There is the Tunisian woman who fasts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, although not for God. The Iraqi woman who, until recently, wore the hijab. And a man whose Egyptian identity card identifies him as “Muslim,” despite his attempts to change it.
These are the ways in which some without religious affiliation, or “nones” —which can be translated as “none”, for “no religion”, and who identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, spiritual but not religious, or, simply, nothing in particular—, negotiate their existence in the Middle East and North Africa, where religion is often embedded in the very fabric of life.
The distinctive characteristics of religion go beyond the walls of places of worship. In Muslim-majority countries, they are in the minarets that define the horizons, in the veils worn by many women, in the omnipresent call to prayer that invites the faithful five times a day, and in the references that pepper casual greetings. .
Aware that rejecting religion can have repercussionsmany carefully hide that part of themselves. Declaring that they are not believers can cause social stigmaostracism by loved ones, or even unleashing threats or wrath from authorities, especially if going public is accompanied by real or perceived attacks on religion or God.
“I have a double life all the time”said the 27-year-old Tunisian. “It’s better than having conflicts every day.”
Many non-believers seek community, ideas or enclaves of digital challenge on the internet, although online spaces still carry risks. Some confide in small circles of friends or leave, when they can, in search of more freedoms abroad.
Most of the interviewees spoke on the condition of keeping the anonymity for fear of repercussions, and because some of their relatives do not know how they identify religiously. Given such secrecy, there are no reliable estimates of the number of nones in this largely religious region.
“The Middle East is the cradle of the three heavenly religions, and there is no doubt that the culture of the region has been intertwined with religion for a long time,” said Mustapha Kamel al Sayyid, professor of political science at Cairo University. . “Religion has also been a source of legitimacy for rulers, a source of knowledge and norms of behavior.”
Many in Arab countries, he said, associate the lack of religion with immorality and see it as a threat. “For them, one cannot speak about the rights of someone who is a danger to society.”
Laws or policies prohibiting blasphemy—speech or actions considered derogatory toward God and other sacred entities—exist in different parts of the world. But according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, a group of experts that provides information on attitudes, trends and issues in the United States and the world, in 2019 they were more common in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. acronym in English). Critics of those laws say they are sometimes vaguely worded and can infringe on free speech.
The Tunisian woman said that fasts to avoid being discovered by her Muslim family. During religious holidays, she pretends to sleep to avoid attending meetings, where family members might criticize her alleged lack of faith.
Since she was little, she rejected how Islam was practiced in her home. She said her father sometimes forced her to pray, pulling her by her clothes while she yelled at him.
Resisting traditional interpretations of things like gender roles, she sought refuge in progressive Muslim communities and readings.
At one point she became agnostic, and later began following some secular Buddhist practices. She now sees herself as “nothing in particular” — or “none” — and open to different spiritual paths.
While she believes her journey has given her self-confidence, feels isolated and without a place in her culture.
Hany Elmihy, a 57-year-old Egyptian agnostic, once hoped that conditions would change. He and other non-believers saw an opportunity after the popular Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region more than a decade ago.
Elmihy, who grew up in a Cairo apartment building with a mosque, questioned religion from an early age. She said she founded a Facebook group for religiously unaffiliated Egyptians in 2011, and similar groups were formed in other Arab countries. Mass protests demanding political change had just toppled Hosni Mubarak, a longtime autocrat in Egypt, highlighting the power of social media as a tool for dissent and emboldening many to break taboos.
“It is not the revolution that turned some into atheists or irreligious; the revolution gave them the freedom and courage to speak out,” Elmihy said. He was threatened and attacked in the subsequent period.
Undaunted, he attempted to change the designation “Muslim” on his ID card to “no religion.” He failed, and his hope for new freedoms also vanished. He eventually moved to Norway.
When Elmihy stopped praying in his teens, his father, a practicing Muslim, was disappointed but did not impose his views on him. Elmihy then feared that the others would not be so tolerant.
“Society was what scared me the most”he declared. “I felt isolated.”
Elmihy has mixed feelings about her previous activism, but believes it was important to “let society know that there are people without religious affiliation.”
Some have taken note with disapproval.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said that in 2014, Egypt’s youth ministry announced plans to combat atheism in collaboration with religious bodies.
Local media have reported on initiatives against atheism by some Islamic and Christian institutions.
There have been incidents where television hosts interviewed atheists only to mock them or throw them out, Ibrahim said.
Atheism is especially detested by many; some see it as part of an agenda to weaken Arab societies. Others say they find it difficult to support the rights of non-believers when some of them attack religious beliefs.
“We believe that those who do not belong to a religion are committing a sin, but it is not our responsibility to hold them accountable”said Abbas Shouman, an official at Al Azhar, the Cairo-based headquarters of Sunni Muslim learning. The role of religious authorities, he reported, “is only to explain, clarify, disseminate correct information and respond to suspicions.”
However, he said he rejects criticism of religion.
“They have the right to defend their beliefs as they want, but not to go after the beliefs of others,” he said.
Atheism, per se, is not criminalized in Egypt, Ibrahim said, adding that other laws apply in some cases. Last year, Ibrahim’s organization, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said an Egyptian court upheld a three-year prison sentence against a blogger accused of contempt of religion and misuse of social networks. The organization, whose lawyers appealed the earlier verdict, said the man was accused of running a Facebook page for Egyptian atheists that allegedly posts criticism of religions.
In May, Iran hangs two men convicted of blasphemy, carrying out rare death sentences for that crime. They were accused of participating in a channel on the messaging app Telegram called “Criticism of Superstition and Religion,” according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Iran’s judiciary news agency said the two had insulted the Prophet Muhammad and promoted atheism.
In Saudi Arabia court sentenced man to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes over accusations of expressing atheism in Twitter posts. A 2016 media report said religious police found tweets denying the existence of God and ridiculing Quranic verses.
For some Middle Easterners, like Ahmad, disbelief has not caused tensions, at least in their own circles. But the 33-year-old, who grew up in a Shiite Muslim family in Lebanon and now lives in Qatar, spoke only on the condition that his last name not be revealed because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“We have a tacit agreement: I do not criticize religion and you do not criticize my lack of religion”said.
Ahmad, who works in the media, has no religious affiliation and says he cannot believe “in something I cannot touch or see.” Some other Lebanese, he added, have abandoned the faith due to “sectarian fanaticism” and the exploitation of religion in politics.
The role of sectarian divisions in religiously diverse Lebanon is one of the reasons Talar Demirdjian stayed away from religion.
“People get very deep into their religion or their sects, or, at the other extreme, they are completely indifferent or opposed to all of that,” he said.
She wondered, “Why does everyone hate each other?” “I don’t think religions are fundamentally evil,” she explained. “I think it’s always men’s interpretation of religion that is bad.”
Demirdjian, a Lebanese Armenian of Christian heritage, said that when it comes to religion, “I identify as ‘I don’t care’… I don’t even think about it enough to apply a label.”
For one Iraqi woman, doubt began when her childhood dream of becoming an imam like her grandfather was quickly quashed because she was a girl. At age 9, she believed that her position would bring her closer to God.
His surprise at the denial raised lingering questions: “I asked, ‘Why? Are men better than me?”
The turmoil in Iraq—and the toll on his life—fueled his disbelief.
The 24-year-old is part of a generation that has witnessed the US-led invasion, sectarian violence, the brutal reign of the Islamic State and the growing influence of militias.
She has worn the Islamic veil or hijab before, and for a time, even after identifying as agnostic. When extremists proliferated where she lived, she wore it to stay out of danger; at other times, to fit in socially. But she took it off whenever she could. Tired of the duplicity, she stopped using it permanently around 2020.
His life is not normal.
“I am always cautious and worried that something could hurt me, hurt my family, or ruin our relationship.”said. “I don’t tell people I’m agnostic. … It would be an act of stupidity to do so in a society like that.”
(With information from AP)