“I’ve been contacting many organizations that claim they fight for ex-Muslims, and they fight for women…nobody, nobody help [sic] me.” Sarah, a Moroccan who say she’s atheist, says in a video titled “my last chance.”
Sarah put her story out on the internet hoping someone in a position to help her might hear. Hers is a common plight for ex-Muslims living the Arab world. For many like her, the internet is a lifeline that provides a safe space for atheists to communicate about life in a society intolerant of apostasy. According to a 2014 Pew Research report, 14 out of 20 countries in the Middle East and North Africa still have laws banning apostasy and blasphemy, more than any other region of the world. In November 2015 a Saudi atheist poet was sentenced to death for renouncing Islam.
Many Arabs and north Africans who are atheist are able to connect with each other through closed Facebook groups. One such group, The North African Atheists, has nearly 18,000 members. Dozens others exist on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram, with titles like Atheism United of Palestine, I Am A Proud Atheist, and EGYPT: From Religion to Reason. One open group on Facebook, الإنسانيه اللادينيه (Humanistic Atheism), provides a snapshot of Arab atheists’ everyday thoughts and concerns. This regarding a Nigerian child last year taken in by Danish aid workers after he was ostracized by his community for superstitious beliefs.
Translation: The Nigerian child, Hope, was ‘kidnapped’ by a Danish infidel who gave him life; do we need to say ‘thank god’ to the god who sits idle and does nothing to save him from sorcery and superstition.
Others turn to social networks to try to escape their circumstances and find asylum where they can live openly without fear of reprisal. Reddit’s /r/exmuslim has over 17,000 subscribers and while many posts are somewhat mundane, others show the potential for these communities to help people in need.
A German user reaches out for help for an Iraqi being forced to return to Iraq.
Sarah, 29, is one such atheist living in the Arab world. A 2012 WIN/Gallup poll found that some 2 percent of people in the Arab world consider themselves atheists, while 18 percent say they are not religious. Vocativ spoke with Sarah over Telegram, the encrypted messenger application, and asked her why she wants to leave her home country of Morocco.
Sarah says she grew up in an abusive household, leading her to question her Islamic faith from a young age. She claims she was verbally and physically abused when she declined to pray, but that things worsened when she turned 18 and refused to marry a man who’d been chosen for her by her family. “I refused because I know how it goes, it’s the same sick culture,” she told Vocativ. According to UNICEF, some 63 percent of Moroccans justify wife-beating, while over 90 percent of households use physical punishment against children.
Sarah says she was beaten, humiliated in public, and pressed into doing all the housework. This lasted for more than a decade, until about three weeks ago, when her older brother threatened to kill her. “My family had enough with me and they just want me dead. I knew it’s [a] matter of time. I had to leave before it’s [too] late.” Since then she says she is on the run, having moved to a different city until she has enough money to leave Morocco entirely. Vocativ could not independently verify her claims.
Whether her story is true or not, one organization appears to be trying to help her. Haram, Inc. is a group of Arab ex-Muslims working to give ex-Muslims a platform to reach out and find help. The group launched a channel for Arabic speakers on Telegram, and a YouTube channel where users can upload videos anonymously. One of the founders told Vocativ they located Sarah from a post on Reddit’s board for ex-Muslims, and reached out to her that way. They say they are paying her expenses, and have a crowdfunding campaign to get her asylum.
“About a year ago, when I had my first breakdown, I was praying and telling God ‘If you’re real, prove it.’ And nothing happened. I knew it was an illusion,” she told Vocativ.
A Saudi newspaper wrote about a rising irreligious population in the Arab world, claiming “atheism is now widespread in places that have been thought to be safe in the past.” Activists like those at Haram, Inc, say this will only make things worse for atheists who live in the region.