Few know the danger of admitting their lack of faith in God better than Ismail Mohamed, the 32-year-old Egyptian man behind the YouTube series The Black Ducks. Mohamed created the show, which features interviews with other non-religious people from the Arab world, in 2012, as a way to provide a platform for secular voices in Egypt. Throughout the course of the series, Mohamed makes no secret of his own atheism.
It wasn't long after posting his first video that Mohamed was invited onto an Egyptian television news program to discuss his decision to leave Islam. After airing, the segment was quickly uploaded to YouTube, where it went viral, earning hundreds of thousands of views in the space of a few months.
Suddenly, "my face became very popular in Egypt," Mohamed recalls. Not long after that, he was pistol-whipped on the streets of his hometown of Alexandria by a man who recognized him from the program, who "told me not to show my face in public again."
Though he's more vocal than most non-believers in the Middle East, Mohamed's story serves as a cautionary tale for citizens of the region who might dare to admit that they don't believe in God. Though the Arab Spring did broaden freedom of expression, the Middle East is still one of the most dangerous places on Earth to be an atheist.
In 2012, the research firm WIN/Gallup released a massive global survey revealing that there were millions of atheists living in the Middle East. These findings shocked the world; the media used the survey to proclaim that atheism was on the rise worldwide, and pointed to the poll's findings that there were as many atheists in Saudi Arabia as there were in the United States.
The poll found startlingly high numbers of non-religious people in the Arab world—33 percent of Lebanese and 29 percent of Palestinians told WIN/Gallup that they're not religious, for example—and gave the impression that non-believers in the Middle East are an accepted part of society.
In reality, that's often not the case. According to interviews with 14 atheists and agnostics across the Middle East and North Africa, those in the region who don't believe in God are often forced to conceal their identities. Those who do come out face repercussions ranging from alienation from friends and family to mob violence and imprisonment. Some have even been sentenced to death.
"There were hundreds of people there. Someone pulled out a knife. I thought I was going to die."
Fourteen out of the 20 countries in the Middle East and North Africa have laws against blasphemy—more than any other part of the world, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center. Twelve of those 20 countries have laws against apostasy ("abandoning the faith"), and a smaller subset—about five—can legally put "apostates" to death.
The governments of almost every Middle Eastern country have at one time or another punished non-believers as a way to set a precedent for other civilians. Even in the Palestinian Territories—where the law purports to protect freedom of religion—authorities sometimes prosecute atheists. In 2010, Waleed al-Husseini, an information technology student living in the West Bank, was arrested and allegedly tortured in a Palestinian prison after he'd blogged about being an atheist. al-Husseini later escaped to Jordan and sought refuge at the French embassy in Amman.
Because most Middle Eastern rulers incorporate Islam into their policies in one way or another, challenging Islam is seen as challenging authority. But it is not the government that most non-believers say they fear the most; it's their fellow citizens.
As Ahmed, a 30-year-old Iraqi atheist, explains: "In Baghdad, there's no law saying you can't be an atheist. But I'd much rather deal with authorities than with people, because the people could try to kill me for it."
A few months after being beaten up in Alexandria, Mohamed, the creator of The Black Ducks, faced an even scarier moment. While at a café in Cairo, he was confronted by a very large, very angry crowd, all of them fuming about the fact that he'd publicly said God didn't exist. "There were hundreds of people there. Someone pulled out a knife," Mohamed says. "I thought I was going to die."
Though the police arrived before he was hurt, the incident left Mohamed shaken. A few months later, he and his wife fled to a town in the Red Sea Governate, a popular resort area in Egypt hundreds of miles away. The area is safer, he says, because of the presence of tourist police.
There is a particularly dramatic verse in Sura 8 of the Koran which reads: "I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip."
But the holy book's many references to "disbelievers" and the violent punishments they should suffer aren't directed specifically toward atheists, says Mustafa Abu Sway, dean of the College of Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University. Because atheism wasn't a big issue when the Koran was written, mentions of "disbelievers" in the book are actually references to polytheists, people who worship idols, or occasionally to followers of other monotheistic religions like Judaism and Christianity, says Abu Sway. What's more, that violence was only permitted in self-defense.
Such nuances, however, may be lost on the average Muslim living in Najaf or Maan. Koranic verses are often misconstrued or—worse—taken out of context, wielded to suit the whims of the individual.
Suspicion of those who don't believe in God isn't unique to the Middle East. Even in the U.S., where freedom of religion is said to be sacrosanct, "atheist" is still a dirty word. Research shows that Americans are uncomfortable with, and distrustful of, people who don't believe in a higher power. One study, performed in 2014 by University of Kentucky psychologist Will Gervais, found that people are generally more likely to consider atheists capable of murder than those who believe in God.
Studies like this suggest that people believe religion is necessary to be a good person. If you don't believe in God, the thinking goes, there's less reason not to act sinfully.
Dr. Bakr Zaki Awad, a dean of religion at Al Azhar University in Cairo, famously said as much during an Egyptian news segment on atheism (the same segment that called attention to Mohamed's YouTube videos): "Atheists don't know right from wrong.... They can sleep with their mothers, sisters, and daughters because they have no moral compass."
Religion is baked into many aspects of everyday life in the Muslim world. "My family and friends don't know I'm agnostic," says a 27-year-old Moroccan worker who asked that his name not be published. "My closest friend would leave me, and he would defame me to everyone I know."
Muslims who do tell friends and family about their non-belief in God may live to regret it. Ibrahim, a 32-year-old Palestinian who works for a Web design company in Amman, Jordan, has seen his relationship with his family wither in the decade since he left Islam. He hasn't spoken to his father in years, and seldom visits his mother, though they live in the same city.
"There should be a way to divorce Islamic ideology from the Muslim identity."
Raised in a devout Sunni family and a Muslim Brotherhood member as a teenager, Ibrahim was also deeply interested in technology, a passion he found to be incompatible with the Koran's teachings. "I wanted to do something in life that would help put Arabs on the map, to invent something, to help humanity somehow," he says over a glass of beer at a rooftop bar in Amman. "I didn't want to stay some Arab guy who just reads the Koran for the rest of his life."
But his parents didn't understand. "They thought that Islam was necessary for me to grow up in a good way."
In Muslim society in the Middle East, people are born into Islam, and for many, there's no escaping it. "It's like the largest tennis club in the world, because people automatically become members," says Ehsan Jami, a former Muslim from Iran. Jami was forced to live under armed guard in Holland in the mid-2000s after founding the Committee for Ex-Muslims, a support group for "apostates" of Islam. Jami received several death threats from enraged Muslims in Europe after starting his group.
Muslim Middle Easterners who leave religion have it rough, but so do the region's ex-Christians. Lucy, a 31-year-old Jordanian woman, grew up going to an evangelical church in Jordan that forbade drinking alcohol and listening to music. That meant Lucy would have faced "many problems" if people knew she was an atheist. "Even at work, if [people know] I don't believe in God, they think I can lie, kill, do anything," she says. Among her friends, only a few know now she no longer believes in God; she says she fears the others would ostracize her if they found out.
Because Christians in the Middle East are a dwindling minority—100 years ago, the region was 10 percent Christian, but they now comprise only 3.8 percent of the population of 300 million—when Arab Christians become atheist, it can be seen as a betrayal, Lucy says. "The church tries to keep them close, since they're such a small number here."
Christians are also subject to the region's harsh laws—much like their Muslim peers—and should they run afoul of those laws, the punishments are no less severe. In 2012, 27-year-old Alber Saber, an Egyptian Christian-turned-atheist blogger, was sentenced to three years in jail for creating a Facebook page called "Egyptian atheists," and for other online activities that the Egyptian authorities claimed were exhorting people to atheism. Amnesty International called Saber's sentence "an outrageous assault on freedom of expression."
It's generally easier for Jews in the Middle East to become atheist than it is for Christians or Muslims. That's because the vast majority of Middle Eastern Jews live in Israel, a secular state that—outside of the occupied territories—has the most democratic government in the region. (Jews who live in ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, of course, have a much harder time leaving the faith, but that's due more to the extreme religiosity of those communities than it is to the fact that they happen to be located in Israel.)
A major ideological component of the Arab Spring revolved around the need for lawmakers to remove Islam from legal codes and constitutions. Following the uprisings, atheists, agnostics, and secularists in the Middle East grew emboldened in ways they hadn't thought possible before. The founding of several popular Facebook groups for Arab atheists around this time is testament to this newfound confidence.
But unfortunately for secular Arabs, the power vacuum created by the Arab Spring ultimately allowed Islamist groups to gain influence. As a result, atheists in the Middle East still have their work cut out for them—at least in the political sphere.
Some, like Pakistani-Canadian writer Ali Rizvi, have suggested the need to separate Muslim culture from Islamic dogma. "There should be a way to divorce Islamic ideology from the Muslim identity," Rizvi says, pointing out that many Catholics can use birth control and many Jews can eat pork without having people question their identities. "But if a Muslim drinks alcohol, people say he's not a Muslim."
"If Muslims got comfortable with allowing their kids to change their minds [about Islam] and not have to lose their entire identity that they've grown up with," he says, "you would have more progressive thought, and you wouldn't isolate people."
That's easier said than done, of course. In the Middle East, religion is the rock to which people cling while everything else in their lives seems to be changing. But if the Middle East can embrace its atheists—if it can accept them as an integral part of society—it will be an historic victory in the region's struggle to be free.