Ismail Mohammed is a YouTube preacher who’s trying to turn Middle Easterners into believers–in atheism.
Mohammed, 30, left Islam three years ago but he has become evangelical about his new faith. He created his YouTube channel, Black Ducks, in his Cairo home with no more than a computer, speakers and a simple 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper displaying the show’s logo. Muslims across the region spend an hour with Mohammed describing why they left Islam and how the navigate a region where religion is seeped in every pore.
The videos’ production levels are shoddy but the implications are revolutionary in a region in which some countries, like Saudi Arabia, consider atheism a form of terrorism. Many believe leaving Islam should be met with death. Questioning faith, for some, is a form of insulting faith.
“There are people who believe I left Islam so I must be killed. But maybe if more and more atheists speak up, there will be less pressure and threats,” Mohammed told The Daily Beast.
Mohammed’s show is part of a proliferation of pro-atheist channels, magazines and blogs across the Middle East is arguably the latest iteration of Arab Spring. When Arab youth once sought to overthrow regimes, they now are embracing small, more tangible gains like freedom of expression.
The rise of self-proclaimed Islamic State appears to have worked to atheists’ advantage. They argue ISIS shows the danger of those who adhere to strict interpretation of old text. And, they note the contrast of the brutality of ISIS and the pluralistic society they propose.
“The end goal, for them, is a place were people can be free from religious authority,” said Dr. Nadia Oweidat, a non-residential fellow at New American Foundation who researches liberal Islamic thought and countering violent extremism.
A quick perusal online shows at least 18 shows that question faith. There is Brother Rachid, a Moroccan who converted from Islam to Christianity and now aggressively questions Islamic scholars. Or Modern Reading, hosted by an Iraqi, Mustafa al Umari, which challenges the validity of old rules of Islam in the modern age. And then there is the Box of Islam, in which the host, Hamed Abdel-Samad, an Egyptian, exposes the brutality of Islam, as he sees it.
But of all of them, only Mohammed lives in the region still. The rest have escaped through asylum.
Mohammed’s road to atheism began with questions of where humans come from and stumbled across the theory of evolution.
“Do I believe the religion or the science?” Mohammed said. “The science is sure the story of humans is not Adam and Eve. This forced me to search. And I was surprised with many things. I started to study the religions of the Middle East. I read the history of Abrahamic religions.”
Mohammed, who learned English three years ago, said he was inspired by the writings of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins—as well as Egyptian secularist thinkers he read in Arabic and English. At times, when he describes how he became an atheist, he sounds like Bill Maher.
“It is very important to fight terrorism with ideas,” Mohammed said.
As he read, he stumbled onto more questions than answers.
Hitchens “gave me the power to talk about my fears.” When it came time to tell his parents, he asked his mother if it was right that a Muslim woman and Christian man living on their street and in love could not marry. He asked his father to read books and watch documentaries on evolution. They both answered him by saying: “That is what our faith said.”
Slowly they embraced a debate. Mohammed said his father is still Muslim, but “I think I succeeded in letting him think in a secular way. He can accept Jewish and Christian. [My conversion] is hard on him—all of his life, he believed in Islam.”
Still Mohammed, an Internet developer by profession who chain-smokes and brushes down his Afro for formal occasions, felt isolated in his new ideas. Does anyone else think as I do, he wondered. Would they admit that if they did? Furtively, he asked his friends and found kindred spirits, but always layered with fear. That led him to brush down his Afro, set up a camera—and create the show.
According to estimates by various atheist supporters, there are roughly 3 million atheists in Egypt out of a population of 90 million. But there is no official number or clear means to calculate such figures in a country where many fear publicly identifying as anything but Muslim or Christian. Anecdotally, more women in places like Egypt are taking off the veils in the post-Arab Spring period, a less dramatic form for some of protest against stringent religious societies.
At first, Mohammed had to search for guests. Who would want to publicly condemn Islam? While atheism is not illegal in Egypt, the government prosecutes those who insult the faith.
“I know it is very dangerous. I am not afraid of the government. The biggest danger comes from the society. Sometimes I face problems on the street. Some people hit me in the street when they recognize me from the show,” he said.
In a 2013 Pew study examining the Muslim world’s view on sharia law, 86 percent of those Egyptians who support sharia law believe death should be the penalty for leaving the faith, the highest percentage of the Arab states surveyed. That compares to 82 percent of Jordanians who endorse sharia and 42 percent of Iraqis.
But the show has so far succeeded, in spite of those numbers. And as Black Ducks caught on, he began receiving requests from people across the region to appear on the show. His episodes now regularly attract tens of thousands of viewers. And it’s not always atheists on the show. He also has featured a Shiite Muslim from Tunisia to educate his viewers on the minority sect of Islam.
That’s because Mohammed isn’t criticizing Islam on his program; rather, he is pushing for a discussion about matters of faith.
Governments across the region are taking notice, and in some cases, responding through their own media. One Egyptian newspaper called atheists “the approaching earthquake.” Earlier this year, a government newspaper questioned why such a trend was burgeoning, a foreboding trend, the paper noted.
On Mohammed’s show, which has reached 160 episodes so far, there are women from Saudi Arabia who appear in front of the computer video cameras—without their veils. That’s an almost-unthinkable violation in the strictly religious Kingdom. There are former imams who have shaved off their most outward expression of faith, a beard, before appearing on Mohammed’s show. Then there’s the young Palestinian man on the show; he lives in the birthplace of the faith he is now leaving.
“I think we cannot underestimate the significant of having thousands of young men and women publicly challenge morality and appropriateness of Islam as a faith for this day and age. Up until a few years ago, whoever dared even close to a critique of a text or any self-proclaimed Islamic scholar paid dearly, sometimes with their lives,” Oweidat said.
Slowly, the calls for discourse by people like Mohammed is seeping into mainstream press. An article last week in the pan-Arab al Hayat newspaper reported that an Egyptian man left a mosque because he rejected what the imam saying. The man stood up and asked, “Where are getting this from? This is not in the Koran. … You implant fears in the souls of the people.”
Notably, the piece quoted witnesses who celebrated the man’s decision to speak up.
“This behavior was received very favorably by some of the worshippers,” the author of the piece wrote.
And Mohammed said he might not remain an atheist forever.
“I can change my ideas and my opinion again. An honest man should not feel ashamed if he changes his mind.”