Just as atheism is gaining a more public profile in the West, atheists are becoming more visible in the Muslim world, while becoming stigmatized by Muslim leaders at the same time.
The Global Post (June 12) reports that a growing number of Saudis are privately declaring themselves atheists. Caryle Murphy reports that the evidence for this trend is more anecdotal than scientific but the instances of people claiming atheism are “persistent.” One human rights atheist says, “I know at least six atheists who confirmed that to me. Six or seven years ago, I wouldn’t even have heard one person say that.
Not even a best friend would confess that to me.” The greater willingness to identify as an atheist—at least two Gulf-produced television talk shows recently discussed it—may be a factor in why the Saudi government has made talk of atheism a terrorist offense. The March 7 decree from the Ministry of Interior prohibited, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
Statistically speaking, the rate of professed atheism in Saudi Arabia is low. A 2012 poll by WIN-Gallup International of about 500 Saudis found that 5 percent described themselves as “convinced atheist.” This was well below the global average of 13 percent. But whether they identify as atheist or not, there is more of a tendency to question Islam than was previously the case, especially on social media sites. A Saudi journalist adds that the idea of being irreligious and even atheist is spreading because of the discrepancy “between what Islamists say and what they do.”
The Islam and science blog Irtiqua (May 5) notes that there are an “increasing number of atheist stories coming out from the Muslim world.” In some cases, it is about an individual proclaiming his or her atheism, as is the recent case in Indonesia when a man publicly declared his atheism on a Facebook page started by Indonesians living in the Netherlands, and was then imprisoned for 19 months on the charge of “inciting religious hatred.” But other instances of atheism in Muslim societies are more about “governments or political groups silencing opponents by calling them atheists,” as was the case during riots in Bangladesh last year.
Blog editor Salman Hameed writes that “doubters of all shades (from deists to hardcore atheists) have always been present in all societies, and Muslim countries are no exception. The sudden increase of such stories is probably due to a combination of reasons. On the one hand, you have the globalization of [the] religion-atheist debate (one can be a participant . . . from a computer anywhere in the world) and a related increase in the number of people who declare themselves to be atheists.
On the other hand, the social upheavals (and political turmoil in many cases) of the past few years are leading to intolerance toward religious minorities…and atheist boogeymen [as has been the case in Egypt]. In addition such stories become a rallying cry for fundamentalists as well as good material for newspapers in the West.”