Egyptian minister likens 'atheists and queers' to terrorists

Atheism is like terrorism and is part of an orchestrated plot to destroy Arab countries, an Egyptian government minister claimed last week.

"The ideas of atheists, queers and extremists are time bombs" like the bombs of terrorists, Muhammad Mukhtar Juma'a, minister of awqaf (religious endowments), is reported to have told a meeting of officials.

Atheism in the Arab region is "directed and funded" as part of a "systematic war to break up societies and shake national loyalty", he said.

The minister's remarks come less than a month after the Egyptian parliament's committee on religion announced plans to make disbelief in God a crime.

While battling against an Islamist insurgency, the regime has made combating atheism one of its priorities. In 2014, little more than a week after Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was sworn in as president, the government said it was preparing a national plan to “confront and eliminate” atheism. 

A few months later Al-Shabab, a government-linked newspaper, stated that atheists were “the country’s second enemy after the Muslim Brotherhood”.

The Egyptian regime's moves may have been inspired by Saudi Arabia which had earlier introduced a law designating promotion of "atheist thought" as an act of terrorism.

During the last few years several Egyptians have been arrested and/or jailed for "contempt of religions" after expressing atheistic views. Last month a family court in Cairo refused to let a mother have custody of her two children, on the grounds that she was an atheist.

The government is also busy "immunising" young people against atheism, the minister told last week's meeting. The "immunisation" programme makes use of sermons, seminars and training sessions, and adopts an "intellectual approach", he said.

Strangely, considering the regime's insistance that atheism is one of the gravest threats the country faces, officials deny that Egypt has many actual atheists.

In the Arab countries, atheism is "not a phenomenon but individual cases with a loud voice", awqaf minister Juma'a said.

Four years ago, Egypt's Grand Mufti caused surprise and amusement by announcing that there were precisely 866 atheists in Egypt – among a population of around 90 million. He attributed this information to a polling company which later denied all knowledge of the alleged survey.

At last week's meeting, Ahmad Mamdouh, fatwa secretary at Dar al-Ifta (the official state body responsible for religious edicts) suggested Egypt has no real atheists at all; they are simply malcontents or people with mental health issues.

"We have received cases which some consider as atheism ... and we discovered that they are suffering from a psychological crisis and not atheism," he said. 

While presenting atheists in this way conflicts with the claim that they are terrorists, it serves a useful purpose by denying that atheism might have any rational basis.

On Egyptian TV, non-believers have been characterised either as victims of foreign influence or people whose brains have been harmed by too much thinking.

One ex-Christian who described himself as a humanist was dismissed from his job after appearing on al-Nahar TV to talk about his lack of faith. The man worked as a college librarian and the interviewer suggested he had become "confused" by reading a lot of books.