The Golden Era of Arab Atheism?
It is unlikely that Western media will take note, but there seems to be a rejuvenation of Arab atheism. Western media never take note of Arab intellectual trends, especially if they deviate from the classical conventional assumptions about the Theologocentric (as Maxime Rodinson called it in his La Fascination de l’Islam) impulses of all Arabs and all Muslims.
Secular trends in the Arab world have been long ignored in Western media and even scholarship. Furthermore, Saudi and Qatari media, which dominate the bulk of pan-Arab media, will certainly suppress such news, but there is a new phenomenon. Arab atheist groups are spreading on the Internet and Facebook groups dedicated to Arab atheists are increasing in popularity. And the Egyptian newspaper al-Wafd even took note and published an article about “the secret world” of atheists. There are reasons for this phenomenon.
To be sure, Arab atheism is not new: There is a long history of free-thinking in Arab countries throughout Islamic history. Long before the appearance in the late 1990s of Sarah Stroumsa’s fine book, Freethinkers of Medieval Islam: Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi and their Impact on Islamic Thought, Arabs and Muslims were curious to learn about the history of atheists and free-thinkers in Islamic history.
The brilliant Egyptian historian of philosophy, Abdul-Rahman Badawi, wrote his Min Tarikh al-Ihlad fi-l-Islam in the early 1940s. The book has remained in print ever since and a free PDF copy of the book is now available on numerous websites for download (those who prepared the oft-cited Arab Development Report did not know that most young Arabs get their books and music for free on the Internet, or even through borrowing).
The free-thinkers of Islam have received academic and popular attention in the 20th century. A professor at Baghdad University, Abd al-Amir al-Asam, devoted years to the study of Ibn al-Rawandi. People like al-Razi and especially al-Hallaj are quite popular in the literary and even mass imagination. And if Arab communists and atheists have received a severe blow after the Iranian revolution and after the demise of the Soviet Union, there are signs that the Arab uprisings and the ascension of power of Islamists in several Arab countries may have begun to inaugurate a new political and intellectual era: the (second) era of modern Arab atheism.
This would not be the only era of Arab atheism (and by era, one only denotes a period in which atheist intellectual and even communist – as was the case in the early history of the Iraqi Communist Party – made their appearance). Early in the 20th century, there were cases in which Arabs made the case for atheism: Ismail Madhdhar, the Egyptian writer, wrote in 1930s a treatise titled “Why am I an Atheist.” (There was a recent attempt by a writer in the Lebanese right-wing newspaper, an-Nahar, to mimic or even plagiarize Madhdhar, but the second attempt was comical and vulgar). There was a climate in which atheists could make their cases and the rise of secular movement in the Arab East made that possible. (Mahdhdar later recanted his early stance).
The era of the Arab uprising has just begun and it is likely to introduce new philosophical trends into the Arab world. Those trends can now be observed in Arab social media. Western media, for example, have not noticed the rediscovery of Nasser by a new generation of Arabs. It was lost on Western media that Hamdeen Sabbahi, the third-ranked candidate in the Egyptian presidential election, is a staunch Nasserist. Furthermore, there are atheist communists who played important political roles in the uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt (in Syria, those communists suffered early imprisonment and repression by the regime, which prefers to face Islamists of the various kinds). And those atheists are making their voices heard: The new leftists and communists, and secularists in general, are far more brave and daring than the discredited class of orthodox Stalinist Marxists who — under strict orders from Moscow — did not wish to challenge religious authorities and did not wish to spread atheist beliefs.
The brief rule of Ikhwan in Tunisia and Egypt, and the public manifestations of Salafi groups in many Arab countries, has had the reverse effect: Many young Arabs are being turned off from religion altogether. It is significant that a young woman in Tunisia yesterday attempted to expose her breasts in front of a popular mosque to protest a Salafi gathering. Nude protests have also been registered in Egypt, and despite the superficial nature of such protests and their gimmicky quality, they represent a new daring trend that does not shy away from offending religion.
I wrote a brief observation yesterday on Facebook that the rule of the Islamists seems to guarantee turning whole Arab populations towards atheism, and an Egyptian activist responded by saying that: “There is widespread popular disgust with religious people and even bearded people. There is also a rise in the demand for secular and communist books by young people. And it is noteworthy that peasants in my village all categorically agree to not vote for any bearded man or any religious man, and say that their roles should be confined to the mosques…And an Internet site for Arab atheists announced that some 347 Egyptians have joined the group in one week only of last month.” There are similar reports in Iran that atheism is a form of protest.
This could be a turning point in the intellectual and political history of the region. It, however, has to contend with the culture of religion imposed on it by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which insists on the exclusive domination of a very strict brand of religion over people’s political and social lives. The battle by Arab atheists won’t be easy, but it has just begun. The corruption, repression, and hypocrisy of the rule of Islamists seem to strengthen Arab atheism more than any other factor.