If you are 'out' as an atheist or a self-professed 'Kafir' (Arabic in an Islamic sense for unbeliever or infidel, or in some cases not-believing enough) in the Muslim or Arab world, chances are you're hiding low about it. Putting your head above the parapet is likely to invite the powers that be to come down on you like a ton of bricks.
Being a non-believer is a dangerous business in the Middle East, according to a new report which has prompted the spotlight to be cast once again on how “unbelievers” are treated around the globe. Atheists and other stripes of religious skeptics face persecution all over the world, the report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union found, with Islamic (or majority Muslim) countries meting out the most severe punishments. By and large, there is no room at the inn for out and out atheists, who are shunned and left out in the harsh cold of the Middle East.
Punishments can range from the denial of certain rights, such as the ability to travel or seek medical treatment, to physical sanctions, including flogging and the death penalty - as in Saudi Arabia. Despite capital punishment being handed out to apostates, the sentences seem to be rarely carried out. In many countries which ban religious expression deemed “blasphemous”, such as Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan and Kuwait, free religious expression is also stifled, and citizens may have to register as a believer in an officially-recognized religion.
While the region is awash with a political resurgence in Islamism following the Arab Spring protests, another movement on the ground has also gained momentum — the secular blowback. While some Muslim-majority countries do not make atheism a specific crime, most do not make it very hospitable for these none-practitioners, either. Atheists can be prosecuted under criminal law and legal loopholes, for blasphemy or for inciting hatred.
Today, in times of economic hardship and political instability, we are witnessing a religious resurgence. And there may be a surge in atheism and secular strains as a backlash to the religious climate. But the question remains, does Islam intrinsically encourage intolerance of religious dissidence?
Some argue not – though the case can certainly be made. Arguments that advocate for the death penalty are usually based on a Hadith, a saying of the Prophet, that leaves little doubt: “The Prophet said: whoever discards his religion, kill him.”
On the other hand, the Quran’s notably tolerant Sura 109 includes words to the effect of ‘to each his own’ - literally, “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”
The rise to power of Islamist parties since the Arab revolutions is likely to make life more untenable still for those who leave Islam's gates. New rulers in Tunisia and Egypt have already thrown several young people into jail who have been outspoken about their lack of belief. Still, other monotheistic religions of the Middle East are no more understading to the disbelieving. Egypt’s Coptic church does not take a kind view to atheism either.
Some non-believers chose to live in exile, but many live in fear of the fatwa that might come knocking at their door.
Have your say: should atheists or lesser-believers in majority-Muslim parts of the world be protected from persecution? Do infidels or Kufar need to flee their states if they refuse to keep their renegade heads low?