Atheist student faces jail in Egypt

A 20-year-old Egyptian student has been arrested and could face up to six years in jail after he allegedly set up a Facebook page calling for atheism.

Although it is not actually illegal to be an atheist in Egypt, Sherif Gaber, a student in the commerce faculty at Suez Canal University, is accused of "spreading atheism" and "insulting religions". After appearing before a prosecutor he was transferred to national security for further investigation.

Sherif Gaber

In his last known Facebook post, Gaber (or Jaber) says he was reported to the university by a fellow student and humiliated by a professor. It appears that the university then alerted the Egyptian authorities.

"I'm not afraid of anything," Gaber wrote in his Facebook post. "I will continue to express my opinion even if they put the sword to my neck." He ends by saying: "I hope this is not the last message I write to you. And I hope that if something happens to me, you will not be silent and will speak out loud because here the living die." 

Palestinian atheist Waleed al-Husseini has also circulated an email said to come from Gaber, which describes the problems Gaber has been facing in Egypt:

"Hi, my name is sherif gaber (Yamirasu) from Egypt. I was taught to be a Muslim; for that my dad sent me to some Sheiks, so I memorised the Quran and more than 1000 (Hadith) until I became very religious but then I started to see the contradictions between the Quran and scientific facts, and day by day for 2 years after searching and reading I knew the truth. 

"Then I became an atheist and hid it for a few months. Then I admit it despite knowing that I might get killed any moment .. My family hasn’t talked to me for more than 4 months and 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 … "

A "Sharif Gaber freedom" page has been set up on Facebook here. Under Article 98 of Egypt's penal code anyone convicted of offending religion in any form can face up to six years in prison, according to al-Ahram newspaper. 

Most of the Arab countries have laws which allow charges to be brought against people expressing anti-religious views that are deemed to have offended believers. Muslims who abandon their faith also risk being accused of apostasy – and this applies to people who are considered Muslims simply as a result of being born into a Muslim family.

As far as Arab society is concerned, openly declaring a disbelief in God is a shocking and sometimes dangerous thing to do. It can lead to being ostracised by family, friends and the local community – as seems to have happened in Gaber's case. (I discussed this in more detail in a blog post last August and several Arab atheists also came forward to tell their personal stories.)

Despite the problems, various reports suggest that increasing numbers of Arabs are being attracted to atheism – or at least are becoming more vociferous about their disbelief.

In an article for Salon, Khaled Diab (an Egyptian who recently "
came out" as a non-believer) quotes a friend as saying: "I reckon the reasons behind the rise in the number of atheists in Egypt are the Muslim Brotherhood and other faith merchants, because people uncovered their lies."

But while Diab says this notion has "a certain appeal", linking the Brotherhood's disastrous year in office to the growth of atheism may be more wishful than actual. That has probably caused people to reject political Islam rather than religion itself: 

When after eight decades of waiting in the wings, the Muslim Brotherhood were finally put to the test, millions of Egyptians lost what faith they once had in Islamism, and its passing off of illusions as solutions, but not in Islam itself.

Ayman Abdel-Fattah, a wealthy businessman and staunch atheist in his late 40s, believes that what Morsi and the Brotherhood unintentionally succeeded in doing was to “force people to think about and evaluate the position of religion, in which sphere it belongs.”

“I think they showed people, even a lot of their former sympathisers, that it doesn’t matter what you think about religion, that religion belongs in a separate sphere,” he elaborates.

Writing for The ZAM Chronicle, Magdy Samaan says:

"There are scores of websites and social media pages now using the words atheist and atheism in Egypt, among them 'Egyptian Atheists', 'Atheists Without Borders', 'Atheists Brotherhood', 'atheists against religions', 'Atheist and proud', 'Egyptian Atheist', and 'I am an atheist'. 

"The internet, together with the revolutionary mood, has encouraged more and more people to break the silence in this regard. The movement has even gone beyond the relative anonymity of the internet. Last February, one of the Cairo mosques hosted a debate between a group of atheists and Muslim clerics. Most of the participants on the atheist side were young people."

Samaan continues:

"Whilst the atheist wave is decidedly middle class and many poor people continue to find support in religious structures ... even high school students in the 14-15 year age group are questioning religion nowadays. Muslim cleric and manager of the religious organisation Al Gsour, Fadel Suleiman, conducted an anonymous survey among this category of youngsters and found the results 'scary'. 'They said that they can’t deal with a God who is unfair, with life that is unfair. This is a serious issue which needs serious study,' Suleiman said in an interview. 

"He added that, every day, he sees about three young atheist people 'brought in by their parents' in the hope that he can do something about them. 'Before, it was Christianity that people converted to. Now, it is atheism'."

The cleric also suggested the Muslim Brotherhood's reign was at the root of many of these conversions. However, Samaan notes that while Egypt's current military-led regime is firmly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, it is not pro-secularism. 

Diab makes a similar point, saying that "in the high stakes and dirty battle for the soul of Egypt between the military and the Brothers, the top brass are quite happy to promote the idea that the Islamists aren't 'real Muslims'."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 30 October 2013