Monday, 24 September 2012

A reminder from a courageous man that some of us really do have it easy.

A couple of weeks ago I met a man on Twitter who is an ex-Muslim atheist living in Saudi Arabia.  He and I have talked a little, and at the end of last week I asked him if he'd be willing to write about his experiences for this blog; he very kindly obliged.

I am not going to give my new friend's name, because atheists in Saudi Arabia can find themselves in genuine, mortal danger if they are discovered to be apostates.  I find parts of his account heartbreaking, and others hopeful and inspiring; as with Bethany's story from the other week, though, I was struck by the similarity between my friend's experiences and those of so many others I've spoken to.  It's a strange and in some ways a very moving reflection that however different our cultures and backgrounds may be, we atheists are often so similar in how we think and how we came to reject our indoctrination.

My scepticism and outspokenness are so much parts of me that I struggle even to imagine what it must be like to be required to suppress them for my own safety.  I am glad to have met my new friend, and honoured that he consented to write this for me.  It's a reminder to us in Europe and other places of just how lucky we are to live where we do, and of some of the reasons the fight against religion really is important despite what many of our detractors try to tell us.  But this also fills me with tremendous hope for the future; through modern technology, we are able to speak to people, share experiences and support each other from distances of thousands of miles.  I believe this new ability may in time bring about the start of an enlightenment in parts of the world where religion currently dominates.

My friend submits this with apologies for his English; I will say, though, that those apologies are entirely unnecessary as his own words needed only the most minor of tweaks from me.  I would like to thank him most sincerely for sharing this with me, and for allowing me to share it with you.

"The story of how I became an atheist.

Before you read this I have to say there will be a lot of grammatical mistakes. I am sorry for that; I will try my best.

I am a guy who was born 16 years ago to a Muslim family in Palestine  Like every child who was born in a Muslim family I was raised to think that Islam is the one true religion and every other one is false.  My parents wanted me to become a Hafiz (a person who has memorized the whole of the Quran), so I became one at the age of 12 and got the second place in a competition in my city.

As a child I always had questions about Islam, like why Christians are going to hell even though they believe in God and pray; the answer was that they are just wrong and Islam is right because the Quran says so. When I got a little older I became interested in science (physics and biology mostly); I was still memorizing the Quran so this created huge conflict in me, but I stilled believed in God and thought it was a test to my faith.

When I turned 14 my father died and my family and I moved to Saudi Arabia (my mom works here as a XXXXX).  I joined the school and found that we have 5 subjects about religion (they are mandatory); we have to pray in school; and my sisters have to go to school wearing burqa, even though none of them are over 13.  I also have a little brother.

I started criticizing Saudi Arabia (in my mind of course, not in public) because they are extremists even though that I knew my religion promotes that, so I became an agnostic for quite a while.  Then I got to a point where I said to myself that this religion doesn’t make any sense and neither does any other; the idea of God, heaven, hell… etc. are absurd, and all the fairy tales that were put into my mind when I was child also don’t make any sense to me.  That was the point when I became an atheist.

A few months ago I decided to tell my 4 best friends in Palestine about this. We talked on Skype. The first one took it well and said you have the right to believe whatever you want; we didn’t argue about it. The second and third friends are brothers; when I told them they were a little bit shocked but also said you can believe whatever you want and that my atheism wasn’t  so big a deal as to end a friendship. The fourth friend was my best best friend; we were friends for more than 11 years.  When I told him he argued with me about a lot of things and got really angry; we argued for about 2 hours on Skype, and in the end he told me “man I can’t talk to you anymore. It’s nothing personal, but my religion says so”. Just like that an 11 year friendship was ended; I got a little emotional and maybe cried a little, but I got over it.

A few days after that I decided to tell my mother since I felt such a release when I told my friends.  I told her in private about my honest opinions; she was very shocked (as I had expected). She told me that I am wrong and Islam is the one true religion and all that stuff; I didn’t want to argue because I felt her pain in thinking that her son will be tortured in hell or could get killed in this country.  In the end I told her that I was not really an atheist but that I had a lot of questions about a lot of things. She said that’s OK, that it was just a phase and that God wanted to test my faith. We’ve barely spoken on the subject again; just a few times she’s told me to watch some lectures by “Muslim scholars”, and to pray. Now I pretend to pray and to believe in Islam, as a lot of ex-Muslims do.

So now I never open a conversation about religion. I don’t want any of my Saudi friends to know that I am an atheist, because if the government heard about it I would be killed for apostasy. 

That was the story of how I became an atheist, and some of my experiences. Thank you for reading."

Update: On the advice of a few people, I have edited out a couple of personal details from the above account. Their loss does not affect the point or the tone of what is being said.


  1. Religion is about community--specifically, separating people into "fellow believers" and "enemies of all that is good and true."

    Anyone who sees this and still chooses to participate in the community is not worth having as a friend.

  2. This made me sad :(
    I wonder how many more "secret atheists" there are in muslim countries...

    1. I'd love to know that too, Sarah, although I don't know how it could be assessed with any accuracy. People are arrested regularly in some parts of the world for doing no more than expressing their atheism.

  3. A heartbreaking situation. A truly brave person. I fear for him and hope that the "friends" in whom he has confided will keep it confidential.

  4. I take my hat off to you young man. I can only imagine how difficult it is for you to have to live with this day to day but at least you can talk online with like mined people. You are NOT alone. There are literally thousands who think like you who are living with their secret. One day hopefully things will change, we have to work toward that wherever and however we can. Good luck my friend!

    BTW if you want to talk, send me a facebook message (link in my profile as my webpage).

  5. Thanks for your comments everyone, here and on Twitter. The man who wrote the above account has asked me to tell you all that you're amazing people, that he says "hi" and that he tremendously appreciates your support and kind thoughts.


  6. You have my respect. Keep your head down, and maybe someday you can join us in the Western world and be honest about who you are and what you believe.

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  8. Tremendous courage, great honesty; and for these qualities he will be murdered by the Saudi theocracy. What a country, what a world.

    Western powers are hypocrites for lauding and supporting the house of Saud; I hope to live long enough to see the oil run out and the Saudi regime collapse.

    It is to be hoped he escapes that hell on earth as soon as possible to live a life of freedom richly deserved and painfully earned.

    Even more, the system of indoctrination that is Islam must be exposed; enough of delusions about the "Religion of Peace"

  9. I can't imagine the absurdity involved in having to pretend to believe in a non-existent God in order to avoid being killed. Truly, horribly, laughable.

    To the writer, I would edit out the personal details - what your mother does, how old your siblings are - as these are details that could lead intelligence officers to find your identity.

    Best of luck.

  10. If the Saudis weren't extracting their fabulous wealth from the ground they'd be living in the stone age, as they surely will again when the West develops alternatives to oil (it's actually not far off). This wonderful but extremely sad piece proves that.

    A brave kid who is clearly in a torment imposed by not only the State but by those who are closest to him. Shameful but unsurprising. I truly believe that if the West opened its doors to Muslim non-believers as we do political refugees we'd be swamped. Perhaps one day this madness will end.

  11. Atheist NOT crime & freedom of choice with safety is a human right ,but in Muslim's countries treat Atheists as criminals & my question is ---how someone be criminals just because (she or he) honest with (herself or himself)?---It's NOT fair to let human been live in fear.

  12. I can't imagine how it would be like to live like this.

    Being constantly subjugated to religious social conventions, and having to play along, and all the pettiness of church attendance and Sunday schools pale in comparison. Not just fear of thought crime (I can live with that), but fear for your own life.

    Censorship, apostasy and blasphemy laws are signs of a lack of conviction and insecurity. Any idea should stand on its own merit. Bullying, let it be political or religious is cowardice. An honesty of thought especially against adversity should always be celebrated.

  13. At this point, I'm seeing alternative energy as a social and ethical issue as much as a practical security one. Islamic regimes in the Middle East need to be deprived of the value of their sole economic resource--oil--in order to undermine their influence.

  14. I have always wondered if there are atheists in Islamic countries, now I am pleased to know there is. There is hope for the world yet! A remarkable account and all kudos to that man.

    On a strategic level the west realises it needs to deprive the basically fascist regimes of the Middle East of their source of revenue, ie oil, by developing alternative safer fuels. But when this happens, those same regimes will continue their oppressive ways with sticks and stones if necessary, just like times gone by. Or other more extreme regimes will emerge. And correspondents like this one would never be able to get in touch with people like us in the west. Such a dilemma! Whilst every gallon of petrol Europe, Japan and the US buy funds the Taliban in Pakistan by a few micro-cents, it also trickles down to allow the internet into each of these countries. Thus atheists can unite in electronic word if not in deed. And the same could be said of people of all superstitions (or lack thereof) who are concerned the environment, or about democracy. The west should develop other fuel sources for the good of the planet only, and not just in an attempt to deprive fascists of power.