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Book Review: Brian Whitaker’s Arabs Without God

September 9, 2014

Scholars at an Abbasid library. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, Baghdad 1237

There are times when I wonder whether religions can be compared with chemical elements. The relatively stable ones are the most durable. Those that are most volatile and unstable give off most energy, and have the most destructive potential. But they decay over time – sometimes very rapidly.

I fully confess that my knowledge of physics and chemistry is no greater than that of any other non-scientist. You could knock holes in the analogy by pointing out that plutonium has a half-life of thousands of years, so some of the most potent elements take a very long time to decay. But I do feel that that it’s not a bad way of looking at the Islamic State. Volatile, unstable, attracting and repelling human electrons in an unending frenzy – it’s surely destined for a short half-life in its current toxic form.

What of Islam itself, the religion that spawned the ideological obsessions of the Islamic State? A durable faith that has periodically reacted violently with other belief systems, but remains one of the great world religions.

Which element would you compare it with? Plutonium, with a finite – albeit long – life, or gold, a stable element likely to remain intact until the end of time?

No prizes for guessing what a devout Muslim would say. But Arabs Without God, a new book by Brian Whitaker, an Arabist and former Middle East editor of the UK’s Guardian Newspaper, explores a phenomenon rarely discussed openly in the cradle of Islam: atheism, or more specifically believers who drift away from their faith.

This is a serious book about a serious subject. Those who leave Islam can be subject to a range of dire consequences – from social ostracism in a culture where family ties are all-important, to judicial execution or murder by vigilantes. And it’s not only Muslims who frown on atheism. In Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, Coptic Christians face widespread disapproval when they move away from their mother church.

Atheism, especially in countries where Islam is embedded in the law and the social fabric, worries governments whose legitimacy is based on their role as upholders of the faith. It worries extended families that face social disapproval because of their ties with the non-believer. At a personal level it worries parents and siblings who fear for the safety of their errant loved one in this world and for their ultimate destination in the next.

In Arabs without God, Whitaker explores atheism in the Arab world in terms of its theological foundations, its history and the wide-ranging social and political implications of what appears to be a socially unmentionable but growing phenomenon. He looks at the influence of the social media in enabling like-minded non-believers to find each other, at the effect of the Arab Spring – however short-lived – in stirring up debate on the subject that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago.

In the context of various international conventions and national commitments to freedom of speech and belief, he looks at attempts by governments in the region to satisfy criticism by human rights activists in the west while satisfying the devout, and sometimes the extremists, within their borders. Across the Arab world, governments range from equivocal to rigid on the subject. Yet even the most uncompromising, Saudi Arabia, has held back from the most extreme penalty for apostasy, even though a survey in 2012 stated that 19% of the population describe themselves as not religious.

Attitudes towards loss of faith in religious circles range from outright condemnation to acceptance that people can’t be bullied into belief. Saudi Arabia is full of clerics who hold views that provide fuel for western critics of Islam, yet runs a well-publicised programme to integrate Al-Qaeda members back into society. It executes drug smugglers, yet goes to great lengths to avoid doing the same to people its clerics claim are guilty of the sin of apostasy. All goes to show that reality is far more complex and nuanced than that portrayed by some of the louder voices in the western media.

According to the wide range of people Whitaker interviewed while researching his book, many Arabs start on the road to atheism by asking an age-old fundamental question:

“Without realising it at the time, he had stumbled into a debate about free will and predestination (al-qada’ wal-qadr in Arabic) which has exercised the minds of theologians for centuries. If God is all-knowing, He can surely foresee evil deeds; if He is all-powerful He must be capable of preventing them; if He is good, why does He allow evil deeds and then punish people for them? A verse in the Qur’an says: “Ye shall not will, except as Allah wills.””

It seems that loss of faith is a gradual process for most Arab Christians and Muslims. It can be accelerated when a person’s misgivings are answered with a refusal to debate them. Exposure to western philosophy can be influential – hence the widespread if implied concern on the part of conservative factions in Saudi Arabia over the well-funded scholarship programme that sends many thousands of young Saudis to western universities.

The book dwells at some length on Islamophobia and the debate in the west over confrontation versus self-censorship. As Whitaker points out, the robust views of the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens potentially provide intellectual weapons to the extreme right that enable them to cloak their views in a veil of respectability. He also notes that the Swiss ban on minarets and the French prohibition on the wearing of face veils are at somewhat at odds with cherished western tenets of freedom of expression and belief.

Arabs Without God is an even-handed and sober exploration of its subject. Whitaker rarely lets his personal beliefs intrude – he allows his interviewees to speak for themselves. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of dry humour – for example when he tells the story of the Iraqi cleric who expresses the opinion that cucumbers and tomatoes should not be sold next to each other since the former is symbolically male and the latter female. The cleric goes on to rule that women should not handle the cucumbers.

It’s a shame in a way that he limits his focus to the Arab world. As he makes abundantly clear, Islam is not a monolith. Beyond the Arab world, it is the dominant faith in much of Asia and West Africa, and it encompasses a huge variety of sects, ethnicities and cultures. It would have been interesting to have heard opinions from countries further afield – especially Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – where intolerance of other faiths, of blasphemy and apostasy is more extreme and less constrained by the rule of law than anywhere in the Arab world other than the territory now controlled by the Islamic State. But his chosen brief is probably wide enough. The region he writes about is abundantly diverse – from Morocco in the west to the Iraq and the Gulf states in the east.

What of the future? Whitaker observes that in most Arab countries establishments pay lip service towards concepts of liberty that western societies hold dear. He notes that authoritarian enforcement of a state religion is not the only way to encourage a devout population. He cites the United States as a nation in which secularity is embedded in the constitution, and yet which has one of the most fervently religious populations in the west. But he does believe that attitudes towards freedom of religious belief are slowly changing in most parts of the Arab world – Saudi Arabia being a notable exception.

For a number of reasons I’m not confident that the cracks he identifies in the religious edifices of the Arab world will fundamentally change the landscape any time soon.

Firstly, fear of discord – fitna – is deep-rooted within Arab cultures. More now than ever before, I feel that the majority of those not affected by the various conflicts in the region will value peaceful existence far above religious or social tolerance. They may wish for greater elected representation, but not if it leads to the sort of chaos they are witnessing in Iraq and Libya.

Secondly – and this particularly applies to the conservative societies in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia – many countries are still coming to terms with the rapid influx of petrochemical-derived wealth and what some see as the consequent encroachment of alien – western – values in their societies. This has resulted in a sense of cultural defensiveness that is unlikely to dissipate in the short term.

And finally, the Arab world has never experienced a period comparable to the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, in which much of the religious intolerance of earlier times gave way to a tide of scientific and philosophical exploration. The changes in attitude in Europe evolved over more than a century, and even then were not sufficient to prevent outbreaks of bigotry and intolerance – authoritarian government, pogroms and of course genocide – up to the present day. “Enlightenment” (with no intent to patronise by use of the term) is not something that can be forced upon societies in the course of a few decades.

My sense is that it will take much longer for the Arab world to become sufficiently confident and secure in its cultural identity to accept in its heart – rather than in theoretical terms – that diversity of faith and belief, and particularly non-belief, are not threats to the coherence of society. And for that security to come about there will need to be greater equality and distribution of wealth, particularly among nations – such as Egypt, Yemen and Jordan – that are not blessed with an abundance of natural resources.

There is much talk among the oil-rich Gulf states of the desire to develop knowledge economies in which human ingenuity supplants mineral resources as the mainstays of their economies. But for that to happen, the people of the region will have to re-acquire the habit of curiosity, questioning and critical thinking, the very faculties that many state education systems have traditionally not encouraged, particularly when it comes to religious belief. So you could argue that these societies seek the impossible – to encourage free thinking while placing one primary subject off limits.

Nevertheless I do believe that even the most conservative Arab societies will eventually embrace diversity of belief without fear, but that it will take several generations and much pain and turbulence before that day arrives.

That’s not to say that Arabs are not debating the subject. This recent opinion piece by Mohammed Al-Osaimi, originally published in the Saudi daily newspaper Okaz, and reproduced in its English-language sister publication Saudi Gazette, shows that even Saudi Arabia, the ultimate bastion of conservatism, is not averse to discussion on political and religious freedom:

Those who lose their mind ultimately lose their ability to be logical. I thought of this when I read a reply from a reader to a tweet I had written. I said in my tweet that the Arab world would advance only when the value of an Arab was equivalent to the value of a man in the West.

In his reply the reader said: “The sheep you call human beings in Europe have been enslaved by their own democracy. We will plunge down to their low level when we give up our religion”. I want to say to this reader that I cannot understand how people who live in a democracy and who respect human rights can be called “sheep”.

In the West, Muslim and non-Muslim men and women are respected and valued as real human beings. They are given their full rights. They are provided with all the facilities necessary for them to practice their religion.

If any European is displeased with the religious practices of others, he can file a case against them in the court. He does not have the right to take the law into his own hands. People in the West do not take up swords, daggers or rifles to express their opposition to the followers of other religions. Arab and Muslim countries, however, are replete with mad extremists who say that they worship God by chopping off the heads of those who are not of their religion.

In the democratic West, mosques and Islamic centers are built according to the rule of law under which all people are equal regardless of their race, color or religion. Muslims there are looked upon as real human beings who are worthy of respect. In the democratic West, the police will provide you with protection if you decide to demonstrate peacefully in support of any cause even if this cause is against Western interests. In the democratic West, freedom of expression is guaranteed by law. You can say whatever you want to say and do whatever you want to do as long as you respect the rule of law.

In the West, all people are equal before the law. There are no big or small people. A prime minister may be given a traffic ticket just like any other driver. He can be taken to court if he is accused of embezzling a single penny. A Swedish female minister resigned because she used the credit card of the ministry instead of her own card to fill her car with gas.

In the democratic and free West, there are things which for an Arab remain dreams that will never come true. In our Arab and Islamic countries, some people put on the dress of religion in order to coerce us, block our minds and force us to follow their ideology no matter how good or bad it may be. They are ready to exclude you if you are not one of them. These people see democracy in the West as a method of enslaving people. Therefore, it is not surprising when they look at people who live in a democracy and consider them to be sheep.

A somewhat rosy picture of the west with which I suspect many westerners would disagree, but Al-Osaimi’s piece represents a sizeable, though probably not dominant, constituency of opinion in Saudi Arabia today.

Arabs Without God provides many important insights into a region that the rest of the world ignores at its peril, as recent events clearly demonstrate. At present it’s only available as an e-book. You can find out more about it by going to Brian Whitaker’s website, Al-Bab. I recommend a visit – the site is full of interesting articles by a writer who shows deep knowledge of his subject in everything that he writes about the Middle East.

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