Kaveh Mousavi is an Iranian ex-Muslim blogger. Any day now his blog On the Margin of Error will move to the Atheist Channel on Patheos. In the meantime he will be guest posting here on Camels With Hammers while he gets set up. Below is Kaveh’s answer to my question about what it is like to be an atheist living under an Islamic theocracy.
I’m an atheist. I’m also an anti-theist. I live in Iran. Iran is a deeply religious theocracy, where atheism can get you arrested, or worse. I identify as an ex-Muslim. This is an excerpt of the introduction of my memoir (summarized and slightly edited to leave out all the identifying information) also called On the Margin of Error, in which I try to make sense of being an atheist, of what kind of minority it is.
So what does it mean to be an atheist in an Islamic theocracy?
It certainly means many different things. No one can talk of a universal “ex-Muslim experience.” For one thing, no one can deny the existence of many privileges that are unfairly given to certain categories of people, by the government and by the society. The logistics of the situation would differ a lot if you are a man or a woman, gay or straight, cis or trans, a Persian or a non-Persian, an ex-Shiite or an ex-Sunni, if you used to belong to the right kind of Shiism or the wrong kind, if you live in Tehran or in a big city or a small city or a village, if you are rich or poor, if your family is religious or not, how pious your family is, if your pious family is among the supporters of the regime or not. And after all of these external conditions we have to consider the personality of the apostate, their mental health, and their temperament. All of these factors transform the experience.
I’m a male straight middle-class cis Persian healthy Tehrani born in a secular and liberal family which exposed me to a lot of books and learning. In many ways, I’m the most privileged person possible. That is why I wouldn’t face many repercussions that other ex-Muslims face because of the fact that the other discriminations add to the burden of their atheism. My personality also helps me immensely in this regard as well. I never had to face many of the problems and dilemmas that deconverts face. I never had to fear losing my “community” because I had none to begin with. I didn’t have to fear being rejected by people because I never cared. I never had a crisis of faith; doubt and lack of certainty were always familiar and comfortable for me. My extreme tendency towards solitude made my transition to atheism smooth. I suffered a lot because I came out immediately to the last person I should have come out to (my very religious teacher), and later on in life as I continuously faced discrimination, but like a bad novel all my conflict was external, I never doubted myself or felt sad or lonely. And I believe when I became an atheist my family sighed in relief, I’m sure they were much more concerned if I had remained a Muslim.
I believe most ex-Muslims’ accounts would be much different than mine. They would include invasion of bodily autonomy, in the case of women, it would mean a rejection of your sexuality, in the case of gay people, and all the rest of the package that is so neatly bundled under the general heading of “Islam” for us. It would also probably include some crisis of faith, a lengthier process, a fear of rejection of family and community, and probably way less drama and way more introspection.
Does that make me a suitable spokesperson of ex-Muslims? No. I can’t be the spokesperson of anything. Ultimately I have been too personal and too self-centered from the earliest days of my childhood to represent any respectable human community. That includes reformists and ex-Muslims, communities that I’m proud to belong to.
However, I try to think of being an ex-Muslim. What kind of a minority is one? Is it a kind of identity?
Of course it is an identity. It defines who you are in the society; it defines how the society perceives you. It shapes your life maybe more than any other thing about you. If you are not a 12-Imam Shiite, you lose most of the opportunities in life. And if you are not a practicing member of one of the four “official” religions, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism, you officially don’t exist. In the forms you have to fill out to get jobs or register for anything, these options are the only four options. According to the Islamic Republic, you have no right to have jobs, study in universities, open a bank account, or live, unless you belong to one of these four religions.
Atheists are not only absent from the official forms. They’re also absent from the public discourse. It’s not that you are demonized constantly and discriminated against, but also your existence is completely ignored, deliberately ignored. “We are all Muslims”. You hear that sentence more than any other in Iran. In every discussion which touches religion – and being a theocracy it’s almost every discussion – people take great care to remind everyone that yes, everyone, no atheists here, all Muslims. Even the most progressive moderate Muslims go through the trouble of adding official religious minorities to the mix but don’t mention atheists. If they are super liberal they will throw in the Baha’i. Never atheists.
Being an atheist means that you don’t exist. Of course, that doesn’t stop the media and the school and university textbooks from tirelessly arguing against atheists, without mentioning their names. One has to wonder in this society where we are “all Muslims”, why Islam needs to be defended on every channel and every book.
Someone who has not lived in Iran has no way of imagining how omnipresent religion is. There’s no street without some religious symbolism. No ritual. No event. No book without “In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate”. No greetings or goodbyes. No bill. No official form. Think of the most secular thing and it’s still religious in Iran. The only secular space I can think of is the privacy of my own room.
Being an atheist in Iran means that everything, from the walls and the floors and the streets and the houses, everything tells you “you’re not one of us”. Ultimately, being an atheist means excluding yourself from your society, completely.
Being an ex-Muslim is like giving up your privileges. You were the majority until a day ago, now suddenly you are the most hated minority. This of course doesn’t mean that privilege stops from working – it’s better to be a male atheist than a female atheist, a straight atheist than a gay one. But it’s much better to be a gay Muslim than a gay atheist.
I think this is the most important aspect of this minority. It’s not simply belonging to a marginalized group, it’s leaving the non-marginalized group for one, or it’s moving deeper into the margins. You were part of the dominant class. Ultimately it’s an act of betrayal, atheism is treason. To me the word apostate ultimately means traitor. That’s why it hurts the emotion of Muslims to see believers leaving their umma, the religious Brotherhood. And that’s true of the dominant group and the marginalized groups. My Armenian friend tells me that coming out as atheist hurt her pious family, and they believed she was weakening the marginalized Christians and she had to stand up for the community. Atheism is an act of treason, and an individual one. You turn your back to your community, and the community turns its back to you.
There is no atheist community in Iran. Becoming an atheist means losing your community. Even if the family and friends accept you. Even if the family and friends are atheists themselves. Ultimately the world outside is so powerful that you feel excluded together. I was the child of a secular family who was indoctrinated at school. I made atheist friends. But I always have felt the pressure of marginalization consistently.
So what is your choice? Would you announce the fact that you are an atheist? Of course, you can’t – you could be hanged. But how far would you go? Would you tell your family? Friends? No one? Would you come out everywhere except where it’s absolutely dangerous? Would you be a proud traitor, or would you act like the criminal you’re supposed to be, hiding your opinion like a dirty secret? How much would you lie? You have to lie anyway, but it’s a matter of degrees. Would your whole life be a lie?
I believe the ex-Muslims in theocracies have this aspect in common. The sense of absolute rejection, the sense of committing betrayal, loss of community, having to live a lie. It’s like being exiled to a stranger land but you at still at home. It’s a Diaspora in your hometown.
Ultimately most people find the ex-Muslim experience too traumatizing and painful. For many the pain is too great. Maybe that’s why there are so many de facto atheists who are Muslim in name only. But me, of course, I like it. I think it’s liberating. I might be shunned and ignored, but I know I am my own man.
Islam means “surrender”. To me, atheism means not giving up.
This is a guest post by Kaveh Mousavi. For more of his views regularly follow his On the Margin of Error blog. Below are links to his guest posts here at Camels With Hammers, each responding to a question I had for him:
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