The Dutch journalist Eva Ludemann has been following freethinkers in the Middle East and North Africa for a long time and has contact with dozens of men and women who express their unhappiness about the lack of freedom of conscience. Since the revolutions in the Arab world, there are no more taboos, particularly online. But it’s still risky to discuss taboos.

Where is Salah? He posted something on Twitter and then, a few seconds later, he vanished. From one moment to the next, his account was wiped. His last words were ‘Thanks for everything. Thanks for keeping my secrets’ and then – poof – all Direct-Messaging discussions I had had with him vanished in one go.

Salah is an atheist in his early twenties in Mecca. He can see the Great Mosque, the Holy of Holies for Muslims, from his living-room window. Sometimes, in the evenings, he sends pictures of the minarets, lit up by neon-green lights, and the Ka’aba, the large black rock in the centre of Mosque complex.

He was delighted to receive, in return, pictures of a rain-swept Amsterdam. ‘I feel the wind of freedom when I look at them; I’m dying a living death in this cursed country.’ He would look at the pictures in secret when he was at work, in the office of his father’s travel agency that organises pilgrimages to the Saudi Islamic shrines. But all the photographs we sent back and forth have vanished into thin air too.

Where is Salah?
Where is Salah? Has he gone into virtual hiding because things became too hot for him or has he been arrested by the Saudi security forces that also police the internet very closely?

Salah frequently said as much: the Saudi security forces are watching freethinkers, who, like him, have come out of the shadows all over the region since the Arab revolutions of 2011. Their tools are the internet and the social media for a mass collaboration against dictators. It has never been easier to express dissatisfaction about the lack of freedom in a region full of despots and to find many others who feel the same way.

Absolute power
Look at the rulers of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi-Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, to name just a few. Most of them are rulers with absolute power, who cannot endure the slightest criticism and who keep their subjects subdued with omnipresent secret services. Their prisons are full of people who often haven’t even been charged.

Like Kuwaiti student Abdulrahman Taleb al-Ajmi (21), who, on 25 August 2015, was sentenced for a critical tweet about the now deceased Saudi King Abdullah. His sentence was four years of prison and forced labour. Abdulrahman had already been detained for six months, without a charge, without a lawyer and without family visits.

Nothing of the sentence can be found in the Kuwaiti state media, but online the rumours are buzzing. Thanks to the internet and the consequent democratization of information, the Arab state media have lost their monopoly.

Atheism is terrorism
‘My friends and I only watch it to laugh ourselves silly about the self-adulation of all those tyrants,’ said Salah. Saudi King Salman recently announced that ‘his government guarantees freedom of speech’, sending Salah and countless other Arab Twitter users and freethinkers into fits of laughter: that same king puts atheism on a legal level with terrorism – it carries the death sentence. `

And you are an atheist before you know it in Saudi Arabia: the most innocent questions about the subtleties of Islam can make you a ‘blasphemer’, as illustrated by blogger Raif al-Badawi, who posted a message about wine on his Facebook page. He is paying dearly for it, with ten years in jail, a thousand strokes of the cane and a huge fine.

The Saudi royal family derives the legitimacy of its absolute rule from Islam. The family has appointed itself the Guardians of the Two Holy Mosques at the Heart of Islam and is of the opinion that ‘blasphemy’ cuts the ground from under it, which makes it a real taboo. That applies to the rest of the Arab world too, by the way.

The kings of Jordan and Morocco ‘are directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed’ while other rulers in the region call themselves ‘protectors’ of Islam so they can nip any critical voices in the bud. And so they don’t antagonise the powerful clergy in their countries. Religious freedom, freedom of conscience and of course atheism – they are all Taboo.

In Egypt, for a brief period, that Taboo could be discussed within limits, after ‘revolutionaries’ had declared, in 2011, that they wanted to be able to decide for themselves whether they were Muslim or not. Recently, President Sisi said he had ‘no problems at all with atheism’ after which the state newspaper al-Watan devoted an entire front page to the phenomenon. It was not a flattering article: it seems there is still much wrong with godlessness, which is why a team of psychiatrists, called together by the Egyptian Ministry of Youth, enlighten the confused young people of Egypt. At least ten of them, youths like Salah, have been incarcerated under Sisi’s regime.

Where is Salah? An online search hasn’t produced any results (so far) but a rumour about the vanished atheist from Mecca would soon spread rapidly: Salah is a member of several online groups of freethinkers from all over the region.

Not alone
I hope it turns out that nothing’s wrong and that he has chosen, for whatever reason, to go into a sudden virtual recluse. And if he has been arrested, like Raif al-Badawi and Abdulrahman Taleb Al-Ajmi, we have this message, in the words of freethinker Brahim from Kuwait, for his bullies: We know you are scared. You can arrest them, but they are NOT alone. They have many friends in prison. And there are thousands like him all around you.’

About the author

Eva Ludemann has been reporting on developments in the Arab world for fifteen years. She spent two years living and working in the Gaza Strip and frequently visits the region. She has worked for the NOS (Netherlands Broadcasting Corporation), the newspaper company Dagblad De Pers and the VPRO broadcasting company.
Two years ago, she went freelance, working as a correspondent for the NOS and the newspapers De Volkskrant, De Correspondent and Trouw.

She has written two books: Gaza. We blazen uw auto even op [Gaza: we’ll just blow up your car] and Let op je schoenzool. Etiquette in het Midden-Oosten [Mind the sole of your shoe. Etiquette in the Middle East]. She is currently working on a book about free thought in the Arab world.