The Middle East, in the collective imagination, represents an area of the world characterized by great religious fervor. It does not only govern the individual, but influences every aspect of public life. The Muslim countries of the MENA region are characterized mostly by religiously repressive states and secularly repressive states in comparison to other parts of the world.
The constitutions of these states declare the basic principles of the state to be coincident with Islamic principles. Hence, Shari’a heavily influences legislation. Although not characterized by theocratic forms of government, these states are not notable for freedom of speech or thought.
Regarding the implementation of human rights, the Islamic world in recent decades has been distinguished by its unique effort to reconcile Islamic Law and Faith with liberal and natural law instances of human rights. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (drafted in Cairo in 1990 by the OIC), and the Islamic Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1981, were an attempt to find a synthesis between the two worlds. However, these declarations have not led to a definitive affirmation or a solution. The insistence on the role of traditional Islamic law and the centrality of Islamic law are still a major obstacle to the free expression of individual will.
Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped a new movement which is becoming increasingly grand: the social spread of new ideas. Due to the widespread use of new technologies and the internet, even the most oppressive countries, can get in touch with new thoughts. This has led to incredible and unimaginable changes at an individual level such as the increasingly evident irreligiousness in most Middle Eastern countries. Statistical studies (not derived from the authorities) have shown how the percentage of non-believers and atheists has risen to 20%, reaching almost 30% in some Maghreb countries such as Tunisia. Freedom of access to the Internet has given young people the courage to express their alternative thoughts without having to conform to the public authority of the state.
This phenomenon is becoming increasingly important not only in the more liberal countries such as those in North Africa or Lebanon, but also in countries denoted by non-democratic forms of government and the application of the Shari’a. This includes Saudi Arabia, where religious freedom is not allowed and where the death penalty for apostasy exists. Within the Saudi Kingdom, it has been reported that more than 3 million downloads of prominent atheist writer, Richard Dawkins’ books have been made anonymously. Not only that, but according to private surveys, almost 19 per cent of the population declare themselves atheist.
Similarly in Iran, a nation characterized by a theocracy founded on the Velayat-e Faqih postulated by Ayatollah Khomeini, ‘free thought’ has radically changed its expression. This is shown in the survey called ‘Iranians Attitudes toward religion’ conducted in June 2020. The study, which included more than 50,000 people who took part in the poll revealed a fundamental fact: Shi’a Islam has become a ‘minority within a mosaic influenced by the spread of Western ‘beliefs’, including atheism and agnosticism. Additionally, more than 20% of the population do not believe in God or in the existence of an afterlife.
The Middle East is changing very fast. Despite the fact that religion is considered untouchable in public, the lack of it remains ‘taboo’ in Middle Eastern society. The harsh public condemnation expressed towards non-believers is one example. This condemnation not only translates into social reprimand, but also into a crime punishable by death that according to Shari’a.
As a result, atheism and irreligiosity are neither publicized nor discussed, because there is still repression that discourages any public debate. In some cases like in Saudi Arabia, this has led to ‘atheists’ being classified as terrorists.