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.