Many preachers are secretly atheists

In some Islamic countries it is life-threatening to profess atheism. The story of two young men who dared anyway.

Kacem El Ghazzali blogged about atheism for four years before meeting a group of incarnate atheists for the first time in the spring of 2011. The twenty-year-old Moroccan had just fled his home country to Switzerland. He had applied for asylum at the Swiss embassy in Rabat - that was still possible at the time - and it was members of the Swiss Freethinkers Association who had paid for his plane ticket, visited him in the transit home and later found him an apartment. It wasn't long before they invited Kacem to one of their meetings.

Kacem had imagined this moment for a long time: at last he would no longer meet like-minded people only on the Internet, at last he could discuss openly and without danger, about the compulsion to believe, about oppression and freedom of expression. And in fact the free thinkers applauded the atheist ex-Muslim for his courage and then talked about what position one should take on the question of a ban on veiling. But just a few events later, Kacem knew that the evening had been an exception. Because actually, he had noticed, the atheists in this country prefer to talk about vegan nutrition than about human rights in Islam, and they like to joke about the Pope, but not about Mohammed. He owes a lot to the Swiss freethinkers and has since made good friends among them, says Kacem El Ghazzali. «But their atheism is not the same as mine. In the Arab world, being an atheist means much more than not believing in a god. "

Not believing can be easy or life-threatening, depending on the country in which you live. The "Freedom of Thought" report from 2013, which the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) produced, organized the world according to the rights of the religiously less. 44 characteristics result in 5 categories: "Free and equal" is what life is like in Belgium or Fiji; Switzerland is only in the middle because the tax system favors the regional churches and some schools refer to Christianity; 31 countries - 12 in Africa, 9 in Asia, 10 in the Middle East - end up in the most precarious category, in which religious people are severely discriminated against. In 19 countries, for example, there are laws that criminalize apostasy, apostasy, in 12 of them even death. And apostasy in all these countries means: apostasy from Islam. The laws are based on Sharia law, which recognizes a kind of religious freedom for Christians or Jews, but not for Muslims. According to Islamic law, Muslims are not allowed to change their god or renounce their belief; Strictly speaking, someone who refuses to pray out of conviction is already an apostate. Even in countries with the death penalty, apostates are rarely actually executed, but some of them sit in prison for years. Moreover, apostasy is by no means the only charge that can get an atheist into trouble. Some states punish unbelief with other laws by accusing atheists of sedition or blasphemy.

Kacem El Ghazzali's doubts about Islam begin in a Koran school. His father, a dentist, sends the twelve-year-old to a Salafist boarding school, although the family is not strictly religious; one day the boy is supposed to become an imam or an Islamic jurist. Kacem wears the traditional clothes, learns parts of the Koran by heart, recites suras. He tries to believe. But no matter how hard he tries, he won't succeed - whenever he prays, he feels empty. And when he tries to talk to someone about it, you look at him like he's crazy. Kacem stayed in the Koran school for a year and a half; there was only one aspect that he liked: Before that, he was treated at home as a child. Now he is sitting in the middle of the room, the adults ask his opinion, and suddenly he can give orders to his mother. Since then, he says, he has understood the Salafists' enthusiasm for religion: "You really feel very, very important."

At the age of 14, Kacem returned to his home village, having fallen ill. An uncle - also an atheist who never admitted it - opens his library to him. Kacem reads Marx and Darwin; When he took the French translation of Richard Dawkins ’" The Selfish Gene "with him to high school, his biology teacher snatched it from his hands and shouted that he should never bring that kind of crap back with him. Finally, Kacem discovered the Internet and with it a library without borders: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Kant and Rousseau. An Arabic translation of Dawkins ’« Der Gotteswahn ».

In 2007 the 17-year-old started blogging about his doubts about his belief that he couldn't share with anyone. Three years later, www.atheistica.com has 13,000 followers from Morocco and Egypt, from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. Then suddenly Kacem is threatened and insulted on Facebook. To this day, he does not know who exposed him and how. He chooses to flee forward and in a television interview confesses to the blog: A slim young man who says he respects all religions, but wants to be able to discuss them rationally. He shows a picture of hooded men on his Facebook page who announce that they will "soon be slaughtered like a sheep" and also give the place where it will happen; a small town where Kacem often stays.

After the interview, the hunt begins even more. Kacem is now also threatened on the mobile phone. The imam in his home village warns the faithful about him during Friday prayers, and several imams in the big cities condemn his atheism. Some of his family and many friends turned away from him, and believers protested in front of his house. His teacher for Islamic education claims that Kacem is also the author of the Mohammed cartoons in Denmark, that he deserves to die for apostasy from Islam. Schoolmates throw stones at him, and when he tries to complain to the school director, the latter beats him ready for hospital. Kacem cannot expect any help from the authorities. Morocco's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but a law makes "the attempt to shake a Muslim's faith" a punishable offense. Kacem went into hiding with friends in another city, contacted Amnesty International and finally turned to the Swiss ambassador, who, after a long conversation, gave him a visa.

His idea of ​​the West was about as realistic as the image of the Orient in One Thousand and One Nights, says Kacem. "I had only read philosophers like Kant, Nietzsche, Spinoza or Rousseau and expected everyone here to use their freedom to debate all the time."

Kacem was only a few months in Switzerland when police officers showed up at Tony Marc's workplace in Abu Dhabi. It's January 16, 2012, and the native Egyptian believes he is free like never before. Tony has lived in the capital of the United Arab Emirates for three years. He has a well-paid job as a graphic designer, and Abu Dhabi seems a lot more modern to him than the city in Egypt where he grew up. As a Muslim, the 35-year-old can buy alcohol and discuss his own disbelief with friends; once he even got into a conversation about it with a stranger in the park.

At 17, Tony Marc, who never liked his Arabic name, had been devout. But over the years he began to have doubts. As early as the late 1990s, he had read texts on the Internet by Medhat Mahfouz, one of the first critics of Islam to write in Arabic. Tony later followed several atheist blogs, including Kacem's. The two made friends over the net, and Tony began to post on Facebook himself, a burning mosque, for example, including the question: "Where is Allah now?" He didn't think that was a problem in Abu Dhabi. But he was wrong.

The two policemen standing in front of his desk asked if he was "Tony". They take him away in handcuffs. At the police station, he was presented with screenshots from his Facebook page, which had 2000 fans at the time. Tony does not deny that he is the author of the articles critical of Islam; nor does he believe that in the worst case, he will be deported. But then one of the men who interrogate him says that this crime will probably cost him seven years.

Tony sits in jail for weeks before he can call anyone. He doesn't know who betrayed him, but he suspects that the foreign Syrian in the park with whom he had spoken so openly was an informant. Tony is threatened in the central prison, the inmates are housed by country of origin, and the religious cellmates know his offense. They tell him he deserves death for it. Tony manages to switch from the cell of the Egyptians to that of the Indians, where more than 30 people crowd. When he can finally make a phone call, he calls a human rights activist in Morocco with whom he is friends. She contacted Kacem in Switzerland, who published Tony's story online, in order to put pressure on the government.

Shortly before the trial, the prosecutor suddenly asked Tony if he heard voices or had drunk when he posted his comments on Facebook. At first Tony doesn't understand that the man is showing him a way out. But a Lebanese Christian, with whom he befriended in prison, advises him to respond. According to Sharia law, apostasy is not punishable if the Muslim is insane or drunk at the time of the act. Tony doesn't really want to lie. In court he first affirmed that he believed in what he wrote. But when the judge announced to him that in this case he would have to use Sharia law and have him killed, he was frightened. Sometimes, he says, he hears voices; maybe he's not normal.

Before he is transferred to a psychiatric clinic for clarification, Tony manages to call the Moroccan activist again; he asks her to tell him everything she knows about schizophrenia. In the closed section, Tony doesn't say a word, doesn't wash, does restless laps, and hits his head against the wall. After two weeks, the doctors certify that he is insane. The court acquitted Tony - and sent him back to the psychiatric ward. He is released after a few months. A little later he falls in love with Niina, a young Swiss scholar of Islam who is currently in the United Arab Emirates. Kacem put the two in contact. In 2013 Tony was arrested again. He is said to be deported to Egypt, where he is threatened with another trial because of his blog. Instead, Tony fled to Niina in Switzerland, they are now married.

Wouldn't it have been easier to remain a silent atheist rather than become a martyr of disbelief? It is a warm afternoon in autumn 2014, Kacem El Ghazzali and Tony Marc are sitting in a Zurich café. Tony is a quiet, carefully dressed creative in a flat cap; He is currently learning German and is trying to gain a foothold in his profession as a graphic designer and photographer. Kacem, combative and clever, with his black, half-length hair and glasses, looks like what he would like best to be: a student. Because he had to flee a few days before his Matura exam, he is denied access to the university.

It is much more difficult to be a silent atheist in an Arab country than in the West, says Kacem, because Islam determines every area of ​​life. “It is the heart of a culture that interferes with everything: It controls what you eat or drink and what you can talk or laugh about when. It forces anyone who does not believe to lead a double life. " To this day, he is convinced that he did the right thing. Tony, on the other hand, is not sure whether he would dare to stand by his disbelief in an Islamic country: "I only now know how high the price can be."

Both keep blogging, but they don't debate with the same intensity. Tony likes to stay in the background, Kacem lends his face to Arab atheism: dozens of photos of him are circulating online; he has published a book that has been downloaded more than 20,000 times and is working on a second. Of course he is still being attacked on his blog, but when he scrolls through the old comments he sees that something is moving: There are writers who insulted him in the past and who agree with him today. “They feel provoked at first, but then they start reading; one thing leads to another. And at some point they realize that the root of injustice and lack of freedom is religion. "

In Switzerland, Kacem's opponents are on different fronts. There is the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland, which for many reasons does not like him, also because last year it launched a media campaign to prevent its Saudi guest speaker from entering the country - "a hate preacher!" - has foiled. There are moderate Muslims who think that he provokes unnecessarily when he launches a movement like “Mayasaminch” (“I don't fast”) from exile: Young Moroccans upload pictures on Facebook that they show while eating during Ramadan . Then there are letters to the editor from the right-wing camp who are upset that someone like him is even being granted asylum in Switzerland, where he could simply have remained silent and stayed in Morocco. And there are letters to the editor from the left-wing camp who are annoyed when he says that the majority of the North African asylum seekers he met in the transit home only come here to steal.

The left in general: Kacem has already been accused of being racist - and Islamophobic. "As soon as it comes to Islam, part of the left hides behind cultural relativism," says Kacem. Even the Swiss atheists did not dare to criticize Islam as clearly as Christianity, “because they fear being put in the right corner if, for example, they speak out in favor of a burqa ban. In the name of tolerance, they tolerate intolerance. " In this country it is currently considered to be cool, young, left-wing, atheist and vegan. But Kacem is more interested in human rights than animal rights. As a representative of the international humanistic and ethical union, he reminds the UN Human Rights Council of like-minded people who were less fortunate than him. To the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, for example, who co-founded a website that debated the relationship between religion and politics. An Islamic legal scholar had declared him an apostate in an expert report because he had described Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists as being of equal value; in Saudi Arabia it says death.

Badawi evaded the sentence by uttering the Islamic creed three times in court, thereby confirming that he was a Muslim. He was then charged with offenses such as "insulting Islam" and "disobedience to the father" with whom he had argued publicly about religion. In addition, a law has been in force in Saudi Arabia since 2014 that classifies any dissemination of non-Islamic and atheist ideas as terrorism. Badawi was sentenced in May 2014 to ten years imprisonment, a fine of more than 200,000 francs and 1,000 lashes.

Two months ago, Kacem met an author who he says he felt an almost personal connection while reading: Richard Dawkins. The sharp critic of all religions was invited to this year's “Denkfest” in Zurich, a conference that the Swiss freethinkers brought to life. Kacem told Dawkins how he once devoured his work "Der Gotteswahn" in Arabic. The book sparked a huge controversy in the Islamic world, and the translator, an Iraqi friend, was threatened with death. The Arabic version of “Der Gotteswahn” has been downloaded ten million times online; Richard Dawkins had no idea, until that moment, that an Arabic version of it even existed.

Kacem had to bring himself to speak to the famous author. He had read "Gotteswahn" in Morocco, secretly and full of fear. Since then, Richard Dawkins has been synonymous with forbidden freedom of thought for him; to this day he panics when he hears his name.

BARBARA KLINGBACHER is the NZZ Folio editor.

This article comes from the NZZ Folio magazine from December 2014 on the subject of "Atheism". You can order this issue or subscribe to the NZZ Folio.