Atheism, the taboo of the Muslim world

From the Maghreb to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, atheists are increasingly numerous. This is an investigation into this atheism that bothers and frightens the Muslim world.

Bahous would like not to hear anymore about Islam. Even not talk about it at all. But whatever he does, whatever he says, this 33-year-old man, a salesman in Voiron (Isère), is always brought back to his supposed religion.

His atheism sometimes intrigues, sometimes disturbs. When you come from a Muslim family and culture like him, not believing in God - and above all telling about it - opens the way to a life of misunderstandings, renunciations, ruptures." I am submitted to two very different gazes" Bahous explains. "For the society, because of my appearance, my name, the colour of my skin, I am de facto Muslim. You can't imagine that I'm just French. But for my family, I'm the ugly little duck. They consider me as a "francized [French-ified?] person": to be an atheist is to betray one's origins, as if being a Muslim was an origin. As a result, I feel compelled to always justify myself on all fronts."

Bahous had written to Le Monde in February, answering our call for testimonies about Muslims who had lost their faith. When we approached him again in November, nothing had changed for him: he always felt that he was living in this "strange in-between", where he feels compelled to constantly state that he is neither "Islamophobic nor Islamophilic".

Kind of ironic for an atheist: "After the attacks [ie. terrorist attacks in French], I was asked to disassociate myself from the attackers..." His family, especially his elder brother, never accepted his renunciation of Islam. Since he announced his atheism, the two men haven't been seeing each other. Bahous, however, may consider himself lucky: his mother, to whom he opened up his doubts about the existence of God as a teenager, does not approve of this choice but tolerates it.

"In some families, announcing one's atheism can be even more complicated than announcing one's homosexuality," says sociologist Houssame Bentabet, who has been working since 2014 on a thesis devoted to the phenomenon of renouncing one's faith among Muslims in France. This subject has never been studied in a systematic way. It is all the less known that these atheists prefer to make themselves discreet in a context where, in France at least, the conflict between "Islamo-left-wing", considered too tolerant of political Islam, and "Islamophobes", accused of "waging war on Muslims", monopolizes the debates.

Persecution, assault and murder

Discretion is even more necessary in Muslim countries, where this renunciation, if public, provokes much more violent reactions: bullying, persecution, aggression and even murder. Atheism is simply not conceivable.

Even if there is no specific word in Arabic for atheism (the terms used - mulhid, murtad or kafir - evoke more heresy or apostasy and have a pejorative connotation), the atheist is sometimes seen as more dangerous than the Islamic terrorist.

"If you are Lebanese, you can belong in the law to eighteen different communities. If you are Egyptian, you can be Muslim, Christian or Jewish," says religious historian Dominique Avon. The law is applied to groups, not individuals; it is primarily community law. However, an atheist does not fall into any of the categories provided for in Muslim law. Only that of the apostastes."

This phenomenon is not new in the Islamic world. "There have always been intellectuals, writers and academics who have been able to say punctually that they did not believe in God ", continues Dominique Avon. Thus, the Egyptian writer Ismaïl Adham (1911-1940) made a scandal in the early 1930s by questioning the authenticity of the Hadith (speeches attributed to the prophet Muhammad) and publishing "Why I am an atheist".

And Saudi writer Abdullah Al-Qasimi (1907-1996) denied the existence of God: he survived two assassination attempts. More recently, Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen have been persecuted for their writings deemed blasphemous. "But what is new", the historian continues, "is that nowadays young people who have not been to university publicly declare that they are atheists through social networks, ."

With the advent of the Internet, the phenomenon is becoming more and more widespread. But by making public their renunciation of Islam, these atheists expose themselves to great risks. Waleed Al-Husseini was 21 years old in 2010 when he was arrested in his hometown of Qalqilya in the West Bank. His only crime was to declare himself an atheist on his blog instead of keeping this secret for himself. An "affront to religious sentiment", according to a Palestinian court. After ten months in prison, during which he says he was tortured, he was finally able to leave for Paris, where he obtained refugee status and founded the French branch of the Council of Former Muslims in 2013.

"No more serious misconduct"

But why should one define oneself as "ex-Muslim" when the idea is precisely to distance oneself from religion? "Once they stop trying to kill me, I can stop defining myself that way", explains Maryam Namazie. "I don't want anything to do with Islam anymore. But today, it is still invading my life." This Iranian woman, who has been living in London since 1979, is upsetting a lot of people by her verve and her uncompromising speech against political Islam. In 2007, she had the idea of federating those who renounced Islam like her in an association, the Council of Former Muslims of Great Britain. Since 2014, she has held four conferences in London on freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The last one, on 22 and 23 July, was unprecedented by its success: some 70 participants from 30 countries gathered in a luxurious conference room at Covent Garden - a place kept secret until the last minute for fear of aggression.

Each one after the other, atheists from Morocco, Lebanon, Turkey, Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan... told the audience about their experiences of bullying, persecution and, often, exile, when they proclaimed their lack of faith, defended secularism, debated and blasphemed without fear of reprisals." It was the largest gathering of ex-Muslims in history," says Namazie.

How many are there, of these atheists condemned to hide so as not to be persecuted? It's hard to figure it out. But, according to a 2012 WIN/Gallup international poll on religiosity and atheism, 5% of respondents in Saudi Arabia declared themselves atheists. The same proportion... as in the United States! In the Arab world in general, 77 per cent of respondents said they were "religious", 18 per cent said they were "non-religious" and 2 per cent said they were "atheists", compared to 84 per cent, 13 per cent and 2 per cent respectively in Latin America, a predominantly Catholic region.

"The Egyptian authorities, on the other hand, give figures approaching zero; if this were really the reality, one wonders why atheism would frighten so much the highest religious authority in the country, Al-Ahzar University, of which one of the Ulemas said that there is no more serious fault than being an atheist," points out historian Dominique Avon.

"It was asphyxiating."

According to the Report on Freedom of Conscience published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, an organization founded in 1952 in Amsterdam (Netherlands), atheism, considered as a blasphemy, an offence against religion or a disorder of public order, is penalized in some thirty Muslim countries.

In fourteen of them, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the penalty is death, even though most countries have renounced to apply the sentence. However, the pressure continues. One of the most publicized cases was that of Saudi blogger Raïf Badaoui, sentenced in 2013 to a thousand lashes and ten years in prison. Despite an international mobilization calling for his release, he still lies in a cell for daring to criticize Islam.

If they are not condemned by the authorities, the ex-Muslims are condemned by their relatives. Imad Iddine Habib can testify to this. This 27 year old Moroccan, placed in a Koranic school at the age of 5, knew very quickly that he did not believe in God:"I didn't want to go to the mosque any more; it was asphyxiating, I thought it was stupid. For seven years, that's all I was made to study: religion. When I was 13, I told my family that I didn't believe in God. She denied me and I left." For years, he lived at the mercy of "an entire economy that benefits from street children in Morocco," he says with restraint. Today, Imad is a refugee in London. He participated in three of the four conferences organized by Maryam Namazie. He evokes his journey with a soft voice; long dreadlocks surround a baby face. However, his story is as arid as the Western Sahara from which he originated: "My own father, supported by Islamists' lawyers, filed a complaint against me when I created the Council of ex-Muslims in Morocco. So I ran away."

Blogs, forums and social networks

Mohamed Alkhadra, a 25-year-old Jordanian teenager who called himself a Salafist and dreamed of "re-establishing the caliphate", decided to hide his atheism from his family. "She'd be destroyed if she found out. But they don't have access to the Internet, so they won't know" he reassures himself, as he waits to speak at the London conference. For him, as for many others, the change came from consulting the Web. "It was a revelation to learn that I could leave Islam. I didn't even know it was possible", says Imad Iddine Habib of Morocco.

"The Internet has made it possible to put the atheists of the Muslim world in connection, to make them realize that they are not alone, that it is not necessarily a question of blasphemy but of doubting and asking questions" says sociologist Houssame Bentabet.

Blogs, forums, social networks... Testimonies abound, atheism becomes militant - and global. In November 2015, the Council of Former Muslims of Great Britain launched a campaign on Twitter with the keyword #ExMuslimBecause ("ex-MuslimBecause"). In just 24 hours, 120,000 people from 65 countries publicly explained why they had left Islam.

The reaction of the authorities, but also of the Islamists, came promptly. Some preachers did not hesitate to call to kill the apostates. In Bangladesh, they have been heard: at least six bloggers and a publisher have been murdered since 2015 because of their atheism. "Thanks to the Internet, social networks, which can be consulted on mobile phones, there are more and more groups of atheists or activists defending secularism and freedom of conscience", asserts Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, a publisher who himself was brutally attacked in October 2015, and a refugee in Norway, from where he answers the world's questions on the phone. Founder of Shuddhashar magazine, he has edited many atheist bloggers.

Always in fear

No Muslim-majority country is immune to the phenomenon. In Turkey, a country that was once a secular country, the situation has deteriorated considerably since Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power, and in particular since the coup attempt of 15 July 2016: aggressions against women because of their clothing or against people who do not respect Ramadan, reshaping school curricula to replace Darwin's theory of evolution or the principles of Atatürk with religion courses and the story of the failed putsch.

Even Tunisia, which is an exception in the Muslim world, is concerned. The movement of "desjeuneurs", who ostensibly refuse to respect Ramadan, has grown there, as well as in Morocco and Algeria. But always in fear. "It is hard to reveal you are an atheist in Tunisia today", regrets director Nadia El Fani. "I was considered a terrorist simply because in my film, Neither Allah nor Master, I defended secularism."

Denounced by three lawyers close to the Islamist Ennahda party, she was accused in 2011 of inciting religious hatred and... religious extremism. Threatened with death, she moved to France and was unable to return to Tunisia for five years, until 4 November, at the invitation of the Carthage Film Days, during which her film Even Not Bad was screened. Thanks to the facy that in June, her case was finally dismissed without further action." Things are evolving", she admits. On 25 October, an organisation explicitly mentioning atheism in its statutes, the "Association of Free Thinkers", and was recognised by the Tunisian authorities. A first in the Arab-Muslim world.

Perpetrators of violence rarely worried

There are other signs of ongoing change in Muslim societies."In Morocco, in 2016, six members of the High Council of Ulemas, who had signed a fatwa four years earlier in the opposite direction, wrote that it was no longer possible in the current context to apply the death penalty to apostates", underlines Dominique Avon. However, this evolution does not convince Imad Iddine Habib, who adds "a bit fascit is still fascist".

In any case, the perpetrators of violence against ex-Muslims are rarely prosecuted by the authorities. In Bangladesh, the government denies that foreign-inspired Islamist groups are active in the country, and investigations are slow, as Rafida Bonya Ahmed testifies. In February 2015, this Bangladeshi woman was walking the streets of Dhaka, the capital, with her husband, blogger Avijit Roy (published by Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury), when they were attacked by machete-wielding men. She was seriously injured. He didn't survive it.

Invited to the London conference, this determined little woman, who keeps visible scars of her aggression, recounts her ordeal in a quiet voice. "In some cases there have been a few arrests, but few killers have been tried", she says. In February 2016, the authorities said they arrested the main assailant, but a few months later, while he was supposed to be under surveillance, he was killed in a shooting." From the United States, Rafida Bonya Ahmed has been helping bloggers and atheist writers persecuted in her country. "After what happened to me, I could be pessimistic and hateful ", she adds, " but I'm not. We must continue to fight for the rights of atheists."

Exile in Europe

Depending on their current political interests, authorities repress expressions of atheism or, on the contrary, close their eyes and let it happen, sometimes under pressure from Western countries. For Rafida Bonya Ahmed, there is no doubt that the Bangladeshi government wants to secure the Islamists' vote.

"It's clearly political", says sociologist Houssame Bentabet. Like the pardon granted by the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, while he was visiting Germany, to the television columnist Islam Behery, sentenced to one year in prison at the request of Al-Azhar University because he criticized certain texts of Islam. According to Houssame Bentabet, "the purpose of this grace was to make it appear that Egypt is on the side of the free thinkers". And if the Palestinian Authority was so hard on Waleed Al-Husseini, whose influence as a blogger was actually negligible, it was certainly because it had to counter Hamas Islamists at the time.

book of waleed al husseini The Blasphemer: The Price I Paid for Rejecting Islam

So many choose exile. In Europe, they find themselves in a situation they would never have imagined: persecuted in the Arab-Muslim world by Islamists and authorities, those who have renounced Islam are classified in the West as "Islamophobes".

For ex-Muslims, whose positions are diverse and among whom the same debates occur as in the rest of the society - on the wearing of the veil or burkini, for example - the criticism of Islam is as necessary today as the criticism of Catholicism was at the time of the separation of the Church and the State in France at the beginning of the twentieth century. But soe statements and some stances do not help to have a calm debate.

When the Indian writer Ibn Warraq argues that the problem is not just Muslim fundamentalism, but Islam itself, this affirmation shocks many. But, those critics of Islam argue, you absolutely must be radical when criticizing Islam. " I say "Let's go, let's take the offensive!" Yes, we have the right to shout that we are atheist, that we find that religions, all religions, are stupid" says Tunisian director Nadia El Fani, who adds:" We've never seen an atheist kill a religious."

Disenchantment with "Islamo-Leftistism."

In a context of often virulent anti-Islamic discourse, those ex-Muslims run the risk of being used by others. What critics call "Islamic left-wingism" - embodied in the current French debate by Mediapart and its director Edwy Plenel - leaves these atheists, often young and with little experience of militancy, at the mercy of true Islamophobes.

"The ex-Muslim needs to confirm his choice, permanently", analyses Houssame Bentabet. "He has this need to coexist with the Muslim past, to say: "That's what I don't want to be anymore." And in this reconstruction, there may be some recuperation, because there's a better chance of being recuperated when you have to rebuild your life at 22 or 23."

This is exactly what Waleed Al-Husseini experienced when he arrived in France after spending ten months in Palestinian jails. "For him, this torture is Islam", underlines Houssame Bentabet. "It was Islam that prevented him from being free to think what he wants."

The young man, who does not chew his words, does not hesitate to call Islam a "religion of terror". Immediately relayed by the Islamophobic site Riposte laïque, Waleed Al-Husseini, who wrote in his book "A French treason" (Ring, 300 pages, 18 euros) about his disenchantment with some leftists' tolerance of Islam, does not defend himself from this proximity. "They're the only ones who support me! ", he justifies himself, full of bitterness.

"Ex-Muslims make a discourse about Islam that others do not dare to make for fear of being politically incorrect. What an hypocrisy!" argues the Indian writer Ibn Warraq, who is a signatory, along with French essayist Caroline Fourest, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, of "Manifesto of the Twelve", an appeal to the fight against Islamism that was published by Charlie Hebdo on March 1,2006. People have quickly forgotten what "being Charlie" is [reference to the slogan Je suis Charlie]: it's the right to criticize Islam, even to make fun of it."

Recovery by the far right

During the London conference, there were no hard enough words against this left wing which, according to many speakers, leaves the criticism of Islam to xenophobes, which has led some to perceive it as cowardly, even treacherous and irresponsible.

Victims of assaults or attempted assassinations by Islamists do not understand being assimilated to the extreme right. "What are your priorities? While we die, you talk about Islamophobia!", said the young Jordanian Mohamed Alkhadra, under thunderous applause.

The extreme right-wing, on the other hand, does not take precautions. Turkish Cemal Knudsen Yucel tells how, after founding the Council of Ex-Muslims of Norway, where he has lived since 2005, no politician contacted him. Apart from, of course, the extreme right-wing extremism, which has managed to adapt its discourse and no longer attacks immigrants head-on, but attacks Islam - a strategy also at work in France, at the National Front. Even blogger Fjordman, the one who inspired Anders Behring Breivik [the neo-Nazi terrorist responsible for the attacks in Oslo and Utoya Island, which killed 77 people in July 2011], has changed. He supports us immigrants, so he can't be racist!".



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