What should atheists do in repressive regimes

Atheists - Terrorists? The Arab regimes are looking for their enemies in the wrong place

Those who turn away from God have a hard time in Muslim societies. In Egypt, atheism is currently being made a criminal offense, and Saudi Arabia is even subjecting it to terrorism law.

There is one thing about which most political powers in the Islamic world agree: in the demonization and oppression of atheists, governments and opposition parties are on an equal footing. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that professing atheism in Muslim countries takes more courage than calling for the overthrow of monarchies or regime change.

In Islamic countries, atheists are not only often ostracized and ostracized, they are also accused of terrorism or prosecuted as a “social danger”. Saudi Arabia, for example, has included atheism in its terrorist law. Under the dome of the Egyptian parliament, ministers are currently working on a bill to criminalize atheism. Together with Al-Azhar University, the highest religious authority in the country, the religious committee advises on punitive measures to deter atheists in the future.

Political power base

“In 2017 alone, 261 terrorist attacks were recorded in Egypt, but not a single atheist, but rather Islamist jihadists - so what exactly is this 'risk of atheism' that the state and Al-Azhar University want to combat? »Asks Mustafa Ali, the administrator of a Facebook page for atheists in the Islamic world that has more than 10,000 followers.

In order to answer the question, one needs to understand the role of religion in the political context. If a regime lacks democratic legitimacy, religious legitimacy is its most important justification. This is especially true for countries like Egypt, where in a 2013 Pew Forum poll, 86 percent of all Muslims were of the opinion that turning away from Islam according to the Sharia law should be punished with death.

The King of Morocco can sometimes break religious taboos under certain conditions.

The Egyptian military regime, which has been criticized for its violations of human rights, will not hesitate to play the Islam card if necessary. This strategy is used very often by military regimes in Muslim countries. In this way, they can build systems that are consistent with the religious attitudes of the majority of the country. In Libya, for example, after the coup, Ghadhafi rejected secular Arab nationalism and declared that Sharia should be the basis for the law of the state. In Egypt, it was President Sadat who initiated a top-down Islamization of Egyptian society; In 1971, long before Khomeiny began his campaign for the Islamic revolution, Egypt committed itself to a constitution in which Sharia principles were "a major source" of legislation.

On the other hand, regimes that are historically legitimized (like monarchies), despite their democratic deficit, have greater power to influence the religious field. For example, the King of Morocco, who also holds the highest religious authority in the kingdom, can sometimes break religious taboos under certain conditions. If another politician or clergyman did the same, they would very likely be charged with heresy or contempt for religion.

As an example, the speech by King Mohammed VI from 2016, which was broadcast live on Moroccan television, could be cited here. The king then asked how common sense could approve that a jihadist should be rewarded with virgins in paradise. A clear message to the jihadists, whom an estimated 1,350 Moroccans had joined by then.

Social pressures

In Western societies, atheism may be a free personal choice that has no social or political consequences; In Muslim countries, on the other hand, one is not free to determine one's own relationship to religion, as this not only contributes to the legitimation of the system of government, but also represents an essential aspect of the identity of society and the social contract. This fact inevitably brings the atheist into conflict with a key component of collective identity and with the laws, since the latter are either wholly or at least partially derived from Sharia law, particularly those related to family and personal freedoms.

Atheists could serve as a catalyst in Islam leading Islam to liberal reform.

The reality of the Muslim world today is similar to everyday life in Europe before modernity. From Plato's Republic to Thomas More ’“ Utopia ”, the collective was always in the foreground in the West, in which the individual only had to fulfill a role that served the interests and advantages of the collective. Therefore it is impossible to talk about a future in which religious minorities in the Islamic world are guaranteed rights without talking about the philosophical and political validation of the individual at the same time. The recognition of the rights and intellectual independence of the individual and their protection by the state is what is needed in Muslim societies today.

Atheism as a catalyst

We cannot talk about atheism in the Muslim world unless we also address the reasons that lead people to turn away from the faith. In particular, the brutal terror of radical Islamist groups led many Muslims to question their religion. In addition, atheism is also widespread in feminist circles, as they see religion as an obstacle to gender equality.

These and other reasons led some Muslim reformers to criticize the repression against atheists. They are of the opinion that the real problem lies in the increasing radicalism of today's Islam in many places; some of them are therefore calling for a liberal reform before the mosques lose even more believers. Some progressive thinkers even believe that the atheists in Islam could serve as a catalyst leading Islam to this liberal reform. You might well be right, as religion has certain parallels to a company. When customers migrate, reforms and self-criticism are urgently needed - otherwise bankruptcy threatens.

For many atheists in the Muslim world, however, the discussion about reforming Islam does not mean much. Rather, they want a modern secular state that respects human rights and the dignity of all - and not just those who are fortunate enough to belong to the state religion.

Kacem El Ghazzali is a secular writer. He comes from Morocco and came to Switzerland as a refugee in 2011, where he is now naturalized. He is the representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.