By Gilgamesh Nabeel
August 1, 2017
Lara Ahmed wears a headscarf and behaves
like a pious Muslim.
But the 21-year-old Iraqi woman hides a
secret from her peers at the University of Babylon: her atheism.
“I was not convinced by the creation story
in the Quran,” she said. “Besides, I feel religions are unjust, violate our
human rights and devalue women’s identities.”
She doesn’t dare share her strong beliefs
“I wear a headscarf despite being an
atheist,” said Ms. Ahmed, who studies biology at the school, about 115 miles
south of Baghdad. “It is difficult not to wear it in southern Iraq. Few women
take the risk not to cover their hair. They face harassment everywhere.”
Her fears stem from the remarks of powerful
politicians such as Ammar al-Hakim, the head of Iraq’s Islamic Supreme Council,
a major Shiite political party and the president of the National Alliance, a
Shiite parliamentary bloc.
“Some are resentful of Iraqi society’s
adherence to its religious constants and its connection to God Almighty,” Mr.
al-Hakim said on his party’s TV channel in May, claiming a rising tide of
atheism was threatening the Arab world. “Combat these foreign ideas.”
Statistics on atheism in the Middle East
and North Africa are hazy, but analysts say Ms. Ahmed represents an increasing
trend based on recent developments.
In 2014, an Egyptian government-run Islamic
legal institute, citing a dubious international study, said that only 866
atheists lived in the country of more than 90 million. Recently released court
statistics saying thousands of Egyptian women sought divorce in 2015 claiming
their husbands were atheists — one of the few ways women can initiate divorce
under Islam — suggested the numbers might be far higher.
In 2011, the now-defunct Kurdish news
agency AKnews published a survey finding that 67 percent of Iraqis believed in
God and 21 percent said God probably existed, while 7 percent said they did not
believe in God and 4 percent said God probably did not exist.
Today, the information revolution fuelled
by the internet, the freedoms released by the Arab Spring, the growing power of
sectarian religious parties and the rise of the harsh orthodoxy of the Islamic
State have all fuelled growing unbelief in God and traditional religions, said
atheists and others.
“For youths, who are the majority of new
atheists, the savagery of the Islamic caliphate established by the Islamic
State of Iraq and Syria in 2014 created a reaction that [has] shaken the
religion’s image,” said Ali Abdulkareem Majeed, 22, a non-atheist Iraqi
sociology student who conducted a study on atheism for a religious body that he
asked not to be identified for his safety.
Social Media Shutdown
Last year, Facebook shut down more than 50
atheists, Arabic-language pages in after extremist Muslim groups campaigned to
remove them, according to a petition sent to Facebook by the Atheist
Alliance-Middle East and North Africa, a U.S.-based global atheist federation.
Many of those Facebook pages have been
since been re-launched.
In March 2015, U.S.-based Iraqi and other
Arab atheists launched the Arabic and English-language Free Mind television and
magazine websites, which promote atheistic viewpoints and have recorded more
than 1 million visits so far.
That led scholars at Al-Azhar University, a
pre-eminent Sunni Muslim centre of learning in Cairo, to call on Egyptian
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to push Free Mind organizers to repent or face
execution by beheading. Mr. el-Sissi responded by suggesting that those who
insulted religion should lose their Egyptian citizenship.
Even so, online atheist programming is
easily available in Arabic now.
Atheism is not illegal in Egypt or Iraq,
but officials often level blasphemy or other charges against atheists in those
countries. Those rejecting the faith face the death sentence in Saudi Arabia,
Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Mauritania.
Many atheists in the region say their
bigger fear is not being punished for their beliefs but that they will become
targets of violent sectarian groups seeking political support from the
“It is a distraction from the fact that
Islamists were not able to accomplish anything over the past 13 years,” said
Faisal al-Mutar, a U.S.-based Iraqi human rights activist who heads Ideas
beyond Borders, a non-profit that supports minorities in the Middle East. “So
they want to create ‘an enemy’ to keep [the] constituency united against and
avoid being held accountable for their mistakes.”
Keeping their beliefs secret is the norm
for atheists of all backgrounds throughout the region.
In Jordan, an Amman-based writer at the
Free Mind Magazine — whose last name is Farouki but who asked to keep her first
name secret — said she is nearly estranged from her family, angered by her
rebellion against religion. “They see me as insane,” said Farouki, 50.
“Jordanians cannot accept atheists, and it is highly possible to be killed if
you are one.”
Social media has provided atheists with a
meeting place and source of information.
“Most of my atheist friends have not
changed all of a sudden,” said Osama Dakhel, 21, a fine arts student in
Baghdad. “Some were so devoted at first exploring the religion’s minute
details. They start to read for Islamic reformers. Then they start to accept
other opinions, discuss atheists online and end up atheists.”
Ahmed Abdul-Aziz, 22, a medical student in
Upper Egypt, also writes openly for the Free Mind Magazine on atheism. “It is
easier to announce your ideas in Cairo,” he said. “Nobody would look after you,
but in small rural towns, everyone watches the other.” Even so, Mr. Abdul-Aziz
said, he hides his beliefs from his own family.
“They will feel angry even if I call for
some modern Islamic ideas,” he said. “I am forced to attend the Friday prayers
and fast during Ramadan. I feel uneasy to practice things I do not believe in.”
Ms. Ahmed paid a price for unwittingly
drawing notice for not praying or fasting during Ramadan at the University of
Babylon. “A colleague called me an ‘infidel’ and insisted on waking me up at
dawn to pray,” she said. “I faced problems even for not using the name of Allah
“On p. 41 2nd para. Irshad Manji states, quoting only one
Qur’anic verse without numbering it: “Read it closely and you’ll find that the
Qur’an doesn’t direct us to release all slaves, just those whom their owners
decide..” This statement betrays blatant denial or ignorance of the Qur’an’s
clear intent to phase out slavery.
one of its very early passages declares:
“(Do you know) what is the steep highway of
life? “(It is) freeing a slave, or feeding anyone close by during time of
famine, or the wretched poor lying in the dust” (90:10-15).
Since slavery was
entrenched in the pre-Islamic Arabia as elsewhere in the world with all its
stake-holders defending it, it was virtually impossible to eradicate it by a
single decree. So initially the Qur’an accommodates it such as in the early
Meccan verses 23:5/6 and 70:29/30 when the Muslims were in Mecca and were
struggling for survival and the din (social, moral code) of Islam was beginning
to emerge. However, in the later years, as the Muslims settled down in Medina,
a series of rulings were introduced to phase out slavery as summarily listed
4:92 commands the freeing of a believing
slave and paying compensation for any accidental killing of a believer.
5:89 lists the freeing of a slave as an
option to expiate a false oath taken in the earnest.
2:177 includes the freeing of slaves
among the virtues of the truly pious.
9:60 includes slaves regardless of faith
in the category of people entitled to receive charity.
58:3 requires the freeing of a slave as expiation for breaking an oath called zihar, which absolved a man of all conjugal
responsibilities to his wife, but did not give her the freedom of divorce
A Qur’anic passage also carries
explicit instruction to free and marry slaves:
“Marry off the unmarried ones among you and
those among your slaves and bondmaids
that are ready for
marriage. If they are needy, God will enrich
them of His bounty. (Remember,) God is Boundless (in mercy) and All-Knowing (24:32).
Yet those who have no (financial) means to marry should wait until God enriches
them of His bounty. And as for those under your lawful trust who seek a
contract (for freedom), draw it up for them if you know any good in them, and
give them out of the riches God has given you. And do not coerce your bondmaids
into prostitution seeking the gains of this world, when they want to be chaste
- seeking the pleasure of worldly life. But should anyone coerce them
(sexually), God will be Merciful (to them) after they have been so coerced” (24:33).
Thus Irshad Manji’s claim that “the Qur’an doesn’t direct us to release all slaves, just those whom
their owners decide” grossly plays down the
epoch making role of the Qur’an in dismantling the institution of slavery that
gave the slave-masters absolute rights over their slaves – to collar them, brand
them, whip them mercilessly, knock out their teeth and kill them by law, and
offer them and their posterity no possibility to earn freedom, let alone
treating them like cattle that can be herded, shipped overseas in chains and
sold in the slave market. .
ISLAM IS A RELIGION OF PEACE AND