Since antiquity, people have entertained the idea of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity (or deities) who has dominion over everything and maintains the order of the universe. The Abrahamic (monotheistic) religions, unlike many pagan (polytheistic) belief systems, center on the existence of one God who created humans to worship Him (the One God) and act according to the teachings He sent down through His messengers and prophets. This idea, however, no longer appeals to the rising voices of atheists in Morocco and the Arab world, who seem to have “more profound problems with religion” and “lingering unanswered ontological questions” about the meaning of life and the origin of the universe.

In a largely conservative and religious society like Morocco, atheism is still a taboo and forbidden territory. The phenomenon, though increasingly remarkable, is almost completely shunned by most official media in Morocco for reasons unknown, perhaps complying with the old Arabic axiom that, “Many dilemmas are sorted out by not trying to solve them.”[1]

Yet, whether people recognize it or not, the number of atheists in Morocco is on the rise. They live among society and share the same roads, public transportation, cafés, university amphitheaters, and all public and even private spaces. Some of them bind their atheist beliefs to absolute secrecy in fear of ostracization and persecution, leading a life of doubleness and ambivalence. Others, however, had the mettle to renounce their faith with exposed identities, putting themselves at risk of being persecuted, discriminated against, or even killed by religious fanatics.

Many Muslim scholars attribute the phenomenon to the post-Arab Spring disillusionment.

Many Muslim scholars attribute the phenomenon to the post-Arab Spring disillusionment and failed aspirations of the millions of young people who took to the streets in demand of democracy, justice, human rights, and equal opportunities. They claim that the post-Arab Spring anarchy and bloodshed in many countries in the region, and the unfulfilled political promises in the nations less shaken by the winds of the popular protests, had a profound impact on the psychology of young people, leading to a collective state of frustration, despair, and depression. This collective discouragement, according to some scholars, led to a revolution on religious belief driven by the feeling of indignation and resentment rather than by reason and rationality.

Other Muslim intellectuals attribute the phenomenon to the inability of traditional religious discourse to appeal to the expectations of modern-day global citizens. They think that what is marketed and promoted by Muslim clerics across the world today has become very aversive and antipathetic to global Muslim citizens and technology-natives, because it fails to account for their contemporary preoccupations and concerns. Such a discourse remains largely confined in traditional texts and exegeses that have little or nothing to do with present day, thorny issues. “How can a Muslim cleric who failed to reconcile with today’s clothing like suits and ties, remaining shrouded in dated attire, produce a timely discourse?” one may ask. Therefore, many people believe that the fundamentalist religious interpretations promoted by numerous iconic Islamic leaders had a hand in the emergence of the sweeping wave of atheism and agnosticism not just in Morocco, but across the Arab World.

The aforementioned factors are generally the reasons attributed to the rise in atheism in the region, according to Muslim intellectuals. Moroccan and Arab atheists, however, assert that their problem lies in religion itself rather than in anything else. They claim that religion is “man-made” for many scientific, historical, and moral reasons.

One of the most influential Moroccan atheists on social media today, was a devout Muslim throughout his life. He even participated in the Bosnian war as a jihadist in the 1990s.

Hicham Nostic (pseudonym), one of the most influential Moroccan atheists on social media today, was a devout Muslim throughout his life. He even participated in the Bosnian war as a jihadist in the 1990s. Yet, he embraced atheism after “being torn apart by conflicting voices and a clear confrontation with [him]self,”[2] as he writes in his autobiography, “Mudakkirat Kafir Maghribi” (Memoirs of a Moroccan Apostate). His many doubts about fundamental Islamic principles and the “contradiction” of morality in Islam brought him to the conclusion that a “perfect God would not leave any gaps in His last religion,” as he says in one of his videos. In his autobiography, Nostic affirms that these moral issues in Islam were the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“The biggest thing that led me to atheism is the moral aspect in Islam. How come, for example, a merciful and compassionate God, said to be more merciful than a woman on her baby, permits slavery and the trade of slaves in slave markets? How come He permits the rape of women on the grounds that they are just war captives? These acts would not be done by a merciful human being much less by a merciful God,”[3] Nostic writes.

Another popular Moroccan atheist on social media is Said Ben Jebli, who declared his apostacy in a video he posted on YouTube back in 2016. Ben Jebli’s renouncement of Islam was very surprising to many Moroccans, for he was a leading member in the Islamic movement known in Morocco as Al-Adl wa al-Ihsan (Justice and Benevolence). He was also a leading figure in the February 20 movement – inspired by the Arab Spring demonstrations – that mobilized thousands of Moroccans to take to the streets in February 2011, protesting political corruption and demanding true democracy.

Religion as we know it is “the greatest deception” man has ever been subjected to.

Ben Jebli believes that religion as we know it is “the greatest deception” man has ever been subjected to. In one of his videos, he asks: “We know nothing about God. He exists, but not necessarily as religions describe Him. In every religion He has a different identity and name, and speaks a different language. . . . Can we believe that God is idle to keep changing his names like that?”[4] Ben Jebli denies religions and the sacred books altogether, believing that they were crafted and authored by man. The Quran, according to him, “is not the word of God because it has human imprints. The only thing that says that the Quran is the word of God is the Quran itself.”[5]

Ben Jebli’s book, “Surat al-lah fi al-Quran wa Sunnah” (The Image of God in the Quran and the Sunnah), explores the issue of God’s personification in Islam. Based on his study of the Quran and the hadith, Ben Jebli argues that God’s image as a mightier being, yet with the same human physicality, is in fact a caricature that reflects “poor human imagination.”

Hicham Nostic, Said Ben Jebli, Ibtissam Lachgar, Qassim El-Ghazzali, and many more atheist social media activists continue to propagate their anti-religion ideology using live vlogs, chat rooms, online debates, sarcastic religious sketches, and online interviews with other Arab atheists. These dissenting voices appeal to many young people across the Arab World, which explains the mushrooming atheist platforms and groups on social media, and the skyrocketing number of their followers and subscribers.

There is, however, no official statistics, not even an estimate, on the number of “non-believers,” atheists, or agnostics in Morocco and the Arab World as a whole. The subject still is a huge taboo in these countries, whose constitutions almost all meet on the idea that “Islam is the official religion of the state.”

The subject still is a huge taboo in these countries, whose constitutions almost all meet on the idea that “Islam is the official religion of the state.”

Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code states that: “Whoever uses violence or threats to compel one or more persons to engage in or attend a certain worship, or to prevent them from doing so, shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to three years and a fine ranging from 200 to 500 Moroccan dirham [approximately US$21 to $54]. The same penalty shall be imposed on anyone who uses the means of seduction to destabilize a Muslim’s belief or convert him to another religion.”[6]

Human rights activists in Morocco argue that the last part of the law establishes guardianship over people’s thoughts and convictions and are calling for the constitutionalization of the right to freedom of belief. They also reason that the constitutional expression, “Islam is the official religion of the state,” could be an entry to the persecution of other non-religious or religious minorities in the country and the violation of their right to hold varying beliefs.

——

[1] Translation from Arabic is by this author.

[2] Hicham Nostik, Mudakkirat Kafir Maghribi (Rabat: Dar al-Watan, 2019) p. 162.

[3] Ibid. (Translation mine)

[4] Translation by this author

[5] Translation by this author

[6] Translation by this author

 

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