The lonely atheist: why renouncing your religion in Saudi Arabia can be deadly

For Rana Ahmad, doubting the existence of God meant leaving her family behind – and becoming a refugee. 

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When speaking about the arrival of migrants in Europe, people often ask why newcomers keep travelling north, rather than staying in the country where they arrived. For Rana Ahmad, a Syrian woman who fled Saudi Arabia because of her non-religious beliefs, it was Germany’s eminent roster of physicists, from Albert Einstein to Werner Heisenberg, which inspired her to continue journeying through Europe to study physics there.

Rana began to doubt her religious convictions when reading science and philosophy books at the age of 26. Because it is illegal to own books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Rana downloaded them from the internet onto a memory stick – keeping it with her at all times to avoid being caught.  

“Sometimes I would read a 400-page book in three or four days... If someone discovered what I was reading I would have been in real danger... It was crazy – I wanted to know the truth,” Rana told me when we spoke over Skype.  

Rana didn’t become an atheist overnight – it was a long, hard process that lasted around a year. Being an atheist in Saudi Arabia is a lonely and dangerous experience. Any promotion of atheism is classed as “terrorism” (according to a 2012 Gallup poll, 5 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population identify as atheist). In addition to this, apostasy – the renunciation of one’s religion – is punishable by death.

According to Rana, those who leave Islam are given three days to recommit themselves before they are executed. In 2017, Ahmad Al Shamri was sentenced to death after uploading a video of himself renouncing Islam. The previous year, a man was sentenced to ten years in prison and 2,000 lashes for expressing his atheistic views on Twitter.

“I discovered how stupid I was, because being an atheist in Saudi Arabia puts your life in danger,” she told me.

“I decided if I didn’t get out of this country I wanted to kill myself because I can’t live like a Muslim girl when inside I am an atheist.”

Rana began talking to other atheists on the internet, using a fake name and account to protect herself until she could leave the country. Her family became suspicious of the amount of time she was spending on her laptop. Thinking that she could be in a relationship, her brother placed a listening device in her room. He heard her laughing on the phone and concluded that she had a boyfriend – but she was only speaking to a colleague.

“He came to my room the next day and started to beat me, he started to try to kill me and I shouted, and my dad came and removed him from me. And from this day I said I couldn't be there, I have to get out.”

After her plans to flee to the Netherlands and Italy collapsed, Rana decided to fly to Istanbul where she could travel without a visa. Her family were completely unaware of her plans – on the morning she left, her father dropped her off at work like any other day.

“My heart was broken I wanted to hug him, I wanted to tell him ‘I love you dad’. My mum was the person who cared about religion,” Rana said.

“But my dad, no. He dropped me off at work; he bought me coffee and something to eat. You will hurt this person, but you want to live your life, you want to be free in the end.”

Rana’s brother followed her to Istanbul either to bring her back or to kill her. But his search was fruitless. Predicting that her family would come to Istanbul, Rana travelled south to Izmir, where she paid smugglers to illegally ferry her across to Greece.

“I was completely shocked to have to put myself in this situation to get my rights, to get my freedom, to live a normal life like people in other countries,” Rana told me.

“I was shocked by our world, by humanity, but I needed to do it – I was telling myself that even if I died, I was trying to be free.”

The persecution of atheists is a global problem. A 2018 Freedom of Thought report from the charity Humanists International states that the “overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of humanists, atheists and the non-religious”. In total, 43 countries punish blasphemy with imprisonment. In 22 countries, apostasy is criminalised; in twelve of those, it is punishable by death. 

While blasphemy and apostasy laws are easier to quantify, other, less blatant problems confront atheists. Nineteen per cent of England and Wales' state schools are faith-based, and 16 per cent of their places are subject to religious selection criteria. In the US, 43 per cent of people have said they wouldn't vote for a presidential candidate who was an atheist, a higher figure than for a woman (5 per cent), Jew (6 per cent), gay person (30 per cent), or Muslim (40 per cent). 

Yet discrimination against atheists is often overlooked. In light of this, 17 non-religious activists wrote a letter to the Guardian in July calling on the UK government to conduct a review into the persecution of the non-religious in a similar vein to the one commissioned into Christian persecution. Rana was one of the activists to sign the letter.

Since she arrived in Cologne, Rana has learnt German and gone back to school to obtain her German high school certificate. As well as volunteering for the Red Cross and writing a book, she has founded Atheist Refugee Relief, which aims to help people like herself escape persecution and adjust to their new home.

“That’s what happens when girls get out of Saudi Arabia. We are hungry to be free, we are hungry to work, we are hungry to study, we are hungry to experience everything that we weren't allowed to”, she says.

Part of Rana’s motivation behind the Atheist Refugee Fund was her experience in refugee camps. Once other refugees learnt that Rana was an ex-Muslim, she suffered abuse. She still receives death threats from other refugees because of her criticism of Islam and her promotion of women’s rights. Inspired by the refugee camps that aim to protect LGBTQ refugees, Rana plans to set up a refugee camp for atheists, and is in discussion with the German government about funding. 

Eventually, Rana wants to go into politics to promote freedom of religion. But first, she will fulfil what she originally set out to do: she begins her physics degree next year.

Freddie Hayward is an intern at the New Statesman.