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Reading 'The God Delusion' In The Arab World

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It probably never crossed Richard Dawkins's mind that his book, The God Delusion, would reach out to Arab audiences in their own language. When I met him in Switzerland at Denkfest, organized by the Swiss Freethinker's Association, he was surprised when I said I had read The God Delusion in Arabic. He told me that he was not aware of the translation, and nor had he had any official request for it. I explained that it had been the work of an Iraqi friend called Bassam Al-Baghdadi, who lives in Sweden.

To say that Bassam's work has been well received would be an understatement. The pdf was downloaded ten million times, with 30 per cent going to Saudi Arabia. Bassam said that there were over 1,000 downloads on the very first day after he uploaded it, and the numbers only climbed as the translation was picked up and shared on the blogs, websites and forums of prominent Arab atheists.

The book has prompted unprecedented controversy and debate in the Arab and Islamic worlds. The translator received death threats and accusations of conspiring with the Zionists to corrupt the youth. He was forced to close his social media accounts and stop posting for a while. Futile attempts have been made to resist the waves of reason now reaching Arab shores, through toothless apologetic articles and books. There is even a book called The Atheism Delusion, published by Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

In the Arabic translation of The God Delusion, under the title, Bassam added the words: "This book is banned in Islamic countries." It is fortunate and wonderful that the banning of books in the Arab and Islamic worlds is no longer feasible in our new age of information. I was able to read the book while I was still in Morocco, where I was born. Some atheist friends even managed to get hold of the book in Saudi Arabia. The dark times of censorship, in which knowledge for the people was confined to carefully curated books and resources, are gone and will never return.

Reading The God Delusion made me uneasy at the start.

By chance, I had come across Richard Dawkins's works years earlier, when I happened to stumble upon an official French translation of The Selfish Gene, in the library of my uncle, who was very interested in biology. I knew nothing of the author's background at the time, nor did I understand very precisely the theme of the book. My uncle wasn't there to explain it to me, so I took the book with me to my biology class and asked my teacher for clarification on certain aspects. He seized it from me, looking almost afraid, and shouted: "Don't bring this filth here again! It is just bullshit!"

Did my teacher really believe the book was that bad? Or was there another reason for his reaction? Perhaps he was afraid. I know there are atheist professors in Morocco who are compelled to pretend to be Muslim in front of their students. But I doubt this was the case here, because I think his reaction would probably have been calmer and more poised.

In spite of this early chance encounter, my respect and admiration for Richard Dawkins really date from when I first read The God Delusion, in Arabic. I began to seek out his articles, and his documentaries on YouTube. Reading The God Delusion made me uneasy at the start. Even though I was by then already a freethinker, free from religious dogma, the book touched me deeply and had a profound influence on the shaping of my thoughts and ideas. The more I read the more I felt that I had a deep agreement with the author, and even a personal connection, as though the book had been written by somebody I knew closely. I felt as if he was speaking my inner thoughts and doubts.

I also remember how strongly The God Delusion provokes you to think, shattering misconceptions and flawed but long-cherished arguments. It was an important milestone in my intellectual journey to freedom, and as big a milestone in my personal life.

I come from a conservative religious family. When I was a child my father took me out of school for a year so I could study Islamic jurisprudence and memorize the Qur'an, in accordance with the wishes of my grandfather who wanted me to be an Imam. Paradoxically, this intensive study of my faith was one of the biggest contributing factors to my abandonment of it.

I read The God Delusion when I was in high school. The name Richard Dawkins, along with those of other great thinkers, became synonymous to me with rationality and freedom of thought. I admired the concepts of free thought and expression, concepts that Western writers and their readers take for granted but which are taboos and even crimes in the world I came from. Even today, long after leaving the Arab world behind, the name Richard Dawkins brings the same feeling of compulsive fear, almost like a post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those who have never lived under such circumstances may find it difficult to understand or appreciate that feeling. Try to imagine reading a forbidden book in secret and then going out into the street or sipping tea with your family with a lurking, lingering fear that the criminal things you've been reading will somehow bubble out on their own, exposing your viciousness and treachery to everybody. Imagine the guilt of having such thoughts among people who would think you evil or even dangerous if they knew.

Eventually I could not keep my "criminal" thoughts to myself any longer, and I paid the price for my honesty and my love for freedom. That's why I'm writing these words not from Morocco, but from Switzerland. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Richard Dawkins, and to others who guided my journey from the hells of religious dogma to the oasis of free thought and enlightenment.

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This blog was originally posted in The Richard Dawkins Foundation

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