identified subsequently. That would not be particularly unusual in Saudi Arabia but it does raise questions about whether he actually exists.

On social media, Arab atheists are a fairly small community and it’s hard to imagine that a Saudi who posted hundreds of tweets “denying the existence of God, ridiculing the Qur’anic verses, accusing all prophets of lies,” etc, etc, would not have had some contact with his fellow atheists. If he suddenly stopped tweeting (as a result of his arrest) it’s likely that this would also have been noticed and that others would have shown some concern about his disappearance.

When the story first surfaced in February I made enquiries among Arab atheists and nobody seemed to know anything about the man. One person suggested the whole story might be an invention by the Saudi authorities aimed at deterring atheist discussion on social media.

As to whether the 28-year-old atheist exists, I shall remain agnostic until someone produces some evidence.

Originally published at al-bab.com.

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

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