Blasphemy Is My Right

  Waleed Al-Husseini:“Blasphemy Is My Right”
 Because he came out as an atheist, Palestinian writer Waleed Al Husseini was brutally repressed by his country’s secret police. Now in exile in Paris, he tells Free Arabs about his trial and tribulations.


Author of the book Blasphémateur! Les Prisons D’Allah (Grasset, 2015), Waleed Al-Husseini has been making headlines in Francophonic circles. The Palestinian exile in Paris was the first person to have been arrested in the West Bank for leaving Islam, a physical and psychological ordeal that never deterred him from speaking his mind. Proof of such perseverance is his founding of the Council of Ex-Muslims of France as soon as he set foot in Paris. Still awaiting an update of his refugee status by French authorities, Waleed spoke to Free Arabs about his journey out of Islam, the trials of his detention and persecution, and his firm belief in the necessity of a radical reform in Arab intellectual life.

“I was raised Muslim. But as early as age 13, my mind started to wander. There were a lot of existential questions in my teenager’s head. But to much of my dismay, the answers given to me back then by authority figures – elders, Imams, teachers – were not convincing at all. Nor were the simplistic explanations of Islamic references. I understood that I had to take matters into my own hands. So I began reading the books I could get my hands on. The discovery of the elementary notion of Evolution was mind-blowing. Books like Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Darwin’s The Origin Of Species opened my eyes to a whole new paradigm. By age 17, I graduated high school and enrolled in university as an IT student. My atheism, although still secret, had fully blossomed. The secrecy couldn’t have lasted for long anyway. The Arab blogosphere of culture and ideas embraced me with open arms…

The idea that Palestinian public opinion would be hostile to my atheist coming out still surprises me to this day. For a culture living under constant Israeli oppression, you would think that Palestinian intellectual life would be marked by defiance of the mainstream. And in many ways, it is. Intellectuals like Mahmoud Darwich never hid their doubt of all things religious to their readers. But one must not forget the nature of the societies they are addressing, I guess. Palestinian society, despite being united in resistance, is quite sectarian. Very early in my blogging days, I started getting intimidating comments and threats online. I stopped writing from home and instead blogged from scattered, random locations. One of those was the cybercafé I was arrested in on November 2nd, 2010.

I was treated as an enemy of the state. You’d think I was a spy. My arrest was performed by Palestinian intelligence officers, who locked me up in one of their facilities. During more than ten months of “investigation,” I was beaten, tortured and smeared at will. Thinking back, I do not believe the men interrogating me were conceptually equipped to understand that atheism can be a conscious, personal choice. Theories of conspiracy and foreign meddling loomed over my head for the entire duration of my incarceration. I was asked about who was financing my atheism. They pressed on with the scenario of Israeli involvement. In their minds, this could have been nothing but a plot. Palestinian atheist? It cannot be!

To make matters worse, the tribunal tasked with delivering my sentence was a military one. The reason? My online atheism was a “threat to national security!” The trial kept going on and off for about six months. And who were those witnesses summoned by the tribunal to testify against me? The very people who spent weeks physically abusing me and asking me the most absurd questions. It was quite a laughable situation.

I was released in September 2011 as part of the batch of prisoners pardoned on the occasion of the Eid Al Adha religious holiday. The release was no indication that I would be cut some slack, however. Palestinian intelligence was still sending its men to watch over me, under the dubious claim that they wanted to “protect” me against any popular retaliation. I was also summoned to intelligence headquarters for further questioning. By 2011, news of my persecution had gained international traction. I was told for instance that former French Minister of Foreign Affairs Michelle Alliot-Marie had called for my release twice. Exhausted of all the negative attention and with that knowledge in mind, I set my escape plan in motion…
The men interrogating me were not conceptually equipped to understand that atheism can be a conscious, personal choice. Theories of conspiracy and foreign meddling loomed over my head during my incarceration. I was asked about who was financing my atheism 
Getting out of the West Bank and into Jordan was way easier than I thought, for the very obvious reason that Palestinian security services have no control over what is going on at the border. For a short moment, Israeli soldiers turned from oppressors to liberators: they let me cross the gate without any hassle. Why not? They didn’t have anything against me. My government did.


Things went smoothly from then on. I was hosted by an aunt of mine who lives in Amman and was able to apply for asylum at the French Embassy there. French authorities were already aware of my case, courtesy of the international mobilization for my release. The French Republic granted me temporary asylum as a political refugee. As soon as I could, I flew to Paris. But then, what to do next? Whatever I had so strongly fought for had to amount to something. The idea of a book on my experience as an Arab atheist was already simmering in my mind. But in the meantime, there was a more urgent endeavor awaiting my undertaking.

An atheist is surely not a stranger in Paris, bastion of the secular Republic. But an outspoken Arab Ex-Muslim atheist? Quite the opposite. The contradiction in France was striking: the law may be on the side of those who want to leave Islam, but their immediate social entourage rarely is. The pressure to conform that French citizens of Muslim upbringing face is real. Bringing their narratives into the spotlight was necessary. It is in that respect that I co-founded the Council of Ex-Muslims of France with 14 other ex-Muslims in July 2013. As there were already Ex-Muslim chapters in North America and the UK, having one in Paris was the least we could do. In less than two years, our membership quadrupled.

Was I stubborn, hard-headed or uncompromising? Not really. I was just standing my ground. My decision to do so was merely motivated by a deep conviction that I was not doing anything wrong at all. I am also relieved that being overwhelmingly outnumbered did not trigger any doubts regarding my atheism. The latter was a personal achievement of mine, and under no circumstances was I going to give up on it. Letting go of Islam is psychologically exhausting enough. Going back to it was out of the question.

Arab societies must grapple with the necessity to criticize bad ideas. All bad ideas, including the ones propagated by Islam and other religions. Free speech is a universal human right. That makes blasphemy the right of any breathing human being. I choose to exercise that right at will, just like Islamists choose to spend their time insulting anything un-Islamic. I mean what is the difference there?
Even in the Middle East and North Africa, I am certain that I am no way an outcast or a minority. There are so many young Arabs like me who have long considered Islam a thing of the past and started arguing their way out of it. But where they live, they can only do that using nicknames online. And all I can do is urge them to be more tenacious. It’s worth it.”

* Zouhair Mazouz is Free Arabs’ assistant editor.


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Majid Oukacha : MY METHOD



Do you know the proverb « Culture is a second nature » inspired by the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal ?
I was born in France, I grew up in France and I am a 29-year-old French man amongst French people who has understood one thing with most part of the Muslims he has met in his life : « Faced with culture, nature is only a second nature ». Nature is the force that requires you to live the longest time possible. It seems to be a universal reason to avoid death, between all the sensitive beings. To be sure that its mission won't fail, nature has made eating (the way to survive individually) or copulating (the way to survive collectively) pleasant and physical injury (the way to die) painful. But the spiritual development/identity building of the humans inspires means and ends that are able to make them flee the best and desire the worst. A choice that happens in men and women’s minds hasn't been decided by genes like the color of our skin. Suicide is a voluntary behaviour that depends on choices inspired by moral tastes and cultural values into the spirit, and not as a result of an inevitable urge to sneeze.
The islamic faith is a property of mind integrated in the believer's brain by the family education, the school education, the sociocultural environment of the society which the believer belongs to... I was Muslim until I was 18/19. During the time I was a Muslim, I had a second religion I was aware and proud of : a religion without fate, a religion where heaven and hell are visible before death, a religion where God never speaks, a religion where God has been created by those who believe in Him, a religion where God is the (living) picture of those who believe in Him. This other religion, now my only religion, is France. I am a French patriot who has always loved this country, his country, his home, and I know that I owe to the teachers and Christian or Jew friends I have met when I was at the school of the « République »... The ability to put my Muslim life into perspective and to understand why I was who I was (and not another).
 
French culture has incorporated in me some values that the mosque education has never managed to destroy. I was a Muslim but I was mostly a humanist, a lover of freedom of expression and a defender of the freedom of belief. To go to the mosque has always been a duty for me. To learn how to be a good imitator of the Prophet Muhammad was often a constraint. But learning to understand others in order to understand myself and to be confronted with love, reason, music and pleasure of a life where I was not a believer, it was joy and satisfaction. I was a young man who had a lot of dreams he had never talked to the God he believed in. Not because of shame, but because I considered that what I wanted was considered insignificant or futile by Him. The God of the Quran knows no other things to do with humans than blame, subject and guilt them. This young man decided one day to understand his faith before learning it. It was during the summer holidays before my first year at university.

My own experience, both before and after my apostasy from islam, has made me feel that that a majority of Muslims haven’t read entirely the enormous book of the Quran. Most of them prefer to say that the Quran contains this information or this other as such imam or such cheikh have said. And most of them prefer to ask and trust the word of a « more informed believer » than to find the answer by themselves, in front of any difficulty. Why has the God of the Quran decided to prohibit eating pork ? Tell 100 different Muslims from our Western countries if the answer to this question is written in the Quran. The true answer is « No », but the majority of the believers you will question will tell you « I don't know », « Maybe » or « Yes ». The reading of the whole Quran, from the beginning to the end, imposes me three observations. Observation #1. There is a moral and intellectual antagonism between the Quran legal laws/Quran value judgments and me. This finding doesn't prove that Allah doesn't exist. The most famous modern authors/writers/intellectuals I know for their criticism against islam, from France or beyond, former Muslims or not, have ever justified their criticism of the muslim religion by including some value jugements to the analyzes or conclusions they develop. I don't blame them for doing so but I think that the most effective way to prove to world peoples that islam is dangerous must first go by proving them that islam is false or ridiculous. To demonstrate that the laws of the Quran are crual, unjust or misogynist don't prove that Allah doesn't exist or Muhammad was a liar. Either God is good or God doesnt exist is a wobbly philosophy for me ! Why might God not be bad ? Why would omniscience or omnipotence force God to do more good than evil ? 

There is no consensus on a single definition of good in the humanity. So nobody can believe in God if he assumes that any human can « kill » (a) God by judging him bad... Observation #2. The real islam wanted by the author of the Quran is not a religion of peace but a religion of war and enslavement (physical and spiritual), opposed to freedom of thought. But the most powerful press and politicians from Western countries are dominated by some naive or ignorant people who don't do the necessary to inform nations against islamisation and islamism. Consequently, in a country like mine, one day during the 21th century, the islamic part of the population where I live will become the majority. And because we are in a democracy, the majority defines the dominant cultural force and inspires laws. Observation #3. (deduced by the first two observations) I have searched for a long time but never found a theological study able to demonstrate the danger of Islam without moralism or Manichaeism. So I have worked for years to create the book I always wanted to be accessible to the world. A study that can prove to Muslims and non-Muslims that islam is false or illogical before proving that islam is bad. There are 57 Muslim countries in the world, and many of the oldest are Arab and Muslim countries. The religious melting pot doesn't exist in countries where the demographic and political islamization dominates. Religious minorities live apart in such countries. And freedom of belief is the most mistreated. And individual liberties of women, in order to be considered by law as men are considered, are violated more than elsewhere. In a country where the Quran is the law, a woman is infantilized her lifetime because she still belongs to a man, from her birth to her death. Why won't islam, that has always produced the same effects when it dominates politically and demographically, do in France what it has done everywhere, at all times and in all places ? I had to carry out a study that shows to my countrymen that islam is false/incoherent before trying to show that islam is evil. I have understood that the secret of such a work was hiding in many (falsely) insignificant details in the Quran. I'll give you an example of my method that has for goal to discredit the Quran by seeking to demonstrate that his author is far from a perfect God, omniscient and omnipotent (as said in Quran), and seems rather to be created by a 7th century guru with a very indigent scientific and dialectic culture. In the surah 5, verse 38, the author of Quran (officially the Gof Allah) said « the thief, the male and the female, amputate their hands in recompense for what they committed as a deterrent [punishment] from Allah . And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise. ». Most critical scholars of islam and its sacred texts tell you that this legal order is horrible and that the God Allah supports barbaric methods to solve the problem of theft. In my book, « Il était une foi l'islam… » (French title with a word game that only French speakers could understand), a book that I have worked on during 8 long years, to analyze muslim texts without value judgments or moralism, this law text from Quran inspired me the next observations :

- Allah doesn't say which hand of a thief must be cut, in this verse or anywhere else in Quran. This forces the layman (human) having to fill a sacred indecision by a choice that Allah has never done.
- Allah doesn't give a minimum amount of the stolen object for which to cut the hand is imposed. So, for an apple theft, the hand can be cut.
- Allah gives no minimum age for which the thief hand cutting is required (so, an apple thief who is only 12 years old will have his hand cut)
- Allah says nowhere in the Quran that the guilt, of a person subject to criminal penalties, should be judged by an impartial judge (officially close to none of the parts : accusation, defense) so a man can conduct an investigation as it pleases him, anarchic or informal, and convict a thief by cutting his hand alone. The quranic world where everyone can take justice by and for themselves is the opposite of our Western countries where, by common sense, it is not allowed for citizens to take justice.
- Allah doesn't define private property, property giving meaning to the criminalization of the act of theft. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, there was no administration listing of what belonged to people : houses, horses, swords... It was to popular reputation or to word of each to prove that anyone owned a land, an animal or an object. It is difficult to judge situations in such conditions knowing that the award is significant, painful and especially irreversible.
- At the time of Prophet Muhammad, there were no video cameras or biometric tools to investigate in order to find out who robbed this house or stole this object. What is a charge of a theft which the Prophet Muhammad has never seen in his time ? It is a charge of theft by a person or some persons against one or more persons . So it considers the value of speech, gestures and charisma of the person who is defending or accusing another...
The smugness in that one simple narration about how to punish the male or female thief, these indecisions, these imprecisions, jumped out at me and threw in my spirit the way to discredit the legend of a superior intelligence that had sent such legislation, as imprecise and senseless. Act as part of an inefficient legal cosmology and whose practice can only ensure the triumph of conspiracy or misunderstanding over the truth. The sketchy background of the Quran and its form (how to describe the text substance) can make an already dangerous islamic law even more dangerous ! The Quran invites more to cut the hand of the true 12 years old apple thief than to refrain to it. Here is my method to discredit the Quran and to prove that its dangerousness is matched only by its mediocrity. Nowhere I had needed to include value judgments in my analysis to try to prove that this law is barbaric and cruel. My study, a new way to demonstrate that the Quran is impractical, is inspired by the fact that the limited intelligence guru who created this text of laws is far from the ambitions of the God for whom he claims to speak. I approach all the most sensitive issues (pedophilia, criminalization of freedom of belief, restriction on fundamental freedom of women...) and the most interesting in our time for the younger generations (the concept of "scientific miracles", children's education...) with this new method which aims at dusting off the philosophical work that leads to analyze the limits of the sacred texts of the Quran.
Half the contents of my book is also dedicated to tear up the best arguments from the best tribunes defending islam in the Western world. My book, 8 years of my life to read, to study, to think, to debate and to try performing the (almost) perfect masterpiece against the greatest threat of the 21st century, is not only an artistic dream. It aims at alerting and mobilizing the patriots of my country against a totalitarian legal system. I propose a complete guide to triumph in debate against any Muslim, but it is above all a challenge to Muslims so sure of their faith. I am expecting Muslims to read me and manage to criticize the substance of my work. I worked hard to create THE method that will allow us to wake the naive populations in front of this islam which, no matter what the dreamers who are resigned or idealists say, have always produced the same effects, at all times and in all places. This original islam wanted by Allah or Muhammad in the Quran. This reason to live and to die never turned away from my personal dreams and ambitions, wishes that God Allah never bothered with what this innocent child I was has always craved for : to never refrain from believing in anything and to refuse to let death give meaning to his life. What a single man has managed to do with a book, can another man break it ? I don't think I'm a providential hero and I am aware that islam could win and triumph over the Western countries, not so much by his strength but with the politicians weakness of these countries. My book "Il était une foi, l'islam..." exists to tell the people of these countries, "Now you have been informed, so you can't say you didn't know." Perhaps we will fail, certainly, but this defeat won't be done with my escape or my renunciation.
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Invisible Atheists : The spread of disbelief in the Arab world

Last December, Dar Al Ifta, a venerable Cairo-based institution charged with issuing Islamic edicts, cited an obscure poll according to which the exact number of Egyptian atheists was 866. The poll provided equally precise counts of atheists in other Arab countries: 325 in Morocco, 320 in Tunisia, 242 in Iraq, 178 in Saudi Arabia, 170 in Jordan, 70 in Sudan, 56 in Syria, 34 in Libya, and 32 in Yemen. In total, exactly 2,293 nonbelievers in a population of 300 million.
Many commentators ridiculed these numbers. The Guardian asked Rabab Kamal, an Egyptian secularist activist, if she believed the 866 figure was accurate. “I could count more than that number of atheists at Al Azhar University alone,” she replied sarcastically, referring to the Cairo-based academic institution that has been a center of Sunni Islamic learning for almost 1,000 years. Brian Whitaker, a veteran Middle East correspondent and the author of Arabs Without God, wrote, “One possible clue is that the figure for Jordan (170) roughly corresponds to the membership of a Jordanian atheist group on Facebook. So it’s possible that the researchers were simply trying to identify atheists from various countries who are active in social media.”
Even by that standard, Dar Al Ifta’s figures are rather low. When I recently searched Facebook in both Arabic and English, combining the word “atheist” with names of different Arab countries, I turned up over 250 pages or groups, with memberships ranging from a few individuals to more than 11,000. And these numbers only pertain to Arab atheists (or Arabs concerned with the topic of atheism) who are committed enough to leave a trace online. “My guess is, every Egyptian family contains an atheist, or at least someone with critical ideas about Islam,” an atheist compatriot, Momen, told Egyptian historian Hamed Abdel-Samad recently. “They’re just too scared to say anything to anyone.”
While Arab states downplay the atheists among their citizens, the West is culpable in its inability to even conceive of an Arab atheist. In Western media, the question is not if Arabs are religious, but rather to what extent their (assumed) religiosity can harm the West. In Europe, the debate focuses on immigration (are “Muslim immigrants” adverse to secular freedoms?) while in the United States, the central topic is terrorism (are “Muslims” sympathetic to it?). As for the political debate, those on the right suspect “Muslims” of being hostile to individual freedoms and sympathetic to jihad, while leftists seek to exonerate “Muslims” by highlighting their “peaceful” and “moderate” religiosity. But no one is letting the Arab populations off the hook for their Muslimhood. Both sides base their argument on the premise that when it comes to Arab people, religiosity is an unquestionable given, almost an ethnic mandate embedded in their DNA.

The Arab Spring may have stalled, if not receded, but when it comes to religious beliefs and attitudes, a generational dynamic is at play. Large numbers of individuals are tilting away from the rote religiosity Westerners reflexively associate with the Arab world. In 2012, a wide-ranging WIN/Gallup International poll found that 5 percent of Saudi citizens—more than a million people—self-identify as “convinced atheists,” the same percentage as in the United States. Nineteen percent of Saudis—almost six million people—think of themselves as “not a religious person.” (In Italy, the figure is 15 percent.) These numbers are even more striking considering that many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Yemen, uphold the sharia rule punishing apostasy with death.
Capital punishment, however, is almost never put into practice; the convicted atheists spend varying periods in jail before being granted an opportunity to recant. Arab countries with no apostasy laws still have ways to deter the expression of religious disbelief. In Morocco and Algeria, prison terms await those convicted of using “means of seduction” to convert a Muslim. Egypt resorts to wide interpretations of anti-blasphemy laws to condemn outspoken atheists to jail. In Jordan and Oman, publicly leaving Islam also exposes one to a sort of civil death—a set of legal measures including the annulment of marriages and the stripping of inheritance rights.
Officially sanctioned punishments can be severe. This January, a 21-year-old Egyptian student named Karim Al Banna was given a three-year jail sentence for “insulting Islam,” because he declared he is an atheist on Facebook. His own father testified against him. In February 2012, Saudi writer Hamza Kashgari was imprisoned for almost two years without trial over three tweets addressing the prophet Muhammad; the most controversial was, “I will not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do.” The following month, a Tunisian tribunal sentenced bloggers Ghazi Beji and Jabeur Mejri to seven years for “transgressing morality, defamation and disrupting public order,” after they posted satirical comments and cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Last year, Raif Badawi, the founder of Free Saudi Liberals, a blog discussing religion, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes. And last December, Mauritanian columnist Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir was sentenced to death for penning a critique of his country’s caste system which traced its mechanisms back to decisions made by the prophet in the seventh century. The sentence is pending appeal.
Despite such draconian measures, the percentage of people who express some measure of religious doubt is higher in the Arab world (22 percent) than in South Asia (17 percent) and Latin America (16 percent). And that 22 percent is only an average; the percentage goes higher in some Arab countries, from 24 percent in Tunisia up to 37 percent in Lebanon. Considering the extent to which the Arab social and political environment impedes the expression of non­belief, the numbers of doubters and atheists would likely be significantly higher if people felt freer to speak their minds. In January, Egyptian atheist activist Ahmed Harqan told Ahram Online, “If the state preserved and protected the rights of minorities, the numbers of those who reveal they’re atheists would increase tenfold.”
In the spring of 2011, the Arab world was experiencing a regionwide revolutionary convulsion. In Tunis, Cairo, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, thousands of young people took over public squares, demanding new freedoms. At the same time, Waleed Al Husseini was in a jail cell in Qalqiliya in the Palestinian West Bank. The 22-year-old had been arrested a few months earlier in a cybercafé by Palestinian intelligence agents. Al Husseini was at the café because he had decided not to blog from his home because of threats he’d received for posts on his blog Noor Al Aqel, or the Light of the Mind.

As The New York Times reported, Al Husseini had “angered the Muslim cyberworld by promoting atheism, composing spoofs of Koranic verses, skewering the lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad and chatting online using the sarcastic Web name God Almighty.” He told me he was brought before a military court because his online atheism was considered a “threat to national security.”
Al Husseini was locked up for ten months, during which he was physically abused and endlessly interrogated. Of the hundreds of questions he was asked, one stuck in his mind: “Who finances your atheism?”
“Posting my thoughts on a blog obviously didn’t require any financing,” Al Husseini told me. “But the question was an indication of their utter inability to understand that renouncing Islam was my personal choice, just as it could be anyone else’s—including them. In their minds, there had to be a foreign conspiracy behind this, preferably led by Israel. That was the only way my atheism could make sense for them.”
Al Husseini was eventually freed and fled to Jordan, where he sought refuge in the French Embassy. Today he lives in Paris and has published a memoir, Blasphémateur! Les Prisons d’Allah (Blasphemer! The Prisons of Allah). After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, he wrote an op-ed in the French daily Libération defending the slain cartoonists’ freedom of speech. The headline the editor put on it was, “I, a Muslim, Commit to Secularism.” Al Husseini, who by then had already published his memoir as an atheist and a blasphemer, commented in an amused tone, “They probably thought that putting ‘Muslim’ and ‘secularism’ together in the same sentence was bizarre enough to trigger interest.”
During a 2014 appearance on HBO’s "Real Time with Bill Maher," American author Sam Harris, a pillar of the New Atheism movement, fell into the same essentialist trap when he referred to “Muslims who are nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously.” One can only marvel at the oxymoronic complexity of that sentence. If these people don’t take Islam seriously, why then call them Muslims, “nominal” or not?
Religiously motivated trials like Al Husseini’s are always a serious affair, with the accused considered not just an enemy of God, but also of the state. All Arab regimes use religion, to various extents, as a source of legitimacy. The expression of disbelief represents, for them, an existential threat. In 2014, Saudi Arabia went as far as listing atheism and questioning the Islamic faith as terrorist acts. There is an understandable logic behind the move. “Saudi Arabia depends greatly on religious credentials, since its basic law roots the regime in Wahhabi Islam,” Whitaker, the author of Arabs Without God, told me. “If you are an atheist in Saudi Arabia, you are also a revolutionary. If atheism is allowed to flourish, the regime won’t be able to survive.”
It’s not just the authorities that consider disbelief a problem. Arab societies as a whole are not wired to accept declared atheists in their ranks. The first reason for Arab atheists to keep quiet is to not upset their relatives. Amid omnipresent religious references, claiming that you don’t believe in God is hardly seen as an expression of your singularity. Rather it is considered a challenge to society in its entirety. Religiosity in the Arab world is not just mainstream; it is the norm, to which one is supposed to adhere unquestionably, or else be deemed a “deviant”—the literal translation of mulhid, the most-used Arabic term for atheist. And since religion is seen as the cradle of morality, godless people are assumed to be devoid of a moral compass. Whitaker cites Mohammed Al Khadra, a Jordanian atheist and civil society organizer, who said, “The main view is that if someone is ... an atheist then he must be living like an animal. That’s how they see us. I have been asked so many times why wouldn’t I sleep with my mother?”
It’s even more problematic when the nonbeliever is female. “The popular association of atheism with immorality is a particular deterrent for women who have religious doubts, since in Arab society they are expected to be ‘virtuous’ and not rebellious in order to marry,” Whitaker wrote in his book.
In such a milieu, one would assume the vast majority of Arab people are devout religious practitioners. The fact of the matter is, except in relatively small ultra­religious circles, secular lifestyles and attitudes are largely tolerated in the Arab world. For example, though forbidden in Islam, drinking alcohol is commonplace, particularly among the educated middle and upper classes. Until recently in Morocco, a country that produces large quantities of wine (alongside Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan), alcohol was sold in a super­market chain owned by King Mohammed VI, also known as the Commander of the Faithful. In a recent speech, Nabil Al Fadhl, a Kuwaiti member of parliament, deplored his country’s prohibition of alcoholic beverages, in effect since 1964, for driving young people to drink clandestinely manufactured—and thus dangerous—beverages.
Sex outside of marriage, another practice prohibited by Islam, is also unexceptional, especially in urban environments where genders have been mixing in the public space for more than half a century. In Morocco, a study determined that 800 clandestine abortions (presumably prompted by out-of-wedlock pregnancies) are performed on any given day.
Likewise, while Islam requires its followers to pray five times a day at fixed times, including twice during working hours, believers typically skip the prayers while they’re at work and perform them once back home. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most zealous Arab countries when it comes to religious protocol, shops have to close for about 15 minutes at each prayer call to allow the customers to perform their religious duty. But you can often see small crowds of people gathered on the sidewalk and waiting idly—some taking a cigarette break—until the shops reopen.
In today’s Arab world, it’s not religiosity that is mandatory; it’s the appearance of it. Nonreligious attitudes and beliefs are tolerated as long as they’re not conspicuous. As a system, social hypocrisy provides breathing room to secular lifestyles, while preserving the façade of religion. Atheism, per se, is not the problem. Claiming it out loud is. So those who publicize their atheism in the Arab world are fighting less for freedom of conscience than for freedom of speech.
It hasn’t always been so. Since the 1960s, larger-than-life Arab intellectuals, such as Palestinians Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish and the Syrian Ali Ahmad Said Esber, also known as Adonis, haven’t shied away from challenging religious orthodoxy. Abdullah Al Qasemi, a Saudi writer who died in 1996 and is considered the godfather of Gulf atheists, famously declared, “The occupation of our brains by gods is the worst form of occupation.” Back then, such statements were much less of a problem. As the Associated Press’s Diaa Hadid reported in 2013, “In the 1960s and 1970s, secular leftists were politically dominant. It wasn’t shocking to express agnosticism. ... But the region grew more conservative starting in the 1980s, Islamists became more influential, and militants lashed out against any sign of apostasy.”
Abdel-Samad, the Egyptian historian, experienced this firsthand. Today, at 43, he is a declared atheist, but he was an enthusiastic member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his university days. But while he was attending a summer camp run by the Brotherhood, doubts started to creep in. “It was meant to be some sort of collective physical and spiritual effort,” he told me. “We were each given an orange and instructed to walk in the heat for hours. After an exhausting journey in the desert, we were ordered to peel the orange. We were happy to finally get something to quench our thirst. But then, our group leader ordered us to bury the fruit in the sand, and eat the peeling. I felt utterly humiliated. The objective was obviously to break our will. This is how you make terrorists. I left the Brotherhood soon after that.” In 2013 an Egyptian extremist cleric appeared on television and issued a death fatwa against Abdel-Samad after he’d asserted that Islam had developed fascist tendencies since the time of the prophet.
Why are more Arabs turning their backs on religion? The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman argued in a column last December that the horrors committed in the name of Islam by terrorist groups like ISIS are to blame. This reflects the mindset of many American pundits, for whom terrorism is central to all things Middle East. In reality, repudiating terror is rarely the motivation of those who veer from Islam. “While researching my book ... I spent a lot of time trying to find out why some Arabs turn to atheism and none of those I spoke to mentioned terrorism or jihadism as a major factor,” Whitaker wrote. “That’s not particularly surprising, because atheism is a rejection of all forms of religion, not just the more outlandish variants of it.”
For the vast majority of Arab atheists, the road to disbelief begins as it did for Abdel-Samad, with personal doubts. They start to question the illogicalities found in the holy texts. Why are non-Muslims destined to hell, even though many of them are nice, decent people? Since God knows the future and controls everything, why would he put some people on the wrong path, then punish them as if he had nothing to do with their choices? Why is wine forbidden, yet virtuous Muslims are promised rivers of it in heaven? Such questions began bugging Amir Ahmad Nasr, Sudanese author of My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind—and Doubt Freed My Soul, when he was twelve, and he brought them to his sheik, the imam of a mosque in Qatar. The answer he received—that doubting God’s commandments is haram (religiously illicit) and can only be inspired by the devil—only prompted him to continue digging. As Islam Ibrahim, the founder of an Arab atheist Facebook page, said: “I wanted to secure a spot in paradise, so I started studying the Quran and Muhammad’s teachings. But I found a lot of contradictory and bloody things and fantasies in it. ... Anyone who uses his brain five minutes in a neutral way will end up with the same conclusion.”
Al Husseini, the Palestinian blogger, recalled his journey after he decided to leave Islam. “I began reading the books I could get my hands on,” he said. “The discovery of the elementary notion of evolution was mind-­blowing. Books like Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Darwin’s The Origin of Species opened my eyes to a whole new paradigm.” The 24-year-old Moroccan atheist activist Imad Iddine Habib told me that he read books by American astrophysicist Carl Sagan.
The story of Iman Willoughby illustrates the second-­most frequently cited reason, after doubting, for Arab citizens to turn to atheism: The oppression they personally experienced in the name of religion. Willoughby today is a happily married 39-year-old mother of two with her own massage clinic in Nova Scotia. But she went through a two-decade nightmare in her country of origin, Saudi Arabia. Physically abused by a father who broke her bones and a stepmother who chased her with knives, Willoughby was jailed twice by the Saudi religious police. The first time, she was spotted unveiled near a stream outside her hometown Riyadh. “It was an isolated place, I liked to go there and just close my eyes, feel the wind in my hair,” she told me. But since females aren’t allowed to drive in Saudi, a male driver had to take her. The day the religious police caught her unveiled, they accused her of having an illicit relationship with the driver. She spent three days in a police station before her father came to free her—and then “beat the living life out of me,” she said.
The second arrest happened a few years later, while Willoughby was in medical school. The university was a 45-minute drive from home, and one night her driver didn’t show up. A male student offered her a ride, and while they were crossing a small desert town, the religious police forced them to stop. They beat Willoughby’s classmate unconscious and took her to a police station, where they forced her, under threat of physical abuse, to sign an “admission statement” that she was sleeping with her friend. Three months of imprisonment and “religious reeducation” followed, during which mandatory prayers were the only distraction from the cell she occupied, with nothing in it but a mattress on the floor, persistent cockroaches, and a video camera constantly filming her. She received no word from her family or friends. Willoughby was eventually freed, only to find out that she had been convicted and sentenced to 80 lashes. Her brother interceded before a prince—“not because he cared for me, only to salvage the honor of the family,” she said—and she was pardoned.
Before prison, Willoughby had applied for a scholarship to continue medical school in Canada. She obtained it, begged her father to give her her passport (a scene she recalled as her “ultimate humiliation”) and left forever. Her atheism? It had felt like a natural calling for a long time. “I never really prayed in my life,” she told me. “Even in jail, I was just going through the motions to keep people quiet.”
“Religion is a form of surveillance,” said Habib. “It’s not about God; it’s about the power wielded by those who act in his name.” Habib, Willoughby, and many others have switched to atheism as an act of rebellion. But their rebellion is less against Islam than against the abuses committed by religiously powered individuals and political systems.
Many Arab atheists weren’t political at first. But it seems there is just no way around it. Momen told Abdel-Samad he didn’t mean to politicize his atheism. “But when people’s faith is political, my lack of it is just as political, by definition,” he said. “As long as unbelievers are persecuted, as long as religion encroaches on people’s private lives, I can’t reject it purely as a private matter.” And since politics is around the corner anyway, might as well do it well—and straight-faced. That’s the conclusion Egyptian atheist activist Islam Ibrahim shared on the YouTube program “The Black Ducks.” Started in August 2013 by another Egyptian atheist, Ismail Mohamed, the program invites atheists from the Arab world to speak their minds. When you’re anonymous, you can say silly things and not be held accountable for them, Ibrahim said on the program. “I thought, if we atheists stop being ghosts and materialize, we will be taken more seriously, because our statements will become better thought through. Also, we’ll never get what we want if we don’t have the courage to claim it with our real names and faces.”
As of mid-April, more than 140 “Black Ducks” episodes have been uploaded, and they’ve received hundreds of thousands of views. The channel has two objectives: Achieving “a secular society in the Middle East and North Africa. ... [and offering] solace and courage to those who are atheists in secret so they may know they are not alone in the world.” In the episode featuring him, Ibrahim said: “Your brother, co-workers, friends, family members might be atheists, just like you, but they’d never dare say, unless they see you come out on Facebook. It actually happened with my neighbor. We became friends in real life, as it happened for many.” Toward that end, Ibrahim established a Facebook page where hundreds of Arab atheists posted their stories, including their names, photographs, countries of residence, and the reason behind their atheism.
Being connected to each other is crucial to Arab atheists. After Willoughby started her blog and Twitter feed in 2008, she said, numerous strangers reached out to her, thanking her for sharing her story, and anxiously asking for advice about how to deal with their own personal predicaments. To her, it felt like duty calling. Willoughby said she has helped a dozen atheists get out of Saudi Arabia by giving them access to information, and even sending money in some cases.
In 2007, a now-worldwide network of “ex-Muslims” was established to support refugees, exiles, and anyone from a Muslim background. The first such group was created in Germany at the initiative of Iranian exiles vowing to support the freedom to criticize religion and to end “religious intimidation and threats.” There are now chapters in several countries including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Belgium, and New Zealand. There is no central body, and each chapter runs independently, but they collaborate on conferences and advocacy campaigns. Many of the ex-Muslims’ activities are conducted online, but a good deal also happen in real life, which elicits security concerns. “If you’ll be holding real life meetings, you should screen each person who wants to join for safety’s sake,” Kiran Fatima Opal, a Canadian-­Pakistani active member of the ex-Muslims of North America, told me.
Habib started the ex-Muslims group in Morocco, which has about 20 members, and he has given news conferences alongside other activists. One last summer launched a campaign to gain the right to abstain from fasting during Ramadan (breaking the Ramadan fast in public is a criminal offense in Morocco, punishable by one to six months in prison.) “I created the Council of ex-Muslims so we’d stop saying, ‘We are with the atheists,’ and start saying, ‘We are the atheists,’” Habib told me. “Like for gays, [the] time has come to claim ‘atheist pride.’” Habib came to the attention of the public in March 2013. The police were looking for him, apparently to indict him because he had mocked the Islamic creed, “There is no god but God,” on his Facebook page by turning it into, “There is no god but Mickey Mouse.” Instead of turning himself in, he went into hiding while a support campaign was taking off on the Internet. By the time he resurfaced, the police had apparently given up on bringing him in. His relative international exposure (Western journalists such as The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof had interviewed him) may be what has shielded him from arrest so far.
Despite the risks and the social and political challenges they’re facing, all the atheist activists I interviewed said they were confident that the future of the Arab world belongs to secularism. Willoughby told me that “atheism is spreading like wildfire” in the Middle East. Brian Whitaker views it as “the symptom of a much bigger thing, which is the battle against oppression.” The booming Arab underground music scene is another example of the irresistible impetus for change that is quietly transforming the Middle East and North Africa. A full cultural revolution will probably take some time. Speaking about his country, Abdel-Samad said, “I think secularism is a certainty, not just a possibility, for Egypt’s future. All that remains unclear is what price the country will pay first. History tells me blood.”
Waleed Al Husseini told me that he’s “pessimistic for the next 20 years, but optimistic for what’s coming afterwards.” He can afford it: By then, he’ll be only 46.

Ahmed Benchemsi is the editor in chief of FreeArabs.com.


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Pastor Encourages Followers To Use Guns To Fight Against Same-Sex Marriage Rights In Viral Video


Gun-wielding preacher tells his followers to fight back against same-sex marriage rights. “It’s time that we finally take a stand and say no more.”


Former Arizona televangelist Joshua Feuerstein isn’t happy about the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing marriage equality across the country. He’s so upset that he created a video where he waves a semiautomatic assault rifle and tells his followers, “It’s time that we finally take a stand and say no more. We’re not backing up any further.”

Feuerstein shared the video with his 1.6 million followers on Facebook, and it has been viewed more than 5 million times since it was uploaded on July 9.

Feuerstein first claims an essentially fake and definitely outdated story about a gay man supposedly suing two publishers for $70 million over anti-gay passages in the Bible proves same-sex marriage is really about helping the left and liberals "to come after Christianity."

But that's just the first part of Feuerstein's hyperbolic rant.
“Why are we backing down to the government and not drawing a line in the sand?” Feuerstein asks after recounting examples of how Christians have been retaliated against because they discriminated against people in the LGBT community. One complaint Feurstein has is the Sweet Cakes by Melissa bakery case, in which the owners were ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to bake a cake for a lesbian couple’s wedding. It should be noted that the owners of the bakery also posted the lesbian couple’s home address online which resulted in them being relentlessly harassed, as NCRM reported in an extensive analysis of the final ruling. Others, including the Advocate, agreed.

Feuerstein also mentions the instance where Donald and Evelyn Knapp refused to host a same-sex wedding at their business, the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He claims the Knapps are being told they could face arrest and imprisonment if they don’t marry gay couples. NCRM also proved that claim to be false, as have others.

“They’re coming after our First Amendment constitutional rights!” Feuerstein continues to rant in his video. “Well, check this out, this is one pastor that will not bow. Why?” he asks as he picks up a semiautomatic assault rifle. “Because my First Amendment right is guaranteed by my Second Amendment right. Think about that, ladies and gentlemen. It’s time that we finally take a stand and say no more. We’re not backing up any further. We’re not going to allow a tyrannical government to come in and strip away our rights as Christians and try to demonize us so that they can make the Bible bigoted.”

This isn’t the first time Feuerstein has gotten attention for his extremist views. In April, he posted a video where he called Cut The Cake bakery in Florida and demanded they bake a cake with an anti-gay message for him. After the video went viral, the owner had to call the FBI after receiving numerous calls and death threats. Feuerstein also made headlines for attacking TLC for pulling "19 Kids and Counting," after a police report surfaced, detailing how one of the stars, Josh Duggar, sexually molested five girls, including his sisters.
"I will ALSO MAKE SURE that EVERY ONE OF MY 1.2 MILLION FOLLOWERS never watch your 

stupid channel again!! #TeamDuggars," he wrote. 
The Advocate calls Feuerstein's latest video a "horrifying call to arms."

by Eric Rosswood

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Pastor Who Believed Prayer Would Protect Him from Rattlesnakes Gets Bitten While Preaching and Dies





 



Pastor Jamie Coots died on Saturday after being bitten by a rattler during one of his church services at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro, Kentucky.

Coots, a former bus driver, was the star of Snake Salvation, a National Geographic reality television show. He believed he was commanded to handle snakes, and if in danger or bitten he was forbidden to seek medical attention. Instead, it was required that he pray for healing.  The family’s strong belief in Pentecostalism, arguably the most important mass religious movement of the twentieth century, is thought to protect them from venomous snakes.

During the night service, Coots was handling a rattlesnake, as a means to demonstrate his  unwavering faith, and was bitten.

“Jamie went across the floor. He had one of the rattlers in his hand, he came over and he was standing beside me. It was plain view, it just turned its head and bit him in the back of the hand … within a second,” Cody Winn, another preacher for the church, explained to WBIR-TV.


According to the Middlesboro Police Department, by the time an ambulance arrived at the church, Coots had already gone home. When emergency workers got in contact with Coots, he refused any medical treatment, and an hour later he was pronounced dead.

“The snake that bit him, we’ve been carrying it for four months. It’s been carried hundreds of times and handled all kinds of times. But when it’s your time to go, it’s just your time to go,” Coots’ son Cody said.
Generally, rattlesnake bites are not fatal, as there is reliable anti-venom at virtually all medical facilities, and proper care can lessen the resulting tissue damage and pain. While carrying on his family’s 100-year-old tradition in the name of God, Coots had allegedly been bit eight times before and was expecting another full recovery. In the past, he even lost a finger to a serpent bite after it rotted and broke off.
Despite being in shock, his family says they will stand by their faith and snake handling practices.
“I don’t think it’s dangerous. It’s the word of God. We’ve always said it’s a good way to live by and it’s a good way to die by,” he  said.

While the third generation handlers may think it safe to practice such performances, back in 1995, a 25-year-old woman, and mother of five, was also bitten by a timber rattlesnake at Coots’ church. She later later died at his home.

The family announced Coots didn’t have insurance coverage for his perilous lifestyle and they are now accepting donations.


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“Palestinian” atheist imprisoned, beaten for criticism of Islam



“My views, however, cannot be changed by a prison sentence or by persecution. I still believe that Islam often stands in opposition to human rights and women’s rights. I believe that the Qur’an relays that Muhammad demanded death for non-believers….” Waleed Al Husseini better be careful with talk like that. He’s in the Daily Beast today as a prisoner of conscience, but if he continues to say that “Islam often stands in opposition to human rights and women’s rights” and that “the Qur’an relays that Muhammad demanded death for non-believers,” he will soon begin to be denounced as a racist, bigoted, right-wing, hatemongering Islamophobe by those who preen that they are the champions of free thought.
“What It’s Like to Be an Atheist in Palestine,” by Waleed Al Husseini, Daily Beast, December 8, 2014:
Like many non-religious people around the world, I use the Internet to express my thoughts. It provides a relatively safe way of speaking freely, especially in a country where the vast majority believe in one religion and do not like to hear criticism. Or so I thought.
I used to run a blog in Arabic called “Nour Alakl” and ran a satirical Facebook page under the pseudonym “Allah.” But in October 2010, Palestinian security forces stormed into an Internet cafe and arrested me. Until then, I had been under the impression that I had a right to freedom of speech and to the freedom of belief. But in jail, I was told that my online statements about religion and Islam were illegal. I was told that society didn’t accept such criticisms.

That’s certainly true in the West, if not in “Palestine.”
I was beaten by prison guards who demanded to know who had made me write against Islam. In their minds, I could only say these things as the result of some plot, some conspiracy. The idea that I might simply want to express my independent thoughts was alien to them.
The 10 months I spent in Palestinian prison were the worse of my life. I faced constant pressure to retract my statements. I was told they had removed my blog and that I must apologize for publishing it. Even once I was freed, I was told I should never again use the Internet, nor meet with the media.
For months after my release, I was harassed by the security services, who further interrogated me and detained me without cause. I received letters from people saying they wanted to kill me.
My views, however, cannot be changed by a prison sentence or by persecution. I still believe that Islam often stands in opposition to human rights and women’s rights. I believe that the Qur’an relays that Muhammad demanded death for non-believers. Many Muslims may disagree with my view, or interpret Islam in a more moderate way, but I cannot accept this religion myself. That is what my conscience tells me….
 waleed AL husseini book published in france
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Blasphemateur. Le prigioni di Allah



Waleed Al Husseini è un coraggioso giovane di 25 anni nato in Cisgiordania. Arrestato e torturato dalle autorità palestinesi per i suoi scritti su facebook e sul suo blog con l' accusa di villipendio della religione, ha poi trovato rifugio in Francia, dove l'editore Grasset ha tradotto e pubblicato il suo libro "Blasphemateur. Le prigioni di Allah", in cui racconta la sua esperienza, l' islam e la società islamica. Insieme ad altri trenta ex musulmani, nel 2013 ha creato il "Conseil des ex-musulmans de France", composto da atei, liberi pensatori ed umanisti che prendono posizione per incoraggiare la ragione, i diritti universali, la laicità e il diritto di critica della religione, e per la proibizione di tutte quelle pratiche religiose discriminatorie, nei confronti delle donne e delle scelte private nelle relazioni emotive e sessuali nella vita degli uomini, e contrarie alla libertà e ai diritti dei popoli.

 Cari amici,
dopo la pubblicazione della mio libro, "Blasphemateur. Le prigioni di Allah", giusto una settimana dopo gli attentati contro Charli Hebdo, la minaccia è onnipresente in Francia. Così, alcune librerie si rifiutano di esporre il mio libro per paura di rappresaglie. Altri librai temono reazioni anche di coloro che, benchè quasi analfabeti, non esiterebbero a usare la loro arma preferita, la violenza. Nonostante le buone intenzioni, anche la casa editrice Grasset non può correre il rischio di organizzare incontri pubblici intorno al libro e a richiedere l' intervento della polizia, sopraffatta dal piano Vigipirate, per garantire la sicurezza.
Nonostante tutto questo disagio, un libraio da Saint Hippolyte du Fort (Gard) mi ha invitato in aprile per organizzare una sessione di firma. Per farmi incontrare molti dei miei amici, gli organizzatori hanno dimostrato non solo coraggio, ma soprattutto hanno confermato il loro rifiuto ad abdicare contro l' ideologia violenta degli islamisti. Inoltre, un'altra dimostrazione potrebbe tenersi presto anche a Nîmes.
Nonostante le intimidazioni e i tentativi di intimidazione di cui sono il bersaglio, io mi rifiuto di abbassare il braccio. La mia lotta continua, perciò risponderò sempre positivamente a qualsiasi libreria o associazione desideri discutere il mio libro, o, più in generale, il tema del libro.
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