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

yuriicide's Avatar Comment 1 by yuriicide

I am a former Muslim. I guess I "believed" because I was brought up in that environment. Thankfully I realised that it is a bunch of none sense. Regarding your question, I would be very careful around them as I myself have gotten into a few problems with friends in the past. Friendly or not, I don't think it would be a good idea to openly profess your atheism, especially in a place like Yemen. (I have been there before) I have to hide my true colours for fear of something moronic occurring. My main point is just to be extremely cautious around Muslims because they do not readily accept other peoples beliefs.

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 15:30:46 UTC | #937016

hitchens_jnr's Avatar Comment 2 by hitchens_jnr

I sometimes go to various parts of the Muslim world for research. If asked, I'm afraid I usually mumble something about being a "Christian". There's no point trying to convince Muslims I'm a Muslim, since I wouldn't be able to pull it off, and at least claiming I'm a Christian means I'm seen to have the "virtue" of believing in some God or other, and indeed to be one of the "Peoples of the Book". It's not brave, and I'm not proud, but one of the great things about unbelievers is that we have no cult of the martyr.

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 16:39:44 UTC | #937032

papa lazaru's Avatar Comment 3 by papa lazaru

"so, you a muslim? " No.

"Christian then?" No.

"What, buddist?" No.

"Jewish?" No.

"What the hell are you?" Why does it matter to you? ....

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 17:26:46 UTC | #937048

Dr. monster's Avatar Comment 4 by Dr. monster

you could just tell them its none of their business?

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 17:37:18 UTC | #937052

ZenDruid's Avatar Comment 5 by ZenDruid

I'm a Sethian Jain Zen Druid. All hail Gitche Manitou!

Any questions?

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 17:49:11 UTC | #937057

holysmokes's Avatar Comment 6 by holysmokes

Blockquote "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".

That sounds like a fair and only slightly misleading answer to provide, especially if you think they are violent. Perhaps a similar, yet more truthful comment like the following may work a wee bit better.

"I'm learning Arabic, and in shah allah, so that I can better understand and learn about Islam".

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 17:52:41 UTC | #937058

cynicaloptimistrealist's Avatar Comment 7 by cynicaloptimistrealist

When visiting Middle Eastern countries I was always aware that admitting atheism could mean suicide. I have been in countries where for example if there was a traffic accident the compensation awarded to a Muslim would be twice what would be awarded to a Christian or a Jew and what would be awarded to a Christian or a Jew would be 3 times what it would be for a Hindu or Budhist. So it's a sliding scale, people are indoctrinated to value life on a slope descending away from Islam, so as an Atheist you are pretty much worthless.

Even in moderately Islamic societies honour killings are punished lightly and sometimes not at all, so it's not all that difficult to imagine someone using the offense taken at your rejection of their core beliefs as a successful defense for murdering you or perhaps even inventing something about you insulting their prophet. After all, you're already at the bottom of the spiritual heap.

My defence was always avoidance. If asked about religion I would feign irritation and politely but firmly point out that in my culture it was extremely rude to ask a persons religion. If they persisted I would then ask them how they would feel if I probed their personal or sexual lives. Usually this resulted in an embarrassed apology and a hasty withdrawl. I found it the easiest way out without losing face or lying. Some may regard it as a cowardly way out, but when crossing the road, do you courageously step under the oncoming bus? Or wait for it to pass? Admitting atheism in some countries is akin to courageously stepping under that bus!!

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 20:55:19 UTC | #937083

DJGutekunst's Avatar Comment 8 by DJGutekunst

Oh my goodness, is that a tough situation. I wouldn't think it cowardly at all to tell half-truths or give a somewhat evasive answer. If there's anything we nonbelievers believe, it's that life is precious and not worth that sort of risk. And it certainly doesn't seem likely that you could fake being Muslim; I would imagine that impersonation, if uncovered, might be most inflammatory and most likely to lead to violence.

This is perhaps an ignorant suggestion, as I know almost nothing about the Middle East, but would claiming to be Baha'i be an option? I have a close friend whose family is Persian and Baha'i (though he himself is secular) and from our limited discussions on the topic it seems that the Baha'i faith is a bit like the Middle Eastern version of Unitarian Universalism. It seems fundamentally monotheistic, but considers several big religious icons (Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, etc.) as divine messengers.

Is Baha'i another irrational set of supernatural beliefs? Probably. But it's possibly also a way to avoid trouble...

Good luck, and be safe!


Tue, 24 Apr 2012 21:52:57 UTC | #937088

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 9 by QuestioningKat

I laughed at your title.

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 22:30:13 UTC | #937094

G*O*D's Avatar Comment 10 by G*O*D

For me it's easy. Being a Jew living among Christians and knowing their religion, I would answer "I am a Christian". I would not put too much weight on me also being from one of the peoples of the book.

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 23:41:26 UTC | #937100

IDLERACER's Avatar Comment 11 by IDLERACER

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.

I have no idea what your motivation was for going there, but if I ever found myself in the nightmarish situation of being in one of those places, my answer would always be, "I am whatever you are." I've lurked in enough English speaking Islamic bulletin boards and chatrooms to know what these people are all really thinking...and saying out loud, when they don't realize that non-Muslims are within earshot. Or in the case of the internet, "eyeshot." These countries aren't like Utah, where the worst thing you could possibly expect to receive when people discover you aren't a Mormon is a "disapproving glance."

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 23:48:31 UTC | #937101

VrijVlinder's Avatar Comment 12 by VrijVlinder

It would depend where in the middle east.Many Israeli are atheist. Turkey is a safe place too. Also Egypt.

I once met a Muslim from Dubai while in Holland, It was obvious he was Muslim because he was talking in arabic at a cafe I was sitting at. He started a conversation with me and he forwardly asked what was my religion.

I said I am an atheist. He took a back. Like he did not hear me the first time. So I said I do not believe in god. He smiled at me as if waiting for the punchline of a silent joke.

I asked him what his religion was and he proudly said he was Muslim. I thought to myself, good for you!

Coincidentally we were staying in the same Hotel. So he invited me for a coffee there. He was very curious about me a single woman traveling alone. He showed me pictures of his wife and children. Of course the wife and daughters were covered so you can't see the face!!

He explained that I must understand that allah is everything. That even if I say I don't believe in allah that is allah will that I do not believe.

Sounded much like christians. god loves you even if you don't believe.

I think people should not ask what they don't want to hear.

I would rather say I was satanist than christian . Ugh !!

It is bad enough being a woman in the wild middle east no need to inflame things by admitting anything.Specially being an American !! I always said I was Mexican

SUCRAN, Salam . ham du lila!!

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 00:31:48 UTC | #937108

RDfan's Avatar Comment 13 by RDfan

Finding myself in the Middle East, my experience on the "I'm an atheist" issue has been to take the path of least danger. By this I mean: make your decision on a case-by-case basis while bearing in mind the potential harm your answer might bring to you and others -- it can be that serious.

So, for instance, when I was at a friend's house and his mother asked me if I was a Christian, I replied that I was an atheist. We carried on chatting and eating dinner and the matter never arose again -- even though I felt her regard for me dropped just as her suspicions of me rose.

When asked randomly by a guy in a shop if I was Islamic, I replied that I was a Christian. We talked for a while, shook hands, and made off our way -- again, I felt that if I had answered "Islamic" we would have had a "Ah, my Brother!" moment, but we didn't. I could tell he was a little disappointed that I was not part of the clan.

In a different setting, while having dinner and drinks with mainly (but not exclusively) Western educated young professionals and students, we were able to have a serious and jovial debate about religion. There were Islamist, Christians, and non-believers (including myself and another two people). As it turned out, most of the group was rather liberal in their beliefs and were able to thrash out our differences before moving on to other things.

On the other hand, I've found myself caught up in a political/social situation where tensions were rising between different political/religious groups and, had I been question about my beliefs (I was in the middle of the crowd), I would have answered in any way to ensure my safety. Call me a moral coward if you will, but I've encountered seemingly "normal" situations in that area that suddenly turn violent. I dare anyone in that situation to do anything other that self-preservation.

My point is: the situation determined my answer every time and I calibrated the degree to which I was willing to defend my stance on religion to reflect the danger to me that my answer may have caused.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 03:33:38 UTC | #937123

gordon's Avatar Comment 14 by gordon

Jon, The flippant answers on here miss the fact that it can be very dangerous, particularly in Sana’a, to admit to being an atheist. To most in the country it is unheard of to not believe in a God. I spent eight years working in Yemen as a Brit and have been shot at, just missed car being blown up and had a near miss on two kidnappings. The clerics are very conservative in Yemen and are also very stupid. Last time I was there Sheikh Zindani announced a cure for aids but decided to keep it to his ‘university’ as it only affects the infidels. In Yemen, every Thursday afternoon, most Sheikhs have a qat meeting, where many tribal figures attend the Sheikh and chew qat. Whilst chewing, they mull over tribal and local business, set the world to rights and sort out quarrels etc. A little like going to the pub and chatting with your mates, only without any women allowed and quite often over life or death issues. At some stage during the afternoon, a religious leader will call to prayer and all leave the room to pray, leaving me and a few non partakers to carry on chewing. I would sit and draw people in the room or write stuff in my notebooks that later translate to canvas. During the afternoon there would be a lull in conversation during which one of the religious leaders would take it upon him to give a sermon, usually sparked off by something in the general discussion in the diwan. Everyone else would have to silence and listen for up to two hours whilst this chap would rail against the US, women, bad men, bad Sheikhs, bad governance, bad health or bad anything, the dangers of drink, the dangers of the west, the dangers of loose women (again), all wound up nicely with a solution in Allah and in particular, the mosque, with the implicit threat of the punishment for disobedience.

I once got so tired (and angry due to being constantly harangued as the token Westerner) of listening to one sermon by a chap called Sheikh Mohammed (a Hamas representative in Yemen) that I intervened and started a long argument during which time the rest of the sitters were amazed that someone had questioned the Sheikh’s wisdom on these matters (that the West was the root of evil, the great Satan and devoid of belief etc). After defending my position for two hours during a more or less constant tirade, the Sheikh got up, picked up his Kalashnikov (on which he had been sitting) and stormed out of the chew, followed by his entourage. With hindsight it was a dumb thing to have done as it later emerged that he was expelled from Yemen after a shooting incident and after one of his sons had beheaded someone in a rage (the Lord’s apostle’s move in mysterious ways). Anyway, one such scribble emerged during such a long sermon that some of the chewers fell asleep. At home I finished it and it became the script for ‘Behold, I Give You the Celestial Teapot (BBIL**). I dread to think how it would have turned out if I had made the point that I was a ‘strident’ atheist.

So. In answer to your question. Keep quiet. It is far too dangerous to be an atheist in Yemen as you are directly challenging the clerics who are not constrained on how they react.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 07:30:46 UTC | #937147

Jon McGill's Avatar Comment 15 by Jon McGill

@IDLERACER, I was in Yemen to learn Arabic. Immersion is the best way to learn a language. Why Yemen? Because it's one of the few places were English is still rare, and the dialect of Arabic is closest to Fusha (classical Arabic) which is what I've been learning.

@gordon, Eight years? Holy crap... I would have gone crazy being there for much longer and I was only there for a month. My Arabic could have probably used another few months, but I got advised to leave the country by friendly sources... and I tend to listen to that sort of advice. I met a British guy who was there working in the oil industry, but he had a bodyguard with him everywhere he went (other than inside the language institute).

@ZenDruid, try translating that into Arabic. ;-)

@RDfan, I guess if you are confident in your judgements of people that could work. In fact, I had a similar strategy, but I found myself giving the honest response, i.e. I'm an atheist (ana gheer mutadeen), to more and more people, and that's probably where the risk grew dangerous since you can't really know who the violent ones are. My friend in Yemen, abd al Qadir, told me that some al Qaeda guys were recently caught in Sana'a, but they weren't the kinds of personalities you would expect (i.e. the Saudi Arabia profile of smart, disciplined, angry, hateful kind), but rather they were found chewing qat and cavorting with women, and were pretty stupid.

@yuriicide, I have a followup question for you. If you're in the middle east with a foreigner, would you want them to pretend that they are Christian when in fact they are Atheist? Wouldn't the dishonesty somewhat annoy you?

@everyone else, thanks for your comments! This was a nice discussion!

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 09:33:23 UTC | #937160

Jon McGill's Avatar Comment 16 by Jon McGill

Missed one... @papa lazaru, @Dr. monster,

It's easy to be flippant and sarcastic in Europe, but I wouldn't recommend it in Yemen.

No matter how stupid their religion is, I think you have to maintain a respectful attitude, unfortunately... It's a pain point I think the nightmares drove home to me. I remember having nightmares about being murdered... so there's just no way I'm gonna risk pissing people off like that.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 09:55:13 UTC | #937163

Jon McGill's Avatar Comment 17 by Jon McGill

I found the following on the internet today... Atheists shouting back at muslim extremists...

I guess in Australia, Atheists can feel safe enough to yell back at the Islamic extremists.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 10:13:36 UTC | #937166

gordon's Avatar Comment 18 by gordon

Jon, Agree with your comments 16 and 17. Even here in the UK my more enlightened Yemeni friends are horrified at my art works and poems. The tell me it is Haram but here they have to bend to our rules (for the most part) and haven't the authority to cause much trouble. Also, most here drink alcohol and step outside their boundaries in any case so I don't get much flak. Safe in the knowledge you aren't going to be in the firing line, it's easy to be an armchair general.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 10:42:17 UTC | #937174

Dave H's Avatar Comment 19 by Dave H

When I worked in Saudi I put "None" for religion on all my official documents and never had any problems. If asked about religion, tell them you have no interest in it. If you get sucked into giving an opinion you might find out just how thin the veil of civilisation is in the Middle East.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 13:48:04 UTC | #937213

Jon McGill's Avatar Comment 20 by Jon McGill

@gordon, if they had "like" buttons on this blog, I would press it for you...

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 13:57:29 UTC | #937218

Jumped Up Chimpanzee's Avatar Comment 21 by Jumped Up Chimpanzee

I would agree with the comments that you need to respond in the safest way possible. That may mean telling an outright lie - but make sure it's believable (such as you are "seeking to learn about Islam").

However, if you ever get the chance to safely question your questionner, I would always ask why do they consider belief in a particular god to be of such paramount importance. Why would any creator be in the least bit concerned as to whether or not anyone believed in it - especially when, given its powers, it could resolve any dispute about its existence at any time? It might make them start thinking...

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 16:03:11 UTC | #937249

senmcglinn's Avatar Comment 22 by senmcglinn

Re comment 8 -- NO, do not claim to be a Bahai. Bahais are persecuted officially and unofficially in most Middle-Eastern countries. Their world headquarters is in Israel (so is the al-Aqsa mosque, and Christian holy places), and that's enough to get the Bahais labelled as Israeli spies and worse. Enemies of Islam. etccccc.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 18:13:00 UTC | #937278

gordon's Avatar Comment 23 by gordon

Another interesting fact I noted in Yemen and Saudi. Whilst they will put up with you being a Christian (although not a Jew in Saudi, although they are a little more relaxed with Yahoodis in Yemen), what they simply cannot understand is you not having any belief in a God, or even worse being of the opinion that, on the balance of probability and evidence, God does not exist. That certainly causes a glitch in the matrix. Also, sooner or later they would extol the benefits of Islam and try to persuade me to take a second wife. I would explain that I already have one and that was enough. This would always end up with the conclusion that I had a ‘bit on the side’. Muslim men they would say, have more morals as they do not need to do this, as they can simply take another wife.

I always came home with a Quran that someone had pressed into my hand to ‘help me understand the error of my ways’. Still, I have quit a collection now as well as a big collection of Jambias (knives) and an expert taste in qat. Not a good place for Europeans at the moment. Islam is going through it's Inquisition period at the moment. Let us hope that technology helps it move quicker than the Catholic model.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 19:28:28 UTC | #937304

Jon McGill's Avatar Comment 24 by Jon McGill

Wow, impressive, how big is your collection of Jambias, Gordon? I came home with two, but one of them broke... must have been made in China.

As a funny anecdote, I went to visit the great mosque (nicknamed the Saleh mosque) in Sana'a and had to go through a metal detector to get in... I was wearing my non-chinese Jambia, but when I started to take it off to go through the metal detector, I got waved through... it was like "no, we don't consider a sword to be a weapon"... imagine carrying a curved almost-sword through a metal detector in the UK/US ;-)

By the way, not all this discussion ought to be negative toward Yemen. On the plus side, now is a great time for shopping in the old souk/Baab al Yemen... you can find great deals since there are so few tourists. Another positive thing I should say about the Yemeni (and I guess Arab/Islamic culture) is the amount of social interaction that exists there... compared to Europe and US, Yemen seems like the Waltons as far as family bonds go... they really stuck together and know their neighbors, invite friends over and have wonderful hospitality.

However, I wouldn't count khat (qat) as one of the pros of their society. I mean, for one thing, it is responsible for probably the worst dental hygiene that I've ever seen anywhere. Secondly, the people do nothing all day other than pray and store khat in their cheeks... what kind of life is that? No ambitions... a sedate boring life. Thirdly, the qat crops are so vast that it's depleting the well water that is Yemen's sole source of drinking water, at alarming rates. Lastly, my own personal experience with it was that it gave me sores in my gums and intense nightmares.

By the way, I also heard that the last community of Yahoodi's in Yemen have fled to Israel.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 20:40:17 UTC | #937327

bobSkit's Avatar Comment 25 by bobSkit

Find the Islamic equivalent of Father Jack's catch-all parry:

"That would be an ecumenical matter"

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 21:03:19 UTC | #937329

gordon's Avatar Comment 26 by gordon

Jon, Yes they have. There for two thousand years, now gone. The inquisition is alive and thriving in the Middle East. As for qat, I could write a treatise of the harm it does both to the body and to the society. But it is incredibly addictive. Strangely, genetically (I presume), it affects differing races in strange ways. Yemenis start early in the chew by speaking louder and louder then peaking and slowly coming down. They use it as social glue. Somalis chew qat and want to start a fight. Much the way that alcohol affects different people, qat does the same. I would love to find out why, is the genetic makeup of the two races different or maybe it is just a meme? But, if you are chewing qat, you are sedated. No question of challenging the status quo. In the US they have Fox News.

As for the mosque! I once took a taxi and mentioned to the driver I would like to see it. He explained to me that he was once the chief accountant to the government but had spotted anomalies in the accounts for oil gains. He was sacked the day after. All the oil companies are in cahoots with whoever is in power (surprised?). Driving to the mosque his remark was, ‘what a bloody waste of concrete. Why don’t we build factories instead? How many jobs will that create? No wonder he was sacked.

BTW, Bab Al Yemen should be a world heritage site. Awesome. The first time I went, they still had the hands of thieves nailed to the gate.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 21:11:13 UTC | #937336

Jono4174's Avatar Comment 27 by Jono4174

Remember how Hitch defaced that Fascist sign in Lebanon...

Thu, 26 Apr 2012 05:36:47 UTC | #937398

tangatoto's Avatar Comment 28 by tangatoto

Surely as an atheist , you would consider religion to be meaningless rubbish, and the proponents of it, in its various guises, to not warrant much , if any , respect.

So, for the sake of your personal safety , what is the problem in claiming to adhere to one form or another of the same meaningless rubbish , Or , are we somehow wanting to "respect" religion but not being dishonest about it ?

for me, fooling the fools, is a good tactic for self preservation .

Thu, 26 Apr 2012 06:33:07 UTC | #937399

Chala's Avatar Comment 29 by Chala

Going by some of the responses above, religion can force non-believers to prevaricate, though for practical reasons such as self-preservation.

Religions impose rules of conduct that brook no argument. So just throw the slavering mongrel its expectations and go your way. Otherwise it will get you by your hamstrings.

Thu, 26 Apr 2012 08:32:16 UTC | #937416

DJGutekunst's Avatar Comment 30 by DJGutekunst

Re: senmcglinn (comment #22): Many thanks for correcting my potentially dangerous suggestion. Good to know.

Thu, 26 Apr 2012 13:49:50 UTC | #937468