Photo: AFP
Yemeni man reads the Quran during Ramadan
Photo: AFP
Yemen’s atheists, banned by Islamic law, find safe haven online
In Yemen, where non-religious citizens face execution under law, recently-established Facebook community 'Irreligious Yemenis' gains 6,000 followers.

Ali, 27, was jailed when he refused to repent of his irreligious orientations.



“I’m not convinced with such a religion (of Islam)”, Ali admitted. He was released after one week and was kept under surveillance.


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Majoring in Islamic Sharia Law, Ali was a sophomore at Hodeida University in 2010 when he started to adopt atheism. To him, Islamic sharia Law is full of contradictions that certain Islamic religious authorities have been inculcating over centuries.


Along with a few liberal colleagues, Ali said, they used to sit together secretly and discuss their own interpretations of Islam.


“Freedom of thought or expression or even freedom of faith doesn’t exist in this country,” he said.


Recently graduated, Ali has married and is currently living with his wife away from his family. He has now his own independent life.


From a highly conservative family, Ali has abandoned Islam and “retreated to a broader space free of religious extremist authorities,” Amal Basha, a rights campaigner in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, told The Media Line.


She attributed the rejection of Islam by some Yemenis to “the absence of freedom of expression and the domination of opinionated religious authorities.”


It is difficult being faithless in Yemen, where the constitution, which is based on Sharia, or Islamic law, does not specifically protect freedom of non-observance and the local authorities strictly enforce restrictions on irreligious people.


According to Islamic law, an atheist or non-religious person should be given a three-day chance to repent. Otherwise, he or she will be executed. Judge Abdul-Moeen Ali Al-Haj, the deputy chief of court of appeal in the capital, confirmed this fact to The Media Line.


In Yemen, as in 13 other Muslim countries around the world, people who openly embrace atheism or reject the official state religion face execution under the law, according to a report published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a global organization that unites atheists and other religious skeptics, to mark the United Nations’ Human Rights Day.


“This report shows that the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers although they have signed UN agreements to treat all citizens equally,” said IHEU President Sonja Eggerickx.


Even the local and international civil society organizations in Sana’a have never been known to protect the rights of irreligious people in the country.


Arwa Othman, former Head of Rights and Freedoms Taskforce at the concluded National Dialogue Conference (NDC), told The Media Line that “there is an outcome of the task force that ensures freedom of thought and belief, which has happened for the first time in Yemen’s modern history.”


She confirmed that there will be a constitution article ensuring freedom of thought and belief.


Othman said the taskforce, however, did not discuss issues of irreligious people, “We were attacked by media of some Islamist parties when we tried to address this issue.”


Abdul Rahman Barman, head of the human rights group at the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD), said that the organization has never tackled issues of atheism in the country.


Brain Whitaker, former Middle East editor at The Guardian and author of What’s Wrong With the Middle East wrote, “Arab atheists – or at least those prepared to declare their atheism openly – remain a tiny minority but they are gradually becoming more visible, partly because online media have now given them a voice.”


While the number of atheist in Yemen couldn’t be confirmed, a Facebook community called Irreligious Yemenis has gained more than 6,000 followers in its seven months of existence.


An administrator of the page, who requested to remain anonymous fearing local authorities, confessed that the online group emerged from “a covert semi-movement” on the ground.


The virtual community seems to be a perfect milieu for freedom of faith.


“Interaction of supporters has been positive since they found a place to retreat to and vent their feelings,” the administrator said, indicating that civil society and human rights organizations are useless in Yemen from the non-religious person’s perspective.


“We will not resort to these organizations as they have not been able to protect earlier atheists,” he said.


Article written by Iscander Mamari.


Reprinted with permission from The Media Line


פרסום ראשון: 03.11.14, 20:04
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