There’s the Tunisian woman who fasts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, though not for God. The Iraqi woman who, until recently, wore a hijab. And a man whose Egyptian identity card identifies him as “Muslim,” despite his efforts to change it.
Such are the ways that some of the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones” — people who are agnostics, atheists or nothing in particular — negotiate their existence in the Middle East and North Africa where religion is often ingrained in life’s very fabric.
The hallmarks of religion go beyond the walls of houses of worship. In Muslim-majority countries, they’re in the minarets defining skylines, the headscarves donned by many women, the omnipresent call to prayer that beckons the faithful five times a day, and the references peppering casual greetings.
Aware that rejecting religion can come with repercussions, many vigilantly conceal that part of themselves. Declaring disbelief may spur social stigma, ostracism by loved ones or even unleash threats or the wrath of authorities, especially if going public is coupled with real or perceived attacks on religion or God.
“I have a double life all the time,” said the 27-year-old Tunisian woman. “It’s better than having conflict every day.”
Many nonbelievers seek community, ideas or pockets of digital defiance on the internet even though online spaces still carry risks. Some confide in small circles of friends or leave, when they can, in search of more freedoms abroad.
Most of those interviewed by The Associated Press spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions and because some of their families don’t know how they religiously identify. Given such secrecy, there are no reliable estimates of the number of nones in the largely religious region.
“The Middle East is the birthplace of the three heavenly religions and there’s no doubt that the region’s culture has for long been intertwined with religion,” said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Religion has also been a source of legitimacy for rulers, a source for knowledge and behavioral norms.”
Many in Arab countries, he said, associate lack of religion with immorality and see it as a threat. “To them, you cannot talk about the rights of someone who is a danger to society.”
Laws or policies banning blasphemy — speech or actions considered to be contemptuous of God and other sacred entities — appear in different parts of the world. But according to a Pew Research Center analysis, they were most common in the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, region as of 2019. Critics of such laws say they can be vaguely worded and infringe on freedom of expression.
The Tunisian woman said she fasts to avoid being found out by her Muslim family. During religious holidays, she pretends to sleep to skip gatherings, where relatives may take aim at her suspected disbelief.
From childhood, she rejected how Islam was practiced in her home. She said her father would sometimes force her to pray, pulling at her clothes while yelling at her.
Resisting traditional interpretations of such things as gender roles, she sought refuge in progressive Muslim communities and readings.
At one point, she became agnostic, and later started following some secular Buddhist practices. She now sees herself as “nothing in particular” and open to different spiritual paths.
While she believes her journey has given her self-trust, she feels estranged, with no place in her culture.
Hany Elmihy, a 57-year-old agnostic from Egypt, once had hope that conditions would change. He saw a window after the Arab Spring uprisings swept the region more than a decade ago.
Elmihy, who grew up in a Cairo apartment building with a mosque, questioned religion from an early age. He said he founded a Facebook group for Egyptians without religion in 2011; similar ones formed in other Arab countries. Mass protests had just unseated a longtime autocrat in Egypt, highlighting social media’s power as a tool for dissent and emboldening many to break taboos.
“It’s not the revolution that turned some into atheists or irreligious; the revolution gave them the freedom and courage to speak up,” said Elmihy. He was threatened and attacked in the ensuing period.
Undeterred, he tried to change the “Muslim” designation on his identity card to state he adheres to no religion. He failed, and his hope for new freedoms fizzled. Eventually, he moved to Norway.
When Elmihy stopped praying in his teens, his father, a practicing Muslim, was disappointed but didn’t impose his views. Elmihy feared others would be less tolerant.
“Society scared me the most,” he said. “I felt isolated.”
Elmihy is ambivalent about his past advocacy, but thinks it was important “to let the society know that the religiously unaffiliated exist.”
Some have taken note with disapproval.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said Egypt’s youth ministry announced plans in 2014 to combat atheism in collaboration with religious bodies.
Local media also reported on anti-atheism efforts by some Islamic and Christian institutions.
There have been incidents when TV hosts interviewed atheists only to disparage them or kick them out, Ibrahim said.
Atheism is particularly abhorred by many; some view it as part of an agenda to weaken Arab societies. Others say it’s hard for them to support nonbelievers’ rights when some nonbelievers attack religious beliefs.
“We believe that those who don’t belong to religion are committing a sin, but it’s not our responsibility to hold them accountable,” said Abbas Shouman, an official with Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based seat of Sunni Muslim learning. The role of religious authorities, he said “is only to explain, clarify, spread the correct information and respond to suspicions.”
However, he said he rejects criticism of religion.
“They have the right to defend their beliefs as they wish but not to go after others’ beliefs,” he said.
Atheism, in itself, is not criminalized in Egypt, Ibrahim said, adding that other laws are applied in some cases. Last year, Ibrahim’s organization, EIPR, said an Egyptian court upheld a three-year-prison sentence against a blogger charged with contempt of religion and misusing social media. The organization, whose lawyer appealed the earlier verdict, has said the man was accused of managing a Facebook page for Egyptian atheists that allegedly publishes criticism of religions.
In May, Iran hanged two men convicted of blasphemy, carrying out rare death sentences for the crime. They were accused of involvement in a channel on the Telegram message app called “Critique of Superstition and Religion,” according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The news agency of Iran’s judiciary said the two had insulted Prophet Muhammad and promoted atheism.
In Saudi Arabia, a court has sentenced a man to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes on accusations of expressing atheism in Twitter posts; a 2016 media report said religious police found tweets denying the existence of God and ridiculing Quranic verses.
For some Middle Easterners, like Ahmad, disbelief hasn’t caused tensions, at least in their own circles. But the 33-year-old, who grew up in a Shiite Muslim family in Lebanon and now lives in Qatar, spoke only on condition his last name be withheld because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“We have an unspoken agreement: I don’t criticize religion and you don’t criticize my lack of religion,” he said.
Ahmad, who works in the media, is religiously unaffiliated, and says he cannot believe “in something that I cannot touch or cannot see.” Some other Lebanese, he said, have abandoned faith because of “sectarian fanaticism” and the exploitation of religion in politics.
The role of sectarian divisions in religiously diverse Lebanon is one reason Talar Demirdjian kept her distance from religion.
“People either go very into their religion or their sects, or the other side, just being completely indifferent or opposing to it all,” she said.
She would wonder, “Why is everyone hating on each other?”
“I don’t think religions in their essence are bad,” she said. “I think it’s always the interpretation of religion by men that is bad.”
A Lebanese Armenian of Christian heritage, Demirdjian said that in regard to religion, “I identify as ‘I don’t care.’ … I don’t even think about it enough to tick a label.”
For one Iraqi woman, doubt started when a childhood dream to become an imam like her grandfather was promptly quashed because she was a girl. Her nine-year-old self believed that the position would bring her closer to God.
Her shock at the dismissal bred lingering questions: “I asked, ‘Why? Are men better than me?’”
Iraq’s turmoil — and its toll on her life — fueled her disbelief.
The 24-year-old is part of a generation that has witnessed the U.S.-led invasion, sectarian violence, the brutal reign of the Islamic State and increasing clout of militias.
She’s worn the Islamic headscarf before and, for a while, even after she identified as agnostic. When militants proliferated where she lived, she donned it simply to stay out of danger; at other times, it was to socially fit in. She’d take it off when she could. Tired of the duplicity, she finally removed it around 2020.
Her life is not normal.
“I am always cautious and worried that something may hurt me, hurt my family or ruin our relationship,” she said. “I don’t tell people that I am agnostic. … It’d be an act of stupidity to do so in such a society.”
AP journalists Youcef Bounab in Paris and Abdulrahman Zeyad in Baghdad contributed.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.