Beliefs Culture NBP Opinion

Western atheists: You aren’t illegal in Saudi Arabia

Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Today’s guest column is written by Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

News that Saudi Arabia has classified atheism as a form of terrorism has predictably unleashed controversy in the West, particularly among Western atheists.

Their outrage isn’t necessarily misplaced—this decree is clearly antithetical to free expression. It’s unquestionably absurd to link atheism to terrorism, and the kingdom doesn’t have the finest record on civil liberties.

But while the global condemnation is justified, some responses to the decree threaten to do more harm than good.

In the wake of the news, I watched as a number of Western atheists rushed to the Internet to announce that they’d be considered illegal or a terrorist in Saudi Arabia.

That’s a bold statement. It’s just not a particularly accurate one.

The reality is that no Western atheist is illegal in Saudi Arabia. The regime hasn’t banned non-Saudis from being atheists while in the country. It hasn’t even banned atheists from entering the country. That’s because non-Saudis aren’t the target of the decree.

In other words: This song is not about you.

Well-intentioned or not, these proclamations from Western atheists threaten to obscure the real victims of Saudi Arabia’s latest decree: Saudis. And Saudi atheists aren’t the government’s only targets.

It’s important to take a look at the rest of the decree’s provisions. As reported by Human Rights Watch, the same article that slams atheism as terrorism also bans the act of “…calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”

As Brian Whitaker pointed out in Al-Bab, Saudi Arabia is legally a Wahhabi state. That’s a particularly strict interpretation of Sunni Islam which means that, as a direct result of this decree, members of other minority Islamic sects—like Ahmadis, Shiites, Sufis, or even Sunnis who disagree with Wahhabism—are at increased risk of persecution. That’s also true for Saudi Christians, Hindus, and all other religious minorities.

We’ve already seen evidence of this. Earlier last month, the kingdom also classified the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Regardless of what you think of the Brotherhood’s politics, it’s a stretch to call them terrorists. But that move was largely met with silence from the West, even though it too restricts freedom of expression.

Samira Shackle, writing for the New Humanist, noted that the crackdowns are part of a more expansive campaign to smother dissent in the country. That’s visible from the decree’s other provisions—which have nothing to do with atheism.

Article 8, for example, prohibits “seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion, or calling, participating, promoting, or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings, or group statements in any form, or anyone who harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means.”

That’s a flat ban on dissent of any kind. And it’s more than a symptom of theocracy in action—it’s a symptom of political dictatorship. The classification of atheism as terrorism has less to do with preserving the purity of Islam and more to do with preserving the authority of the House of Saud.

It’s purely pragmatic: The kingdom’s rulers have watched revolutionary movements topple dictator after dictator in the region, and King Abdullah isn’t willing to become the next Muammar Gaddafi.

This is important political context, and it’s largely missing from Western reactions to the decree about atheism.

By declaring themselves “illegal in Saudi Arabia,” Western atheists co-opt an opportunity to direct attention to ongoing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

It’s not much of an act of solidarity to deprive Saudi human rights activists—who may or may not be atheists—of much-needed global attention.

Instead, this decree should be viewed as a chance to remind the world that Raif Badawi could still be put to death for apostasy, or to put public pressure on the Obama administration to finally address the subject of human rights with our Saudi allies—something President Obama refused to do as recently as last week.

Western atheists have greater freedoms, and better access to public platforms, than their Saudi counterparts. With those privileges come certain ethical responsibilities. That includes the responsibility to amplify the voices and experiences of those the House of Saud would like to silence—whether they’re atheists or not.

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones. Photo courtesy Jones.

Sarah Jones is the Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to joining AU, she volunteered for Femin Ijtihad, where she researched Islamic law and women’s rights. She holds a Master of Arts in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy from Goldsmiths, University of London, and tweets at @onesarahjones. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.


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  • How magnanimous of the autocrats. This is the face of religious based government. Theocracy is no different from any other form of dictatorship. Arbitrary and capricious pronouncements from on high done allegedly in the service of faith, but serve the state implicitly.

    King Abdullah’s solution to preserving his reign has to do with directing dissent outwards. Encouraging Islamicist terror abroad. Killing off young hotheads in foreign conflicts so they don’t try to overthrow the government in Arabia.

    Unfortunately Al Queda read that playbook and turned it around towards encouraging random acts of violence all over the world. For that the Saudi government gets my eternal “middle fingered salute”.

  • From the people who brought you “80% of Evangelicals Oppose Gay Marriage, Therefore Atheists Are the Real Homophobes” comes “Saudi Arabia’s Government Just Declared Non-Wahhabi Citizens ‘Terrorists,’ Therefore the Real Oppressors of Saudi Arabians Are Western Atheists.”

    The hits just keep on coming from StedCo!

  • Thanks for the guest column, Sarah. Sometimes the larger context and the finer details get lost when they cross between differing cultures and political realities.

  • It’s not clear to me where “StedCo(?)” has ever said that atheists are the “real homophobes,” (let alone because of evangelical attitudes towards gay marriage?) rather than “not immune from homophobia.”

    or how you interpret “Western atheists have greater freedoms, and better access to public platforms, than their Saudi counterparts. With those privileges come certain ethical responsibilities. That includes the responsibility to amplify the voices and experiences of those the House of Saud would like to silence—whether they’re atheists or not” as “Western atheists are the real oppressors of Saudis.”

    Maybe if you took a step back, you might see that Chris and Sarah aren’t saying whatever outrageous things you seem to think they are (because they’re not).

  • this is quite well-written,

    i am a saudi and have seen a lot of people talk about atheism as if it was the main focus of this issue when it is the least of the saudi state’s problems, the house of saud has historically chose to use religion as a mean to a get to and hold governance of arabia (then naming it SAUDI arabia), during the 60s, they were being faced with the arab nationalism rising from the military based government of egypt led by Jamal Abdulnasser which took down 3 monarchies similar to the saudis, in that time they used a similar tactic to the one used this day by calling out for islamic identity and labeling anyone identifying as an arab first to be an outlaw and bordering (if not) on being an apostate, the saudis went as far as to take in the muslim brotherhood in as they were enemies of Jamal and used them in making the school curriculums for religious studies, after the dissolution of the United arab republic, the 1967 defeat and the death of nasser removed all threat from arab nationalists the saudis found that the excess of islamists they gathered around to defend against Nasser is now a liability as it called for islamic rights of the people such as voting/participation in government, knowledge of state’s monetary spendings among other rights (those two are the ones that the house of Saud considers to be a “Red line”), this got serious in 1979 when a man called juhayman al otaibi took over the holy mosques for about two weeks, now this wouldn’t be quite the issue had the people not be religiously tutored and had the sauds not used the holy cities as an excuse to represent islam, with Pakistani and French aid, the situation was solved with bloodshed (a huge deal in the holy city) and the next paradigm shift in the house of saud took place. Now seeing that the measures they took fighting the nationalists were backfiring, the Sauds starting recruiting the other way, gathering nationalists who were for hire and liberals to curb the islamist influence on the people who could start armed revolutions (which were dying but still dangerous by then).As Larry said in these comments, the Sauds sent off hot heads to die in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Bosnia fighting for the pro-american side in order to reduce the number of radical elements they had to deal with themselves, this went on until the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein , where the religious clerks (who still maintained/maintain much influence) opposed bringing the americans to the conflict and some of them (namely a man known as Osama Bin Laden) offered to lead guerrilla troops to push the Iraqi forces out, the Sauds weren’t going to bet their absolute monarchy on guerrilla tactics so they went with the american option, leading to a permanent reason for the Islamists to hate the house of Saud. The 1990-2001 was a period where the Sauds had to try and fix the mess they made by letting americans attack Iraq and allowing the Americans to stay, so knowing that calling outside islamic help would cause trouble on the long run, they started to use the AL-ASHEIKH family (the family of the muhammad Abdulwahhab, head of the so-called WAHHABISM) – which they have a historical alliance with – more extensively, putting them as heads of the justice and grand mufti positions, but as usual with the house of sauds, their history quickly catches up with them, and bin laden orders the 2001 bombings, the country goes the way of the conservative once again to avoid creating a base for extremists, the goes on until 2005 when Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz becomes king and opts for a more liberal society, now when we say “liberal” with the sauds we mean that the government wants to do everything it wants without religious obligations, and that is not a good thing since the only religious obligation they want to escape are the two we mentioned already (public participation and knowledge of spending), it came as no surprise to anyone that as soon as someone asked for rights they ended up in jail, enter the ACPRA, the “Arabian Civil and Political Rights Association”, an organization for rights that got taken down despite not taking up any arms or calling for what could be classified as terror or the like, among the ACPRA members was Mohammad Al Qahtani, ranked as the 47th in “Foreign policy’s top 100 thinkers”, Raif badawi’s jail sentence was the result of his website that allowed all to express their views freely, and this resulted in the appearance of a lot of anti-Saud sentiments due to the corruption of some key family members (Mishaal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is the most infamous one, known in saudi arabia as “the prince of chain link fences”), some government-backed clerks even called for anyone to kill Raif badawi. Now back to the decree in question, as the arab spring started in 2011, a lot the Saud’s allies in the region (Ali Saleh, Mubarak, Zain Al Abideen) were falling or under the threat of (bahrain’s king), but also some of their enemies like Gaddafi lost their heads or are fighting for deal life like Bashar and Maliki, the Sauds want to play this Arab spring as best as they could, and things going well for the revolutionized countries in this age of communication could end up meaning things going bad for Saudi Arabia (especially the “Saudi” part) so when the king of bahrain and the sultan of Oman were facing civil unrest they helped the Sultan with money and went the military way with bahrain as money wasn’t going to stop the rebels (who -rightfully- see they are being marginalized and changed as a demography), now when the egyptian muslim brotherhood won the elections in egypt, no one could call foul play, and the Sauds were not too happy to have the group they thought they got rid of in the 1980 controlling the biggest arab country (population/influence/miliary speaking), so long story short, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. work together to take down the Qatari-backed democratically elected egyptian government quite the bloody coup, installing an -ironically- nationalists military government that takes Abdul Nasser as an inspiration.

    now the decree of terrorism, it is mainly to stop the ongoing (sometimes public) criticism of the government actions of funding and leading the coup in egypt, it is a blanket terrorism excuse to punish anyone who may speak against the government’s actions. the main target is the muslim brotherhood inside the country (Saudi Arabia has about 1 million egyptians expats working here), and there has been several saudi nationals who spoke against the egyptians coup and condemned the saudi government. the second part of it the hezbollah sympathizers who are majorly in the oil-concentrated eastern region of saudi arabia and have risen in small, localized protests in 2012 (that is a huge deal in saudi arabia, protests are an apocalypse by government’s standards).

    And here comes the part where we talk about atheism, the flip-flop of the saudi clerks has been documented, the internet made it easy to find and despite the best efforts of the sauds to censor it and ranking among the first in the “enemies of the internet” lists everywhere, they couldn’t, so people lost their faith in the clergy that claims exclusive rights to islam (and implies that the only way to be a muslim is to do what they say), couple that with the severe restrictions on almost everything (a lot of restrictions on unmarried people, a restriction on cinema and cinematography, a male-female based segregations .. etc), keep in mind that these “virtues” are only applied on the public, the religious police never enters the royal family (a 15,000 person-family) houses, or their compounds, and you get why some see atheism as an escape. real Atheists in Saudi arabia are quite a minority, not even worth the mention, but their status as a small minority will not garner any reaction from the public and is even seen as a protection on the nation’s islamic identity, so they were put first to draw all the attention of the local and international media, while the real work is being done in the following items on the government’s list.

    i know this is a long reply (wow, actually 1458 words), a complete run-on sentence and over usage of parenthesis, but english isn’t my first language and this article was interesting because it was the first one i saw which tried to see beyond the “atheist persecution” red herring that the sauds put in their decree.

    thank you.

  • I wish I knew what this girl’s problem is. My husband grew up in Soddy Barbaria.

    PLEASE read these articles by people who have BEEN THERE instead of this deluded white guilt-ridden girl.

    1. What it is like to be a Muslim woman, and why we know what freedom is (and you may not):

    2. Why growing up in Saudi Arabia was awesome, and why I beg you not to go there:

    3. How We All Bow to the Saudi King:

    Sarah Jones, this article is PURE lunacy.

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