The Rise of Iraq's Young Secularists


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Sep 30, 2011
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MOSUL, Iraq—Rayyan Hadidi was 18 years old when he lost his faith. It was July 2006, and he was on his way to school when he stumbled upon a cheering crowd that had gathered near a local mosque. The group, made up mostly of mosque leaders and worshippers, had encircled two men accused of volunteering with the Iraqi police force, which many saw as a puppet of the American occupiers. Al-Qaeda gunmen brandished their arms, preparing to execute the men, as the crowd shouted, “Allahu akbar.” Hadidi stared at the two men, flinching when he made eye contact with one of them just before they were both shot.

“I couldn’t forget this, ever. The way they were looking, the ones who were dying,” Hadidi told me when we met this spring in a café across the street from the University of Mosul. Like many Arabs in Mosul, he grew up as a conservative Sunni who fasted and prayed regularly. Islam was as much an inherited cultural identity as it was a blueprint for dreamed-of justice and a better life under God’s laws, an escape from the authoritarianism of Saddam Hussein and the chaos of post-invasion Iraq. His family, like most others in Mosul, accepted the word of the Quran without question.

But the execution haunted Hadidi. He began reading philosophy, history, and writing that was critical of Islam—dangerous stuff that he shared with his conservative family, who eventually cut off communication with him. Repelled by the extremism he’d witnessed, Hadidi told me that he began working with the American forces, which led to threats on his life from militants. He fled to Turkey in 2011, where he took to social media to write about the shortcomings of political Islam.

In 2017, after the liberation of Mosul, Hadidi finally returned to Iraq. Much to his surprise, he found it was now safe to air his personal feelings about Islam aloud. “I read about Muhammad’s life in a non-holy way. I found out that he’s one of the worst people ever in the world,” Hadidi said, unconcerned that someone might overhear his hyperbolic assessments. He was disturbed by stories like those in the Bukhari hadith, a collection of narratives about Muhammad, that recounted the massacre of a Jewish tribe, as well as Muhammad’s marriage to a 17-year-old slave after killing her father and husband. “How does a woman sleep with a man who killed her family? Muslims know this story and justify it by saying this girl would be proud that the prophet would marry her,” Hadidi argued. Many of the religious stories that Hadidi couldn’t stomach were tales of Holy War and ethnic cleansing. “Before isis, I never talked about this. I couldn’t criticize anything. ... We are speaking with no red lines now.”

Hadidi isn’t alone in his turn against religion. Today, nearly one year after Mosul’s liberation from isis, a growing group of young Iraqis like him are gathering in newly opened bookstores, cafes, and on Facebook, speaking freely about secularism, atheism, and their country’s need for nonsectarian institutions. While their influence is limited, their frustration with sectarian politics reflects a broader trend across Iraq, a country ravaged by 15 years of war and terror, where rotting corpses and unexploded mines still litter the apocalyptic debris from the desperate fight against isis. Unless these young people can translate their conversations into votes and reform Iraqi politics, the country may well fall back into the same cycle of religion-based politics that gave way to the rise of isis.

The Rise of Iraq's Young Secularists - The Atlantic

That's an interesting article.

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