Arabs Without God: Chapter 11

By Brian Whitaker

Chapter 11: A taste of freedom?

THE EGYPTIAN uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 created an opportunity for non-believers to emerge from the shadows – more so than in any other Arab country at the time. Atheists appeared on TV talking about their disbelief, they were interviewed in newspapers, they held meetings in public and even called for their rights to be taken into account in the drafting of a new constitution.

A taboo had clearly been broken. Egyptians could no longer avoid the fact that non-believers did exist, even if the vast majority still found the whole idea repugnant and even if the media tended to portray atheists as examples of the moral depths to which Egypt had sunk.

This undoubtedly had some connection with the spirit of revolution that swept the country though opinions differ as to what the exact connection was, and there is probably no single explanation. A distinction should also be made between the visibility of disbelief, a phenomenon that had largely disappeared with the rise of political Islam since the 1960s, and disbelief itself which in some cases may have existed for years without finding a voice.

To some extent, the uprising and the spread of atheistic discourse in Egypt were not so much cause and effect as two products of a single process – a process of questioning and challenging authority in which social media played an important part by facilitating the exchange of information and ideas. But the uprising does seem to have contributed to religious questioning too, perhaps because it brought together so many disparate groups of activists in pursuit of the Mubarak regime’s overthrow and created an ideological melting pot.

“During the revolution,” said Gamal, an atheist who was also a political activist, “young people in general started feeling empowered and were questioning every established idea or institution that there was before the revolution, including religion itself.” But this questioning could not have emerged entirely out of the blue. If the revolt against Mubarak encouraged doubters to shed their inhibitions and brought them into contact with like-minded individuals, the seeds of disbelief had probably been sown earlier – and Gamal regards access to information as a key factor in that. He continued:

I’ve heard people on television or in newspaper columns saying the internet has resulted in the rise of atheism and religious scepticism in general – and I guess that’s a very honest evaluation because the spread of the internet from the early 2000s up until now in Egypt has resulted in immense access to information without any sort of filtering. So if you want to go and read about Christianity from a first-hand source you can go [and find it]. If you want to read about atheism, if you want to read about Islam, or other versions of Islam, if you want to read about the people being vilified by Islamic preachers you can just go and Google them.[i]

Gamal’s own journey towards atheism was shaped mainly by his political activism. “My point of departure was not specifically a departure from Islam; it was a departure from religion in general,” he said. “I thought this whole business of religion is harmful and unnecessary.”

He had grown up in what he describes as a typical conservative Egyptian family. For the first few years of his education he attended a religious school. His father was a teacher who also preached in local mosques on Fridays and Gamal, as a child, would often go with him to hear the sermon. In his mid-teens, Gamal had been inspired by the preaching of Amr Khaled, a former accountant who built a huge popular following by adopting the style of American televangelists. Unlike the often dour imams found in Egyptian mosques, Amr Khaled wore smart suits, talked in plain language with a friendly tone and even cracked jokes. But Gamal’s enthusiasm didn’t last. Within a few years he had become an atheist – though he still hasn’t told his parents and when interviewed he asked not to have any details revealed that could lead to him being identified.

Arabs Without God is available in paperback from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK). It is also available in Arabic (online, free of charge) and in Italian under the title Arabi Senza Dio.

“The cracks started when I was 19 or 20, as a result of politics, mainly,” he said. “I was trying to understand what was wrong with Egypt in terms of governance, its human rights record, the lack of democracy, the corruption, etc, and I was drawn more into the worldly perspective of reforming society. So I started joining protests. We were a bunch of young people from all parties and movements regardless of ideology – with the exception of any Islamist movements of course. We would all get together and organise demonstrations, print leaflets together, hold meetings together. We all had the same basic interest in overthrowing the Mubarak regime and bringing about democracy.”

But the more Gamal became involved in political activism the more he saw religion as an impediment to change.

We would do all these [protest] efforts and then, for example, I would go to a mosque for a Friday sermon and find a Salafi preacher saying it is wrong to protest against a ruler because he is sanctioned by God, or that we have to reform ourselves not the government, and all that trash. He would be really brown-nosing the government. I started seeing the harm in the mixing of religion and politics, and how religious discourse could harm all the efforts that we made as activists trying to better the lives of people and bring about democracy.

Religious teachers would just tell people that this is haram, forbidden – you cannot protest, you cannot question what Hosni Mubarak is doing. They kept diverting attention towards individualistic solutions where people need to pray more, to fast more, to reform their own lives.

When we argued with people who were getting convinced by these arguments it was very hard. We tried to present a logical argument to them based on empirical evidence but they would just bring up verses from the Qur’an and the hadith, or the words of some sheikh or imam.

In Gamal’s view, the Islamist movements – their leaders though not necessarily their grassroots supporters – were far too willing to make compromises with the Mubarak regime:

You have to remember that a central tenet of the Salafi movement and the Muslim Brotherhood prior to 2011 was that they didn’t want to overthrow Hosni Mubarak and his government and they didn’t believe in the option of a revolution. Both of them were very hypocritical towards the figure of Hosni Mubarak and they would just cut deals with him to join the parliament or have some more freedom at mosques and stuff like that.

The insistence that prayer rather than politics would solve Egypt’s problems led Gamal also to reconsider his previous enthusiasm for Amr Khaled who was fond of quoting a verse from the Qur’an which says: “Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they [first] change that which is in their hearts.”[ii] Although Amr Khaled’s style was different from that of traditional preachers, Gamal judged that his underlying message was basically the same:

Two-thirds of what he was talking about was personal development but he was packaging it with religious values and religious inspiration from Islamic history. So he was giving motivational speeches, inspirational stories to make you work hard, to make you study better at school, to make you give charity to the poor.

I am not convinced that there are “moderate” versions and “radical” versions within Islam. There are different preachers who are trying to appease or present religion in certain ways in order to accommodate the concerns or fears of certain segments of society.

So, for example, when Amr Khaled was preaching he was appealing to the middle classes and the upper classes in Egypt who had their kids educated at the American University in Cairo, for example, who had a very liberal lifestyle. If he had come to them and said that men and women have to be separated, that women shouldn’t go to school or work, they wouldn’t comprehend.

Another eye-opening experience came when Gamal started at university, studying western civilisation and thought. “For the first time I was getting exposed to many of the foundational texts in human civilisation – the history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome, along with classical Arab culture, the Renaissance period, the Enlightenment and all those thinkers,” he recalled. He noticed too that the writers he was studying at university were often the same ones that were “getting defamed from the pulpits of mosques during Friday sermons or whenever a preacher was talking about western civilisation as corrupted”. Reading them first-hand, he realised that the texts condemned by preachers were “just about liberty, advancing humanity, human progress, secularism – very normal concepts.”

Hosni Mubarak’s presidency finally came to an end in February 2011, after almost 30 years in power, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces temporarily assumed control. In parliamentary elections a few months later, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and its allies won 235 of the 508 seats in the People’s Assembly. Another group, headed by the Salafi Nour party, won a further 123 seats, giving the assorted Islamists an overwhelming majority. This was followed in June 2012 by a presidential election in which the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, defeated Ahmed Shafik, a former air marshal who had briefly served as Mubarak’s last prime minister.

It was a moment of hubris for the Islamists but Morsi’s victory was not really the triumph that it seemed. The final round of the presidential election had presented voters with an invidious choice between the Brotherhood and a figure from the old regime. Consequently, many had voted for Morsi more out dislike for Shafik and a desire for change than any particular enthusiasm for the Brotherhood. At first, Morsi seemed to recognise that he owed his presidency to voters outside the Brotherhood’s traditional support base. Speaking in Tahrir Square after the result was announced, he hinted at inclusivity:

I affirm to all segments of the Egyptian people that I have today, by your choice and your will, through the favour of Allah, become the president of all Egyptians, wherever they are, at home or abroad, and in all the provinces of Egypt, on its eastern borders and the west, and in the south and north and central Egypt.

I turn to you all on this historic day, in which I have become president of all Egyptians, equally. Everyone will be afforded due respect, without any privilege, except that rendered by their service to our nation and their respect for the constitution and the law.[iii]

Any pretence of inclusivity soon evaporated, however, and the Islamists rapidly lost support. Just five months into his presidency, Morsi issued a decree granting himself what many regarded as dictatorial powers. Although these were said to be temporary, pending the election of a new parliament, the effect was to prevent any of his presidential decisions from being challenged through the courts. Writing in the Guardian, Peter Beaumont noted: “Morsi already has both executive and legislative powers since the dissolution of the parliament’s lower assembly, and has now added what appears to be a monopoly of judicial authority, placing himself beyond the courts while appointing a hand-picked prosecutor without consultation.”[iv] A few weeks later, The Economist gave this assessment of his presidency:

Mr Morsi had promised effective government, an improved economy and a progressive constitution, arrived at by consensus, that addressed the concerns of all. Egyptians now complain instead of a stalled economy, erratic government and a deterioration in already crumbling public services.

Non-Islamists have also been offended by the president’s failure to include them. He even shrugged off an invitation to attend the inauguration of a new Coptic pope, the leader of Egypt’s 10% Christian minority. Islamists also ignored the withdrawal in protest of liberal and Christian members from a 100-person constitution-writing body, which then rushed out its draft, including last-minute sweetener clauses to appease the army.[v]

The new constitution needed broad public support in order to serve as the foundation for post-Mubarak Egypt but instead it became a source of division and continuing controversy. Amid complaints about a lack of proper consultation it was approved in a referendum with 64% of the votes – less than the Brotherhood had been hoping for. The relatively low turnout of just under 33% meant that only about 20% of eligible voters had said “yes” to it and three of Egypt’s 27 provinces actually delivered a majority “no” vote, most notably in Cairo governorate where almost 57% voted against.

In June 2013, Morsi appointed 17 new provincial governors and his choice of Adel al-Khayyat as governor of Luxor, a popular tourist destination, proved especially controversial. Khayyat belonged to the political wing of the Gamaa Islamiyya, which had been widely blamed for the 1997 Luxor massacre in which 58 tourists and four Egyptians were killed. Although the Gamaa had since renounced violence, putting one of its members in charge of Luxor seemed an extremely provocative move. The Gamaa, which was regarded as hostile to tourism and pre-Islamic monuments, had once posted a notice on its website saying: “Because tourist villages have aspects that anger Allah, including alcohol, gambling and other forbidden things, building these hotels and villages is considered aiding their owners in sin and aggression, and is not permitted.” Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper wrily suggested that Morsi chose Khayyat to appease the Gamaa “because it is the only party that stands beside the Brotherhood against the people” [italics added].[vi]

In another move that many regarded as provocative, Morsi appointed an Islamist minister of culture, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, who promptly dismissed the heads of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, the Fine Arts Sector, the Cairo Opera House, and the National Library and Archives.[vii]

Meanwhile, several entertaining scandals led to Islamist figures being publicly mocked for their less-than-holy behaviour. Anwar al-Balkimy, a Salafi member of parliament, attempted to explain his heavily-bandaged face by reporting to police that he had been attacked by robbers who stole $16,000 from him and also tried to take his car. It later emerged that he invented the story to conceal the fact that he had had cosmetic surgery on his nose.[viii] Another Salafi politician, Ali Wanis, was convicted of public indecency after police found him sitting in his parked car “caressing” a female student who was sitting on his lap.[ix]

Suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood

IN JULY 2013 the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule came to an abrupt end. As a new wave of protests swept Egypt the military stepped in, overthrowing Morsi just a year after he had become the country’s first democratically-elected president. When the dust began to settle, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – whom Morsi had earlier promoted to be army chief – emerged as the new regime’s leading figure.

This marked the start of a concerted and often brutal effort to suppress the Brotherhood – an effort which also had public backing from some of the Arab Gulf states. Crushing the Brotherhood was the top priority since they posed the most immediate threat to the new regime’s power. In July and August 2013, police and armed forces repeatedly opened fire to disperse pro-Morsi demonstrators, killing hundreds. Human Rights Watch described the bloodshed as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history”.[x]

While continuing its crackdown on the Brotherhood, the Sisi regime did what most Arab regimes do: it began establishing religious credentials of its own. Sisi himself had been raised in Cairo’s old city – just a stone’s throw from al-Azhar, the ancient seat of Muslim learning – and was widely regarded as pious. The Sisi brand of Islam has often been described as “moderate” but “militantly mainstream” might be a better term. Theologically speaking it was middle-of the-road and relatively bland but it was also illiberal and authoritarian in character.

The result of this was a kind of enforced centrism. While allowing some scope for tolerance – of other monotheistic religions, for example – it set limits on discourse about religion in order to confine it to the middle ground. The main intention, obviously, was to place Islamist theology beyond the bounds of acceptability but at the other end of the spectrum it also meant that atheism, scepticism and liberal interpretations of Islam became forms of extremism.

The new constitution approved by a referendum in January 2014  – the second in little more than twelve months – retained Islam as the religion of the state and “the principles of Islamic sharia” as “the main source of legislation”, though the personal and religious affairs of Christians and Jews were to be regulated by their own versions of “sharia”. The constitution also stated that “the family is the nucleus of society, and is founded on religion, morality, and patriotism”.

Other sections of the constitution misleadingly stated that there should be no discrimination based on religion or belief. Freedom of belief was described as “absolute”, though the practice of Abrahamic religions was to be regulated by law (there was no mention of non-Abrahamic religions) and everyone would “have the right to express his/her opinion verbally, in writing, through imagery, or by any other means of expression and publication”.[xi] Writing for Daily News Egypt, Rana Alam argued that this was at odds with the reality:

How can one guarantee “freedom” when it is limited to the three Abrahamic religions, ignoring the 1,100 million followers [worldwide] of Hinduism or the 488 million Buddhists, to name just two? It also ignores that not following a religion should also be counted as a freedom … one cannot be an atheist in Egypt. One of the strangest things we have here is having our religion documented in our national ID cards (bizarre!) and one cannot get married (for example) without being a follower of one of the three Abrahamic religions. There is no civil marriage in Egypt.

On top of this, even within the three Abrahamic “revealed” religions, Egypt discriminates against Shi’as. Talk of how devious the Shi’as are is all over the TV and newspapers, how Egypt needs to “stop the expansion of the Shi’a beliefs”. In a striking move, Egypt refused Shi’a pilgrims from entering the country several times, even after passing the “progressive” constitution.[xii]

But Shi’a Muslims were not the only ones to feel the effects of this dubious new freedom; Sunni mosques felt it too. Just two weeks after the constitution was approved the government began setting the “theme” for each week’s Friday sermons. Preachers in government-run mosques who failed to comply were threatened with disciplinary action, while non-government mosques were threatened with being taken over by the state.[xiii] Meanwhile, the army was building a huge new mosque, to be named after Mohamed Tantawi, the military chief who had been forcibly retired in 2012 by President Morsi.[xiv] In essence, what this amounted to was the replacement of one authoritarian form of religion with another.

Probably for political reasons, Sisi made efforts to cultivate relations with Egypt’s Christians or, more specifically the Coptic leader, Pope Tawadros. Support from the country’s Christian community – the largest in the Middle East – was of some importance to the regime. Tawadros and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar had both welcomed the military takeover, with Tawadros claiming it would ensure the security of all Egyptians.

The regime reciprocated to some extent though it did little in practice to protect Christians from discrimination and sectarian attacks. Sisi made a point of attending the Coptic Christmas mass and the restrictions on church-building were later partially relaxed. In 2016, when Sisi was due to address the UN general assembly in New York, Pope Tawadros dispatched two bishops from Egypt to help organise a warm welcome from Copts living in the United States. Buses were laid on at the church’s expense to transport Christian pro-Sisi demonstrators to the UN headquarters but in the event only a few turned up.[xv]

In response to that, 800 Egyptian Christians, including authors, academics, activists and professionals, signed an online statement expressing concern about what they saw as the church’s deepening involvement in politics – an involvement that some feared would eventually rebound on them.[xvi]

Regime’s plan to ‘eliminate’ atheism

IN JUNE 2014, little more than a week after Sisi had been elected as Egypt’s new president, al-Ahram reported that the government was preparing a national plan to “confront and eliminate” atheism. According to the newspaper, the plan was being developed by the Ministry of Youth and Sports – apparently reflecting the popular view that atheism is a “youth problem” – and would be multi-faceted, involving “religious, psychological, educational and social” specialists.[xvii]

A few months later, another government-linked newspaper, Al-Shabab, declared that atheists were “the country’s second enemy after the Muslim Brotherhood”, and quoted a psychologist saying that “atheism leads to mental imbalances and paranoia”. An advisor to the Grand Mufti announced that Egypt had more atheists than any other Arab country, adding that while the number was “not very large” it should “ring alarm bells”.

The advisor went on to claim that there were precisely 866 atheists in Egypt (out of a population of around 90 million), 320 atheists in Tunisia, 242 in Iraq, 178 in Saudi Arabia, 170 in Jordan, 70 in Sudan, 56 in Syria, 34 in Libya, and 32 in Yemen. These unbelievably exact figures, which attracted some ridicule, were said to have come from international research by an “independent polling and survey group” called Red C.[xviii] A research and marketing company of that name, based in Dublin, described the claim as “strange” and said it was not the source of information. It had done some polling on religiosity, but only in Ireland.[xix]

Atheists, along with gay people, Baha’is and Shia Muslims, were one of the small and weak minorities who could be conveniently made a scapegoat for Egypt’s problems. A further reason for targeting atheists was that they could also be fitted into an anti-Brotherhood narrative: that Morsi’s 12 months of mis-rule had started to turn people against religion.

“This atheist movement has occurred, for the first time in the history of Egypt, during the year that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were in power”, columnist Helmi al-Namnam claimed in an interview on Dream TV. “Oppression and religion became equated in the minds of the people. So what we are seeing [with the emergence of atheism] is … a response against a failing, intellectually poor, Muslim Brotherhood government. This government was weak and too old-fashioned in its beliefs and actions, even when compared with modern Islamic thoughts and jurisprudence.”[xx]

Khaled Diab, a journalist who has written about atheism in Egypt and who is himself an atheist, disagrees. “For people who abandoned their faith or never really had it to begin with, I don’t think Morsi’s presidency had any impact on their abandoning their faith. If that were the case there wouldn’t be a centuries-long history of non-belief in Egypt and the Arab world. Quite a few of them lost their faith long before the revolution and what came after it. Some have been atheists for a very long time.”

Among Egypt’s mainstream media the issue of atheism seems to have started attracting attention during the first post-Mubarak elections to parliament where Islamists made a strong showing. It then grew during Morsi’s presidency and subsequently in the wake of his overthrow by the military, Diab said:

The media started dealing with it quite intensely, especially following Morsi’s ousting. It seems they were trying to suggest or say that that interpretation of Islam had driven people to non-belief. The government seemed to be using it for propaganda purposes – that Egypt was undergoing a crisis of faith, mainly because of the Muslim Brotherhood – which, to be charitable, is oversimplifying to the nth degree and to be non-charitable is absolute bollocks.

All the atheists I’ve interviewed didn’t make a real connection between the Brotherhood and their loss of faith, though the Brothers certainly did not lure them to “repent”. Their loss of faith was usually an intellectual, or even a spiritual, process. Quite a number of them were [initially] looking to deepen their faith or understand their faith.

Nevertheless, Diab agrees that the overthrow of Mubarak and its aftermath did make a difference where belief and non-belief are concerned, though not in the way the regime’s propagandists were suggesting. He continued:

The revolution made non-believers bolder and more open, it led others to question everything and it made society (not the establishment) more open to tolerating difference. Egyptians generally, even if they are believers, have become a lot more open-minded about other belief systems – they accept that not everyone has to be on the same line. You can still be a good person and a non-believer, for example. You can be a bad person and a believer.

I think that’s where the Muslim Brotherhood perhaps had a bit of an influence in that a lot of people may have voted for them because they saw them as pious men who were well organised and would take care of the country. The realisation that just because you are pious doesn’t mean you are good has also switched on a light bulb in a lot of people’s heads. It follows that not being pious doesn’t mean you are bad.

Another factor is that the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood have a holier-than-thou attitude and think they are the only ones who have the right version of Islam. One effect of that has been not so much to drive people away from religion but to make them aware that anyone could be branded a kafir [unbeliever], potentially. If someone who is a practising Muslim can be branded a kafir by these extremists, people will ask: “Where is it going to stop?”[xxi]

Atheism is not in itself illegal in Egypt but blasphemy is. Just a few months after Sisi came to power Sherif Gaber, a student at Suez Canal University, was arrested in dramatic circumstances when armoured cars surrounded his home at three o’clock in the morning. He was later sentenced to a year in jail for “contempt of religions”. According to Gaber, a lecturer had printed out and circulated posts from his Facebook page which questioned religion. Staff and students then organised a petition to the university’s president who in turn reported him to the local prosecutor. A lawyer supporting Gaber told the press that Egyptian universities encourage students to report any of their fellow students who have “different political and ideological thoughts” so that the security services can be informed.[xxii]

In an email published on the internet, Gaber said he had once been very religious but “started to see the contradictions between the Quran and scientific facts” and, after thinking about it for a couple of years, became an atheist. “My family hasn’t talked to me for more than four months,” he wrote. “I lost the majority of the people I thought were my friends and for about a year now half the people on my street don’t talk to me .. I’ve got threats every single day on my phone and my Facebook account… “[xxiii]

Early in 2015 another Egyptian student, Karim al-Banna, was given a three-year sentence after declaring himself an atheist on Facebook. In court, Banna’s father testified against him, identifying “suspect” books in his son’s possession and accusing him of “embracing extremist ideas against Islam”.[xxiv]

Sisi’s first year as president also saw the “atheist café” affair. The café, in Falaky Street, a short walk from Tahrir Square, was abruptly shut down; its doors were sealed and its contents confiscated. The formal pretext was that it had been operating without authorisation but officials made a point of claiming it had been frequented by atheists. The atheists, very implausibly, were alleged to have been using it for Satanic worship. Before its closure the café had attracted a largely secular and left-leaning clientele and was also known as a gay hang-out. Its closure it seems to have been part of the general crackdown on social and political nonconformity but linking it specifically to atheism helped to ensure the authorities’ action would gain popular support.[xxv]

Voices of non-believers

TOWARDS the end of 2013, the Cairo newspaper El Badil posted a video on its website which showed eight young Egyptians speaking about their lack of religious belief and the prejudice they faced as a result. “It is not easy for other people to accept that I am irreligious,” one said. “At work, if people knew about it, I would be jobless,” another added. “Our demands are very simple and basic,” said a third (an ex-Salafi). “We wish only to have the same rights that any other Egyptian citizen has.”[xxvi]

The non-believers – six men and two women – were named in the film and all but one showed their face to the camera. The 12-minute video presented their views in a matter-of-fact way without commenting on them. In many countries this would be scarcely worth noting but in terms of Egypt’s Arabic-language media it was highly unusual – some say unprecedented. If reported at all, such views would normally be condemned or, at a very least, countered with others opposed to them.

When an Arabic satellite channel known as Honest TV decided to tackle atheism in its Redline talk show, the host, Mohamed Moussa, explained that the programme was part of a war against “destructive ideas”, since atheism is a foreign plot. Mostafa Zakareya, an atheist from Alexandria who had bravely (or perhaps foolishly) agreed to appear in the programme told viewers he had no desire to “insult religions” but simply wanted Egyptians to accept him as an atheist. “I’m not here to say that Islam is bad or to criticise religion, I’m here to say that everyone is free to choose his faith, and that people should understand that religious beliefs should remain personal,” he said. “We need to deal with each other as humans.”

Responding to Zakareya’s remarks, Sheikh Gomaa Mohamed Ali, a well-known cleric, called for him to be arrested and executed. The sheikh claimed that atheism is a “new phenomenon” that has been “coined by the Zionists”. Not to be outdone – and despite the fact that atheism is not actually illegal in Egypt – the head of Alexandria’s Security Directorate also told the programme he was forming a special task force of police officers specialised in tackling such “crimes” to round up atheists.[xxvii]

Egyptian TV discussions of atheism are generally so tilted towards belief as to be unfair, according to Amira Nowaira, professor of English literature at Alexandria University:

Even when they say “Today we will talk about atheism”, they see it as a problem, as something to be combated, not something that exists. It’s very much like the way they talk about homosexuality, for example. If they do, it is always with the implication that it should be fought.

The whole argument is tilted towards the necessity of having belief and making young people stick to their beliefs. I have never seen anything that was really fair to people with doubts. The person conducting the interview is never neutral. I think they are worried in case they are seen to be encouraging atheists, so they go too far the other way in order to stress that they are not in favour of atheism. [xxviii]

When atheist Ismail Mohamed appeared on al-Mehwar channel in 2013, a theologian from al-Azhar University was on hand to explain to viewers why atheism is a crime:

Firstly, it goes against the law of sovereignty regarding the state. That’s number one.

Secondly, propagating atheism only results in doubting the revealed religions, and is considered a form of contempt for religions. That’s number two.

Number three: … Intellectual deception is considered in itself a form of crime against the mind, and that is when you intentionally mislead someone naïve … that there is no God and that life is material ... [xxix]

Ostensibly, the purpose of the programme was to discuss a call by Ismail Mohamed and several other atheists for the rights of non-believers to be taken into account in the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution. But the discussion did not get very far. As Mohamed attempted to respond to the theologian, the programme’s presenter, Reham al-Sahli repeatedly pressed him to explain how he had “benefited” from atheism:

Sahli: Excuse me Mohamed, but I’m asking you a question, how have you benefited –

Mohamed: Not at all.

Sahli: I have to ask you –

Mohamed [to interviewer]: How have you benefited from religion?

Sahli: Everything, my whole life has benefited from religion –

Mohamed: Firstly, I too have benefited in every way, I have very beautiful and wonderful humanity …

Sahli: Ah –

Mohamed: But that’s not the question

Sahli: You mean you benefited from atheism?

Mohamed: The idea the whole idea is, there are things which have to be clarified a bit, we’re not making clear –

Sahli: How have you benefited from atheism?

Mohamed: I’ve not benefited, there is no benefit … All there is to it is that I have changed, I used to believe something particular and now I believe something else. I’m a human being just like you, I’m an Egyptian citizen, in society, and that’s my freedom in my opinion. As for the idea that we’re propagating (atheism), we’re not propagating anything at all. We don’t want people to become atheists, to leave their religions, but –

Sahli: Are you happy with your atheism, Mohamed?

Mohamed: Excuse me, please, let me speak a bit.

Sahli: mm –

Mohamed: Talk about atheism and that it’s a crime and so on … If that’s the case then we should confiscate the many books by philosophers in our libraries and universities because there are many philosophers whose philosophy we study, philosophers today say things like that, when we study for instance the books of Nietzsche, someone who said “God is dead” – I mean, just as an example, does that mean that now –

Sahli [interrupting, apparently horrified at the mention of God being dead]: May God forgive me.

Discussion then turned to the new constitution:

Sahli: What do you want from the constitution?

Mohamed: We want a state of the Egyptian citizen.

Sahli: That’s the first question you’ve answered today.

Mohamed: Yes, Madam, yes, the question is very important, the question is about destiny, it concerns the future of us all–

Sahli: Destiny? What –

Mohamed: We’re calling for a state of the citizen, where there’s no difference between Muslim and Christian, where a Christian for example can become president of the republic, where there’s no … it was forbidden for a while, I think until now, for a Christian person to become President of the Republic …

Sahli: … Christians are represented by the church which calls for their rights, what do you want?

Mohamed: We’re against giving preference to the priesthood or we’re against control …

Sahli: You as an atheist, what do you want from the constitution?

Mohamed: I’m speaking as an Egyptian citizen

Sahli: Ah.

Mohamed: I’m speaking as an Egyptian citizen-

Sahli: … but also as an atheist

Mohamed: No, madam, I’m speaking as an Egyptian citizen, I … I’m not concerned with what people believe, I’m not concerned with what you believe …

Sahli: You, as atheists, you’ve asked to be heard, so what do you want to propose that’s different to the rest of the Egyptians citizens, all of whom are represented in the constitution?

Mohamed: As I told you, that’s a very clear and simple example, it was forbidden for a Christian citizen to be nominated as candidate to the presidency …

Frustrated by the course of the discussion, Mohamed complained that he was not being given a proper opportunity to speak and apologised to viewers and “all my friends”. This provided a cue for Sahli to introduce the familiar meme of atheism as a foreign plot. Were these friends outside Egypt, she asked.

Mohamed: No, madam, we’re Egyptians, all of us are Egyptians, let me –

Sahli: You are not in touch with anyone abroad?

Mohamed: No, madam, we’re Egyptian young people. I mean, we’re not stooges or spies –

Sahli: No one said you were a spy, but let me move to the break.

Viewers calling in to the programme poured further scorn on Mohamed, some accusing him of causing social “strife” and/or being involved in a foreign plot (though one of them also thought he was part of a devious scheme concocted by the Muslim Brotherhood). Among the callers was Mohamed’s own mother who blamed “the computer” for his atheism and said his siblings were too upset to watch the programme.

Not everyone regarded Mohamed’s TV appearance as a disaster, however. Hisham Kassem, a prominent journalist and rights activist suggested that allowing him to appear at all was a breakthrough of sorts. “I was sitting there amazed,” he said. “I never thought I would see this in my lifetime.”

In a similarly unenlightening fashion, Ayman Ramzy Nakhla, a college librarian who had abandoned Christianity, was interviewed by Reham Said for al-Nahar TV:[xxx]

Said: What’s your religion?

Nakhla: I’m from a Christian background.

Said: What do you mean by “background”?

Nakhla: I was a Christian, but now I’m a humanist. When I was born my parents were Christians so they put “Christian” on my birth certificate. I was Christian for many years, now I’m a humanist.

Said: No one said you were an animalist … [Laughter]

Nakhla: I don’t place religion in the circle of my interest – it’s not something I’m interested in or concerned with …

Said: Don’t you believe in God?

Nakhla: It’s not something I’m concerned with. My concern is human beings.

Said: So you mean I fall within your concern?

Nakhla: Yes, of course …

The interview continued with Nakhla insisting that divinity and religions were “outside my circle of concern” and that his only concern was how to live as a decent human being. This prompted Said to ask him repeatedly “Who created humans?” and then to suggest he had become “confused” by reading books.

Said: I want to know – what happened that made you take this decision?

Nakhla: It was an intellectual development.

Said: Or was it sitting in the library reading?

Nakhla: I’ve read thousands of books.

Said: So who confused you?

Nakhla: There’s no confusion. I consider that my intellectual development brought me to this point.

Said: Aren’t you afraid?

Nakhla: Of what?

Said: Suppose there’s a one per cent chance you are wrong?

Nakhla: That’s my personal decision.

Said [continuing her question]: … and you went down into your grave and discovered that actually there is a God?

Nakhla: This is my personal decision. And no one is going to impose death on me, and decide that I am wrong and therefore kill me, because he is not the one who gave me life.

Said: So who did?

Nakhla: My parents gave birth to me.

Said: So who created them?

Nakhla: Their parents and grandparents

Said: I’m going to cry now

Nakhla: Why? No don’t

Said: Because I’m affected by what you said – so you really do have this boldness.

Nakhla: I’m not afraid of tomorrow or the future.

Said: But aren’t you afraid people think you are a kafir [unbeliever]? Does the word worry you?

A few weeks later, the education minister announced that Nakhla was suspended from work in the college library and would be referred to the public prosecutor for spreading ideas that were “atheistic and abnormal for Egyptian society”. He was accused of “denying the existence of God and denying religions, prophets and holy books, directly by satellite and indirectly within the educational institution”.[xxxi]

Even when television programmes attempt to generate more light than heat, the dice are still heavily loaded in favour of belief. Moez Masoud is a TV preacher but, unlike many of the traditional religious figures, is willing to engage with doubters in a less judgmental way. Modern, cosmopolitan and still relatively young, having been born in 1978, he talks more about God’s compassion than divine punishments and emphasises the spiritual side of Islam.

Masoud seems to have recognised three simple points that old-fashioned clerics mostly fail to grasp. One is that threats of God’s punishment don’t necessarily scare doubters into submission and may actually increase their doubts. Another is that doubters tend to resent being told that their questions are taboo or being urged to trust God and stop worrying. The third is that people who have given up on organised religion still often yearn for something “spiritual” in their lives. For Masoud, doubts about religion are not the work of Satan or the result of foreign plots. They are understandable if mistaken, and should be confronted rather than instantly dismissed. With this more subtle approach Masoud presented a series of programmes on Egyptian TV during Ramadan 2012, under the tile Rihlat al-Yaqiin (“The Journey of Certainty”). In the 15-minute broadcasts Masoud debated the ideas of such “prominent atheists” as Nietzsche, Darwin and Dawkins – though always with the aim of refuting them. Commenting in the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, Mohammed Kheir wrote:

Masoud tends to confuse scientists and philosophers, such as Darwin and Nietzsche, to whom atheism was not the main cause per se, with public figures who openly advocated atheism throughout their lives – such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and Sir Anthony Flew.

This … has led the show to often explain atheism as either the result of psychological problems, such as “when Darwin lost his young daughter,” or as causing psychological problems itself, such as Nietzsche’s “mental breakdown in his later life” ...

But the positive trait that sets Masoud’s television programme apart is that it has not repeated common mistakes such as claiming that the theory of evolution holds that “humans are descended from monkeys”.

[Masoud] did not claim, either, to have the scientific background that allows him to debate evolution, and was honest with his viewers when he spoke about the fact that Darwin did not directly clash with the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith …

Such a rare “logical” explanation in the world of religious television programmes is probably the most distinguishing feature … as well as the fact that it also allows for counter-arguments rather than ignoring them as was the case in the past.[xxxii]

Al-Mulhid (“The Atheist”), released in 2014, was said to be the first film in the history of Egyptian cinema to tackle the subject of atheism. It aroused controversy while still being made – mainly because of its title – but in an interview with al-Ahram newspaper director Nader Seif El-Din insisted the film was not “pro-atheism” and would discuss “a major social problem we have today”.[xxxiii] He elaborated on the film’s purpose in an interview with al-Arabiya:

When asked why he decided to tackle an issue that is likely to cause a lot of problems if only because of the film’s name, Seif al-Din replied that he had noticed that the number of atheists in Egypt is increasing and that they have started calling for their rights. This, he said, made him feel that it is necessary to make a film that addresses the problem and that highlights the misconceptions endorsed by atheists.[xxxiv]

Al-Mulhid was eventually approved by religious scholars at al-Azhar (who had earlier been consulted about the script) as well as the Egyptian government’s censors but by then it was already doomed – apparently because of the contentious nature of its title. Fearing protests, cinemas were reluctant to show it and reportedly only 15 copies of the film were produced for distribution.[xxxv] It tells the story of a Muslim preacher and his atheist son, Nadir: “The preacher is also the presenter of a religious programme on a satellite channel and starts becoming the laughing stock of viewers after his son’s beliefs become known. He gets calls on air telling him he is not fit for preaching since he is unable to make his son believe in God.”[xxxvi] Far from advocating atheism, however, the message of the film appears to be that disbelief can kill: Nadir’s father dies, unable to cope with the horror of having an atheist son.

While Arabic-language media tended to sensationalise atheism, feeding off popular prejudices and also reinforcing them, Egypt’s English-language media often approached it in a more factual and balanced way. Material produced in English, almost by definition, is aimed at a fairly select market and normally goes unnoticed by the masses. This often gives publishers a bit more latitude where sensitive topics are concerned.

In 2012, for example, the Egypt Independent reported critically on the trial of Alber Saber who was eventually convicted of blasphemy and “contempt of religion”.[xxxvii] Other articles have taken a straightforward look at the phenomenon of atheism in Egypt and the problems non-believers can face. One article, which quoted ex-Christians as well as ex-Muslims, began:

In a religious country such as Egypt, despite atheism being a taboo highly frowned upon, atheists say their numbers are on the rise. But with any new movement taking hold, a cultural backlash is bound to ensue.

“In an attempt to understand the tribulation faced by Egypt’s atheists, Egypt Independent met with 15 atheists, mostly in their twenties, at a café in downtown Cairo ...

It went on to explain that “being young and atheist can be particularly difficult, especially [for] those currently financially dependent on their families, for fear that revealing their true beliefs will cause them to be alienated and financially cut off from their parents”.[xxxviii]

These interviews were the work of Mounir Adib, a journalist who had also written a book in Arabic about atheism in Egypt. While presenting debates between atheists and believers and exploring “the relationship between political rebellion and religious rebellion”, Adib made clear, however, that his book was not encouraging atheism: it presented “scientific and religious refutations” of atheist ideas and gave examples of doubters who eventually became believers.[xxxix]

At the end of 2013, Daily News Egypt listed the fourteen most-read columns that had appeared on its website during the year – and three of them dealt specifically with atheism. One, headed “A generation of atheists” and written by a concerned mother whose twelve-year-old son had “suddenly started disrespecting sheikhs”, accused the clerics of giving Islam a bad name:

Although I am not exactly a model of religiosity myself, it pained me to see such disdain from my boy towards those who are supposed to be holy men. And the worst part was that I could not defend the sheikhs, given that I do not want him to listen to the monstrosities these men utter. We are now all torn between the reality of our religion, and the message coming from the bearded bunch. What are we supposed to tell our kids?[xl]

Another column discussed the case of a former Muslim Brotherhood member who announced on his blog that he was putting religion “on hold”. Young people, it said, are “feeling alienated by every Friday sermon that lacks substance or labels all non-Islamists as heretics and un-Egyptian”.[xli]

Blaming extremism and out-of-touch preachers for the rise of atheism serves a political purpose and may to some extent reassure more moderate believers. But imagining that the atheist “problem” will disappear if extremism is dealt with fails to recognise that atheists have fundamental objections to religion itself. Khaled Diab, an Egyptian living outside the country, addressed these core issues directly in a column headed “Confessions of an Egyptian infidel”. Childhood doubts over why his English friends would be going to hell when they eventually died had “matured into questions over the status of women and sexuality, as well as the contradictions and scientific errors in the Quran”, he said, adding:

That’s not to mention the more metaphysical and philosophical questions, such as why a just and loving God would intentionally create a flawed being whom he places in a test of which the omnipresent, omniscient deity already knows the outcome. Of course, I’m not singling out Islam – the same and similar questions apply to other religions.[xlii]

Diab stated in his column that this was the first time he had declared his disbelief in an Egyptian newspaper and he expected some readers to be offended. “Although I do not wish to insult people’s most intimate beliefs,” he wrote, “I believe I also have a right to express my heartfelt convictions, and ones which I arrived at after years of doubt, questioning, hesitation and thought.” Interestingly though, and perhaps because of the article’s carefully non-inflammatory tone, there were no untoward repercussions. Asked later about the response, Diab replied:

All in all, the reaction was positive. The article was widely read and it generated a lot of curiosity and interest. What was noteworthy, given all the buzz around Muslim attitudes to atheism and apostasy, was the absence of fanatical condemnation. The general reaction seemed to be that even if we don’t agree with you we accept your right to express your views. The article even enabled me to connect with the growing community of non-believers.[xliii]

A sign of the changing times, perhaps. Or possibly Diab was just fortunate that nobody complained. The events of 2011 opened up a space for non-believers but the law keeps them guessing as to what can be safely said and Egypt still has a very long way to go before atheists can hope to be regarded as normal, rational people.

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[i]. Author’s interview, April 2014. Gamal is a pseudonym.

[ii]. Qur’an 13: 11, Al-Rad (Pickthall’s translation). For repeated use of this verse see, for example, Amr Khaled’s message ‘To the Youth of the Muslim Omma’.

[iii]. Speech by President Morsi in Tahrir Square, 24 June 2012.

[iv]. Beaumont, Peter: “Morsi ‘power grab’ angers Egypt opposition groups.” The Guardian, 23 November 2012.

[v]. “Egypt’s constitutional referendum: A dubious yes.” The Economist, 22 December 2012.

[vi]. Whitaker, Brian: “Egyptian provinces need elected governors.” Blog post, 18 June 2013.

[vii]. Whitaker, Brian: “Artists versus Islamists in Egypt’s culture war.” Blog post, 20 June, 2013

[viii]. “Egypt MP quits over nose job cover-up.” Al-Jazeera, 6 March 2012.

[ix]. “Egypt Salafist ex-MP convicted of public indecency.” BBC, 21 July 2012.

[x]. “Egypt: Security Forces Used Excessive Lethal Force”. Human Rights Watch, 19 August 2013.

[xi]. “Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt, 2014.” Unofficial English translation.

[xii]. Allam, Rana: “A constitution not worth its ink.” Daily News Egypt, 19 February 2014.

[xiii]. “Egypt mosques: Weekly sermon themes set by government.” BBC, 31 January 2014.

[xiv]. Abdelhadi, Magdy: “The age of unreason.” Blog post, 16 April 2014.

[xv]. Whitaker, Brian: “Grovelling to Sisi: Egypt’s Coptic pope”., 23 September 2016.

[xvi]. “Egypt’s Coptic church criticized over pro-government rallies”. Associated Press, 21 Sepember 2016.

[xviii]. “Survey claims 866 atheists in Egypt, highest in Arab World”. Mada Masr, 10 December 2014.

[xix]. Email to the author from Sinead Mooney, joint managing director of Red C, 15 December 2014.

[xx]. Quoted by Samaan, Magdy: “Atheists Rise in Egypt.” Zam Magazine, 13 October 13.

[xxi]. Author’s interview, April 2014.

[xxii]. Nader, Emir: “Egyptian student given prison sentence for atheist Facebook posts”. Daily News Egypt, 17 February 2015.

[xxiii]. Whitaker, Brian: “Atheist student faces jail in Egypt”., 30 October 2013.

[xxiv]. “Egypt: 3-Year Sentence for Atheist”. Human Rights Watch, 13 January 2015.

[xxv]. Whitaker, Brian: “Egypt’s unholy war against minorities”., 15 December 2014.

[xxvii]. “Police vow to arrest Alexandria-based atheists.” Mada Masr, 26 March 2014.

[xxviii]. Author’s interview, April 2014.

[xxxi]. Elwatannews, 13 May 2014, and Sout al-Umma, 13 May 2014, (both reports in Arabic).

[xxxii]. Kheir, Mohammed: “Egyptian TV: Darwin, Nietzsche, and a Certain God.” Al-Akhbar, 1 August 2012. See also: Kazim, Butheina: “In the company of Moez Masoud.” Al-Jazeera, 17 August 2012.

[xxxiii]. Montasser, Farah: “Al-Molhid (The Atheist) Egyptian film praises Islam, says film crew.” Ahram Online, 25 November 2012.

[xxxiv].”Controversial Egyptian film ‘The Atheist’ gets go ahead by censors.” Al-Arabiya 14 March 2012.

[xxxvi]. “Controversial Egyptian film ‘The Atheist’ gets go ahead by censors.” Al-Arabiya 14 March 2012.

[xxxvii]. Shams El-Din, Mai: “Rights groups condemn detention of atheist on blasphemy charges.” Egypt Independent, 24 September 2012.

[xxxviii]. Adib, Mounir: “While atheism in Egypt rises, backlash ensues.” Egypt Independent, 30 September 2013.

[xxxix]. Dawakhly, Sherif al-: “New book at Cairo’s book fair tackles atheism.” Egypt Independent, 25 January 2014.

[xl]. Allam, Rana: “A generation of atheists.” Daily News Egypt, 7 January 2013.

[xli]. Abdelfattah, Mohamed: “Leaving Islam in the age of Islamism.” Daily News Egypt, 24 January 2013.

[xlii]. Diab, Khaled: “Confessions of an Egyptian infidel.” Daily News Egypt, 15 August 2013.

[xliii]. Author’s email correspondence, March 2014.