The Rise of Iraq’s Young Secularists

By Alice Su

Rayyan Hadidi was 18 years old when he lost his faith. It was July 2006, and he was on his way to school when he stumbled upon a cheering crowd that had gathered near a local mosque. The group, made up mostly of mosque leaders and worshippers, had encircled two men accused of volunteering with the Iraqi police force, which many saw as a puppet of the American occupiers. Al-Qaeda gunmen brandished their arms, preparing to execute the men, as the crowd shouted, “Allahu akbar.” Hadidi stared at the two men, flinching when he made eye contact with one of them just before they were both shot.

“I couldn’t forget this, ever. The way they were looking, the ones who were dying,” Hadidi told me when we met this spring in a café across the street from the University of Mosul. Like many Arabs in Mosul, he grew up as a conservative Sunni who fasted and prayed regularly. Islam was as much an inherited cultural identity as it was a blueprint for dreamed-of justice and a better life under God’s laws, an escape from the authoritarianism of Saddam Hussein and the chaos of post-invasion Iraq. His family, like most others in Mosul, accepted the word of the Quran without question.

But the execution haunted Hadidi. He began reading philosophy, history, and writing that was critical of Islam—dangerous stuff that he shared with his conservative family, who eventually cut off communication with him. Repelled by the extremism he’d witnessed, Hadidi told me that he began working with the American forces, which led to threats on his life from militants. He fled to Turkey in 2011, where he took to social media to write about the shortcomings of political Islam.

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