The American newspaper Washington Post published a study by the WIN/Gallup Association WIN/GIA (not the same Gallup Institute that is famous in Washington) about ratios of atheism in the world.
The study, which was conducted in 2012 across 40 countries, stated that the number of atheists in Saudi Arabia has now reached 5% of the total population. This puts it on the same level as some European countries, as well as making it the first country in the Islamic world to see such figures emerge.
According to the study, 75% of Saudis are religious and 19% non-religious, the latter figure exceeding the numbers of self-identified non-religious citizens in the secular Muslim countries of Tunisia and Turkey.
Saudi writers, thinkers and religious clerics received the study with a great deal of scepticism and disbelief, penning articles about the credibility of the WIN/GIA Association and its work and questioning whether the study might have come from Pakistan or Egypt.
Unsurprisingly, all of their writings concluded with a rejection of the study’s facts and an assertion that the percentage of practicing Muslims in Saudi Arabia stands at 100%.
Anyone who writes otherwise, they contested, is either delusional or spiteful. One writer went so far as to claim that “the study’s aim was to increase the number of ideological delinquents in Saudi and create centres of convergence for them, perhaps even a ministry”.
Another maintained that there are secret bodies and organizations being funded to promote atheistic ideology in the country as part of a foreign agenda and the traditional conspiracy theory.
Some, however, swam against the tide of accepted opinion and openly admitted the existence of atheists in the Arab world, especially in hardline Islamic states. One such person was the Saudi writer Najeeb al-Zamil, who responded to an article on the subject by prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh Ayed Al-Qarni during one of his interviews.
In the article, entitled ‘The Winds of Atheism Are Blowing Over the Country’, the Sheikh accused foreign bodies for the promotion of atheism in his homeland.
Najeeb Al-Zamil’s response: “If Sheikh Ayed thinks that the winds of atheism emanate from abroad, he is obviously in need of discussing the issue further. Here, we are saturated by preaching. The amount of preaching we receive in Saudi Arabia is far surplus to requirements; it happens in any place, in schools and on any occasion. Young people are exposed to a superfluous dose of it, and it is carried out in a forthright and unfavourable manner. Anything that increases beyond the degree to which it should will eventually turn against itself, and the historical Kharijite sect are an example of this: nowadays they are terrorists and militants, they have religion in excess.
“It has been proven repeatedly throughout history that instances of religious excess cause many of the world’s problems; the wars in Ireland and the Balkans are just two examples of this. The second problem is that religion is divorced from any kind of logical thought; questioning and skepticism are not allowed to be part of the belief-forming process, and this is when problems arise: when religion disrupts thinking. In Islam, a person’s mind is what drives him or her and guides them to belief. Science without religion is crippled, religion without science is blind.”
But why does atheism exist in the Muslim Arab world? And if it exists, why don’t we see or hear about it? The website Your Middle East published an interview with a Saudi atheist who went by the nickname of Jaber, and I have quoted some of his thoughts here:
“I found some religious teachings and rules didn’t make any sense. So, I started asking questions about small things like why music is Haram (forbidden) or why women have to cover their faces. Then I started reading about the way Islam scripts and Hadith were gathered … I had a group of people and we would discuss books in regular meetings…After a while I came to believe that the whole of religion is nothing but man’s invention to fight reality and impose order.
If someone declared that s/he was a non-believer, regardless of whether the government took action or not, s/he would be cut off by his/her family, s/he would be fired from his/her own job, people everywhere would talk about him/her and warn others about him/her. It would be highly likely that people would hurt him/her physically, perhaps murder atheists altogether.”
If we continue to deny reality and threaten atheists with ostracism and even death, this makes it impossible to find solutions and open channels of dialogue with those who have lost their faith.
There have been some attempts at solutions by cultural elites and Islamist thinkers like Saudi scholar and researcher Abdullah Hamid al-Din, who arranged lectures and seminars with himself and a number of other scholars and researchers at Jusoor or Bridges bookshop, Jeddah.
The aim of these lectures and discussions was to open the subject of religion up to young people by allaying their doubts and fears and by addressing the issues that concerned them. Due to the fact that education by dictation and the disabling of minds prevails in the Muslim world today, young people are forced to conceal their questions or ultimately to become atheists.
These seminars were widely opposed and were accused of promoting atheism amongst young people, since they opened the door to questions and acknowledged the doubt that was felt by many but which they hadn’t previously been allowed to express.
The hardline Islamist Khadher Sanad commented the following about Jusoor Bookshop seminars in a series of tweets published by the site Said al-Fowa’ed:
“In the city of Jeddah, there was a bookshop and a cafe called Jusoor. It was a hotbed for the dissemination of deviant ideas, held lectures and seminars, and attracted young people of both sexes. The lectures at the cafe and bookshop Jusoor exceeded all reasonable and logical limits; they were gathering boys and girls to discuss religion and God and to criticize religious heritage. Many parents were hit by the emergence of a wave of skepticism in God and in his messages and books; it was the fashion to adopt thoughts and beliefs that go against the norm. That was Jusooor.”
The Saudi religious police raided Bridges cafe and arrested Abdullah Hamid al-Din, and even managed to have a formal order issued for the closure of the library, since Khadher Sanad tweeted that it had “become a hotbed for atheists and sceptics in God.”
Sheikh al-Ghazali said once: “Half of the sins from the spread of disbelief in the world will be borne by religious men. They are the reason God is hated by people, because of the terrible manner of their actions and speech.” I couldn’t agree more.
Published March 15, 2014