Although numbers are in dispute in their own societies, atheism among ex-Muslims is becoming increasingly organized and political, reports Ahmed Benchemsi in The New Republic magazine (April 23). In recent months there have been publicized cases of atheists facing stiff punishments for publicly espousing atheism in such Muslim countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Palestine [see July 2014 RW]. Benchemsi writes that the numbers of such secularists are greatly underestimated by political authorities, with one Egyptian poll counting exactly 2,293 atheists in all Arab countries. Just in searching for Arab atheists online he found 250 Facebook pages or groups; the number of undisclosed Muslims far exceeds that number judging by polls such as Gallup, which finds that 5 percent of Saudi citizens identify as atheists—roughly the same as in the U.S. The punishments of self-declared atheists remain severe, and Benchemsi argues that more privately held doubts and even unbelief tends to be tolerated in Arab society. The most recent case involved a 21-year-old Egyptian student named Karim Al Banna who was given a three-year sentence for insulting Islam after he declared himself an atheist on Facebook, with his own father testifying against him in court.
Secularist women face more difficulties and repression, as atheism is often associated with rebellion and immorality. Benchemsi cites the recent book Arabs without God, by Brian Whitaker, which finds that secularist growth stems more from personal doubt by Muslims rather than a reaction to extremism or terrorism. But he also links the Arab Spring to the public upsurge of atheism; even if it didn’t lead to widespread democratic reform in Arab nations, the protests energized and politicized the younger generations. Just as with Western atheist groups, there is the call for ex-Muslims to go public with their disbelief. The YouTube program The Black Ducks invites atheists from the Arab world to speak their minds, and has received hundreds of thousands of views. At the same time, there has been the growth of support networks for ex-Muslims in both the West and in Muslim nations since 2007.