There’s the Tunisian woman who fasts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, though not for God. The Iraqi woman who, until recently, wore a hijab. And a man whose Egyptian identity card still identifies him as “Muslim.”
Such are the ways that some of the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones” — people who are agnostics, atheists or nothing in particular — negotiate their existence in the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, where religion is often ingrained in life’s very fabric.
Aware that rejecting religion can have repercussions, many conceal that part of themselves. Declaring disbelief may spur social stigma, ostracism by loved ones or even unleash the wrath of authorities, especially if going public is coupled with real or perceived attacks on religion or God.
“I have a double life all the time,” said the 27-year-old Tunisian woman. “It’s better than having conflict every day.”
Many nonbelievers seek community, ideas or pockets of digital defiance on the internet even though online spaces can come with risks.
Most of those interviewed by The Associated Press spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions and because some of their families don’t know how they religiously identify.
“The Middle East is the birthplace of the three heavenly religions and there’s no doubt that the region’s culture has long been intertwined with religion,” said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Religion has also been a source of legitimacy for rulers, a source for knowledge and behavioral norms.”
Many in Arab countries, he said, associate lack of religion with immorality. “To them, you cannot talk about the rights of someone who is a danger to society.”
Bans on blasphemy appear in different parts of the world. But, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, they have been most common in the MENA region as of 2019.
The Tunisian woman said she fasts to avoid being found out by her family. She pretends to sleep to skip gatherings, where relatives may take aim at her suspected disbelief.
From an early age, she rejected how Islam was practiced in her home. She said her father would sometimes force her to pray. Resisting traditional interpretations of such things as gender roles, she turned to progressive Muslim readings.
She now sees herself as nothing in particular and open to different spiritual paths.
“You’re socially perceived like you are public enemy,” she said. “People hate you without knowing you.”
Hany Elmihy hoped conditions could change. The 57-year-old Egyptian agnostic and some other nonbelievers saw a window for visibility following the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
Elmihy said he founded a Facebook group for Egyptians without religion in 2011, while similar ones formed in other Arab countries. Mass protests demanding political change had just unseated an Egyptian president then, highlighting the power of social media for dissent.
“It’s not the revolution that turned some into atheists or irreligious; the revolution gave them the freedom and courage to speak up,” Elmihy said.
Elmihy said he was insulted, threatened, and attacked by unknown assailants.
Seeking recognition, he tried to change the “Muslim” designation listed on his identity card to state he adheres to no religion. He failed.
After the post-revolt euphoria fizzled out, he left Egypt in 2015 and now lives in Norway.
“Society scared me the most,” Elmihy said. “I felt isolated.”
He views his earlier advocacy with mixed feelings, but says “it was important to let the society know that the religiously unaffiliated exist.”
Some took note.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said Egypt’s youth ministry announced plans in 2014 to combat atheism in collaboration with religious bodies.
Local press also reported on anti-atheism efforts by some Islamic and Christian institutions.
“We believe that those who don’t belong to religion are committing a sin but it’s not our responsibility to hold them accountable,” said Abbas Shouman, an official with Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based seat of Sunni Muslim learning. The role of religious authorities, he said “is only to explain, clarify, spread the right education and respond to suspicions.”
Shouman rejects attacks on religion, saying nonbelievers “have the right to defend their beliefs as they wish but not to go after others’ beliefs and affiliations.”
Atheism is not criminalized in Egypt, Ibrahim said. Last year, Ibrahim’s EIPR said an Egyptian court upheld a three-year-prison sentence and a fine against a blogger charged with contempt of religion and misusing social media. The organization, whose lawyer appealed the earlier verdict, has said the man was accused of managing a Facebook page for Egyptian atheists that allegedly criticizes religions.
In May, Iran hanged two men convicted of blasphemy, carrying out rare death sentences for the crime. The men were accused of involvement in a Telegram channel called “Critique of Superstition and Religion,” according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The Mizan news agency of Iran’s judiciary described the two as having insulted Prophet Muhammad and promoted atheism.
In Saudi Arabia, a court has sentenced a man to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes on accusations of expressing atheism online; a media report said in 2016 that religious police found tweets denying the existence of God and ridiculing Quranic verses.
For some, like Ahmad, religious disbelief hasn’t caused tensions. But the 33-year-old Lebanese, who comes from a Shiite Muslim family and now lives in Qatar, wanted his last name withheld because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“We have an unspoken agreement: I don’t criticize religion and you don’t criticize my lack of religion,” he said. He’s religiously unaffiliated, and says he cannot believe “in something that I cannot touch or cannot see.”
The role of sectarian divisions in fueling conflicts in Lebanon is one reason Talar Demirdjian distanced herself from religion.
“People either go very into their religion or their sects, or the other side.” A Lebanese Armenian of Christian heritage, Demirdjian said about religion, “I don’t even think about it enough to tick a label.”
For one Iraqi woman, questions started when a childhood dream to one day become an imam like her grandfather was quashed because she is a girl. Iraq’s turmoil fueled her disbelief.
The 24-year-old’s generation witnessed the U.S.-led invasion, militancy, sectarian violence, the brutal reign of the Islamic State and increasing clout of militias.
She’s worn the Islamic headscarf before and, for a while, after she became agnostic. When militants proliferated where she lived, she donned it to stay out of danger; at other times, it was to socially fit in. She removed it around 2020.
“I don’t tell people that I am agnostic,” she said. “It’d be an act of stupidity to do so in such a society.”
AP writers Youcef Bounab in Paris and Abdulrahman Zeyad in Baghdad contributed.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.