The unbelievers: Post-Alber Saber, more atheists struggle to assert their identity

Five male members of an atheist group congregate in one of Cairo’s crowded downtown bars, sipping beer and Pepsi as they discuss their thoughts on religion, sex, science, culture, politics and Egypt’s new ruling regime.

This group — centered on an atheist website — has been holding weekly meetings since Mohamed Morsy won the presidential election on 24 June. It consists of both former Muslims and former Christians.

Mohamed, the group’s founder, says the group holds weekly get-togethers “as a forum where we can openly speak our minds.” Like the other atheists quoted in this story, his full name has not been used for his own security.

Group members say they do not seek to proselytize for their beliefs. “We are not a church, nor a religion,” one says.

Discussing the ongoing trial of Egyptian atheist Alber Saber on charges of blasphemy, in light of his Facebook posts, the same participant comments that this trial “makes me worried, and has made me think twice before posting my thoughts on Facebook.”

Discussing atheism or criticizing religion in Egypt has typically been done in closed circles like these.

Several Facebook groups about atheism have been “voluntarily” shut down over the past few weeks, and most atheists appear to be keeping a low profile since Saber’s arrest last month. On the other hand, other atheists have been coming out of the closet and expressing their beliefs — or disbelief — as openly as possible.

Coming out

The Internet has connected many non-believers together, introducing them to a virtual community that shares many of their outlooks.

The widespread taboo of “thou shall not question” was gradually weakened with the advent of forums, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and credible research online.

Before the pervasive expansion of social networks in the region, the most prominent blog among non-believers was the Network of Arab Atheists, created in March 2006, Shady, another non-believer, explains.

Though it has been hacked many times, the site acted as a portal for many atheists in Egypt and the region. However, anonymity remained the norm for most members.

Since then, the number of Arab atheist groups, blogs and forums has been dramatically increasing.

Most sites haven’t been set up to promote atheism, as Mohamed explains, but rather as forums for likeminded people to share their thoughts.

He says there’s been a massive increase in new members since the revolution. “The numbers went up dramatically, more than tenfold; it’s as if people were waiting for that space of freedom to express themselves openly.”

Offline meetings are regularly organized through his group, although the locations are never publicly advertised.

What is possible or permissible — in terms of atheists’ freedom of expression — is determined not only by Egypt’s criminal law, but also by law enforcement officials and popular religious sentiment.

The ‘A’ word

In Egypt, atheists represent a small segment of the population that refuses to adhere to religious doctrines. This tendency has been more or less tolerated, as long as atheists keep their beliefs to themselves.

On the other hand, disseminating atheistic views can be viewed as blasphemy, denigration, defamation or contempt of religion — all crimes punishable by law.

Mob violence, as in the case of Saber, is also a threat that some atheists fear.

The state “does not recognize atheism, as a belief or religion, by law,” says Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

Egyptians can’t put “atheist’ on their national ID cards in the space allocated for religion, Azer explains. They must choose from three religions: Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

One atheist, Ahmed, says atheism “is not a religion, it is the lack of religion. I do not want it written on my ID. I don’t want to have any beliefs written on anyone’s ID.”

He explains that, given the conservative nature of society, most other Egyptian atheists would probably be unwilling to have “atheist” written on their ID cards, out of fear of discriminatory treatment or abuse at the hands of officials and employers.

According to the Penal Code, there are three articles criminalizing such affronts.

Article 98(e) stipulates that “the contempt of heavenly religions” by written, oral or any other means is punishable by six months to five years in prison, and/or fines of LE500 to LE1,000.

According to Article 160, the desecration of religious symbols is punishable by imprisonment of up to five years, and/or fines of LE100 to LE500.

Article 161 stipulates that mocking a religion or religious rite in public is a crime carrying the same penalties as Article 160.

Azer says the willingness to tolerate or criminalize atheism is still being tested under President Mohamed Morsy. 

“The Morsy government isn’t clearly against or with these freedoms. We still have the same laws and same mentalities as before,” he says.

Persecute, mute, maybe execute?

While it might be tolerated to one extent or another, atheism is not welcome among religious societies in Egypt. Families can go as far as disowning their own relatives, friends might turn away, and, in more conservative communities, the reactions to atheism and/or atheists can be calamitous.

Neveen, at 27, is a graduate of biology school who lost her faith in religion years ago. Egypt Independent sat in on an informal discussion with her and several of her friends who share a similar understanding of the world.

Their stories of growing up in a country saturated with religious beliefs reveal intolerance to any mindset that deviates from the “God-sent” norms.

“Why are we hated for the way our minds are wired?” she exclaims despondently, sitting with a few friends who share her beliefs. “Why are we scorned, looked down upon and persecuted for our personal logic?”

She recalls being grounded for questioning a verse in the Quran that conflicted with what she had learned in biology about the stages of fetal development. The incident propelled her yearning for knowledge and her choice of career.

Her friend Mohamed says he has been living a secret life, hiding his atheism from his parents since the age of 19, pretending to fast and pray when he’s called to.

“I put my head down and act the way they do. I know they’ll never understand,” he explains in a somber tone.

Conversely, Shady is a non-religious agnostic whose lack of participation in religious traditions like fasting and praying constantly raises the question of “Why?” — a question he refuses to answer for fear of prejudice.

A lack of Abrahamic belief is often associated with an absence of morals. “Many believe the stick-and- carrot dogma of religion is what creates human ethics,” Shady explains.

He then recalls how a Salafi coworker responded to a mention of atheists with “Killing them would not suffice.”

Yet a few atheists also express haughty and judgmental outlooks on their religious counterparts.

For example, Mido says, “I personally see religious people as being mentally ill. I could still love them and befriend them, but I do feel superior to them, to be honest.”

Should I stay or should I go?

Abdel Aziz, an atheist and advocate for freedom of thought, left Egypt for South Africa after failing to find any common ground with the culture he was raised in. Although his family had accepted his way of life, he couldn’t deal with a society that treated him like an outcast.

He recalls the day when he attempted to change the religion slot on his national ID from Muslim to vacant, which ended in a contentious, fruitless argument on both sides.

Ahmed has a different opinion regarding Egyptian mentalities toward atheists.

“I think [atheism] has already been spreading among the community, especially over the last decade,” Ahmed says.

He thinks that “more people will come to question the fundamentals of [religion].”

As for Mido, who has more recently ‘come out’ of the atheist closet, he believes that the ideas are spreading.

“But I don’t see it taking over religion, especially not in Egypt … perhaps in several hundred years,” he says.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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