Saudi Arabia, also known as the cradle of Islam, is witnessing a growing number of people privately declaring themselves nonbelievers. Even though the evidence is mainly anecdotal, it seems persistent.
“I know at least six atheists who confirmed that to me. Six or seven years ago, I wouldn’t even have heard one person say that. Not even a best friend would confess that to me,” said Fahad al Fahad, 31, a marketing consultant and human rights activist.
Recently, two Gulf-produced television talk shows discussed the perception that atheism is no longer a taboo subject, which is perhaps why the government has made atheism a terrorist offense. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Interior prohibited “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”
The number of Saudis willing to admit to family and friends to being an atheist or declaring themselves nonbelievers online, usually under pseudonyms, is definitely not large enough to start a movement but a 2012 poll by WIN-Gallup International found that 5 percent of 500 Saudis described themselves as “convinced atheists.” While this may not seem like a promising figure, considering the global average is 13 percent, 5 percent is not so bad after all.
The willingness to admit to being an atheist highlights the population’s general disillusionment with religion, especially when a lot of them say religion is being misused by authorities to control people. The disillusionment is expressed is different ways – from challenging and mocking religious leaders on social media to ignoring clerical pronouncements without feeling guilt.
“Because people are becoming more disillusioned with the government, they started looking at the government and its support groups as being in bed together and conspiring together against the good of the people… When they see the ulema [religious scholars] appeasing the government, people become dismayed because they thought they were pious and straightforward and just,” said Bassim Alim, a lawyer in Jeddah.
Together, the appearance of atheists and the continuing lure of jihad and ultraconservatism seem to signal a breakdown in the consensus and conformity that has marked religious practices in Saudi Arabia all these years. Quite obviously, the faith is becoming more polarized and heterogeneous.
“The mosques are full but society is losing its values. It’s more like a mechanical practice, like going church, you have to go on Sunday… We no longer understand our religion, not because we don’t want to. But because our vision of it, our understanding of it, has been polluted by the monarchy…[and]…by the official religious establishment that only measures religion by what the monarchy wants and what pleases the monarchy,” said a former employee of state media.
While it is still unsafe to publicly admit one is an atheist because of the stringent Sharia law that regards disbelief in god as a capital offence, a lot of people are using different social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Blogger to vent their true feelings.