“A wave of atheism will overwhelm Iraq because of the wrong practices of Islamic parties,” one Muslim scholar said.
Fadi does not believe in God, and he is terrified.
In a Baghdad cafe, the medical student sits far from other customers, and glances over his shoulder to make sure nobody is watching and listening.
“I am afraid of being discovered — then I would be killed,” he says in a voice that rarely rises above a whisper. “This may also harm my family, although none of them know that I don’t believe.”
Fadi, 23, says that he could be targeted for believing that God and all of the world religions are human inventions. To avoid detection, he deletes all searches on his computer and cellphone.
Like all of the 20 atheists NBC News spoke to, Fadi asked to be identified by a pseudonym to avoid being targeted by militias or police.
Although Islam is the state religion and it is against the law to slander or insult any faith, atheism itself is not illegal in Iraq, according to legal expert Ali al-Timimi. Anecdotal evidence suggests a small but growing community of Iraqi agnostics and atheists in the Muslim-majority country. One Facebook page called Iraq's Agnostics and Atheists has nearly 13,000 likes and 17,000 followers.
But power, violence and religion are a toxic mix.
Many of Iraq’s unbelievers have been forced underground as religious hard-liners battle for control of the young democracy, which is struggling to balance the demands of both Sunnis and Shiites, plus smaller ethnic and religious communities.
“We used to hear that Islam is the religion of peace, but ISIS behaved like monsters, barbarians and even worse.”}
Since the dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, theocratic Shiite Iran has grown in power in Iraq. Powerful Shiite organizations control key parts of the government, such as the Interior Ministry, which is dominated by the hard-line Iran-linked militia, the Badr Organization.
The war-ravaged country is inching toward a semblance of normality after largely defeating the Islamic State group, which had conquered swaths of its territory. Propelled by widespread Sunni anger at Shiite domination, ISIS fightersenslaved, raped and killed thousands. Dozens of mainly Iran-backed Shiite paramilitary groups were crucial to beating the militant group in 2017, and are blamed for extrajudicial disappearances and killings.
"Have you ever heard of a militia that is formed by atheists?" engineering student Darwin, 21, says. "No, only those who have religion form militias and death squads. They are the reason behind the destruction of life, the destruction of humanity."
Under Saddam, dissenters were targeted and tortured — particularly ethnic Kurds and members of the Islamic Dawa Party backed by Iran. His government also detained his Sunni coreligionists and members of other groups that challenged his rule.
Darwin, who was raised in a devoutly Shiite family in the southern holy city of Najaf, once shared his thoughts on science and religion via Facebook, where he posted under a false identity.
"We used to talk about different issues, and exchange information," he says.
But he deleted this page about a year ago.
"I heard militias had started to chase us, and they had the technology and people to track my account," he says.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.