Rafat Awad fervently preached Islam at his university, encouraging his fellow students to read the Quran and pray. But throughout, the young Palestinian-born pharmacist had gnawing doubts. The more he tried to resolve them, the more they grew.
Finally he told his parents, both devout Muslims, that he was an atheist. They brought home clerics to talk with him, trying in vain to bring him back to the faith. Finally, they gave up.
"It was the domino effect — you hit the first pin and it keeps on going and going," Said Awad, 23, who grew up in the United Arab Emirates and lives there. "I thought: It doesn't make sense anymore. I became a new person then."
An openly self-described atheist is an extreme rarity in the Arab world, where the Muslim majority is on the whole deeply conservative. It's socially tolerated to not be actively religious, to decide not to pray or carry out other acts of faith, or to have secular attitudes. But to outright declare oneself an atheist can lead to ostracism by family and friends, and if too public can draw retaliation from Islamist hard-liners or even authorities.
Still, this tiny minority has taken small steps out of the shadows. Groups on social media networks began to emerge in the mid-2000s. Now, the Arab Spring that began in early 2011 has given a further push: The heady atmosphere of "revolution" with its ideas of greater freedoms of speech and questioning of long-held taboos has encouraged this opening.
One 40-year-old Egyptian engineer, born a Muslim, told The Associated Press he had long been an atheist but kept it a deep secret. The 2011 uprising in Egypt and its calls for radical change encouraged him to look online for others like himself.
"Before the revolution, I was living a life in total solitude. I didn't know anybody who believed like me," he said. "Now we have more courage than we used to have."
His case illustrates the limits on how far an atheist can go. Like most others interviewed by The Associated Press, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, harassment or troubles with his family. His "going public" is strictly online.
Even the Internet is not entirely safe. In most Arab countries, being an atheist is not in itself illegal, but there are often laws against "insulting religion."
Last year, Egyptian Alber Saber, a Christian who identifies as an atheist, was arrested after neighbors complained he had posted an anti-Islam film on his Facebook page. Though he denied it, he was sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy and contempt of religion. Released on bail during appeal in December, he moved to France.
Similarly, a Palestinian atheist, Waleed al-Husseini, was arrested in 2010 in the West Bank town of Qalqilya for allegedly mocking Islam on the Internet. He was held without charge for several months, and after his release also fled to France.
Still, the online space is flourishing. There are some 60 Arabic-language atheist Facebook groups — all but five of them formed since the Arab Spring. They range from "Atheists of Yemen" with only 25 followers, to "Sudanese Atheists" with 10,344 followers.
There are pages that appear dormant, but most maintain some activity. An "Arab Atheist Broadcasting" outfit produces pro-atheism YouTube clips. There are closed groups, like an atheist dating club in Egypt.
Some draw strong negative comment. One responder, calling himself Sam, maintained that "attacking Islam has become the cheapest flight ticket to Europe," a reference to those who have fled their Muslim homelands. Writing on the website Elaph, Sam referred to Westerners who convert to Islam, saying "We Muslims take the best of them and they take the garbage from us."
It is impossible to know the number of atheists in the Arab world, given their secrecy. It is not clear whether the increasing online activity reflects that numbers have risen or simply that more are emerging from isolation. Over a dozen interviews with atheists suggest both. In any case, atheists remain a tiny minority. The Arab Spring uprisings fueled the debate in the region over the role of religion in society and politics, but even secular activists are quick to distinguish themselves from atheists.
Disillusion with the post-revolution rise of Islamists, who demand strict implementation of religious rules, has also prompted some to reassess their beliefs.
Watching the changes pushed Fadwa, an 18-year-old Tunisian woman, from detached agnostic to atheist.
"Before the revolution, people didn't see Islam as the problem, but after the revolution, they saw what political Islam was — and what Islam is," she said.
She says she is now involved in online groups and talks to her friends at university about being an atheist. Because of her beliefs, rumors have been spread around campus that she's promiscuous, she said. But she worries worse could happen, such as being targeted as an apostate — one who has renounced Islam.
Some Muslim theologians say that's a capital offense, but no one is known to have died in recent times for being an atheist. Other sages say atheists should only be punished if they proselytize. Others yet say ex-Muslim atheists should be tolerated, citing the Quranic verse, "There is no compulsion in religion."
Most scholars "differentiate between somebody who has an opinion, and others who disturb the peace of society" by spreading their views, said Jerusalem-based Muslim theologian Mustafa Abu Sway.
Even harder is the social cost. Declaring oneself an atheist can mean breaking from family and friends and networks that determine a Muslim's entire social life.
The online venues give those questioning their faith a space to go through what can be a traumatic process. Many describe years of depression and isolation. The atheists interviewed by AP said online access to like-minded people gave them courage. All said they were surprised to discover other ex-Muslims out there. They also said reading articles online by prominent Western atheists like Britain's Richard Dawkins pushed them along the path.
Theologian Abu Sway said he sees no possibility atheism will spread among Muslim communities. What's happening today is "a phase rather than a serious position," he said. "It could be an expression of dissatisfaction with traditional institutions. We don't have the Richard Dawkins type. We don't have our own serious contender. It's not something systematic."
Mohammed, a 26-year-old Egyptian, says his family still has no idea he considers himself an atheist, even though he has participated in some of the earliest Arab atheist forums online.
"There are people who say we should be brave and speak out. That's just talk," said Mohammed. "I could fight to say what I think, but I won't be able to stay with my family."
He said he was devout as a teenager but grew confused over questions about whether God allows free will — a debated topic in Islamic theology. That, along with science studies, unraveled his faith, he said.
"I couldn't control my thoughts anymore. I began to be divided into two: between my brain and my faith," he said.
The Mideast was once a more tolerant place for questioning religion. In the 1960s and 1970s, secular leftists were politically dominant. It wasn't shocking to express agnosticism. There were even a few vocal atheists, including Abdullah al-Qusseimi, a Saudi writer who died in the 1990s and is revered by Arabs who quit Islam.
But the region grew more conservative starting in the 1980s, Islamists became more influential, and militants lashed out against any sign of apostasy.
Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back, said al-Husseini, the Palestinian atheist now in France.
"I think many people were afraid, but now they see there's people like them. They find courage," he said. "They exist on the internet — they might have fake names, but they are there."
Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid covers the Middle East.
Follow Hadid on twitter.com/diaahadid