This was first published at NOW.
In the Arab world, the public declaration of religious disbelief is as taboo as the open profession of homosexuality. Publically-declared atheists and agnostics can wave goodbye to social respect, marriage prospects, even legal recognition. Yet a 2012 poll in Saudi Arabia – a state whose legal system equates atheism with terrorism, and which potentially applies the death penalty to apostates – found that 19% described themselves as ‘not religious’ and a further 5% as atheists.
In his new book “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East” (soon to be translated into Arabic as ‘Arab bala Rab’) journalist Brian Whitaker interviews activist and quietist unbelievers from around the region, and investigates the pressures ranged against them. Most usefully, the book provokes a question – how can a revived Arab secularism (freed from the taint of the so-called ‘secular’ dictatorships) provide a future in which the rights of religious majorities as well as unbelieving or sectarian minorities will be respected and strengthened?
Demands to believe and submit go far beyond religion. Whitaker quotes sociologist Haleem Barakat, who noted that, like God, the Arab head of state and the Arab family patriarch require absolute respect and unquestioning compliance. “They are the shepherds, and the people are the sheep.” (This is why ‘rab’ – which means ‘Lord’ rather than only the monotheist God – is as apt a translation as ‘Allah’ for the book’s Arabic title). So intellectual atheism is perceived as an attack on family and state, and on community solidarity. The contemporary politicisation of religious identity makes unbelief akin to treason in some minds; for this reason minority sects, dissenters and atheists are frequently seen as fifth columnists, agents weakening state and nation on behalf of foreign powers.
Identity politics in the region took on its modern forms with the building of centralised nation states. Nationalism itself was an assertion of a politicised cultural identity, first against the Ottomans, then against the European empires. For the new rulers of post-independence states, a fear of disloyal communities turned to a generalised rage for homogeneity – ‘the good citizen’, depending on where they found themselves, was to be an Arab, or a Muslim, (or a Turk, or a Jew) as imagined by the state. Many states standardised dress, dialect and worship.
The state’s top-down approach to culture is infectious. Opposition groups too, whether nationalist, leftist or Islamist, have sought to emulate the rulers by seizing control of the state apparatus and imposing their vision from above.
Whitaker points to the failure of secular nationalism as demonstrated by the 1967 war as a turning point. Certainly the often-posed dichotomy between ‘secular’ dictatorships and activist Islamism is a false one – it was during the reign of the security states that Salafism came to dominate, for a variety of reasons. Some – like rapid urbanisation and population explosion – would have applied anyway; other factors were a direct result of oppression. Leftist and democratic alternatives were silenced or eliminated. Islamism was sometimes co-opted, usually repressed, and never combatted on the level of ideas. The European association of secularism with freedom of thought and expression never existed in the Arab states. Secularism didn’t mean the irrelevance of private belief to citizenship but the intrusion of the state into private life.
In Syria, a rhetorical secularism coexisted with a reality in which the regime’s security chiefs were overwhelmingly drawn from the Alawi sect. Public discussion of this fact was taboo, as was any public examination of the differences between the sects. As a result, the unlanced boil of sectarian resentment seethed in secret.
After the Muslim Brotherhood challenge of the 1980s had been put down in blood, concessions were sometimes made to reactionary Islamist demands – to ban certain books for example – and photogenic Islamist violence was sometimes allowed or encouraged as a message to threatening foreign powers. In the wake of the 2006 Danish cartoons affair, for instance, an angry crowd was permitted to attack the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Damascus. More significantly, Damascus facilitated the passage of jihadists to US-occupied Iraq, calculating that an Iraqi bloodbath would deter the Americans from Syrian regime change.
Today Iran and Assad on the one side and Sunni jihadists on the other exploit sectarian identity to rouse the cannon fodder they require to implement their respective authoritarian projects. The extremes on both sides feed off each other. Assad released hardline Salafists from prison in 2011 (simultaneously targetting non-violent, non-sectarian activists for assassination) because he knew their acts and rhetoric would terrify minority groups into loyalty to his regime. And the Sunni jihadists love the presence of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia on the battlefield, because it reinforces their narrative – that Syria is not engaged in a revolutionary war for democracy and self-determination, but in a defensive war against an international Shia conspiracy.
No section of the people profits from this cruel game. In the Alawi community perhaps a third of fighting age men are dead, sacrificed to a dying dictatorship. An enormous proportion of the Sunni population has been killed, injured, imprisoned or displaced. And unless Syrians can surpass the identities fashioned for them by policemen and war lords, their country faces a future of sectarian dismemberment.
But the potential alternative can be found in Syria too, in the councils and committees in which local people cooperate on the practical business of living, to provide themselves with education, sanitation, and health care in the absence of the state. Most people involved are religious, but this self-organisation, where it works well, is a pure and natural form of secularism. Everyone is entitled to their personal, ethnic and sectarian identity, and of course to their spiritual beliefs. But these ties are largely irrelevant when neighbours organise on specific issues.
The Iraqi civil war, the regional counter-revolutions, the rise of Daesh and the failure to contain it – all these are examples of how the old identity politics have failed the Arabs in general, foiling specifically their desire to live free and dignified lives. True believers as much as atheists have been exploited, oppressed and murdered by political actors claiming religious or sectarian authority.
Disgusted by the political uses of religion, today a surprising number of Syrian activists admit privately to atheism, or at least mistrust of organised religion. And many more religious activists than before understand the importance of freedom of thought. When, for example, the Aleppo-based activist Basel al-Junaidi was briefly detained by militia for speaking out for secularism, Islamist as well as secular activists protested for his release.
In any case, it seems very unlikely that tormented Arab societies are about to lose their religious character. Brian Whitaker quotes Phil Zuckerman’s conclusions after studying UN Human Development Index data: “Societal health seems to cause widespread atheism, and societal insecurity seems to cause widespread belief in God.” This observation doesn’t of course disprove religion, but it does suggest why Arab societies are, outwardly at least, so much more religious than half a century ago.