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Arab atheists, though few, inch out of the shadows

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Even harder is the social cost. Declaring oneself an atheist can mean breaking from family and friends and networks that determine a Muslim’s entire social life.

The online venues give those questioning their faith a space to go through what can be a traumatic process. Many describe years of depression and isolation. The atheists interviewed by AP said online access to like-minded people gave them courage. All said they were surprised to discover other ex-Muslims out there. They also said reading articles online by prominent Western atheists like Britain’s Richard Dawkins pushed them along the path.

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Theologian Abu Sway said he sees no possibility atheism will spread among Muslim communities. What’s happening today is "a phase rather than a serious position," he said. "It could be an expression of dissatisfaction with traditional institutions. We don’t have the Richard Dawkins type. We don’t have our own serious contender. It’s not something systematic."

Mohammed, a 26-year-old Egyptian, says his family still has no idea he considers himself an atheist, even though he has participated in some of the earliest Arab atheist forums online.

"There are people who say we should be brave and speak out. That’s just talk," said Mohammed. "I could fight to say what I think, but I won’t be able to stay with my family."

He said he was devout as a teenager but grew confused over questions about whether God allows free will — a debated topic in Islamic theology. That, along with science studies, unraveled his faith, he said.

"I couldn’t control my thoughts anymore. I began to be divided into two: between my brain and my faith," he said.

The Mideast was once a more tolerant place for questioning religion. In the 1960s and 1970s, secular leftists were politically dominant. It wasn’t shocking to express agnosticism. There were even a few vocal atheists, including Abdullah al-Qusseimi, a Saudi writer who died in the 1990s and is revered by Arabs who quit Islam.

But the region grew more conservative starting in the 1980s, Islamists became more influential, and militants lashed out against any sign of apostasy.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back, said al-Husseini, the Palestinian atheist now in France.

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"I think many people were afraid, but now they see there’s people like them. They find courage," he said. "They exist on the internet — they might have fake names, but they are there."

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