Though it doesn’t get much news coverage, there are millions of atheists throughout the Middle East, even in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where Islam supposedly pervades every aspect of daily life. Though they mostly stay quiet, the region’s non-believers are more numerous than most people imagine.
Here are a few surprising facts about atheism and agnosticism in the Middle East that may change the way you think about the region.
Though it’s perceived to be an exceptionally religious region, the Middle East has surprisingly high numbers of atheists and agnostics – but the vast majority of them keep their beliefs a closely held secret, due to fears of being ostracized from friends and family or punished by harsh anti-apostasy laws.
Still, fewer than three in ten Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa say they follow the hadith and sunna a lot, according to a 2013 Pew Research survey that involved 38,000 face-to-face interviews with Muslims around the world.
“Overall, Muslims broadly support the idea of religious freedom, ” the survey said.
Some countries in the Middle East are less religious than parts of Europe. According to a 2012 WIN/Gallup poll, 33% of Lebanon and 29% of the Palestinian Territories said they were “not religious.” Even in Saudi Arabia, the figure was 19%, equal to about six million people. In Italy, by contrast, only 15% identified as being “not religious.”
That same 2012 WIN/Gallup poll found that 18% of the entire Arab world say they are “not a religious person,” equivalent to about 75 million people. The survey also found that among the top 20 most religious countries on the planet, only one (Iraq) was located in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Many experts and analysts who study the Middle East say these figures would be even higher if there weren’t such harsh consequences for people who admit to not believing in God. At least four MENA countries – Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen – make apostasy (abandoning the faith) a capital offense.
Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya and Oman all have laws against “blasphemy” or “insulting Allah,” and these laws are sometimes used to prosecute atheists.
In some countries, it’s the religious authorities – not the government – that punishes atheism. In Morocco, for example, the law doesn’t ban apostasy. But Morocco’s Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, which has authority to issue religious edicts, made “apostasy” punishable by death in 2013, according to the US Library of Congress.
In Egypt, freedom of religion is theoretically allowed, but in practice the government regularly imprisons those who show “contempt for religion” or who “ridicule the Abrahamic faiths”. Much of the time these prosecutions are used as an excuse to imprison opposition figures that the regime finds threatening.
In 2013, for example, Egyptian author Karam Saber was sentenced to five years in jail after a book of short stories he wrote called “Where is God?” was deemed to have “insulted religion.”
Anti-atheism laws are particularly draconian in Saudi Arabia. “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which [the] country is based” was made into a terrorist act last year by the Saudi Interior Ministry. Such a crime can be punishable by death.
Last year in Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and 1,000 lashes for “insulting religion” after he founded Free Saudi Liberals, a group that hosted online debates about religion and Saudi politics. Badawi’s health has declined in prison, and human rights groups are campaigning for his release.
There are thousands of others who have been persecuted and imprisoned in the Middle East for not toeing the line when it comes to religion. And – perhaps more significantly – there are millions of others who share their beliefs, and who are patiently biding their time until it’s safe for them to emerge into the light.