The God Delusion is big in Saudi Arabia. Three million copies of Richard Dawkins’s bible of atheism were downloaded in the kingdom—one of twelve Muslim-majority states where the statute books prescribe the death penalty for apostasy.
It is difficult to gain an accurate estimate of the number of atheists in Saudi. According to a 2012 poll by WIN/Gallup International, however, 5 percent of its citizens described themselves as “convinced atheist”—the same percentage as in the United States – while 19 percent self-identified as “non religious.”
While this number does not appear to be particularly high, it is significant in a country where punishments for perceived and actual declarations of disbelief range from corporal punishment to long prison sentences and execution. Although the latter punishment is rarely carried out, those convicted of apostasy can usually expect long jail terms.
While the new Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, continues his global drive to present a more tolerant and moderate face of the country on the international stage—as evidenced for instance by the recent symbolic decision to lift the ban on women driving—atheism remains one of the country’s last great taboos.
But more and more Saudi citizens are challenging the country’s religious authorities as atheism continues to grow across the Middle East.
What Has Changed in Saudi Arabia?
There are several possible reasons for the increase in the number of self-declared atheists in the kingdom. Information technology, particularly the ubiquity of social media, has provided easier access to a variety of material on atheism.
The country’s young generation has become increasingly disillusioned with the country’s strict legal code and the rigoristic views of its leading clerics. According to an ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arabia Youth Survey in 2018, 91 percent of youths between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four approved of bin Salman’s accession to the throne, pointing to a desire for change and progress.
The post–Arab Spring environment brought about an increase in meeting places designed to facilitate discussions about politics and ideas. The capital, Jeddah, became the focal point of this cultural movement; however, the movement was short-lived, as the country’s religious police raided cafés and ensured that most meeting places were placed under close supervision.
While discussion of atheism has become more visible in recent years, those involved predominately remain under a cloak of anonymity. A minority are risking their freedom to raise awareness of secular and atheist causes through websites, videos, and social media.
Increased State Repression
For many Saudis, the social implications of professing atheism can often be as severe as any legal punishment. As the birthplace of Islam and the site of the faith’s two holiest mosques, Saudi Arabia is intimately connected with the Islamic faith.
This is combined with the state’s use of religion as a political tool designed to prevent any form of challenge to the status quo. While the country—in comparison to its neighbors—remained largely immune to the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the rapid mobilization of a disillusioned youth and the success of reform movements across the region would not have gone unnoticed.
While social media provides users with a platform to communicate with other atheists and find strength in numbers, it also brings with it a greater level of vulnerability and visibility, particularly as online content is closely monitored.
As awareness of atheism in Saudi Arabia has risen, the state has enacted several measures to combat the spread of atheist thought. This includes plans to “inoculate” children against atheism and Westernization, alongside measures restricting online access to websites and social media deemed subversive.
In 2014, a string of royal decrees was passed calling for the prosecution of anyone “calling for atheist thought in any form.” The case of Raif Badawi, the founder of the liberal Free Saudi Liberals blog, received worldwide attention in July 2013 when he was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes on the charge of “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” Badawi had published material criticizing the country’s senior clerics on his platform.
Other prominent cases include a man sentenced to death for ripping up a copy of the Qur’an and hitting it with his shoe in an online video—despite his lawyer claiming he was mentally ill—and a Palestinian poet whose sentence for renouncing Islam was reduced from the death penalty to eight years in prison, 800 lashes, a fine of 50,000 Saudi riyals, and a public apology.
Wider Regional Trend
The rise of atheism in Saudi Arabia reflects a wider trend of growing disbelief across the Middle East and the Gulf. Other countries have reacted to the increased presence of atheism on social media with repression. Saudi Arabia aside, five countries—Kuwait, Qatar, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen—consider atheism a criminal offense punishable by death.
When this is not the case, repressive measures are adopted. In Egypt, the head of the Parliament’s committee on religion recently proposed a bill that would make atheism illegal. The country’s highest religious institution, Al Azhar, backed the move. Under Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who came to power in 2013, the Egyptian government has cracked down on Islamist militant groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as on the country’s atheist minority.
Discussions on atheism have nonetheless started to penetrate the social sphere. In March, a young atheist was kicked off a live TV show in Egypt after the host condemned his “destructive ideas.” Clips from the show went viral and made international headlines. While they may still wield much political power, Saudi’s religious conservatives, like many before them, may find that the repression of thought is a battle increasingly difficult to win.