Figures suggest that organized religion is slowly on its way out. Let’s face it; after the pope started promising Catholics less time in purgatory for following his Twitter, it all got a bit ridiculous, so you can see why. Predominantly Islamic countries are often portrayed as being places with a consensus of opinion when it comes to faith, but they aren’t immune to the changes; in recent years, underground atheist movements have sprung up in a variety of different nations where apostasy is still illegal and people can be jailed for failing to believe in God. One such movement is the Council of Ex-Muslims of Morocco, led by Imad Iddine Habib, a heavy-metal-loving atheist subversive who seemingly has no fear of the authorities. I caught up with him to find out what life is like for non-believers in a nation where religious figures are clamouring for the death penalty for apostates.
‘Atheists don’t have the right to right to criticize Islam in Morocco or take part in discussions with Muslims,’ this self-proclaimed militant atheist told me. ‘Shaking a Muslim’s faith is a crime. We don’t have the right to create associations or organizations because society doesn’t accept us. We are persecuted, harassed and jailed, for example Moroccan atheist blogger Mohammed Sokrat, who was sentenced to two years for a supposed drug traffic affair.’
Mohammed Sokrat is an atheist anarchist who took to the streets with a megaphone to make his views known. He was arrested for allegedly possessing £1,000 worth of hashish, which seems dubious considering the fact that he could be seen each day selling second hand clothes on the streets, earning him under £10 a week. If he was selling drugs then why would he continue to work such a menial job for such meagre pay?
Sokrat is by no means the only Moroccan atheist to have fallen victim to persecution by the authorities. After translating a fatwa against apostates issued by religious leaders into a variety of different languages and sending copies of it out to the Western media, Habib received a warning that he would be considered to be an ‘enemy of the country’ if he continued to express his beliefs.
‘After this, police came to my parents’ house again,’ he told me. ‘I wasn’t there, but it became clear that they wanted to arrest me and force me to stop all of my activities. Later, my parents kicked me out of the house and told me that they would call the police if I came back.’
Rather than deterring Habib, this spurred him on to campaign harder for the right to be irreligious. He is one of the few Moroccan atheists who does not hide behind a veil of anonymity and even took photos of himself eating during Ramadan, posting them online for all to see.
‘They don’t even respect my right to eat when they’re fasting,’ he says. ‘I received hundreds of threats and even death threats. There is even a law not allowing eating during the day if it is Ramadan. Can you imagine that?’
Even if you don’t agree with Habib’s views, you can’t deny his balls. He’s willing to risk his life for what he believes in, which in my mind places him above the armchair atheists of the West. Equally ballsy are the apostates of Bangladesh, where 32 people were killed following a riot in which the public demanded the death penalty for atheist bloggers a couple of years back. Although Morocco is the world’s most homogeneously Islamic nation, with 99.9% of the population belonging to the faith, it’s arguably less dangerous to be an atheist there than it is in Bangladesh. There’s increasing pressure for the Bangladeshi government to exact violent retribution against apostates, and a culture in which non-believers are forced to keep their views to themselves for fear of death.
‘Religion poses many problems,’ says Dipon, a member of the Atheist Association of Bangladesh. ‘It restricts female education and stops women from working outside when 45 percent of the population is female. It is causing political disturbances and the minority is being attacked and harmed by the majority.’
All of the atheist activists in the nation carry out their activities anonymously, with many relying upon the internet as a tool to express their opinions. However Dipon believes that there’s no point taking to the web in a country where the majority of the citizens don’t have access to computers.
‘I think the internet cannot do anything, because most of our population is poor and uneducated,’ he says. ‘If we want to spread atheism, we should start from the roots. Atheist committees can be made in every area. Uneducated people should be properly educated and we should try to show the bad effects of religion.’
It could be argued that there’s a big difference between calling for the death penalty for atheists and actually installing it. However, atheists have been jailed for their beliefs in Bangladesh, and there are stricter nations in which non-believers have been killed, proving what a slippery slope the country is heading down. One of the places with the worst attitude towards non-believers is Somalia, although admittedly it is an extremely violent country in general, so this is somewhat par for the course. In 2009, politician Abdirahman Ahmed was accused of apostasy by hard-line Islamists. He was tried in a Shariah court and sentenced to death. Although this was probably just an excuse for killing a political rival, it demonstrates how dangerous it is to be an atheist there.
Despite the potentially fatal consequences of leaving Islam, there are still Somali atheists who are committed to spreading their beliefs. I got in touch with Mohamed, who is amongst their ranks.
‘Fear and being a single, lonely voice in apostatising has resulted in people keeping things to themselves and hiding apostasy in some of the same ways murderers hide bodies,’ he told me. ‘Sometimes apostatising can feel like a serious crime, but things are changing. They are changing painfully slowly of course, but it will be worth it. If I can contribute just an iota to this new direction for the future of Somalia then I will be proud of myself.’
Mohamed pointed out that the internet is making freedom of expression impossible to stifle in strongly Islamic countries. He highlighted the oppression of women, suppression of cultural activities and existence of extremism as some of the many ways in which he believes that religion is negatively impacting upon Somalia. It seems as if modern technology is spreading atheist ideologies in places that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to penetrate. Does this spell the end for religion? Probably not. It just means that there is now a platform for those who don’t subscribe to it to make their opinions known.
*Words by @Nickchesterv