Although Jabir is not his real name, he is still wary of publicly voicing his views. Saudi Arabia is an intensely hostile environment in which to express non-Islamic religious beliefs, let alone a lack of belief. Indeed, for many Saudis, atheism – mulhad in Arabic – is far more disturbing than believing in a different religion. Atheism, as argued by many clerics in Saudi Arabia, leads to dissolute lives, carnal pursuits, immoral behaviours, and ultimately, eternal damnation.
Atheists are portrayed in Saudi official media as an existential and corruptive threat to society. One cleric even recently spoke of a: “wave of atheism sweeping the country.” This is highly unlikely, but it shows a persistent fear of atheists and ensures that no Saudi ever express such a belief openly.
Jabir is in his twenties, and a successful graduate from a top Saudi university. He used to be highly religious, regularly attending his school’s Qu’ranic classes, and not listening to music until his late teens. But in his final school years, this changed.
“I found some religious teachings and rules didn't make any sense. So, I started asking questions about small things like why music is Haram (forbidden) or why women have to cover their faces. Then I started reading about the way Islam scripts and Hadith were gathered … I had a group of people and we would discuss books in regular meetings…After a while I came to believe that the whole of religion is nothing but man’s invention to fight reality and impose order.”
Citing works by key Muslim and Arab thinkers, as well as authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, Jabir explains that acquiring these books was tricky. Often, he had to smuggle them into Saudi.
“I usually get a few copies of English language books that no one can understand, but I had to cover “God is not Great” with a bag as I went through customs, that was too obvious…”