Being a (Secret) Atheist in a Country Full of Faith

RABAT–A café on the hem of Rabat’s medina basks in its atmosphere of quiet anonymity. This suits Mohamed Abdallah, a 27-year-old translator born and raised a few short alley twists away. He shifts a bit uneasily in his sun-drenched seat by the window, his sharp brown eyes scanning the space for possible eavesdroppers.

“I hope no one here speaks English,” Abdallah  says apprehensively. Though the small cafe is sparsely populated, its patrons preoccupied and noises soft, the conversation that is about to ensue makes him uneasy. Abdallah is an atheist, a belief that carries heavy implications in a country built on Islam.

To publicly challenge the Muslim faith in Morocco not only promises social death but can also carry legal consequences. Though considered amongst the more liberal Islamic countries, some of Morocco’s laws are still based in Shariah, Islamic law derived from the Koran. More than ninety-nine percent of the population is estimated to be Muslim. Article 222 of the constitution dictates that any Muslim publically breaking fast during the month of Ramadan is subject to between one and six months of imprisonment, and a fine of up to 500 MAD. Article 220 states that it is a crime for anyone to attempt to “shake the Muslim faith.” Under this law any person attempting to convert a Muslim is eligible for three to six months of imprisonment.

“To me, Islam is a myth with real consequences,” said Abdallah. Growing up in Morocco, being Muslim is an unspoken law, a compulsory component of culture, family, and relationships. To question Islam is to call into question the very foundations of everything secure. In the words of Abdallah: “People [who don’t believe in Islam] are afraid for their safety and their relationships with friends and family. I cannot make this mistake, if I did I would be rejected at the very least.” After a long sigh he repeated: “At the very least.” Abdalla has never outright discussed his beliefs with his family and actively avoids the subject with friends in daily conversation.

Abdallah’s fears are fed by stories that he tells but that are difficult to verify: a young couple who committed suicide after telling their families they were not Muslim, and a young man who was reported for smoking a cigarette on his balcony during Ramadan and spent two months in prison.  

Abdallah recalled the first time he began to question things. At the age of seven he remembers asking his father why it rained. His father’s response, he said, was “the answer of someone who never went to school. I could tell he didn’t know and didn’t care to understand why.”

But this simple question from a curious child would be the catalyst to Abdallah’s journey towards his own answers.

“I started with a lot of doubts,” he recalled. “Reading was the beginning, reading and not waiting for answers from other people;I read everything the religious leaders read and more.”

Through the exploration of religious and scientific texts, Abdallah’s views evolved in a direction that carried him farther and farther from the religion he was raised with.

“In the beginning it was difficult, it was like crossing a broken bridge from myth to science and fact,” he said.

Abdallah’s research may have satiated his intellectual queries but in doing this it widened the alienating gap that forms when one’s beliefs differ from those closest to one. Around the age of 22, community came in the unexpected form of internet chat rooms. Here Abdallah found like-minded Moroccans discussing taboo topics. Religious doubt is not the only sensitive subject aired in these secret networks of support — mental health and political issues are also frequent items of conversation.

“The internet has been like magic for progress in Morocco, it gives people a place to exchange ideas and talk about solutions,” said Abdallah.

According to Abdallah, it is impossible to know how many Moroccans are truly religious. Abdallah described the archetype of the “dual Muslim.” This is someone who doesn’t really believe but claims to be Muslim to save face. Or in some cases, a person who observes certain rituals to keep their spiritual bases covered, just in case Allah is keeping tabs after all.

Islam reaches beyond the personal into the political in Morocco. In Abdallah’s view, out of the major forms of Islam he sees — that of the people, the state, and the radicals –it is the state’s politicization of the Muslim faith that is most concerning. To Abdallah, the government’s Islam is a mechanism of state control rather than the divine law its rhetoric claims.  “Islam has been made political to get votes, people will vote for the Islamist party just because they look Muslim. Education, jobs all these things don’t matter to voters with this party,” he stated.  

Living in a country where religion touches every facet of society and culture, Mohamad Abdallah copes by focusing on what matters most to him: “I love my country; I love my family and my friends. I cannot risk that for something that is imaginary for me, for something that is not real. I don’t believe in God but I believe in family.”

*At the request of the subject a pseudonym was used to protect his identity.