I enjoy reading the MENA threads you participate in and as I read about your business and personal relationships with the locals I’ve often wondered: Do they care what your religion is? How do you represent yourself if they ask? How important is religion in business deals?
Muslims have always considered Christians and Jews as people with recognized religions of their own, hence they have a place in the Islamic scheme of things, and as such are perfectly acceptable people to interact with in all matters except religion.
Don’t forget that Christianity originated over there. Muslims have been dealing with Christianity for at least as long as the Anglo-Saxon peoples have.
But atheism is something that simply will not fit into the worldview, so remains incomprehensible. In the Muslim Middle East, it’s considered normal to ask people what religion they are. If you’re Christian or Jewish, the reaction will be, “Oh, that’s nice.” No big deal. But if you said “atheist,” expect an uncomfortable silence before they either argue with you or quickly change the subject.
I wonder how Collounsbury has managed to get across his nonreligion over there (or else artfully dodge the whole topic).
Not just the Muslim Middle East. If you told an Israeli you were an atheist, he’d pause, think a bit, and then say:“that’s what you believe in - but what are you? A Jewish atheist, Muslim atheist or Christian atheist?”
Religion is not seen a a personal belief system - it’s seen as being part of a group.
I can’t speak for Egypt, but if you are an athiest and let it be known, the Saudis will not grant a residence visa. Theoretically, a person could put “Jewish” on his papers but in practice I wouldn’t want to try it. Likewise, Hindus and Buddhists are singled out for some special treatment as they are considered “idol worshippers.” In Saudi, the best thing to do is just try for another subject.
Jomo: May I ask what you mean by “all matters except religion” as, from my personal experience with Muslims from a number of countries, there’s no problem with discussing religion nor even with accompanying one’s friends to that friend’s services.
Most muslims I know are extremely happy and proud to discuss Islam. They are very willing to answers questions on it. Never in a preachy way either, it’s odd. Whereas strongly christian friends of mine have very often tried to bring Jesus in, etc. (ie into my life too. No Muslim has yet tried to push Mohammed on me).
First, let me say that I am glad my friend came by with his usual productive participation.
As to the question, well personally I am a shifty bastard so I finesse my irreligiousity with all my characteristic style. As often as not, I let people assume I am Xian, if pressed I may or may not make claim to being a simple Deist. My speech in Arabic is sprinkled with all the right religious aphorisms such that I sound actually religious. Habit, cultural habit.
Religion in general, as others have said here, is a matter of social identity, so everyone assumes you’re part of one of the ‘clubs’ - better to be a Zionist than an Athiest in some ways.
In business deals, that’s hard to generalize about. Frankly, I think being a foreigner matters more, within some limits. Certainly being Jewish can provide hurdles - however not all that bad. Being an outspoken Zionist (in a sense of being an outspoken Israel nationalist, as opposed to a softer nationalist.) is the real kiss-of-death in terms of social relations, merely being Jewish generally only invites tedious lectures on the Occupation. Of course so does being American. I must add that despire over-heated claims, one can be Jewish and travel and work in the Arab world. I have a number of friends in this select category. Being hot on Israel will get you in hot water (although if one is skilled reasonable conversations could be had.) Having Israeli stamps in your passport (regardless of your religion) however is a bar in many countries.
In educated circles, I may add, that thinking rather approaches what Alessan has noted - one can be non-practicing and really effectively an atheist, but one still has to be a part of one of the clubs.
All in all, I frankly have found it easier to go without being proslytized here in the Middle East than I did during my brief but horrible exposure to Middle America (presuming here the East Coast Liberal Elite Cities ™ do not count as Middle America).
I split my time between Cairo, Egypt and Amman, Jordan although we have interests in the Gulf as well which takes me down there. At present I work for a fund with a mandate in the region, and which is working on opening an Iraq fund. Why do you ask?