Living as an atheist in an Islamic state by Charlotte Stein

May God grant you grace. And to you may He do the same. How are you? I am well, thanks be to God. God bless you. You are well? Everything is good, God bless you. Everything fine? God bless you, God bless you. Thanks be to God! OK, well, may God guide you on your path. Oh, God bless you, peace be upon you. Peace, may God grant you grace!

This is an average greeting shared between myself and a passerby in rural Morocco. As an atheist, I don’t believe that any gods have ever existed outside of their literary confines. Nope, not any of those named Jesus, Allah, Zeus, Almighty Father, Vishnu, or Woden (though perhaps I could bring to the attention of the government our “Germanic” religious heritage, thus instituting the sacrifice of several pilsners each Wodensday? A fine and honorable mid-week tradition indeed).

I would say maybe two or three of the hundreds of Moroccans I interacted with during my work as a Peace Corps volunteer knew of my lack of faith. Morocco is a nonsecular state, meaning that its citizens are required to follow Islamic Law. Over 99% of them consider themselves Muslim.

I often basked in the warmth of the large, caring family units with Muslim values, who took me in after only minutes of acquaintance. I learned how to tell who truly hoped that Allah would reward me, and those who merely said it because it would look bad if they didn’t. I watched my beloved host mother find relief in prayer and extreme pride in her son’s close relationship with the village imam.

I chose to suffer through two Sahara summers without food, only to share in the joy of breaking fast when the sun went down.

I love many Moroccan Muslims and enjoyed many of the ways they acted on their religion and how it affected their culture and day-to-day life. The women and girls with whom I worked left me with everlasting affection for the hijab. I get excited whenever I see a woman wearing one. I now see it as an elegant and graceful piece of self-expression worn by some of the kindest, hardworking women I know. I also appreciate the protection it provided from the often objectifying and unnerving glances of Moroccan males.

I have very close relationships with Moroccan men, who respected me and cared for me because of my intelligence, the authority I commanded when necessary and the equality I demanded in all situations. I had a whole community of young men who told me they would never harass me and would protect me from harassment, because they valued me. Apparently, I had earned a special level of respect.

These 14- to 20-year-old students knew me, had worked with me, had lived with me. Take those elements away and I become the thing they have been taught not to value — the object that walks around in public only to seek attention. The object that is to be obtained and used — the younger and healthier the better.

Women face a lot of pressures in Moroccan society, one of which is the heinous act of sexual harassment. When traveling alone in Marrakesh, I would leave my hotel and walk to a restaurant a couple of blocks away, encountering between 10 and 30 men who would shout various comments about my appearance at me, as if they couldn’t help themselves.

Or they would just stare, because I was a juicy piece of meat waggling my tender curves in their starving faces. It was taking everything in them not to pounce and devour me. That’s how those looks made me feel. That’s how women are made to feel when they walk around not attached to their male owner. Why leave the safety of your home when this is what you have to face? 

I also witnessed many girls of high school age being bullied to leave school by their mothers and older sisters, who wanted more hands and some company in their homes. My students were made to feel guilty for being so selfish, for taking time to learn and study or for exercising in our running club because it made them feel good. Being healthy is a luxury that women in my community didn’t feel worthy of.

So many girls quit school because they knew it was useless; they had no future beyond the home of their family or the family of their husband. Child marriage is incredibly common, and almost always the girl is substantially younger than the groom. This, I was told, is because women age faster than men. Soon she will catch up to her husband; soon her body will be useless. Finding a girl a husband early is doing them a favor, giving them stability and purpose. She finds all of her self-worth in the wealth and standing of her husband and the children they produce.

What an effective way to dominate half the population. So many women I lived with and grew to love were stuck in this cycle of oppression, in a society that doesn’t value them and often encourages them not to develop themselves beyond a wife and mother, housemaid and cook. 

Tea with Hayat

My 16-year-old neighbor’s name is Hayat, which means “life.” She is incredibly smart and is the family’s only female child. She is shy but confident. She is still in school and promised me she would finish. One afternoon we sat and drank tea, rehashing a sexual harassment discussion we had facilitated at the local youth center.

During the presentation, my host brother, one of the most loving, positive and emotional young men I knew in Morocco, had stormed out. His close study of Islam had convinced him it was inappropriate to discuss such a taboo subject, especially with men and women in the same room.

So much excitement makes for good tea conversation, but Hayat’s mother is an expert at changing the conversation, and soon we were discussing God’s omnipresence and good will. When asked to chime in with a fitting verse, Hayat mentioned she had not memorized the Quran. This was very upsetting to her mother, but equally incensed, Hayat responded that in her experience, those who memorize the Quran follow it blindly and interpret it in a way that ignores the human experience.

She was referencing my host brother, who had deemed it unnecessary and even forbidden to discuss an issue that so deeply affected women in Moroccan society. At 16, Hayat was thinking more critically than most adults I had encountered thus far. Her words and her thoughts were my hope and kept me working hard to find more freethinking young women to help rise above the fray of everyday life in abject poverty.

I can only hope the admiration that gleamed in my eyes when she spoke conveyed how important she was, and could be. 

What the future holds

With smart kids and wonderful people, what seems to be holding Morocco back? Why is Morocco’s Islam still so prominent in the poorest, most rural areas? Islam is young, virile and adaptive. Morocco’s educated elite are well-off, and its leaders are “liberal” enough to forge important domestic and global relationships, maintaining their role as a “progressive” force in the Middle East. Uprisings and protests are minimal, because those who suffer the most don’t have the power to make change.

Being stuck in the rural south, barricaded by mountains on all sides (well, apart from the side that faces the Sahara Desert), I was often frustrated by the lack of resources, the government’s apparent ignorance of the suffering of my neighbors, the forced complacency of my neighbors who had little access to quality education, and the exhausting circus that was government bureaucracy surrounding anything from traveling between cities to getting an “official” stamp with your name on it.

But it is changing, shwiya bi shwiya, or little by little as we say in Moroccan Arabic. I was constantly moved by individuals who shined despite the adversity they faced and will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.

I will leave you with an impressive encounter I had while traveling during the last couple of months of my service. He was a youthful stranger who was intrigued by my “American-ness,” and probably by the fact that I was a little blonde girl speaking the local language and taking the local transportation.

While I was used to men asking me why America is a secular state — asking where we got our laws if not from a holy book — and asking me to repeat a verse that would ensure my access to al Jannah (heaven), this experience was truly unique and refreshing. He asked what religion we were, and I said that although Americans are mostly Christian, you are allowed to follow whatever religion you choose, and that most of the religions in the world have some sort of representation in the U.S.

He thought this was fascinating, and pondered it for a while. After some deep reflection and lots of smiles, he said, “I think, that if everyone was allowed to find the religion that was closest to their heart, that they would choose the best elements of whichever they found, and they could be the best, kindest people possible.”

This wave of blissful inspiration is an excellent argument for the separation of church and state. 

Charlotte Stein is transitioning back into American life in Madison, Wis., helping out as a clerical assistant at FFRF. In her free time, she practices German, French and Arabic on her adorable dog Oscar. She also loves to write, read and eat cheese curds. Soon she will be moving to either of the coasts to work for a development organization.

Freedom From Religion Foundation