Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Just for giggles, Saudi Arabia considers spreading atheism as an act of terror

by Salman Hameed

Here is the headline from the Independent (and many other news papers and websites): "Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents". My immediate thought was that well Saudi Arabia indeed has the potential to pass this kind of law in the 21st century. Heck, women still can't drive there and people have been executed and/or placed on death-row for much less charges (for example, see earlier posts here and here). But on the other hand, newspapers, especially in the UK (but elsewhere as well) are also capable of exaggerating issues concerning Muslims and sensationalizing utterings of any obscure Muslim cleric they can find. So what is the deal here? Well, lets say that both groups (Saudis on one hand, and a sensationphilic media on the other) have stayed true to their form.

Here is how the Independent story started:
Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of new laws which define atheists as terrorists, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.
This - if true is indeed crazy and awful. But this is not true (as accurately pointed out by Mufta's Muftic Musings). A little down the same Independent article, it says this:
Yet last month further regulations were issued by the Saudi interior ministry, identifying a broad list of groups which the government considers to be terrorist organisations - including the Muslim Brotherhood. 
Article one of the new provisions defines terrorism as "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based".
Okay - so the headline and the opening lines of the article were clearly an exaggeration, and it is the spreading of atheism that is considered terrorism. Whoa!? I mean exaggeration was quite bad but then equating "calling for atheism" as terrorism isn't exactly the most enlightened of thinking. What kind of a terror does it cause? How many instances of such "terror" have been experienced by Saudi Arabia?

I doubt that there are that many open atheists in Saudi Arabia, let alone those that are "calling for atheism" (though there are some- see an article link below). However, this a throwaway crowd-pleaser to be included in the new provisions, and it gives the authorities one more way to execute dissenters (charges of sorcery have already been used for executions).

While in this instance there is some truth to the headline, use your skeptical goggles for much of the news stories about Muslims these days.

In the mean time, there indeed were couple of news stories about atheism in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Here is a BBC news story that covers atheists in Egypt (about 3 minutes in length):

And here is an article from Al-Monitor that includes some quotes from Saudi atheists, Gulf Atheism in the Age of Social Media. The article does cite a poll on religion/atheism, but I don't know its reliability (even though it's name is Gallup - it is not the same as Gallup poll):

Although accurate figures on the number of atheists in the Gulf are nearly impossible to come by, a 2012 poll by WIN-Gallup International titled “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” published a surprising number of self-professed Saudi atheists. The researchers found that up to 5% of the Saudi respondents declared themselves to be atheist, a figure comparable to the United States and parts of Europe.

I would go with Pew survey results that show a high level of religiosity (Saudi Arabia was not included in the Pew survey, but I can imagine that it would be in the way upper 90s). This does't mean that there are no atheists - but that those that are willing to say so in anonymous polls are still negligibly small in most of the Arab world (Egypt is at 100% - even though we know that there are vocal atheists there):

You can find the Pew Forum report here.


René said...

Dear Salman,
I agree that one should sometimes be skeptical when reading news stories about muslims, but this article is a bad example, for the headline is simply true.
Perhaps not complete, but how could it be, it's a headline.

You take part of your criticism from Mr. Furber, but I think he is being dishonest.

I have a problem when he writes: "The anti-terror atheist provision concerns individuals calling to atheism. Clearly, the wording does not include individuals who are silent about their atheism.".
He acts as if one can easily be an atheist in SA and that not being able to talk about it is a trivial matter.
I think that shows an awful amount of disrespect. Or maybe a blatant ignorance, but I think he's to smart for that.

"...only spreading atheism was declared terrorism – not atheism per se..."
Oh please -and this is why I said dishonest- we know that, in Saudi law, a single word about atheism equals propagating it.
Which means de facto that atheism is (a form of) terrorism.

Salman Hameed said...

Dear Rene,
I can see that Furber's comments are not exactly honest (after all he agrees with the linking spreading of atheism with terrorism). But I guess the question centers around what you have written at the bottom of your comment: " Saudi law, a single word about atheism equals propagating it". I can see this being true in practice, but don't know if this is how "spreading atheism is defined" in the new Saudi provisions. Nevertheless, I take your point. I am trying to take a more charitable view here. So the difference would be between Christians in SA versus proselytizing Christianity. I'm pretty sure that the latter is against law in SA (though not equated with terrorism) but former is not. A headline saying that "Christianity is outlawed in SA" would I think be more incendiary than "Proselytizing of Christianity outlawed in SA". That is where I was coming from - while also being flabbergasted by the insane move to equate "spreading of atheism" with terrorism.

René said...

Thanks for your quick reaction Salman,
I think you are right when you write: "but don't know if this is how "spreading atheism is defined" in the new Saudi provisions.".
Indeed I also don't think it is in the letter of the law, though in the spirit it sure is.
Sometimes I find it hard to express myself clearly in English. (I had first written "in Saudi eyes")