Arab world: Where atheism is equated with extremism

For Muslims who publicly abandon Islam the problem is even worse. In Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen anyone convicted of apostasy faces the threat – at least in theory – of execution.

Freedom of thought needs an atmosphere of tolerance where people can speak their mind and no one is forced to accept the beliefs of others. In the Middle East, though, tolerance is in short supply and ideas that don't fit the expectations of society and governments are viewed as a threat.

Where religion is concerned, the "threat" can come from almost anyone with unorthodox ideas but especially from those who reject religion entirely.

Increasingly, atheists in Arab countries are characterised as dangerous extremists – to be feared no less than violent jihadists.

Persecuting atheists is the inevitable result of governments setting themselves up as guardians of faith. Among the 22 Arab League countries, Islam is "the religion of the state" in 16 of them: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the UAE and Yemen. 

For most of them, this is more than just a token gesture; it also serves political purposes. Embracing religion and posing as guardians of morality is one way for regimes to acquire some legitimacy, and claiming a mandate from God can be useful if they don't have a mandate from the public.

State religions, in their most innocuous form, signal an official preference for one particular kind of faith and, by implication, a lesser status for others. But the effects become far more obtrusive when governments rely on state religion as an aid to legitimacy – in which case the state religion has to be actively supported and policed. That, in turn, de-legitimises other belief systems and legitimises intolerance and discrimination directed against them. 

The policing of religion in Arab countries takes many forms, from governments appointing clerics and setting the theme for weekly sermons to the enforcement of fasting during Ramadan. 

To shield the government-approved version of religion from criticism, a variety of mechanisms can be deployed. These include laws against "defaming" religion and proselytising by non-Muslims but general laws regarding public order, telecommunications and the media may also apply.

In Algeria, for instance, the law forbids making, storing, or distributing printed or audiovisual materials with the intention of "shaking the faith" of a Muslim. In Oman, using the internet in ways that "might prejudice public order or religious values" is an imprisonable offence.

For Muslims who publicly abandon Islam the problem is even worse. In Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen anyone convicted of apostasy faces the threat – at least in theory – of execution.

Using a state religion as an aid to legitimacy turns the personal beliefs of individuals into a political issue, because disagreeing with the state's theological position also implies disloyalty to the state. Those who happen to disagree must either conform or risk becoming not only a religious dissident but a political one too.

Equating religious conformity with loyalty to the state allows Arab governments to label non-conformists not merely as dissidents but extremists. This in turn provides an excuse for suppressing them, as has been seen in Egypt with the Sisi regime's campaign against atheism and in Saudi Arabia where "promotion of atheist thought" became officially classified as terrorism.

Although Saudi Arabia's war on atheists stems from fundamentalist theology, in Egypt it's the opposite: the Sisi regime presents itself as a beacon of religious moderation. To describe the Sisi brand of Islam as moderate, though, is rather misleading. "Militantly mainstream" might be a better term. Theologically speaking it is middle-of the-road and relatively bland but also illiberal and authoritarian in character.

The result in Egypt is a kind of enforced centrism. While allowing some scope for tolerance – of other monotheistic religions, for example – the regime sets limits on discourse about religion in order to confine it to the middle ground. The main intention, obviously, was to place Islamist theology beyond the bounds of acceptability but at the other end of the spectrum it also means that atheism, scepticism and liberal interpretations of Islam have become forms of extremism.

Defining 'extremism'

Absurd as it might seem to place atheists in the same category as extremists such as terrorists and jihadists, the issue hinges on how "extremism" is defined: extreme in relation to what? Violent and intolerant extremism is a global phenomenon but confusion arises when governments try to define it by reference to national or culture-specific values.

Arab states are not the only offenders in this respect, though. They have been assisted by western governments defining "extremism" in a similar way – as rejection of a specific national culture rather than rejection of universal rights and international norms.

In its effort to prevent radicalisation of students, for example, the British government defined extremism as "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values". Also in the context of eradicating extremism, the education minister talked about actively promoting "British values" in schools.

Approaching the problem in this way invites other countries to do likewise – even if their own national and cultural values would be considered extreme in relation to universal rights and international norms. Thus, Saudis can justifiably claim that atheism is contrary to fundamental Saudi values. Furthermore, the British minister's idea of instilling British values into British schoolchildren is not very different in principle from "instilling the Islamic faith" in young Saudis – which the kingdom's Basic Law stipulates as one of the main goals of education.

This article was first published on al-Bab.



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