You could never say that things are dull in the Middle East, but this last week has been a particularly eventful one for the region. As I'm sure you're aware by now, a bunch of right-wing Christians and Jews united with a soft-porn director to create a shitty film about the "evils" of Islam, and the Muslims in the Middle East did not react well to its depiction of their prophet Muhammad. Outbreaks of violence have been sporadic but frequent. Violent protests have taken place across the Middle East, resulting in several deaths, including that of the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.
Lebanon was not spared this violence, and a branch of KFC was torched in the northern city of Tripoli, killing one, injuring 25 and propelling the phrase #ChickenWingJihad into Twitter's trending topics. Tripoli has been in the wars for other reasons recently, too, sectarian violence flaring up between pro- and anti-Syrian factions over the refugees pouring across the border from the neighbouring country, as Syria deals with its own civil war.
On top of this, The Pope was making his first official visit to Lebanon when the Tripoli riots broke out. The pontiff urged the Lebanese to pursue peace within their country, which, on the face of things, is a pretty decent request. It seems a bit rich, however, coming from a man who as recently as 2009 suggested that Islam lacked reason, making the religion inherently prone to violence.
His comments stirred up more protests, and with the instability in neighbouring countries growing, Lebanon is beginning to resemble a powder keg in a match factory. As all the religious people in Lebanon seem to be busy screaming at each other about Innocence of Muslims, I decided to speak to Mario Ramadan, one of the founders of The Coalition for Lebanese Atheists, Freethinkers and Agnostics (CLAFA) and leading figure in the country's growing secular community.
VICE: Hey, Mario. Can you tell me more about your work with CLAFA and secularism in Lebanon?
Mario: The idea started when a friend and I first enrolled at university. In a country like Lebanon, as atheists, we needed a way to express ourselves, but we couldn’t find that in real life so we set up a Facebook group. When CLAFA was born we just wanted to build a small, non-dogmatic community of people who could share ideas, but it grew into something bigger. We had our first real event in December 2011 and we are looking forward to registering as an NGO very soon. We have all the paperwork ready.
That's quite an achievement in a country as dominated by religion as Lebanon. What is it like to be vocally open about atheism within a Middle Eastern society?
I’m well known for my views in the area, so not a lot of people tend to argue with me. I’ve taken a personal decision not to argue about religion with religious people, because I consider it to be counter-productive. The way I see things is that I get to live my life the way I want and I give people the freedom to live their lives the way they want. As a community we are trying to avoid conflict because Lebanon is already full of that. When I was a kid, my father told me I shouldn’t be a Christian just because I was born into a Christian family, I should be free to look for whatever I want and find whatever truth was relevant to me. I was fortunate. I know a few people that don’t get to see their parents much any more.
What are your views on the recent religious violence in Tripoli?
I have seen the trailer for the film, it’s a cheap movie and a cheap shot. It shouldn’t have got a lot of attention. My personal view is that you can’t call your religion "the religion of peace" and do whatever you are doing today. It’s like you are saying “I am not a killer but I want to kill you for calling me a killer.”
I know not all Muslims are violent, but when people go down in the name of Islam and do what we are seeing on the streets, well, they are doing that in the name of Islam. Muslims should at least have a proper response to what they see as aggression towards their religion. They should start fighting the extremism the Middle East has been seeing for the past few decades. Everyone has the right to express themselves but you can’t burn embassies and kill ambassadors over something. I don’t find that rational at all.
How has the story been presented by the Lebanese media?
It’s not like the United States funded it, it was the work of an individual. The news we have read is that the video was funded by Jews and, in a sense, it is understandable why Arabs would find that stance aggressive towards them.
What is the general opinion on the ground regarding the matter?
The atheists and freethinkers of my community are disgusted. I would have accepted what happened in Tripoli with all my heart if it was a peaceful demonstration; everyone has the right to express themselves. But people were killed and injured and the restaurants they burned down were the restaurants in which the people of Tripoli are employed – even the manager of the restaurant is not an American, he is a Tripoli native. So it is totally illogical.
How has the community responded towards the Pope’s visit?
A few atheists wanted to organise a protest against the Pope but we as a community stood against that. Not because we are conservative atheists, but because this doesn’t fit strategically into our plan. The organisers got a couple of threats and we are not willing to get our community into danger. We want to project the image that we are “good without God”. We have our views and we are clear about them, we do not enjoy the Pope’s visit and we do not approve of anything the Vatican has ever done, and we do voice that publicly. But, as I said before, creating conflict is counter-productive to our aims. There was a Salafist protest against the Pope too, because of the comments he made regarding Islam a few years ago, and we didn’t want people to link us mentally with extremists.
Do you have any hope for the growth of atheism within the region?
I don’t see it growing in the Middle East any time soon, because we are witnessing a tide of religious extremism sweeping across the Arab world. But for Lebanon at least, and with the freedoms we have, I see a statistical growth for freethinkers, for sure. We take a lot of precautions before making any statements or doing anything on the ground, because we know that we do not have any power or anyone backing us up. We are not politically affiliated so we are essentially on our own, but our main focus is on education and no one stands against education. When we hold events to discuss evolution and the Big Bang, no one protests these events, people come down and participate and they have been very successful so far.
Well, good luck with it, Mario.
Follow Oz on Twitter: @OzKaterji
More from the Middle East: