Since the start of the Arab Spring, atheism has become a growing social phenomenon in the region, with an increasing presence on social media outlets. In his timely book, Arabs without God, Brian Whitaker, British journalist and former Middle East editor at The Guardian, explores this rarely studied but recurrent phenomenon in the Arab world. Juxtaposing the new wave of atheism with existing social and political discourses in the region, Whitaker highlights the complexities of this intellectual revolution, while also presenting possible solutions for its accommodation in a part of the globe known for its religiosity.
When Arabs Abandon Religion
For the average Arab, religion largely serves as a frame of reference for morality, values, and codes of behavior, both consciously and unconsciously. Similar to membership in an exclusive club, religion provides its followers with a sense of belonging, pride, and privilege in the Arab world. More often than not, however, this membership is involuntary and imposed by society as well as the state.
In a region where religion is enshrined in most constitutions, an individual’s relationship with his or her faith is a matter of public concern, reflected on national identity cards and affecting legal proceedings involving marriage, divorce, and custody matters. In addition to this, religion is an instrument of control used by Arab regimes to reign in their citizens. With their legitimacy threatened by deviations from proscribed religious traditions, regional states enforce religious codes as a way to stave off uncertainty and political instability.
In contrasting the journey taken by Arab atheists with those of their Western counterparts, Whitaker highlights the disenchanting personal experiences Arab non-believers have undergone in rejecting a God in which state and society has told them they are required to believe. According to Whitaker, the road toward non-belief for Arab atheists is usually a slow one with little basis in the “science-versus-religion debate” prevalent in the West. Instead, the journey for Arab atheists is often grounded in the “apparent unfairness of divine justice,” in questions like why do bad religious people go unpunished (either by the cosmos or society) while good non-believers are not spared?
As Whitaker shows, in religious societies, questioning “divine fairness” does not only pose a challenge to community ethos or state authority. By exercising their right to “offend, shock and disturb” societal norms, Arab non-believers also experience an inner struggle. Whitaker describes this experience as a two-step process. First, in their journey toward atheism, individual Arabs often recount the constant reminders and warnings, received from an early age, about an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God whose punishment for disbelief and non-conformity is inevitable in this life and the hereafter. Second, many non-believers find solace away from this narrative in literary works on existentialism, morality, and religion written by Western as well as Arab philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Abd al-Rahman Badawi, and Albert Camus. For these individuals, these works help transform personal doubts into a grander theoretical inquiry into the nature of religion and God.
In perhaps the most engaging chapter of “Arabs without God,” Whitaker provides a revealing historical account of Arab and Muslim free-thinkers. Representing an often purposefully ignored aspect of Arab history and religion, these individuals challenge preconceived notions about Muslim states and societies as always fundamentally intolerant of criticism. Whitaker traces waves of atheism throughout Islamic history and briefly highlights the golden age of intellectual reform, through Islamic thinkers like Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri, and Omar al-Khayam, who proclaimed their non-belief at various points. Whitaker emphasizes that, other than Rawandi, these individuals were not necessarily labeled atheists, but instead described as free-thinkers or heretics.
As the author also argues, in expressing their doubts about the prophetic tradition and the divine, these philosophers as well as others, did not necessarily eschew a belief system for shaping their lives and aiding them in rationalizing and interpreting the world and their own actions. Rawandi and Abu Bakr al-Razi, another respected ninth century scholar, criticized Islam but also believed reason was a sufficient source for the “knowledge of good and evil.” Indeed, both then and now, Arab atheists have offered humanism as a counter-argument to organized religion, substituting a morality shaped by religious tenets with one guided by human reason.
The Business of Peddling Religion
In attempting to describe religion’s role in Arab politics and society, Whitaker adopts what is essentially a liberal, free-market analysis. He compares domestic laws on religion and public religious practices in Arab countries to “old-fashioned” economic policies; whereas the latter restricts the import of foreign goods, the former limits the introduction of alien or novel ideas about religion and God. In adopting this approach, Whitaker seems to view the “protectionism” of state religion as shielding Islam from ideological competition. In Whitaker’s view, this strategy undermines Islam’s religious force, since “the idea that a religion needs to be protected in this way does not say much for the convictions of its followers or the merits of its creed.”
This protectionism should not, however, come as a surprise in countries where state legitimacy is based on religion. As Whitaker notes, regional countries rely on a range of religious sources of authority, such as direct lineage from Prophet Muhammad, as in the case of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, as well as specious self-ordained labels such as “Commander of the Faithful,” which is used by Morocco’s monarch, Mohammed VI.
Religion also plays an important role in protecting the state from dissent. The terms fitna and hesba, which have deep roots in the Quran, are, for example, used by the state for political purposes. In the longest chapter of the Quran, fitna (the Arabic word for sedition, discord, and strife) is described as having a greater social impact than murder. As Whitaker observes, Arab governments justify their rejection of atheism based on fears that a free exchange of ideas will ultimately lead to social strife. Hesba, on the other hand, is the Islamic notion of collective responsibility for promoting good and rejecting evil. In advocating for hesba, Arab governments encourage their citizens to maintain a watchful eye and report any religious or behavioral deviations, in order to guarantee stability and prevent fitna.
In these ways, notions of social discord and collective responsibility have become pretexts for intellectual inflexibility and the pursuit of opportunistic score-settling against potential threats to the status quo. Whitaker’s discussion leaves one wondering, however, if notions of fitna and hesba exist in other religions and how their followers are impacted by the ways regional states use these terms.
Losing Religion and Choosing the Self
Social alienation also drives some Arabs, especially women and homosexuals, to reject religion. In his book, Whitaker navigates the ways in which patriarchy, familial discrimination, as well as social marginalization, push women and homosexuals away from their religion.
On their road to non-belief, women and homosexuals each develop a unique set of characteristics, expressing their private feelings within tightly guarded circles of trust while mirroring social expectations in public. For example, Whitaker’s book contains examples from ex-Muslim women and homosexuals who felt comfortable sharing their non-belief with selected immediate family members, while continuing to superficially display their religious affiliations.
Whitaker attributes this unique identity formation to two things. The first has to do with the “comfort factor,” which encourages those who are insecure to seek religion, or the pretense of religion, for protection from harassment or persecution. The second has to do with “faith plasticity,” which involves “reshaping orthodox concepts of God and faith to fit their needs.”
Although Whitaker does not explicitly claim that women’s subjugation is fueled by forces other than religion, he does not shy away from emphasizing the twisted effects patriarchy has on their daily lives. In male-dominated societies, like those in the Arab world, a woman’s piety, virtue, and family honor is assessed through her outward demonstrations of religiosity. Nonconformity and deviation from strict religious practices are automatically linked to negative portrayals of female chastity and virtue, thus paving the way toward “popular association[s] of atheism with immorality.” This social stigma serves to deter women from questioning religious codes of conduct, including the ultimate belief in God and religious forms of dress.
As Whitaker argues, patriarchy is a double-edged sword that both pushes women to abandon religion and also, ironically, creates indecisiveness about quitting their faith, thanks to an ingrained tendency to comply with social norms.
Unlike some Western churches that slowly accepted female ordination, theological arguments and social rejection have relegated Muslim women to the inferior position of silent worshipers. There have been campaigns to change the status quo, including allowing women to pray alongside men, rather than in separate rooms or on segregated floors of mosques, and permitting female imams to lead prayers. None of these attempts have, however, been successful in the Arab world.
For their part, Arab LGBTQ communities endure constant persecution and harassment by state agencies, as well as private citizens who adhere to mainstream Islam. For some LGBTQ Arabs, things are further complicated by doubts about prevailing religious belief systems. Some of these individuals chose to pursue this “double-coming-out.” Other atheist homosexuals in the Arab world, however, continue to weigh their options as to which identity – atheist or homosexual – is less risky for them to publicly assume.
Interestingly, Whitaker shows that some agnostic Arab homosexuals find solace within a middle ground of spirituality. This is not an outright rejection of faith, but rather a step toward distancing themselves from organized religion, which allows them to construct their distinctive personal identities while maintaining the minimum religiosity required by society.
In tackling complex issues of gender and sexuality in relation to religion, Whitaker has undertaken the difficult task of mapping the region’s multifaceted atheist sub-groups based on gender and sexuality. Although he does not address the compounded problems faced by atheist LBT feminist groups, the author certainly challenges perspectives that dismiss the affects individual experiences have on the journey toward disbelief.
Dialectics of Belief and Non-Belief
In reading Arabs without God, one notices the recurring theme of duality, in many forms. The book includes categories of believers and non-believers, activist non-believers and quietest non-believers, defensive ex-Muslims and offensive ex-Muslims. There are also contrasts made between reason and emotion, and confrontation and self-censorship, to mention a few examples. Whitaker does not, however, confine himself to describing these dichotomies in broad terms, but rather highlights the nuances that exist between and within them.
For instance, some Arab states base their constitutions both on Sharia law as well as international principles of human rights. In this context, Whitaker dedicates considerable space to questions about religious privileges and discrimination.
He demonstrates how both Arab and non-Arab countries use religion as a basis for selecting heads of state. While constitutions in some Arab states require presidents to be Muslim, Andorra and Lebanon specify Christian heads of states, while Bhutan and Thailand require their leaders be Buddhist.
What Whitaker fails to recognize, however, is that social, political, and legal manifestations of this practice are not entirely exclusive to the non-Western world. In the United States, separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Despite these guarantees however, religious discrimination regularly occurs in America at workplaces, places of worship, and even during the naturalization process, which discriminates against atheists by requiring a “religious objection” for any refusal to take up arms to defend the country.
The Myth of Cultural Exceptionalism
In making the case for freedom from religion, Whitaker argues that in the contemporary Arab world the “opening-up of public discourse during the last few years, the flow of ideas and the challenging of the status quo has some parallels with the European Enlightenment and may well have similar effects.” To this extent, he argues that the region’s purported social and political awakening may deprive Arab governments of the foundation for their legitimacy, since a “pious government” is no longer seen as necessarily a “competent” one.
While Whitaker’s argument may be valid, it is not entirely realistic to dismiss religion’s social role in the Arab world. Religiosity is intertwined with the worldview of many Arabs, even if its relationship with some of these individuals may be transient.
For Muslims, who represent the majority of Arabs, the religious concept of fitrah – according to which all humans are naturally born into Islam, as the one true religion–is fundamental and ingrained in their minds and hearts. Challenging this concept requires techniques and tactics that acknowledge the “religious relativism” of Islam, although this may be a hard sell given its power over the lives of Muslims.
Nevertheless, for non-believers to achieve recognition in the Arab world, they must adopt a bottom-up approach and harness voices of reason among those believers who acknowledge that atheism is a valid intellectual phenomenon, rather than a temporary behavioral choice. By engaging in open discussions, Arab atheists and believers from all Abrahamic religious backgrounds can hope to reach some sort of reconciliation.
A timely book, Arabs without God challenges the monolithic image of religion as permeating all aspects of life in the Middle East region, by uncovering the spiritual and humanistic perspectives held by some Arabs. Whitaker’s balanced exploration of the Arab world’s new wave of atheism is well-researched and supported by numerous first-hand interviews as well as a multitude of end-notes for those looking for further reading on the subject.