Editor’s note: Saudi Arabia’s religious landscape has sometimes appeared as a monochromatic terrain of pious Muslims following an intolerant, puritanical version of Islam. If that picture was ever accurate, it is certainly not today.
Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a slow but major social transformation in part because its largest-ever “youth bulge” is reaching adulthood. This transformation involves changes in the religious attitudes of ordinary people as well as shifts in the relationship between the House of Saud and its official religious establishment. The time when the state could use religion — instead of bald repression — to enforce uniform social behavior and impede political action has passed.
This is Part Three of a five-part series running in the coming days.
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — In this country known as the cradle of Islam, where religion gives legitimacy to the government and state-appointed clerics set rules for social behavior, a growing number of Saudis are privately declaring themselves atheists.
The evidence is anecdotal, but persistent.
“I know at least six atheists who confirmed that to me,” said Fahad AlFahad, 31, a marketing consultant and human rights activist. “Six or seven years ago, I wouldn’t even have heard one person say that. Not even a best friend would confess that to me.”
A Saudi journalist in Riyadh has observed the same trend.
“The idea of being irreligious and even atheist is spreading because of the contradiction between what Islamists say and what they do,” he said.
The perception that atheism is no longer a taboo subject — at least two Gulf-produced television talk shows recently discussed it — may explain why the government has made talk of atheism a terrorist offense. The March 7 decree from the Ministry of Interior prohibited, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”