Two million unbelievers aren't scared anymore

Ever since the free-thinking philosopher Hypatia was killed by a Coptic Christian mob, in the fifth century, Egypt has been ruled by monotheistic religion: first Christianity, later Islam. Those who questioned religious leadership, like Hypatia, were often persecuted.  But lately, those who do not believe in any God have started to demand secular rule. “We have noticed how the last Islamic government failed spectacularly. Poverty got worse and they kept ignoring other views. We need a state based on citizen’s rights.” Egypt’s estimated two million atheists aren’t scared anymore.

At a table in a cafe in Alexandria, three young men discuss current affairs. They haven’t been friends for long, having only met recently on Facebook. But they share thoughts they can’t easily share with older friends or relatives. “We don’t have freedom in our lives”, says Yehia Hisham (24). “If I loved someone, I can’t just be with her nor have a civil marriage. All our actions are defined through religion.” Egyptian law prescribes all behaviour and relationships to be in accordance with either Islam, Christianity or Judaism; there is no other option.  As a consequence, some deal with love affairs and other issues on an individual basis and return to the religious fold when these problems are resolved, but this is not how the three in the Alexandria café want to handle things. They want to change society.

“It just doesn’t make sense”, says Hisham. “Islam says we don't have a free will, but we will still be accountable for what we do, even if we don’t have a choice."  He sees religious lack of logic at the root of much backwardness. “We spend more time on religious conflict than on scientific research. As long as we have no separation between the state and religion we will stay behind.”  Ismael Mohamed (30), who pays his way through the Alexandria Faculty of Education by ironing people’s clothing, concurs. “Religion is dogma, which freezes society. If we want to be creative and move forward, we need to think freely.” Mohamed lost many old friends because of his views, but thanks to the internet, he found new ones. “My family was shocked, but I managed to absorb their anger through dialogue, and gradually they accepted that I have these ideas."

Hussein Kano (27) is a real activist. A friend of Khaled Said, the youngster who was murdered by Egyptian security police in 2010 and whose case helped fuel the Arab Spring, he has been in jail three times already. “Even in jail I was telling them that I'm atheist. I'm not afraid." According to Kano, the atheist movement needs to develop a vision for change. “Some of us are not clear. They accept our Constitution’s Article Two, which defines the religious state. We can’t have that.”

Atheists without borders

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.

When Basma Rabei (18) told her middle-class family in north Cairo that she didn’t feel comfortable with her religion anymore, ‘because it was just not giving me any answers’, her religious brother attacked her and tried to strangle her, only stopping when he realized he might be murdering her. She lodged a complaint against her brother at the police station, but then her mother showed up and told the police about Basma’s anti-religious views. She was then locked up for three weeks on a charge of ‘insulting Islam’. After her release on bail, her family picked her up and took her to the family village. “I lived there like a prisoner, without my phone, transport or internet”, she recalls. “When I walked in the streets, all eyes were staring at me. I was told that I have no principles and that I don’t know right from wrong, because I am an atheist. I told them that I may not be motivated by a fear of God, but that I do have a conscience.”

Basma was allowed back home after three months. In the meantime, her family had noticed that there hadn’t been as violent a backlash from society as they had feared. Nobody had had troubles at work or from social acquaintances. This lessened their anger against Basma, and, slowly, she was released from the confines of her room and the house again. She has now even been allowed to marry her fellow atheist boyfriend. “During the uprising, I got some abuse from people who thought I am easy prey” (meaning that they were harrassing her sexually under the pretext that as an atheist she must be ‘easy’, MS). “Some also mistreated me and my boyfriend. When they realized I am not the stereotype that they thought I was, they respected me again.”

In Switzerland with Hypatia

Others have been less lucky. Alber Saber, a 28 year old blogger from a Christian family, didn’t have many problems at home, but all the more with his neighbours and the state. “My family accepts my atheism”, Saber says when we speak on Skype.  “But all hell broke loose when I shared the anti-Islam film ‘Innocence of Muslims’ on YouTube.” Neighbours attacked his house and he was sentenced to three years imprisonment for insulting Islam. However, after human rights organizations and some Western governments intervened he was released on bail and was asked by the police to leave the country before the appeals court would issue the final ruling.  Saber found asylum in Switzerland, where he now lives with his atheist girlfriend who, leaving behind her Muslim family, joined him three months later. When their baby daughter was born there last October, they called her Hypatia.

“It is difficult to come out as an atheist because society immediately considers you to be a person without moral values or ethics.  This affects girls the most”, says the administrator of the ‘Arab Atheists’ Facebook page, who prefers to remain anonymous. “We have had to remove names of female members from the page to protect them from families and society.” Nevertheless, his following keeps growing. “We have around 2 million visitors a month, mostly from Egypt. We had enormous growth in the first few months of the Muslim Brotherhood government, as if people were responding to them.”
It was indeed, ironically, Muslim Brotherhood president Morsi’s rule that preceded Egypts’ ‘wave of atheism’, or the ‘war against Islam’, as horrified Islamists call it. “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 stated in an interview on TV’s Dream Channel.  “Oppression and religion became equated in the minds of the people. So what we are seeing is not a ‘War against Islam’ per se, but 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.”

Telecommunications worker Osama Dorra (29), an ex member of the Muslim Brotherhood, agrees with this view, saying that the government formed by the organisation he once supported was ‘inefficient and untrustworthy’.  “They wanted to go back to some kind of glorified religious past, but in the meantime our governance and economy suffered. Poverty reached scandalous levels. This whilst they are surrounded by people who engage with the world and who have assembled wisdom and expertise.” Dorra described his Brotherhood experiences in a book titled ‘From Brotherhood to Tahrir square’.

An ‘anti-Islamic conspiracy’

Whilst the atheist wave is decidedly middle class and many poor people continue to find support in religious structures, -among which charitable Muslim Brotherhood institutions-, 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.”

In the interview, the cleric concurred that the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign was at the root of many of these conversions. “There is much attention in the media against the Islamic discourse as a result of the Muslim Brotherhood having been in power. And now Islam as a whole is losing sympathy”, he said. “This is helped along by the non-Islamic media, who are focusing only on the negative things in Islam. One can say that at the heart of the phenomenon is also an anti-Islamic conspiracy.”

The impression among Islamists that there is a ‘conspiracy against Islam’ has been fuelled by the authoritarian rule of the army that toppled Morsi in July this year, and their subsequent censorship of Muslim Brotherhood media and activities.  However, even though the new interim military rule is firmly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, it is not pro-secularism or even pro-freedom. In the proposed new Constitution, to be adopted later this year, the clause that allows only three monotheistic religions in Egypt remains intact, as does the principle that the main source for legislation is Islamic Sharia. The draft also maintains the religious marriage laws, ignoring calls for civil marriage and for freedom of religion and expression.  In response to Muslim Brotherhood protests, and to justify censhorship and oppression of opponents, the new rulers have even used religious sermons to show that they, too, support Islam.

Or even the ‘better’ Islam. Pro-military advocates have accused Salafist clerics of ‘converting four million youngsters to atheism’ with oppressive fatwa’s. “Young people turn to atheism in defiance against those clerics because they destroy citizens’ lives with their fatwa’s”, General Tharwat Goda, the former deputy head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Department, said in a TV interview that took place just before the fall of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government.

Four million is a rather high estimate. Psychiatrist Maher Samuel, talking at a seminar about the ‘atheist wave’ held in Cairo’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral last March, estimated the current number of atheists in Egypt at four percent of the population, or two million. He based this figure on a number of international polls on the issue, among which Gallup and the University of Michigan in the US. But Samuel, of Christian background, predicted the wave would still become stronger ‘because of the changes after the revolution.’

Hate speech and naked pictures

In the public arena, two extremes now co-exist, and engage in battle. On the one end, there is the hate speech and the aggressive discourse by religious Salafist sheikhs; on the other end, the rebellious and, to many, shocking acts of Alia al-Amahdi, who posted naked pictures of herself online as a challenge to Islamist society.  Receiving real death threats as a result, she had to leave Egypt to find asylum in Sweden, where she continues her protest against the Islamist constitution in her country. Last year, she demonstrated naked in front of the Egyptian embassy in Sweden, with a Quran between her legs.

Meanwhile, a group of atheists have sent an open letter to interim president Ali Mansour last September to ask for the recognition of atheists’ rights in the new Constitution, and for citizens’ freedom of expression and religion.  Many intellectuals, both inside and outside Islam, now recognise that Islamic scholars have failed to provide interpretations of Islam that are consistent with modern life and, more specifically, with the internet. Well-known author Amin al-Mahdi has said that the atheist wave, even if society’s ‘grassroots’ are still traditionally religious, has significance because it shows that “old Islamic stagnant jurisprudence cannot convince a generation that has had a revolutionary experience.”