In 2002, I discovered a 1927 lecture by Bertrand Russell entitled “Why I am Not a Christian”. It did not cross my mind, as I read it, that one day, nearly a century after he delivered it to the South London branch of the National Secular Society, I would be compelled to write an essay with precisely the opposite title.
The year before, I had publicly condemned the terrorist attacks of the 19 men who had hijacked passenger jets and crashed them into the twin towers in New York. They had done it in the name of my religion, Islam. I was a Muslim then, although not a practising one. If I truly condemned their actions, then where did that leave me? The underlying principle that justified the attacks was religious, after all: the idea of Jihad or Holy War against the infidels. Was it possible for me, as for many members of the Muslim community, simply to distance myself from the action and its horrific results?
At the time, there were many eminent leaders in the West — politicians, scholars, journalists, and other experts — who insisted that the terrorists were motivated by reasons other than the ones they and their leader Osama Bin Laden had articulated so clearly. So Islam had an alibi.
This excuse-making was not only condescending towards Muslims. It also gave many Westerners a chance to retreat into denial. Blaming the errors of US foreign policy was easier than contemplating the possibility that we were confronted with a religious war. We have seen a similar tendency in the past five weeks, as millions of people sympathetic to the plight of Gazans seek to rationalise the October 7 terrorist attacks as a justified response to the policies of the Israeli government.
When I read Russell’s lecture, I found my cognitive dissonance easing. It was a relief to adopt an attitude of scepticism towards religious doctrine, discard my faith in God and declare that no such entity existed. Best of all, I could reject the existence of hell and the danger of everlasting punishment.
Russell’s assertion that religion is based primarily on fear resonated with me. I had lived for too long in terror of all the gruesome punishments that awaited me. While I had abandoned all the rational reasons for believing in God, that irrational fear of hellfire still lingered. Russell’s conclusion thus came as something of a relief: “When I die, I shall rot.”
To understand why I became an atheist 20 years ago, you first need to understand the kind of Muslim I had been. I was a teenager when the Muslim Brotherhood penetrated my community in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985. I don’t think I had even understood religious practice before the coming of the Brotherhood. I had endured the rituals of ablutions, prayers and fasting as tedious and pointless.
The preachers of the Muslim Brotherhood changed this. They articulated a direction: the straight path. A purpose: to work towards admission into Allah’s paradise after death. A method: the Prophet’s instruction manual of do’s and don’ts — the halal and the haram. As a detailed supplement to the Qur’an, the hadeeth spelled out how to put into practice the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, God and the devil.
The Brotherhood preachers left nothing to the imagination. They gave us a choice. Strive to live by the Prophet’s manual and reap the glorious rewards in the hereafter. On this earth, meanwhile, the greatest achievement possible was to die as a martyr for the sake of Allah.
The alternative, indulging in the pleasures of the world, was to earn Allah’s wrath and be condemned to an eternal life in hellfire. Some of the “worldly pleasures” they were decrying included reading novels, listening to music, dancing, and going to the cinema — all of which I was ashamed to admit that I adored.
The most striking quality of the Muslim Brotherhood was their ability to transform me and my fellow teenagers from passive believers into activists, almost overnight. We didn’t just say things or pray for things: we did things. As girls we donned the burka and swore off Western fashion and make-up. The boys cultivated their facial hair to the greatest extent possible. They wore the white dress-like tawb worn in Arab countries or had their trousers shortened above their ankle bones. We operated in groups and volunteered our services in charity to the poor, the old, the disabled and the weak. We urged fellow Muslims to pray and demanded that non-Muslims convert to Islam.