This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

Admitting you're an atheist while travelling in the Middle East

I know that Richard Dawkins has long been an advocate of atheists coming out, and personally, I am out, at least in my normal life in Europe & the USA.

But recently I made a trip to Sana'a, Yemen, where I was on a 4 week Arabic class, and very often got asked by the friendly locals whether or not I was a Muslim. What should I say?

I was warned before going to Yemen that you have to be very careful about TWA (Travelling While American - and luckily I have dual American/Finnish citizenship) so I travelled as a Finn. Just in general, these days, Yemen has a reputation of being one of the least safe places for non-Muslims to hang out, despite (or perhaps because of) the recent overthrow of the dictatorial regime of Ali Abdul Saleh. One week after I arrived in Yemen, another American (not an atheist like me, but a Christian) who was living in Taiz (far south of Sana'a) was murdered (according to reports he was murdered for proselytizing) by Al Qaeda.

Needless to say, I was rather nervous throughout my stay in Yemen, but I didn't do much travelling outside of the capital, and it definitely seemed like the locals were very friendly despite what you hear in the news. But, when it comes to the subject of religion and atheism vs Islam, my blood pressure must have been racing about twice as fast as normal. My question for this discussion forum is, what would you do in similar circumstances? I did admit several times that I was an infidel, but having a debate with folks (practicing my Arabic) seemed not only futile, but at times suicidal. However, at least some of my close friends and teachers in Yemen seemed to respect my honesty. I wasn't out to change people's minds, but when it comes to arguing about religion, it seems to me so obvious that the only reason people are Islamic is because there parents and neighbors all are. You grow up in Yemen, and you have no chance whatsoever of being an Atheist.

One guy came up to me and asked me if I was a Muslim because I was wearing local clothes, and since I felt safe being next to my home, I said "no", and he started getting annoyed with me: "How could you not believe in the creator?" and "Do your parents know that you are an unbeliever?" Luckily some of the Muslims believe something which is supposed to come from the Koran which means basically "thou shalt not force religion on anybody". If you meet somebody with this attitude, they will accept your atheism while reserving the possibility that soon you will be converted by other means than force, eg. maybe you will meet a Muslim woman and want to get married, or maybe you will be enthralled by the beautiful architecture of the mosque and the melifluous sounds of the prayer calls, who knows? I guess it happens, but luckily for me, I don't base my ideas about truth on asthethics or cultural peer pressure.

So to wrap up, I guess my question, more generally, is what is the best way to approach such a subject in a society like that where people are extremely poor, but extremely friendly. Broaching the subject of religion was never on my initiative, it was asked many times, and I always tried to give a vague answer if possible, like "I'm learning Arabic, and in shah allah, maybe one day I will convert after I am able to read up on Islam in more depth". What would you do, fellow atheists?


MORE BY Jon McGill



Comment RSS Feed

Please sign in or register to comment