The enemy of my enemy is my friend. So goes the ancient proverb. Brian Whitaker, in an article “Arabs and atheism: the politics of disbelief” on his informative website Al-bab, writes that the Egyptian El-Sisi government’s “national plan to ‘confront and eliminate’ atheism” described atheism as: “the country’s second enemy after the Muslim Brotherhood.” This raises an interesting question: if the enemy of my enemy is already my enemy, which one becomes my friend? This question is both simpler and more complex than it might at first seem.
If it were a simple matter of playing your enemies off against each other, we need but look at the Non-Aligned bloc flirting with both the Soviet bloc and the West during the Cold War. This was possible because the Soviet bloc and the West were greater enemies of each other than either of them were of the Non-Aligned bloc. Indeed, both of them wanted very badly to be friends with the Non-Aligned bloc. It was harder for either the Soviet bloc or the West to befriend the Non-Aligned bloc because the latter was not the enemy of either the Soviet bloc or the West. Neither the Soviet bloc nor the West were in a position to punish the Non-aligned bloc for making overtures towards their enemy bloc, for to do so risked driving the Non-aligned bloc into the arms of their enemy bloc. While India, one of the key Non-aligned countries, very successfully played off the Soviet Union (and now Russia) against the West, yet remaining non-aligned, Egypt spun 180 degrees into the arms of the West when the Soviet Union had had enough of Egypt’s incessant demands for arms and hung up the phone.
The matter becomes a great deal more complex when your enemy’s enemy is already your enemy. Sooner or later, you have to face the question: which enemy is my greater enemy. For the moment, the Egyptian government seems to have decided that, if it came to it, it can endure atheists more than it can the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is loud and vocal wherever they operate, whether in the United States, in the Israeli Knesset or in Arab countries, while, according to Whittaker,
…there’s no reason to suppose that a wave of atheism is about to sweep across the Middle East. It’s impossible to know how many atheists there are in the region, not least because they often feel a need to keep quiet about their disbelief, but it’s generally agreed that they form a very small percentage.
Yet this discreet, reticent minority is the nation’s number two enemy, right up there alongside the Muslim Brotherhood. It doesn’t add up. Atheist have no intention of getting anyone to beat their wives or cut off the daughters’ clitorises or sew up their labia, or marry off their little girls to adult strangers. Atheists do not pressure their traumatised daughters to return to their violent abusive husbands. No atheist’s daughter is so “Western” as to warrant her murder. Atheists do not refuse to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. They do not want to see apostates killed or homosexuals thrown to their deaths off high buildings. They do not believe that an atheist’s life is worth more than a believer’s. The do not insist that someone who beheads a teacher in the street or an old lady praying in a church has nothing to answer for. Atheists are not obsessed with the non-existence of God. They will, however, shut down the madrassas, where mediaeval freaks fulfil their sacred duty of crippling young children’s minds. In short, atheists have respect for the laws of the land and do not wish to impose a barbaric system of law on everyone.
The very opposite of each of the above, and much worse besides, applies to the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, in the minds of the Egyptian government, the Muslim Brotherhood and atheists are side-by-side as the top enemies of the country, so much so that they can find the time and the resources to devote to a “national plan to ‘confront and eliminate’ atheism.” Whatever one might say about the incongruity of this association, the Egyptian government clearly perceives atheism as a strategic threat, one as significant as the Moslem Brotherhood. Tactically, they can afford to deal with atheists as a lower priority than the Brotherhood. All the Egyptian president needs to do, for now, is acknowledge the problem of atheism and strongly declare their intention to wipe it out. That way he might, at least, keep lay Muslims from rising against him.
But if atheists in the Arab and Muslim world are people who tend to lie low, why acknowledge them at all? “Atheism among Arabs,” says Whittaker, “has become more visible during the last few years, mainly because of the Internet,” (my emphasis). And there’s the rub. Muslims can no longer pretend that atheism does not exist in their societies. But it is more complex than a simple matter of pretence, as with all things Muslim.
Western observers often describe Muslim societies as “conservative.” This is far from true, although I will grant that Muslim societies have an external appearance that Western eyes easily perceive as conservative. Muslim society is conformist. Whatever the general level of laxity or strictness, the individual’s concern is to not stand out, especially in matters of personal opinion. Muslims watch one another to ensure conformity.
Flying in the face of this social pressure to conform is the Muslim’s urge to give vent to his or her own desires, preferences and predilections, in other words, their own humanity. It bears actually stating that Muslims are and remain human, just like anyone else, despite the dehumanising pressures of their religion. Were they to give full rein to the totalitarian order that their religion yearns for, as ISIS has done, their society would very quickly descend into self-destruction. The fact that such anti-human societies have endured for 1400 years attests to the existence of a mechanism of preservation. That mechanism is hypocrisy as a social institution.
Hypocrisy mediates between the inhumanity of Islam and the humanity of Muslims, thereby allowing an essentially nihilist sociopolitical system to stabilise. Consider, for example, what Muslim societies would be like if every single Muslim, five times a day, every day, actually stopped whatever they they were doing to go and pray, each time preceded by ritual ablutions. Those binfulls of severed heads that notorious former-British ISIS bride Shamima Begum casually referred to as leaving her unfazed, were unlikely to have been the heads of their enemies—these ended up on spikes or as footballs. According to Lloyd de Jongh, those heads are more likely those of Muslims who failed to observe the five daily prayers.
ISIS would behead anyone who did not pray, who did not come and pray the prayers. This was common—there were apparently baskets of heads all over the place—because it states in islamic law, under strict Islam, so if they [Muslims, AP] take over and they implement the Sharia, a Muslim who holds the prayer to be obligatory, but through lack of concern neglects to perform it until its proper time, has not committed unbelief [kufr, ceased to be a Muslim, AP]. He’s executed, washed, prayed over and buried in the cemetery [as befits a Muslim, AP].
The point here is that for Islam to not destroy itself, the pretence of observing the five daily prayers must be tolerated (regardless of how strictly Shari’a is implemented). The same goes for 1001 other commands, prohibitions and controls. Hypocrisy is part of the social infrastructure of Muslim societies. Everyone pretends that everyone is a good Muslim while everyone knows that no-one is.
Looking inwards towards itself, Islam affirms: La illaha-illallah Muhammadu-rasoolullah, There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger. Outwards towards the world it affirms: Allahu-akbar! The god of Islam is greater. It is one thing for a Muslim to renounce Islam and convert to another religion. Doing so only denies that the god of Islam is greater, and Muslims, by sheer domination and subjugation of others, and by killing the apostate, reestablish Allahu-akbar. Hypocrisy is safe; the show can go on. The Allah/Muhammad duo remains intact.
But to deny the existence of Allah is to destroy Islam, and further exposes both that all prophets are frauds, and that the division of the ummah between the “people of knowledge” and the people who must hear and obey is a monumental scam that the ulema has been perpetrating on all lay Muslims for well over a thousand years. Furthermore, when Allahu-akbar is rejected, Islam falls but religion stands. When La illaha-illallah Muhammadu-rasoolullah is rejected, all religion falls. One might reasonably assume that the latter rejection impels many an apostasy. This is not to suggest apostasy is motivated solely, or even mostly, by such philosophical considerations. It could as much be motivated by the spuriousness of Islamic claims about reality, as it can be by sheer revulsion at Muslim behaviour (as in my case).
If atheists, their growing numbers notwithstanding, stay quiet and keep out of sight, the ruling elites of the Muslim world might throw their respective ulema under the bus, thereby buying time to think of some way of saving themselves. Atheists coming into the open in Muslim societies means that hypocrisy fails exactly at that point where Muslim as human and Muslim as adherent of Islam touch; being the same point where the religious imperative on lay Muslims to hear and obey meets the coercive force of the secular state. There might be no easy way of unpicking this complexity.
It is no coincidence that when Tunisian lay Muslim Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in protest against an Arab state’s secular rulers and their repressive state apparatus, he set in motion a social revolution that allowed the atheists of the Arab world to come into the open. The problem for the Arab ruling elites, as El-Sisi’s government demonstrates, is to disentangle the extraordinary nexus of fused fault lines that is contemporary Arab society: “scholars” versus lay Muslims; the “law of god” versus the law of man; religiosity versus secularism; women versus men; elites versus the poor; the repressive state versus the long-suffering citizen; Copts versus Muslims; normalisation with Israel versus hatred of Jews; and finally, dependent subordination versus the individual autonomy. Few analysts appreciate that the First Arab Spring and the Second Arab Spring are the same process, that it is an extremely complex process, and that it is an ongoing process.
It doesn’t follow that because the Egyptian government sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a bigger problem than atheists, that the country’s lay Muslims make the same estimation, their demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood government when the latter were in power notwithstanding. It could well be they think that at least the Muslim Brotherhood do not have sex with animals, like atheists; at least they believe in Allah and Muhammad. Egyptian lay Muslims are very much aware of atheists in their midst and strongly disapprove of them. A lay Muslim showdown with atheists might still lie ahead, especially if El-Sisi plays his cards right.
There is neither Protestant work ethic, nor legally-guaranteed freedom of religion in the Middle East into which to channel the people’s anger and frustrations so as to buy the ruling elite time to reorganise the structures and institutions of society and at least try to remain in power, as transpired in the Christian West between the 17th and 19th centuries. This is the trick that El-Sisi must pull, and he might have a chance, if only he can destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, enfeeble the Al-Azhar heart of Sunni Islam, and keep the atheists at bay. He knows very well that he will not be able to “confront and eliminate atheism,” but the longer he can keep lay Muslims onside, the more time he gains to reorganise the structures and institutions of society to keep the current elite in power. After that, he will take down Islam himself, thereby shooting the atheists’ fox and blunting their influence. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are a few steps ahead of Egypt in this.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Muhammad bin Salman, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and other similar Muslim leaders are to the Muslim Brotherhood, lay Muslims and atheists as Martin Luther was to the Catholic Church, lay Christians and Desiderius Erasmus. They all must seek to liberate lay worshippers from the tyranny of totalitarianism, but make sure they remain subject to the tyranny of God. Against Islam today, however, the autonomous individual is rapidly generalising across the Muslim world on account of both knowledge being available and modern communications making it universally accessible (satellite television for the illiterate; the Internet for all).
This combination of circumstances did not yet obtain in 16th century Europe, despite the printing revolution having started several decades earlier than the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. Books, although then relatively quick and easy to produce, were still too expensive for most lay Christians, who would, in any case, have been unable to read them. Although Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German was a profoundly revolutionary act against Catholic knowledge kept secret behind an exclusive language, Latin, most lay Christians, being illiterate, still had to rely on the Christian clerical hierarchy to tell them what their Bible says. The autonomous individual faced all these obstacles and more when it emerged in Europe. Arriving in the contemporary Middle East, the autonomous individual finds all these problems already solved.
Lay Christians of 16th century Europe responded to their newfound understanding of Catholic totalitarianism with an explosion of new Christianities, many recreations of God in new images. It could not be otherwise. In any case, atheists remained isolated mavericks confined to the lettered classes. Nobody took any notice to them. Briggs and Burke, quoting Samuel Hartlieb, summed it up very well: “The art of printing will so spread knowledge that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties, will not be governed by way of oppression.” In Islam, the common people are the lay Muslims and the oppressors are the “scholars,” the ulema. The ulema’s mechanism of oppression is the deen, the totalitarian system as a whole; the lay Muslims’ instrument of acquiescence in their own oppression is the religion.
The equivalent response of contemporary lay Muslims to Islamic totalitarianism is a flight from religion, the abolition of God, rather than his mere recreation in a new image. The ex-Muslim atheist of today stands in the place of the Protestant of yesterday. A Desiderius Erasmus as he was then would pose no threat to either the Muslim world’s ruling elites, or to the Muslim Brotherhood (or the ulema generally, for that matter). To play the equivalent historic role, a latter-day Erasmus would have to be an atheist. This is why El-Sisi loathes atheism as much as he loathes the Muslim Brotherhood, the same as Martin Luther loathed Desiderius Erasmus as much as loathed the Catholic Church. It is atheists in the Muslim world, rather than ex-Muslim atheists in the West, who have the wherewithal to rise to the historic challenge of destroying Islam from within the deen itself. Therein lies hope.
- Brian Whittaker, “Arabs and atheism: the politics of disbelief,” www.al-bab.com, 25 February 2019. I disagree with significant parts of this article, but this is not the space for discussing that.
- For a brief overview of atheism in Egypt in the wake of the First Arab Spring, see “Egypt’s push against atheism and ‘non-believers’”, FRANCE 24 English, YouTube 29 Sept 2014 https://youtu.be/HkgpylUQ3G0 Atheists are as much fair game in the Islamic world as lepers were in ancient times. Even in the enlightened West, many feel themselves at liberty to hold and express the most base views on atheists, as well as on those who suffer gender dysphoria. It is as if these two categories of people offer the last redoubt in which we can be viciously nasty to people we don’t like simply for who they are.
- “Touching does not include contact with teeth, nails, hair, or a severed limb,” Reliance of the Traveller, Book E7.3.
- Atheism is not new to Muslim and Arab societies; one needs merely recall the eleventh century Syrian atheist Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī. Whittaker provides a useful overview of atheism under early Islam in the above source.
- "Part 2: The Pagan Origins of Proto-Islam in Southern Arabia,” Holy Humanist | Nuriyah Khan, YouTube 22 Mar 2022. https://youtu.be/38RhDE50izw?t=595 This is an outstanding series that I highly recommend to all readers. The series starts here: https://youtu.be/XXNthM3yx5U. Lloyd is uncovering a staggering amount of information, including especially that which the Islamic “scholars” hide from lay Muslims. “It is not wise” for them to know this, insists Sheikh Dr Yasir Qadhi. They should wait till after they're dead (seriously). Some of Lloyd's conclusions, in my opinion, are arrived at earlier than the available information permits. Some issues are more complex than he assumes. Nonetheless, his work is for understanding Islam and appreciating the danger it poses to civilisation and humanity, and he is certainly breaking new ground. Nuriyah Khan is to be congratulated for bringing Lloyd to the public, especially in such a helpful and constructive manner.
Just as I was adding the finishing touches to this essay, the following landed in my inbox: “The Real Sharia - Islam's Strict Guide & Dictates,” Holy Humanist | Nuriyah Khan, YouTube 1 July 2022 https://youtu.be/EaaoAM7ttSk. Lloyd has been generous enough to make his entire archive available free of charge. Download Lloyd’s archive immediately: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1BGrC1fxB-ym-ZQ64TtfYEG0vQtYCOIL6, starting with the folder “Islam.” Muslims and their useful idiots are not going to let this stand.
- Whittaker, in the above source, makes a similar point.
- “Atheism in Egypt: The challenges facing non-believers?” BBC News, YouTube 11 Feb 2014 https://youtu.be/UMvFSX00PAI
- Asa Briggs, Peter Burke, A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet, 2009, Polity, p15.
- Some insist that Islam is not a religion, but a totalitarian system. A means of surveillance is indispensable to any totalitarian system. Given the point in history when Islam (and Catholicism) emerged, unlike the later Nazism, Communism and Fascism, technological surveillance of an oppressed population was not yet possible. Islam, therefore, necessarily had to be a religion. Almost every verse in the Qur’an warns Muslims that Allah sees everything, Allah knows everything, Allah sees what’s in their hearts, etc., and Allah has a severe punishment in store for them, should they put a foot wrong. Yet, just in case Allah missed anything, it is obligatory on every Muslim to police every other Muslim, with permission to exercise coercive force. Thus is every lay Muslim enjoined to do the ulema’s dirty work for it; every lay Muslim is a kapo. The equivalent means of surveillance in Catholicism is the Confession, and the clergy’s power to grant or deny both expiation and access to Heaven and Hell. This is why Catholicism, too, is a totalitarian system that could not avoid being a religion. Credit for the worst form of thought control yet devised, however, must go to Islam. Transgression is not in the act, but in the intention. Islam being a religion, therefore, does not in any way dilute Islam being a deen. If anything, it reinforces it. Catholicism, fortunately, has been mostly neutered (it is still responsible for an incredible amount of inhumanity); Islam, unfortunately, has not. That historic task falls to atheists in the Islamic world.
- They are today’s “Islamic reformers” that include, unfortunately, many Western ex-Muslim atheists, although they would vehemently deny it.