Saudi students
Saudi students sit for their final high school exams in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah in 2010. © Amer Hilabi - AFP/File
Saudi students
William Bauer
Last updated: April 30, 2013

Interview with a Saudi atheist

“Please bear in mind, that people are witch hunting for us…so be careful which details you use,” Jabir begins. He is right to be concerned, for he is an atheist in a country where advocating beliefs other than those of a Sunni Muslim engender imprisonment, possible torture, and a theoretical possibility of execution.

Although Jabir is not his real name, he is still wary of publicly voicing his views. Saudi Arabia is an intensely hostile environment in which to express non-Islamic religious beliefs, let alone a lack of belief. Indeed, for many Saudis, atheism – mulhad in Arabic – is far more disturbing than believing in a different religion. Atheism, as argued by many clerics in Saudi Arabia, leads to dissolute lives, carnal pursuits, immoral behaviours, and ultimately, eternal damnation.

Atheists are portrayed in Saudi official media as an existential and corruptive threat to society. One cleric even recently spoke of a: “wave of atheism sweeping the country.” This is highly unlikely, but it shows a persistent fear of atheists and ensures that no Saudi ever express such a belief openly.

Jabir is in his twenties, and a successful graduate from a top Saudi university. He used to be highly religious, regularly attending his school’s Qu’ranic classes, and not listening to music until his late teens. But in his final school years, this changed.

“I found some religious teachings and rules didn't make any sense. So, I started asking questions about small things like why music is Haram (forbidden) or why women have to cover their faces. Then I started reading about the way Islam scripts and Hadith were gathered … I had a group of people and we would discuss books in regular meetings…After a while I came to believe that the whole of religion is nothing but man’s invention to fight reality and impose order.”

Citing works by key Muslim and Arab thinkers, as well as authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, Jabir explains that acquiring these books was tricky. Often, he had to smuggle them into Saudi.

“I usually get a few copies of English language books that no one can understand, but I had to cover “God is not Great” with a bag as I went through customs, that was too obvious…”

Then comes another complication, the hiding of these books. The process is so time consuming that Jabir notes: “...if you want to joke with a Saudi atheist ask him “where’s your special book stash?”” Beyond the humour, however, the issue is very serious, and if found with such books, Jabir would be in deep trouble.

When asked if holding such views isolates him, he answers confidently: “From my own experience, it was really easy. Importantly, a group from my school friends that I was really close with, left the Islamic faith along with me. As I finished from my degree, I went off to work, as did most of my friends, in different cities. This made it easy for me to be introduced to a group of “pro-reason” or “anti-theist” in every city I go to.”

In the past ten years, new means of communication have opened doors for many in the Kingdom. Whether it is a young Saudi looking for love, a budding political analyst spoiling for debate, a seasoned writer looking for an audience, or an atheist searching for kindred spirits, the Internet has possibilities for all.

“Facebook and Twitter made it easy to find people who debate and are interested in secular values.  We ‘non-believers’ have meetings and groups in a lot of Saudi cities. Although it's really hard to notice them, if you go into them, then you will be shocked by the numbers and elements of society represented,” Jabir notes.

It was not just the fact that there were many others like him which surprised Jabir.

“I was shocked to meet older people in their forties and fifties who been hiding their atheism for decades. They said that only recently with the young generation in their twenties had they found other people who think like them and were able to find social group that they can talk and debate about their ideas in.” Jabir politely demurs when asked about the backgrounds of these people; confidentiality and secrecy run deep in the Saudi Arabian atheism milieu.

Jabir continues to keep up the semblance of belief in Islam when with his family. Occasionally, this becomes frustrating, especially as every Friday he has to pretend to go pray at a mosque, but in reality sits in his car outside a coffee shop chain, sipping a latte until the sermon is finished. Another atheist, Abdullah, mentions he is fortunate to have his family live in another part of Saudi Arabia, and is therefore free to have a weekly lie in.

Nevertheless, the consequences of Jabir or any of his co-believers being unmasked as atheists would be dire.

“If someone declared that he was non-believer, regardless of whether the government took action or not, he would be cut off by his family, he would be fired from his own job, people everywhere would talk about him and warn others about him. It would be highly likely that people would hurt him physically, perhaps murder him.”

When asked how this makes him feel to be Saudi, Jabir says: “The fact that Saudi is not a secular country, make one pessimistic for the future. But the fact that this country is a theist state, promoting one of the most extreme forms of Islam, horrifies me. I don’t see change from society, I don’t see change from the royal family, and as for the outside world, they don’t care how many people are killed for simply refusing to believe in the religion they were born into, as long as the oil keeps pumping.”

Although Jabir’s vision is deeply depressing, it is undeniable that Saudi Arabia is changing. With a booming population, rising unemployment, falling revenue from oil sales, and the ever-growing Internet and social media expansion, the country faces times of change and possible instability. It could yield a society that is freer and more tolerant of differing views and ideas from within its communities.

Yet, it may also, as the political system reacts to these new conditions, be a time of tightening and ever greater social and religious restrictions. The nightmare situation for Jabir is that when the relatively reform-minded King Abdullah dies it will bring about a new monarch who will let the religious police and certain segments of the Saudi community start an aggressive witch-hunt for ‘non-believers’.

I ask him why he continues to hold on to his views, in this most dangerous of societies.

“As a person, I never imagined I’d be in peace with myself and with my view of life like I feel now. My new views on supreme power, afterlife, faith and religion, formed gradually over years of reading and seeking self-satisfaction. However, as a Saudi, I feel like I was born in the wrong place,” he says, concluding:

“Isn't it a basic right for humans to believe or not believe freely! I know this is only a dream in Saudi, but it doesn't change the fact that people will have different views and believes, whether society will allow it or not.”

William Bauer
William Bauer is a columnist for Your Middle East, focusing on Saudi Arabia.
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