Beranda Opinion English Middle East, Religion and Religiosity

Middle East, Religion and Religiosity


Why do some people in the Middle East become atheists? The phenomenon of atheism in the Middle East is actually the same as the phenomenon of theism in the US. Both are nothing strange because both are common social phenomena.

The virtual world has recently been busy talking about the phenomenon atheism in Middle East, especially in countries -Arabic countries. This follows a media report citing the results of opinion polls, surveys, and reports from a number of institutions regarding the phenomenon of the declining population of religious people on the one hand, and the growing trend of atheism, agnosticism or non-religious groups on the other.

The flurry of public response is not separate from the assumption that the Middle East is an “Islamic district” and its inhabitants are devout and even fanatical followers of the religion.

Although of course there are many residents of Central Timor who are religious, identifying them with righteousness and religious obedience is not always accurate because there are many residents who do not strictly follow religious teachings.

Furthermore, identifying them solely with Islam is not accurate since there are millions of followers of religions other than Islam, including Christians. Central Java is also not only home to Arab ethnic groups, but also to other ethnic groups such as Persians, Kurds, Yazidis, Druze, Jews, and Amazigh.

Survey findings

From the 40,000 surveyed respondents in Iran by The Group for Analyzing and Measuring in Iran in 2020, 47 percent stated that they have converted from religion to atheism (or at least not being affiliated with any religion).

The results of the 2019 BBC International survey show a similar trend, namely an increase in the percentage of non-religious people in Central and East Timor in general, from 8 percent in 2013 to 13 percent in 2019. The International Religious Freedom Reports (2022) published by the US government also show a trend of increasing percentages of non-religious people, especially among Arab communities.

In a report released by The Arab Barometer, a prominent polling agency in Lebanon, from a survey of 25,000 local residents, 43 percent stated experiencing “individual religiosity decline” or feeling no longer religious.

In 2012, WIN/Gallup International also released a surprising report: out of 500 Saudi Arabian citizens who were surveyed and interviewed, 19 percent stated that they were “not religious” and 5 percent declared themselves as atheists.

This report has evoked various responses from the government and community leaders. Some equate atheism with terrorism and believe it should be severely punished.

However, there are also those who offer a path of dialogue, such as Professor Yusuf al-Ghamdi from Umm al-Qura University, who considers atheism as an “intellectual phenomenon”, not a “behavioral phenomenon” like radicalism, and therefore needs to be addressed intellectually.

To respond to the phenomenon of the emergence of atheism, the Islamic University of Madinah reportedly established a special counseling center or institution to handle cases of individuals who are doubtful about their religion.

Why do some people in the Middle East community become atheists? This question is actually quite strange because atheism, like theism, is essentially a universal phenomenon that can happen to anyone and any ethnicity in the world.

The phenomenon of atheism in central-eastern Indonesia is actually the same as the phenomenon of theism in the United States. Neither is unusual because they are both ordinary social phenomena, in addition to being part of the normal individual transformation process that can happen to anyone.

A number of factors

Brian Whitaker in his book, “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East,” identifies a number of factors that led to the emergence of atheism in the Middle East (and North Africa). These factors include (1) the discrepancy between the normative teachings of religion and the practices of its adherents in daily life; (2) violence and violations of civil rights that are widespread in society; (3) the process of modernization and secularization that has penetrated the Middle East/North Africa region since several decades ago.

In addition, (4) internet and social media technologies have made it easier for people to access various sources of information from anywhere without censorship from the government or religious groups, while also allowing interaction with anyone regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, or religion.

Some are accusing modernization and democracy as the cause of the emergence of atheism and the decline of religiosity in society. Others are pointing fingers at the Western education system for educating the East and Southeast Asian society to become liberal-secular.

The process of change or transformation from theism to atheism can be due to a loss of trust in religion after seeing various bad and inhumane actions committed by (some) religious groups (radicalism, terrorism, vandalism, dehumanism, and so on). ).

However, it could also be due to the process of intellectualization and rationalization of religious texts, teachings, doctrines and discourses that are seen as incompatible (or contradictory) with the spirit of science, common sense, knowledge, modernity and changing times. Saturation in carrying out a pile of religious dogmas that are not directly proportional to fate and life experiences can also be a cause for the emergence of atheism.

Historical roots

If we look at the history of Central Java, atheism is actually not something new that has recently emerged due to infiltration or invasion of foreign (Western) culture through democracy, modernization, or secularization projects as alleged by some parties.

The phenomenon of ilhad, which can be interpreted as atheism, apostasy (apostasy), or zindik, is very old in the history of the Middle East. Sarah Stroumsa in Freethinkers of Medieval Islam writes that in the 9th century there was a Shia Zaidiyah theologian from the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qasim bin Ibrahim al-Rassi, who wrote a work (Radd ‘ala al-Mulhid ) who attack counter-religious groups, namely atheists, non-theists, and zindik (heretics).

Two scholars from the Middle East (9/10th century) who are often associated with the idea of ​​atheism are Ibn al-Rawandi and Abu Bakr al-Razi. Both are known as “first-class” critics of religious doctrines, the concept of revelation, or prophetic ideas (prophecy) while advocating the optimization of the mind in understanding the socio-cultural phenomena around us.

Despite being challenged here and there by various religious and political groups, the ideas and practices of atheism have continued in the modern era of Middle East. For example, in the 1930s, Egypt was shocked by the appearance of Ismail Adham who wrote the book Limadza ana Mulhid (Why Am I an Atheist?). Inevitably this book stirred up the public and elicited heated reactions from various religious groups.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Arabian public was also shocked by the emergence of Abdullah al-Qassimi (1907-1996), a controversial writer-intellectual and staunch defender of atheism. Interestingly, he was born in Buraidah, which is one of the strongholds of the Wahhabi group. Prior to his conversion to atheism, he was known for his avid advocacy of Salafism.

Future prospects

Will atheism continue to exist in Timteng in the future? As part of individual dynamics, intellectual processes, and social changes of humanity, atheism (as well as theism) will always exist within society. Atheism will not die even though theistic groups try to kill and bury it. Similarly, theism will not go extinct even though atheist groups try to attack and demolish it.

Theism and atheism will always exist in any society, including in Central Sulawesi, although their relationship is rarely harmonious and often play “hide and seek”.

In societies dominated by theistic groups (like in Central Java and Indonesia), many atheist groups hide their identities because otherwise they would face serious punishment from political and religious authorities. Conversely, in societies dominated by atheist groups, theistic individuals usually do not openly display their identities in public spaces.

Can they both live together peacefully and harmoniously in the future, full of respect and tolerance without fear and suspicion or negating each other? Yes, if the country adopts the principle of secularism that does not consider religious or non-religious groups or theism and atheism as a problem. Another alternative is based on humanity, where the country provides political and legal guarantees/protections for the atheist/theist groups. However, in the context of the Middle East, it seems difficult to achieve this.

Note: this article was published by Kompas (17 June 2023) and was translated by using both Microsoft Azure Open AI and Google Translation AI.

Artikulli paraprakStudi Agama di Perguruan Tinggi
Artikulli tjetërReligious Tolerance in the United Arab Emirates
Antropolog Budaya di King Fahd University, Direktur Nusantara Institute, Kontributor The Middle East Institute, Kolumnis Deutsche Welle, dan Senior Fellow di National University of Singapore.


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