Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You grew up in Jordan to a moderately religious family. What did your parents do? How did this influence your faith? How did your faith develop over time?
Usama al-Binni: Both parents were school teachers, my father was a religious education teacher and a graduate of al-Azhar University. He taught at the same high-school where I went and was supposedly the epitome of piety for being his son. I wasn’t that pious though. I tried to hold on to my faith during my late teen years, but to no avail. I was interested in philosophy and science and was fortunate enough to have a couple of friends willing to debate. I ended up going into physics and in part because of that struggle as I saw in physics there place where many age-old philosophical questions being answered. Back when I started questioning my faith in the late 1990s I had access only to scant blasphemous content, and I left Islam gradually and not without pain.
Jacobsen: How did this atheism develop over time?
al-Binni: By early 2000s I felt Islam was finally behind me, that criticizing Islam was a transitional phase and immersed myself in other concerns living as an agnostic who became an anti-theist during infrequent debates. I did have a brief stint frequenting debate forums on the internet, but was doing so under a pseudonym as I was still living in Jordan. Discovering online Arab ex-Muslim communities on Facebook around 2014 changed things completely for me, as I felt that unlike the solitary struggle I had to go through, there is a widespread movement online of people coming together, and while many stayed anonymous, they were all very vocal and explicit about criticizing religion and they were a community. I felt I belonged. I felt a responsibility to join the movement. It started with a local group in East Tennessee of American atheists, which I discovered through a MeetUp group, and then moved on to a Facebook group called Arab Atheists Forum and Network, where I became very active, and soon enough I was approached by the admins to join them, and I did. I have had the privilege to know many wonderful and intelligent people who share a lot with me.
Jacobsen: Now, how did this lead to the work with the Arab Atheists Magazine?
al-Binni: One project of that group which attracted me especially was the Arab Atheists Magazine, the continuity of the project over years and its diversity drew me in and with my academic background I felt I could contribute to that effort, both in terms of content and organization, and that’s one of my main concentrations now, although there are other ongoing projects as well. I believe that being openly atheist and an academic gives me some advantage over those who cannot use their real name and face, and living in the US gives me great latitude to do many things people back in the Middle East can’t do.
Jacobsen: What are some of the important provisions for others with an online space as opposed to an offline space to express their atheism?
al-Binni: It’s a world of difference. I lived for about 10 years as a closeted ex-Muslims back in Jordan and was very careful about who I divulge the secret to. Most people over there would be deeply intolerant of anyone who criticized religion in any way, especially if the criticism is overtly one directed from someone who says they’ve left the faith. I once mistakenly talked about my thoughts to someone I had thought was a friend, but he ended up (maybe half-jokingly) threading me inflict the punishment of apostasy upon me. I became after that extra careful about what I say and to whom I say it. And while Jordan is considered by many to be a bastion of religious moderation, one needs to remember that abu-Musab az-Zarqawi, the famed al-Qaida terrorist, came from Jordan. In late 2015 a Jordanian writer who shared a cartoon on his Facebook page, and ended up being shot by a Muslim extremist on the steps of the court house right after a hearing where he was being tried for blasphemy for sharing the cartoon! And there are numerous examples from many Arab countries where being openly critical of religion can bring countless troubles. Being online, and especially in communities like our Facebook group, Arab Atheists Network and Forum, it is possible to be with like-minded people, use pseudonyms and at the same time debate Muslims without fear of physical harm if one carefully guards their real identity. This is a world of difference from the openness I have experienced in the US. Here, I have met people face to face, seen how they exercise their civil rights to counter religious rhetoric but also to participate in a life far closer to normal than an ex-Muslim would dream of in a majority-Muslim country. I don’t say the US is a perfect haven for atheists, but it is a world of difference from what I’ve known back in Jordan and what I see online from fellow ex-Muslims in the Muslim world. It is perhaps this dual life I live as an openly atheist ex-Muslim in the US compared to what I see online that gives me hope and a desire to work with the people back there to improve their living situation.
Jacobsen: What tend to be the foci of the Arab Atheist Magazine?
al-Binni: The Magazine emerged in late 2012 as a means of distilling the thought of Arab atheists at this important juncture in their history, where, for the first time since the dawn of Islam, there is an actual community of ex-Muslims coming together and forming a community. This has never happened before. The Magazine, and other forms of discourse we have, are meant to capture that, as a mirror for our identity and a record for whoever comes after us. We cover everything that has to do with Arab atheism, although atheism here is a rather broad category encompassing a wide range of religious dissent and persuasions. We publish both original and translated works that focus on religious criticism, but also includes attempts to go beyond that limited bubble into a vision of an alternatives to religion. We published original novels, poetry, studies conducted by researchers who collaborated with us, cartoons (the one that resulted in the murder of the Jordanian writer was drawn by an artist who regularly publishes with us), we have our in-house painter who creates paintings especially for the Magazine. The Magazine is closely linked to the Network Forum on Facebook and there is a continuity between the two entities, both in the people who run the two and in the content.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved in and support the Arab atheist diaspora?
al-Binni: The situation for Arab atheists living outside the Muslim world is complicated. Many tend to leave the faith early in life, maybe as teenagers. Extricating one’s life from religion is a redefinition of identity, and as teenagers still dependent on their families and living usually within an Islamic community means one is risking being banished from one’s home while vulnerable and without means of support. Ex-Muslims of North America and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (and many other such organizations) are doing wonderful work helping ex-Muslims, young and old, find a community of people who understand them and can provide support. These organizations deserve all the support they can get, it is often the case that they have to assist ex-Muslims facing persecution in a Muslim country an need to get out, they help ex-Muslims fleeing potential violence from their communities in the US and Europe. But perhaps, getting the word out, letting people know what ex-Muslims and atheists are facing and start viewing them as a legitimate minority with a voice that needs to be heard, a faceless minority that is being oppressed and not even recognized.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Usama.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.