‘Fighting Reality’: Life as an atheist in Saudi Arabia

November 21, 2012

Saudis stroll on a pier over the Red Sea in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. (Linda Davidson /The Washington Post)

Atheism in Saudi Arabia is considered an extremely sensitive taboo and a serious crime, so atheists can be hard to come by in the theocratic Middle Eastern kingdom. But, according to an interview that one professed Saudi atheist gave to William Bauer, a reporter with an outlet called Your Middle East, they do exist. But they live in secret, the Saudi man says, quietly making connections with other atheists and reading outside literature he had to smuggle into the country -- yes, including Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins -- while they maintain a facade of Muslim observance.

Here are some of the fascinating quotes from the Saudi atheist, whom Bauer calls Jabir. His journey to atheism seems to have been a lonely one:

“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.”

Jabir explains how the smuggled books and social media allowed him to quietly and safely connect with other atheists. He expresses surprise at meeting older atheists, who credit technology with allowing them to meet one another in ways that they hadn't been able to before.

“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…”

“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.

Jabir fears for his livelihood, even his life, if he were to be found out as an atheist.

“If someone declared that he was a 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.”

Thanks to the blog Riyadh Bureau for flagging the interview.

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Max Fisher | November 21, 2012