Iraqi atheists go underground as die-hard Sunnis and Shiites dominate
Since dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the US-led invasion in 2003, Shia theocratic Iran has seized power in Iraq. Powerful Shiite organizations control key parts of the government, such as the Interior Ministry, which is dominated by the hardline militia linked to Iran, the Badr Organization.
The war-torn country is heading towards a semblance of normalcy after largely defeating the Islamic State group, which had conquered entire swathes of its territory. Fueled by widespread Sunni anger against Shia rule, ISIS fighters enslaved, raped and killed thousands of people. Dozens of mainly Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary groups played a crucial role in the fight against the militant group in 2017, and are accused of extrajudicial disappearances and murders.
“Have you ever heard of an atheist militia? Engineering student Darwin, 21, said. “No, only those who have a religion form militias and death squads. They are the reason behind the destruction of life, the destruction of humanity.”
Under Saddam, dissidents were targeted and tortured, especially ethnic Kurds and members of the Iranian-backed Dawa Islamic Party. His government also detained fellow Sunnis and members of other groups who challenged his regime.
Darwin, who grew up in a devoutly Shia family in the southern holy city of Najaf, has previously shared his thoughts on science and religion via Facebook, where he posted under a false identity.
“We used to talk about different issues and exchange information,” he says.
But he deleted this page about a year ago.
“I heard that militias had started chasing us and that they had the technology and the people to follow my account,” he said.
In a move that sowed fear in Iraq’s small atheist community, police arrested Ihsan Mousa, the owner of a bookstore in southern Iraq in October. They accused him of selling works that encouraged readers to reject Islam, according to local media.
Colonel Rashad Mizel, a local police official, told NBC News that Mousa was released after promising not to resell the offending books. The Home Office did not respond to requests for comment on the case. Mousa was not available for comment.
Islamist intellectual and researcher Ghalib al-Shahbandar is alarmed by what he sees as a growing number of non-believers.
“A wave of atheism will overwhelm Iraq because of the bad practices of Islamic parties,” he said. “They are the ones who forced people to avoid Islam and other religions. “
Islam is the only major religious group expected to grow faster than the world’s population as a whole over the next 30 years, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study. Yet, Shahbandar says, many Iraqis are turning away from God. because of deceptively religious politicians.
“Most of those in Islamic parties do not shake hands with women in public, but they do so in secret,” he said. Some conservative Muslims avoid direct contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex.
“I hope this wave of atheism will not grow,” Shahbandar adds.
It is not just young Iraqis who reject the faith of their ancestors. Painter Abu Sami, 52, waited five years after his marriage to confess to his wife that he did not believe in God.
It didn’t go well.
“At first she refused to stay with me and threatened to tell her parents about it and ask for a divorce,” he says.
Eventually, his wife realized that she would not be able to change his beliefs, which were born during a childhood as the son of a Communist. These ideas flourished after the American invasion and during the sectarian civil war that followed.
Abu Sami’s atheism is a relatively open secret in his Baghdad home, with his eldest sons (21 and 17) being aware of their father’s prospects. But the youngest, who is 14, was not warned because he could talk to friends and endanger the family.
Abu Sami cites ISIS’s actions as an example of religion’s destructive appeal.
“We used to hear that Islam is the religion of peace, but ISIS has behaved like monsters, barbarians and even worse,” he says.
“Their God did not tell them to kill prisoners, did not tell them to kidnap and rape women, did not tell them to take women and children as slaves,” he added. “Is it a peaceful religion? It’s not at all, and I don’t want to be part of such a religion.