In recent years a significant and notable movement of atheists have organized and promoted their interests and causes on a global level, with the greatest attention being paid to this movement being seen in Western nations such as Great Britain, Australia, and the United States. Authors and public speakers such as the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris have carved out a niche on the lecture circuit and bestseller lists as they speak out against what they perceive as the dangers of organized in religion (Harris, 2004). Concurrent with the growth of a secular atheist movement in the West, some attention has been given to the possibility that atheism is also growing in the Middle East, where Islam is both prevalent and often state-supported in many nations (Albawaba, 2012). This study will attempt to examine whether atheism has been rising in the Middle East, and if there is a direct correlation between the Arab Spring movement of 2010 and the number of atheists in the Middle East.
Background/Review of Literature
A review of the available literature shows a remarkable dearth of studies and research into the issue of atheism in the Middle East. Unlike many Western nations, Islam is often state supported in Middle Eastern nations; as such, it is inextricably woven into the fabric of culture and society in ways that may be difficult to imagine for Westerners, both secular and religious (Farid, 2013).
There are a growing number of books being published in the West that both examine and promote the issue of atheism. Author Sam Harris, who wrote a book entitled The End of Faith as a response to the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, reserves his harshest criticisms of religion for the Islamic faith (Harris, 2004). While Harris makes a strong case against the dangers of Muslim extremism, he is writing from the perspective of an outsider; his concerns about Islam are not those of one who has ever been a Muslim, nor of one who has lived in a predominantly Muslim culture or nation.
The bulk of the available academic research into the issue of Islam and the context in which it affects the sociopolitical climate of Middle Eastern nations does so with little thought about the potential growth of atheism in those regions. Among the few studies that are available, most acknowledge their own shortcomings and the challenges of studying the issue of atheism in countries were religion is either state supported, such as in Egypt (Farid, 2013) or there is no consequential secular government that exists apart from the theocratic reach of religion, as is the case in Iran. It is, in short, enormously difficult to find and examine the published results of serious research into the issue of atheism in the Middle East. This lack of available evidence and research findings leaves open the question of whether atheism is growing in the Middle East, as well as questions about what, if any, correlations can be found between a possible rise in atheism in the region and the recent political movement that has come to be known as the Arab Spring. Post-Arab Spring discussions and analysis of the effects of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere offer a variety of often-conflicting perspectives, but most are rooted in sociopolitical contexts as opposed to religious contexts (Brady, 2011). There are some studies that look closely at the post-revolution perspectives on Islam (el Quali, 2011), but such studies tend to focus on t he extent to which Islam is intertwined with secular functions of state in various countries, rather than examining the degree to which the sociological influence of Islam is waxing or waning.
Conducting research about the possible rise in atheism in post-Arab Spring Middle Eastern nations is, by its very nature, enormously challenging. Even researchers who have the capability and opportunity to visit Middle Eastern nations would likely face serious, if not entirely insurmountable challenges in conducting research into this topic. For researchers in Western nations who wish to explore the subject, it may be necessary to amass second-hand and anecdotal information from subjects who have familial or social connections with Middle Easterners; further light may be shed on such information by cross-checking the findings against a review and analysis of what academic findings are currently available.
With the first part of this approach in mind, the potential design of this study will be based on semi-structured interviews with subjects who live in the region where the study is conducted, and who have regular and relatively unfettered communication with friends, family members, colleagues, and other individuals who live in predominantly-Muslim Middle Eastern nations. As a further context and framework for consideration of this issue and the possible rise of atheism in the region, it may be helpful to delineate two primary categories: respondents in the first category will currently live in or originally come from Middle Easter nations that were not directly affected by the Arab Spring movement, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. The second category of respondents will be comprised of people who live in or who originally came from Arab Spring nations such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. This will form what amounts to a control group and variable group. While political tension, protests, and all-out uprisings and revolutions have been present to varying degrees throughout the Middle East both contemporarily and historically, examining the issue of the growth of atheism in Arab Spring and non-Arab Spring nations will hopefully produce findings that begin to shed light on what, if any, influence the Arab Spring movement has had on the growth of atheism in the region.
Screening for these subjects will be conducted for the purposes of finding a group of potential subjects who acknowledge either a history of discussing, or a willingness to discuss issues related to religious faith and atheism in the context of Islam with their contacts in the Middle East.
The need for the questioner/interviewer to work with a measure of autonomy and flexibility will likely be paramount, as the bulk of the responses from participants will likely be subjective and experiential rather than objective and easily quantifiable.
Possible questions include:
- Do you regularly or frequently discuss issues related to Islam in particular or Islam in general with your contacts in (fill in name of appropriate nation here)?
- Have any of your contacts ever professed to having “lost their faith” or otherwise questioned their religious backgrounds?
- Have any of your contacts professed to having never had religious faith?
- Have any of your contacts ever discussed the issue of atheism in any context?
- Have any of your contacts ever claimed that they have noted a rise in atheism among people they know personally?
- Have any of your contacts ever been directly or indirectly involved with protests or other activities related to the Arab Spring or other anti-government movements in the Middle East?
- If you have ever had any discussions about atheism with your contacts, can you briefly recall and recount them?
The interviews will be analyzed through thematic analysis that looks for common themes and relationships. Quantifiable factors (such as the number of respondents who have/have not had relevant conversations with their contacts, and any other quantifiable information retrieved from the interviews) will be analyzed through statistical techniques such as multiple regression analyses using SPSS.
Because there is a dearth of available research and evidence about the subject of atheism in the Middle East, this study will likely be useful primarily as a starting point on which future studies can be based and from which further research can be launched. The primary purpose of this study will be simply to look for and analyze any potential trends that are relevant to the subject of atheism in the Middle East, and to identify ways in which such trends can be analyzed and considered when making determinations about further research and future studies.
Ahmari, S., & Weddady, N. (2012). Arab spring dreams: The next generation speaks out for freedom and justice from North Africa to Iran. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Albawaba (2012, December 13). Imagining atheists in the Middle East: if you’re a non-believer, you’re not the only one | Al Bawaba. Retrieved from http://www.albawaba.com/slideshow/middle-east-atheists-islam-persecution-456670
Bradley, J. R. (2011). Summer of hate. the Spectator-July Issue.
El Quali, A. (2011, November 22). Morocco: believe or leave. IPS – Inter Press Service[Montevido].
Farid, S. (2013, May 28). Who is afraid of Egyptian atheists?. Retrieved July 10, 2013, from http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2013/05/28/Who-is-afraid-of-Egyptian-atheists-.html
Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Mustapha, A. D. (2013). Calamitous and lamentable ‘arab spring: An analysis of the hypocrisy and illiteracy of an arab muslim. Houston, TX: Strategic Book Group.
Rationalist.org (2011, July 13). Freethinking in the Arab Spring | Rationalist Association. Retrieved July 10, 2013, from http://http://rationalist.org.uk/articles/2606/freethinking-in-the-arab-spring