Saudi Arabia, Atheism and the Brotherhood 5 July 2014

Saudi Arabia’s most recent royal edict shines a light on tensions in the Middle-East and has had an impact in the UK too.

What do Mohamed Morsi and Richard Dawkins have in common?

Mohamed Morsi and Richard Dawkins

Well, they’re both considered terrorists according to Saudi Arabia. The most recent legislation passed by the royal authorities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has made practically any form of political dissent synonymous with terrorism. The new laws have been ushered through as Royal Decree Number 44, Article One of which defines “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based” as tantamount to treason and terrorism. Political violence is not an issue here, but rather the symbolic power of thought.

Although officially the kingdom claims itself to be a wholly Sunni Muslim population, a 2012 Gallup International poll indicated around 1.4million people in Saudi Arabia consider themselves atheists (about 5% of the population). This is a sizeable number in a country with a strict theocracy in which the king and clergy have separate roles but legitimate each other’s claims of authority.

Clearly this has nothing to do with violent extremism or terrorism. Instead it’s the sign of an increasingly uncomfortable monarchy, in a region shaken to its very core by the Arab Spring and absolutely terrified of a revolution. It should be remembered that the current Saudi monarchy is in fact the Third Saudi State, the previous two states having been rebelled against and their royal families disposed of in previous centuries. The House of Saud is more conscious than most royals that power is fleeting, and the current Saudi State has proven to be the longest lasting yet. However, with instability across the region, they will be extremely sensitive to any challenges, criticism or threats to their dominance. The current Saudi monarchy has outlasted the former one by a decade, and so the time must feel ripe for change.

Countries in the Middle-East and North Africa have fallen into two camps. Those that believe the Muslim Brotherhood will play an important role in the future of the region and support it in doing so (for example, Qatar, Turkey and Tunisa) and those who are resolutely set against this idea (including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the current Egyptian government). Whereas for several decades, Saudi Arabia was willing to at least tolerate the Muslim Brotherhood, since the military coup in Egypt in 2013, the kingdom has decided to raise the stakes and openly position itself against the movement.

So why is atheism also banned and considered as ‘terrorism’ alongside the Brotherhood? You would think the two were worlds apart, but, as bizarre as it might sound to European ears, they have much in common.  A member of the Muslim Brotherhood and an atheist in Saudi Arabia are likely to both be revolutionary, believe in greater religious freedom, and both be committed to democracy. All three things are an anathema to the Saudi Arabian system of government.

Britain has launched an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood following Saudi Arabia’s decisions to ban it as a terrorist organisation. The incongruence of launching an investigation into the Brotherhood due to Saudi Arabia’s new laws, and not into the British Humanist Association, still stands to question. Britain and Saudi have long been close allies, and it is likely that David Cameron sees greater political expediency in supporting the Saudi Arabian crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood than in addressing the monarchy’s decreasing religious freedom.

The new laws highlight a few simple truths about the Middle-East. First, that any analysis which rests upon a simple division between religious conservatives and liberal secularists is misleading and inaccurate.

The second is that terrorism is a slippery term that cannot be taken at face value. Middle-Eastern monarchs learned long ago that accusations of terrorism against political enemies will gain a sympathetic ear in both the Western media and among Western politicians.

Finally, it emphasises once again (if any emphasis was needed) the requirement for Saudi Arabia to reform its religious freedom laws – which are oppressive to atheists, Christians and Muslims alike.

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On Religion's editorial team is made up of postgraduate students and researchers of religion and across the UK.

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