Friday, December 05, 2014

A new book on atheism in the Middle East

by Salman Hameed

About a year ago, I had a post about growing open atheism in Egypt where I pointed to a possible trend in increasing self-expression, including in the domain of religious beliefs. Among the various factors contributing to it, university education and the exposure of other ideas via the internet and social media are perhaps the most important ones. It is the notion of "personal religion" that is, perhaps, allowing the possibility of more open atheistic and/or agnostic stances in contemporary Muslim societies (also see this earlier post about secular bloggers in Bangladesh and a backlash against them orchestrated by Jammat-e-Islami). There is a fascinating subject and Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East by British journalist, Brian Whitaker, directly deals with this topic. Here is a review from Muftah:
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.
There is an interesting claim that the path to atheism for many in the Middle East may different than the usual path to atheism in "West":
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.
I don't know the empirical accuracy of the claim, but it is nevertheless a fascinating claim. I wonder if we will see a similar difference within western societies based on socio-economic status with a similar conception of God. But Whitaker goes on to provide a broader history of Arab and Muslim freethinkers as well:
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.
By the way, if you are interested in this history, you should also check out Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History. One of the chapters in there is devoted to Muslim freethinkers. But back to the present, Whitaker documents other reasons for turning away from religion as well, in particular, social alienation:
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.
But this is all the more relevant for LGBTQ communities in the Middle East:
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.
Atheism in the contemporary Muslim societies is a relatively unexplored topic and it is great to see a book about it. You can read the full review here

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