Brian Whittaker has announced it will be published in Arabic and be available online for free this September:
When my book, Arabs Without God, was published last year, people asked if there would also be an Arabic edition. That seemed like a good idea and I began exploring ways of doing it.
There have been a few delays but I'm happy to say that most of the text has now been translated and I'm aiming to have the Arabic edition ready for publication in September.
Because of distribution and censorship issues with printed books in the Middle East, the plan is to make it available in electronic form where it can be downloaded from the internet free of charge.
The Arabic edition will be published under a Creative Commons licence allowing people to make copies, print it out if they wish, circulate it to friends, etc.
Also here is a recent article by the author first published in the Italian journal MicroMega:
Living without God in the Middle East
RELIGION is difficult to avoid in the Middle East, even if you try. Loudspeakers broadcasting the call to prayer, beards and veils signalling religious allegiances and the constant use of religious expressions in everyday conversation are just a few of the more obvious signs. Look a little deeper, though, and other things become apparent.
Most of the Arab countries have an official religion and laws shaped by religious principles. In some, religious affiliation is considered important enough to be specified on everyone’s identity card, though the choice may be limited to religions approved by the government. Sometimes there is no choice at all: the state decides what a person’s religion shall be. Changing to another religion can be difficult or even illegal and marrying in a non-religious ceremony can be impossible without leaving the country.
According to a well-known verse of the Qur’an “There is no compulsion in religion” but the reality today is somewhat different. Those who wish to escape religion face pressures from two directions: society and the state.
Arab societies have a strong aversion to most kinds of nonconformity and openly-declared atheism is considered especially shocking. At a communal level, since religion is closely bound to the politics of identity, rejecting religion tends be viewed as a form of cultural betrayal. At a family level, the distress felt by believers on learning that a loved one is destined (as they see it) for punishment in hell, is accompanied by social stigma: young atheists – especially females – may be unable to marry, since atheism in the popular imagination means loose morals.
Instead of promoting tolerance, Arab governments pander to these attitudes – and have their own reasons for doing so. Displaying religious credentials is one way that authoritarian regimes compensate for lack of electoral legitimacy, so they adopt and promote whatever version of Islam assists their self-preservation. This includes efforts to control the activities of mosques: imams are often government employees and in some countries the regime dictates the content of Friday sermons or sets the topic for them.
The Baathist regime in Syria, despite its secular leanings, tried to shape religious discourse to its advantage. School textbooks revised Islamic history in order to deny sectarian differences, thus disguising the fact that in a country with a large Sunni majority dominant positions within the regime were held by members of the minority Alawite sect.
States’ involvement with religion takes a variety of forms, including elements of compulsion (such as criminalisation of fast-breaking during Ramadan) but, most often, by granting religion special privileges. Among the Arab League countries, Islam is “the religion of the state” in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. In Algeria and Morocco, the official status of Islam is specified as an element of the constitution that can never be amended. The constitutions of Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar Syria, Tunisia and Yemen also say the head of state must be a Muslim (a practising Muslim in the case of Yemen).
To varying degrees, Islamic law (sharia) is allowed to influence national legislation. According to Yemen’s constitution, sharia is “the source of all legislation” and in Oman it is “the basis of legislation”. Sharia is “the main source of legislation” in Egypt, while in Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, Qatar and the UAE it is “a main source”. The constitution of Iraq, approved by a referendum in 2005, specifies Islam as “a fundamental source of legislation” and says that “no law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established.” Proselytising in one direction
This raises obvious questions about the rights of non-believers and followers of other faiths. A more immediate concern, though, is what happens to people who challenge Muslims’ core beliefs or renounce Islam altogether. Becoming a Muslim is extremely easy (though becoming an ex-Muslim can be far more difficult). All that is required for conversion is a recitation of the shahada – a short, simple statement testifying that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Most religions welcome new members and Muslims are enjoined to take part in da’wa, the call to Islam, through proselytising. Several verses in the Qur’an encourage it: “Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation,” “Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good.” In most of the Arab countries, however, da’wa is a one-way street. While proselytising by Muslims is encouraged, proselytising by non-Muslims is regarded as inflammatory behaviour and forbidden by law or government policy. In Algeria, for instance, anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilises means of seduction tending to convert a Muslim to another religion” faces a possible fine of one million dinars (€9,400) and five years’ imprisonment. The law also forbids making, storing, or distributing printed or audiovisual materials with the intention of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim.
In Kuwait, the law not only outlaws non-Muslim proselytising but also prohibits organised religious education for faiths other than Islam. Proselytising in Qatar for any religion other than Islam can result in a jail sentence of up to ten years, while the penalty for possessing missionary materials of a non-Islamic variety is two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals (€2,560).
In Saudi Arabia, the ban on non-Islamic proselytising specifically includes atheism. Under an anti-terrorism law promulgated in 2014, "calling for atheist thought in any form" is a terrorist crime.Apostasy
Apostasy – the abandoning of faith by former believers – is a crime punishable by death in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the UAE and Yemen. There are differences of opinion, however, over what constitutes apostasy in Islam and what punishments, if any, should apply. The Qur’an provides no clear-cut ruling and some argue that apostasy (irtidad or ridda in Arabic) involves more than simple disbelief.
According Professor Abdelmouti Bayoumi of the Islamic Research Academy in Cairo, renouncing Islam is not enough, on its own, to merit execution. Interviewed by the BBC, he said the death penalty would only apply if an apostate was found to be working against the interests of a Muslim society or nation. In effect, the apostate would not be punished for disbelief but for treason.
Abdelsabour Shahin, an Islamist writer and academic at Cairo University, suggested there is a difference between private and public apostasy. “If someone changes from Islam to kufr (unbelief), that has to remain a personal matter, and he should not make it public,” he said. But if someone goes public with his apostasy it “amounts to fitna [sedition, or civil strife]; he is thus like someone fighting Islam, and should therefore be killed”.
Such ideas are widespread among Muslims in the region and known apostates, or those whose religious views are merely suspect, are at risk of attacks by vigilantes. In 1992, for instance, Farag Fouda, an outspoken secularist who ruthlessly mocked many of Egypt’s leading Islamists, was shot dead by two members of the militant group, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. Two years later, Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab ever to win a Nobel prize for literature, was stabbed in the neck outside his home after being accused by militants of apostasy. Mahfouz, who was 82 at the time, survived the assassination attempt but was left partly paralysed.
Despite the existence of the death penalty in six Arab countries, trials for apostasy are extremely rare and there have been no recent executions. In the few cases where an execution has become a real possibility – Kuwait in 1996, Yemen in 2000 and Sudan in 2014 – the accused have been allowed to flee the country, probably because the authorities feared an international furore.
Among other Arab countries, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Tunisia have no statutory laws against conversion from Islam. Bahrain does not specifically outlaw apostasy, though the constitution’s statement that sharia is “a principal source” for legislation implies that it could be illegal. In Iraq, government laws and regulations prevent conversion away from Islam but the country’s civil and penal codes prescribe no penalties for doing so.
Even in countries where apostasy is not actually illegal, becoming an apostate can have serious practical consequences. In effect, the apostate is punished with “civil death” – stripped of basic social rights.
In 2005, for example, a sharia court in Jordan declared a Muslim convert to Christianity to be a ward of the state and annulled his marriage. The court stated that he no longer had any inheritance rights and could not remarry his wife unless he returned to Islam. A similar decision in 2006 left another Jordanian man without identification cards. In Egypt, a 73-year-old Muslim man was awarded custody of his seven-year-old grandson because the boy’s parents had changed their religion, converting to the Baha’i faith. The court ruling could not be enforced, however, as the parents had already emigrated with their son. Hesba lawsuits
A sharia legal principle known as hesba has been much used by Egyptian Islamists to harass those whose religious views they disagree with. The most famous of these cases, in 1992, involved Nasr Abu Zayd, a teacher of Arabic literature at Cairo University in Egypt, who had applied for a professorial post. Islamists opposed his appointment, claiming that his research contained “clear affronts to the Islamic faith”. A group of Islamist lawyers then began a legal action to divorce Abu Zayd from his wife, on the grounds that a Muslim woman cannot be married to an apostate. They eventually won their case and Abu Zayd fled the country along with his wife.
The Egyptian writer and feminist, Nawal el Saadawi, faced a similar situation in 2001 when Islamists sought to have her divorced after 37 years of marriage, on the grounds that her views had placed her outside Islam. Fortunately for Saadawi, the divorce claim was rejected. Since then there have been countless hesba cases in Egypt, though many have been rejected by the courts. One lawyer, Nabih el-Wahsh, is reported to have initiated more than 1,000 of them over a 10-year period. Laws against blasphemy and criticising religion
Laws against blasphemy severely curtail criticism of religion. In Oman, it is a criminal offence to defame any faith and the maximum penalty for inciting religious or sectarian strife is ten years’ imprisonment. Sentences of up to three years and a fine of 500 rials (€1,200) are prescribed for anyone who “publicly blasphemes God or His prophets”. In Qatar, the penalty for defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism is up to seven years in prison.
Anti-blasphemy laws are also used in conjunction with other laws about public order, the media, or even “abuse” of telecommunications. Several countries have special provisions in their media laws to protect religion. Jordan outlaws material that slanders or insults “founders of religion or prophets”, with a possible fine 20,000 dinars (€26,200) for offenders. Yemen’s 1990 Press and Publications Law prohibits, among other things, “anything that prejudices the Islamic faith and its lofty principles”, while Morocco’s 2002 media law prohibits criticism of “Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or territorial integrity”.
Kuwaiti law imposes jail sentences for journalists who defame any religion or denigrate religious figures, and private citizens are allowed to bring criminal charges against suspected offenders. An “emergency” decree issued in 2012 extended the law to include social media and also greatly increased the penalties. Offenders can be jailed for up to seven years and fined up to 200,000 dinars (€616,000).
Ironically, only a small proportion of blasphemy cases in the Arab countries involve atheists and unbelievers. Mostly, they are the result of quarrels between Muslims, between Christians and Muslims, between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, or simply a case of people pursuing grudges. Many of the cases that go to court are extraordinarily trivial and sometimes purely vexatious.
In 2013 Musab Shamsah, a Kuwaiti teacher, was jailed for five years over a tweet about the theological role of imams. Shamsah denied insulting religion, claiming that his tweet had been misinterpreted. On the specific charge of mocking religion, he received the maximum sentence of one year. But the court added a further four years for “misusing” a mobile phone – since he had posted the offending tweet from his phone.
Many of those convicted of blasphemy appear to have had no intention of causing offence. One of the most bizarre Egyptian cases involved two Coptic Christian boys, aged nine and ten, who spent fifteen days in juvenile detention after being accused of urinating on pages of the Qur’an. The boys, living in a mixed Muslim/Christian village were said to have been seen taking the pages behind a mosque where they committed the alleged offence. A neighbour told the Associated Press the boys were illiterate and could not have recognised the pages as coming from the Qur’an.
Aside from accidental blasphemers such as these, the law has also trapped a few unrepentant non-believers. In 2012, two Tunisian atheists, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were each sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in jail and fined 1,200 dinars (€570) after posting material on the internet that was deemed “liable to cause harm to public order or public morals”. The two friends, both in their late twenties, had written short books attacking Islam which they published themselves online. Their internet postings also included cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
The case against them was initiated not by the authorities but by a lawyer who said he considered insulting the Prophet to be a more serious crime than murder. The convictions brought protests from human rights organisations and after two years in jail Mejri received a presidential pardon. Beji, who had fled the country and been tried in his absence, was eventually granted asylum in Romania.
Alber Saber, an Egyptian atheist from a Coptic Christian family, also got into trouble for posting his thoughts about religion on the internet, and ended up in exile as a result. When his blogging activities came to the attention of Islamists a crowd surrounded his home and attempted to break down the door. His family and neighbours called the police who then arrested Saber and charged him with promoting “extremist thoughts with the intention of creating dissent or insulting an Abrahamic religion”. He was sentenced to three years in prison but after being released on bail pending an appeal he fled to Switzerland.
In the Palestinian town of Qalqilya, 25-year-old Waleed al-Husseini was also posting on the internet. He started a couple of blogs – one in Arabic called Nour al-Aql (“The Light of Reason”) and another in English called Proud Atheist. He also set up a satirical Facebook page where he pretended to be God.
Naively, perhaps, Husseini saw nothing particularly abnormal about this. He knew that plenty of famous Palestinian writers had also questioned religion in the past – among them Edward Said who was an openly-declared agnostic, plus the poet Mahmoud Darwish. But in 2010, while Husseini was sitting in a cafe playing cards, two members of the secret police arrested him on charges of insulting Muslims, defaming religions and inciting religious strife.
After 10 months’ imprisonment without trial he was released but when the police continued to re-arrest him he fled across the border to Jordan and now lives in France. Husseini suspects the case was more connected with politics than religion itself – rivalries between the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza. Hamas was accusing the PA of not being religious enough, and the PA wanted to show some religious credentials.Atheist networks
It’s no coincidence that many prosecutions arise out of social media. The internet provides a space where atheists and others can express dissent and make contact with like-minded individuals. The internet is also where they can find books about atheism which are not available locally. A Facebook page called The Arab Atheists Library provides free downloads of books, including Arabic translations of works by Baruch Spinoza, Stephen Hawking, Hannah Arendt, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins.
A search of Facebook reveals about 100 pages with “mulhid” (Arabic for “atheist”) in their title, plus a couple of dozen using the English phrase “Arab atheist”. These are a very mixed bunch: some appear inactive while others have several thousand “likes”, and they include a few closed (i.e. private) groups. Jordan has a small atheist community linked through a Facebook group. It started in 2013 with 30 members, rising to 100 a year later, and about 40% of members are female. “Some of the older ones have been atheists for years, others have just found out,” organiser Mohammed al-Khadra said.
Recently, activists have also been resorting to video. Arab Atheist Broadcasting is a YouTube channel which produces a two-hour discussion programme on alternate Fridays where various atheists hook up via Skype. The more popular videos have been viewed around 3,000 to 4,000 times. Another YouTube channel, Black Ducks, is run by an Egyptian atheist, Ismail Mohamed.
A few atheists have also taken part in studio discussions on mainstream TV channels in Egypt where they have been abused by interviewers and other participants. Appearing on Honest TV, Mostafa Zakareya, an atheist from Alexandria told viewers he had no desire to “insult religions” but simply wanted Egyptians to accept him as an atheist. A well-known cleric then called for his arrest and execution, while the chief of security in Alexandria announced he was forming a special task force to round up atheists in the city.
In Egypt and Saudi Arabia especially, media have been expressing alarm at what they see as a growth in the numbers of atheists. Two Egyptian government ministries have been ordered to produce a national plan to "confront and eliminate" atheism. Such schemes may have worked in the past when states were better placed to control the spread of “undesirable” ideas but in the internet age they are ultimately doomed. Even so, for governments and large sections of the Arab public, freedom of belief remains an alien concept and the battle to achieve it is likely to be long and hard-fought.