There are a lot of atheists in Saudi Arabia

From Saudi Arabia to GermanyAn atheist's escape

Rana Ahmad is not called Rana Ahmad. She uses a pseudonym to protect herself. Yourselves and your family in Saudi Arabia, from hatred and death threats. But since she publicly stated that she turned away from Islam, the pseudonym has actually been superfluous. Because Rana Ahmad is currently the female face of apostasy, of apostasy from Islam. She is insulted and threatened by Muslims from all over the world.

"In Muslim societies it is not common for women to profess atheism. After my interview, I received a lot of threats. I think I am the first woman to say publicly in the media: I have left Islam, I am Atheist, because I wanted to be free. And that hit like a bomb. Three million people saw the film on Deutsche Welle TV. "

"You would have killed me"

Only after her escape did the 33-year-old come out as an atheist. In Germany. In Saudi Arabia, public commitment to atheism can result in the death penalty.

"If I had said I was an atheist, they would have killed me. First they put you in jail. After three days they ask you if you are going back to Islam. If you don't, they will cut your head off."

At first, Rana Ahmad wasn't particularly rebellious in Saudi Arabia - on the contrary: she wanted to be a good Muslim woman. But the oppression of women and girls in the name of religion is ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia.

The niqab, which only has slits for the eyes, is a must. A male guardian must give his consent to all decisions, regardless of whether women want to do an apprenticeship, work or travel. There are separate rooms for women in restaurants. Men and women even celebrate weddings separately, including the bride and groom.

"I had the hope that my religion was right"

Then the religious police arrested Rana's girlfriend - because of an illegitimate relationship. The sentence: three months in prison and 100 lashes. Rana's marriage also fails, and she moves back to live with her parents in Riyadh. She works in various administrative jobs. She has a good relationship with her father, but her mother and brother control every step they take. Rana takes refuge on the Internet, looking for answers to her questions about life, religion and the contradictions in everyday life. She comes across thoughts and ideas that are banned in Saudi Arabia.

"I downloaded philosophical writings from the Internet that talked about God, about religion. I read everything I could find about it, including atheism. Nevertheless, I continued to read the Koran every day. I wanted that God helps me see what is right and what is wrong. I was hoping that my religion was right. "

The scientist and critic of religion Richard Dawkins is an important leading figure for Rana Ahmad (picture alliance / dpa / Cristobal Garcia)

She studies Darwin's theory of evolution, comes across the writings of the atheist Richard Dawkins and chats on the Internet with people who do not believe in God. A world is falling. There is no way back.

"It's not a decision. It's an idea that gets stuck in the head. You can't say I'll try a little atheism and then go back to Islam. That won't work."

Fear of death and flight

"I cried a lot, I was very alone. I knew if someone found out they would kill me, maybe tomorrow, maybe next month. I was always scared. Every day."

The mother senses that the daughter is slipping away if she wants to get her back on the right path, through a pilgrimage to Mecca. There she takes a cell phone photo: in the foreground a piece of paper with the words "atheist republic" is the name of a globally active Internet platform - in the background the Kaaba in Mecca, the central sanctuary of Islam. She posts this photo on the atheist website. Now it is clear to her: she has to leave the country.

She does not get a visa for Europe. Friends support her to travel to Turkey. Because she has a Syrian passport - her parents came to Saudi Arabia decades ago as migrant workers - she can actually fly to Istanbul on her own. Until the end she cannot believe that she actually made it.

"The atheist internet community helped me, they started a crowdfunding campaign on the internet: Atheists all over the world donated for me a total of 5000 dollars. Even Richard Dawkins supported me, he retweeted the crowdfunding campaign."

"Now I'm not afraid anymore"

Like so many refugees, Rana Ahmad came to Germany via the Balkan route in autumn 2015, ending up in Cologne. She is eagerly learning German and wants to study physics. She enjoys being able to wear her long black hair open, short dresses. And that she can say what she really thinks.

"To be in Germany, not to have to fear that you will be killed because you have left religion, that is so incredible for me. I can sleep again, I feel safe. And I appreciate this country and that it is here Freedom of religion exists! "

Together with the Giordano Bruno Foundation and the Central Council of Ex-Muslims, she founded the "Secular Refugee Aid", an association that helps refugees without religion. Because even in the refugee shelters in Germany, non-religious people are discriminated against by Muslims, she says.

She appeared in the Deutsche Welle film together with Nora Illi, a Swiss convert who wears a niqab and advertises veiling in the media. For Rana Ahmad completely incomprehensible.

"I asked her, why do you throw away your freedom and rights and cover yourself up? I've lost everything in order to be free, to decide for myself what to wear and you throw all your rights in the trash !?"

When Rana Ahmad is asked where she gets her strength and courage from, she says:

"I was so afraid for so long that everything in me was broken. Now I am no longer afraid. Of nothing."

Rana Ahmad / Sarah Borufka: "Women are not allowed to dream here. My escape from Saudi Arabia, my path to freedom"
btb Verlag, Munich 2017, 317 pages, 16 euros.