Father Egyptian Atheist and the sheikhdom of atheism

Hamed Abdel Samad is a novelist, historian and a professor — according to his Wikipedia page — whose literary works are published in Egypt and who teaches at German universities. In May, he started broadcasting his exciting Arabic-language series “The Box of Islam” on YouTube.

It deals with the history of Islamic daawa from a position that calls itself “liberated from holiness,” allowing him to criticize, audit and deny parts of it that conflict with history, logic or narrative approved by most Muslim scholars and considered by many Muslims as the basic requirements of faith.

Abdel Samad divides his vision across 20 episodes, each examining a specific area in Islamic history, or a basis of its philosophy — sometimes a historical incident from the books of Seerah (which tell the life of Mohamed), or the rhetorical and judicial changes the Quran underwent and how they can be linked to Islam’s political evolution. The episodes frankly state that the type of religiosity many Muslims in the Middle East practice is an obstacle to their integration into the modern world.

Abdel Samad aims to show that Islam and the history and culture that has formed around it are hindering progress in Muslim societies, that the Quran and Sunnah are surrounded by question marks and contain holes that make puncturing their holiness and digging up untold stories around them a necessity. I think this effort is particularly relevant to current debates, and I appreciate it being done with such a research-based mentality.

Abdel Samad deals with his controversial cause in a style that appears academic, replacing an absolute sacredness that forbids questions or criticism with objectivity, skepticism and scientific methodology. A lot of effort is put into research, preparation and exploration. Yet his already formed personal convictions remain in the foreground — his objectivity closely paves the way for his opinions, or “opens” for something that will stigmatize Islam or shock Muslims. So it becomes ineffective. The power of the glossed-over historical facts he reveals fades when followed by straightforward advice or childish questions based on how he feels about current Islamic status quo and the collective Muslim narrative that dominates how most Muslims understand their religion.

This wastes — in my opinion — the chance to create an important historical work, turning it into yet another showdown that easily disappears into the stream of endless religious internet battles. It inevitably attracts Islamic YouTube activists confronting what they call Abdel Samad’s “falsification, hatred and injustice,” with particular concern for the parts mentioning the prophet’s wives and rumors of adultery and sex-related debates. Encrusting an important argument with attractive populism, he ends up falling between two stools. Maybe it’s a marketing scheme to attract as many people as possible to the content, but if so, this itself reflects a crucial element of how Abdel Samed and many other intellectuals see their audience.

Many months before I knew about Hamed Abdel Samad, I stumbled upon the YouTube channel of “Masry Molhid” (Egyptian Atheist), who appeared suddenly after the January 25 revolution — I can’t remember when exactly, because his channel was reported and reopened so many times. He produces videos in which he talks to the camera about his religious views and the way he sees Islam. The beginning was loud and intense. Masry Molhid’s attacks on Islam, despite his apparent knowledge of Islam’s history and how well-read he came across, never pretended to be academic or objective. On the contrary, his tone was aggressive and sarcastic, and from the start he aimed his arrows at the heart of Muslim belief and its holiest symbols. He denied the god of Muslims, insulted the prophet, tore up the Quran on camera, announced his contempt for the religion and its followers, then started a series of aggressive videos assaulting anything related to Islam.

Masry Molhid later explained this strategy in a video, saying it’s necessary against what he calls the “Islamic thuggery” that some Muslims — in his experience — initiate by stripping you of your right to believe and express yourself, then scaring you into silence until you start treating them the same way — at which point they back off to the borders of logic and reduce the ceiling of their demands all the way down to “just don’t insult my faith.” This conviction might explain how Masry Molhid’s videos evolved afterwards.

Initially, Masry Molhid wandered around the dark corners of Islamic history, displaying what he saw as proof of the religion’s barbaric, backward and violence-fueled nature. He looked into fiqh (the philosophy of Islamic law) and the heart of Islamic jurisprudence, linked them to a patriarchal Bedouin and tribal mentality, and said Islam suited the nature of the area it was founded in. Despite his sharp language and caustic humor — which was mostly funny — his argument sounded as if it were based on true human disappointment, prompted by the contradictions he felt between the tolerance and illuminating values Islam associates itself with, and the real crimes that have been committed by its followers since its birth, and given legal, holy cover by it. I remember at that time I agreed — despite the language — with some of what he was saying. So what changed?

In Egypt, in the months before Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, the tone of exasperation with the Muslim Brotherhood increased. Revolutionary groups that supported the Brotherhood in the elections against the threat of Ahmed Shafiq (with his military and former regime associations) started realizing that there was no real democratic horizon in the minds of its leadership. Also, the Brotherhood’s fight with the military and the deep state appeared to run on prayers and the hope that God always helps out the good guys. The majority of non-political Egyptians, who elected the Brotherhood out of religiosity, experimentalism or even fear, started regretting it. Most importantly, for some reason there was no electricity or gas in the country.  

I can’t imagine that someone who had gained the popularity Masry Molhid had in the months after opening his sad group therapy session with fellow silent atheists would ignore a situation like that. The Brotherhood’s failure to run Egypt after decades of longing for the presidency was tangible proof of everything he was claiming. He didn’t need to explain why he thought of Islam as an ideology that had failed the test of time. It made sense that his attack on Brotherhood leaders, Salafi heads and what he called “satellite monkeys” would erupt. And there was some heroism in it to be honest — at that moment he was opposing a terrible authority, an authority gaining its legitimacy from how much of the Quran its president had memorized, an authority that had supporters who held panel discussions on air about whether people who insult the prophet should be officially killed by the government. Or if it’s every Muslim’s duty to try and kill them if they feel like it. 

My dislike for the cruelty in Masry Molhid’s narrative easily faded away every time I was slammed with a video of those sheikhs on TV defending Morsi or the Brotherhood, or attacking what they called liberals and secularists or their favorite customer, the Christians. What Masry Molhid was doing then felt like tickling compared to the violence Islamists were regurgitating onto people day and night.

After Morsi was ousted, the situation flipped quickly. Overnight the Brotherhood turned from executioners and tyrants into prisoners and dead bodies. The Egyptian state, lead by Ministerfieldmarshalpresident Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, practiced far more violence against them than necessary. It became obvious afterward that that violence was the only way to convince Egyptians to return to the lap of military dictatorship after a few seconds of freedom, during which many got a chance — for the first time — to think about their lives, future, choices and ways of reflecting on reality.

Meanwhile, Masry Molhid was at the peak of his brutality. His celebration of violence against the Brotherhood was exceptional and worrying. Before the crackdown on the pro-Morsi Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in, he practiced a sort of systematic conscious-deadening, paving the way to a massacre. His videos talked about the Rabea protesters like they were cattle or creatures not deserving of life. Masry Molhid sat and dwelled on scenarios in which he imagined possible ways to kill the protesters. He fantasized about the situation and laughed — probably alone this time — at the horrible fate they would meet.

Regardless of my own position on June 30, the Brotherhood and everything else, I found it very difficult to stomach expressions like these from someone who a few months earlier mourned those who had been beheaded by the prophet’s companions in defense of the prophet’s reputation as the prophet watched. “These are human beings, not chickens,” Masry Molhid said. He was angry about wasted human souls he didn’t know and had no connection with, just an instinctive human compassion for human life, the most valuable thing on earth. I had been moved when I saw that clip, but I was more moved when I saw Masry Molhid describing the hundreds killed in the Rabea crackdown on August 14, 2013 as “carcasses.”

Maybe that’s it then? Maybe Masry Molhid truly saw the ordinary, poorly educated, rural Brotherhood followers and supporters, who could easily be squashed into Brotherhood minibuses then unloaded at this or that Brotherhood protest, as animals. Maybe there is a set of values according to which Masry Molhid decides who deserves humanity and who doesn’t, who deserves life and who doesn’t. Just like the Brotherhood leaders, Salafi sheikhs and ISIS jihadis who sleep well at night after spending the day categorizing the world into “with me” and “against me.”

I can’t see the difference here between a lost Islamist and a frustrated shivering intellectual. The first is torn between a miserable status quo and a national defeat in front of the postcolonial civilized world on the one hand, and a hovering dream of long-lost historical superiority on the other. The second is rejected alongside everything they believe in and practice in their small society, and end up distributing accusations left and right, waiting for the moment when they’ll be on top of the tank, dancing with the victorious over the dead bodies of those who don’t understand them and whom they don’t understand either.

Masry Molhid now has a new YouTube channel. The first thing you see is the profile picture (an image of a sheep with a black stripe on the corner), then his recent videos which celebrate the fall of the Brotherhood, support Sisi’s campaign for the presidency, and attack the Egyptian left and revolutionaries, whom he calls glue sniffers. His lovers now call him “Father Masry Molhid” and he indeed acts like a father, tells people what to do and what not to, who to elect and who not to, whether to laugh at Bassem Youssef’s episodes or not. He’s become a public figure with influence, invested in shifting public opinion in specific directions at specific moments. The fall of an Islamic group is a victory for him, and the killing of hundreds of people he doesn’t know a small price for momentary political gain. For him, people are brainless, and controlling them — just the way they are — is more useful and successful than giving them the right to think, choose or make mistakes.

Just like Hamed Abdel Samad, the academic who speaks to his audience like he’s telling them a bedtime story, and just like those who call themselves “the enlighteners” who think Egyptians don’t deserve freedom because they use it to vote for oppressive regimes, because Egyptians don’t know what’s best for them, because Egyptians aren’t ready for democracy.

This is why June 30 was a very important filtering moment for the voices and opinions on the political scene. It was like a test you either pass or fail. A completely natural result of the confusion the Egyptian brain suffers at the moment. June 30 revealed that many of our beliefs are half-baked. By our endless clamor for democracy, freedom and human rights, most of the time we mean nothing but few rights for ourselves — a crushed liberal minority longing for a breath under the nation’s chassis. The “people’s” right to choose means the people’s right to choose the right thing only, and the right thing is obviously what “we” think, because we read history, philosophy and freedom, then we go support Sisi, for the sake of the people, Egypt’s identity and so on. I’m now convinced that the vast majority of Egyptian intellectuals, who have a hard-on for Western freedoms, if allowed into the West would probably be on the edge of the far right, fighting homosexuality, abortion and migrants, supporting oil wars and blindly killing people with drones.

We, intellectuals, have been sunk in our reactionary society for so long that we now have a progressive agenda that’s as modest as our taste in music. Modesty that makes reformists into revolutionaries, revolutionaries into reactionaries, followers into leaders and army generals, leaders surrounded by millions of worshippers and whose popularity is theorized about by ignorance and mobs. Following what’s going on in Egypt right now reveals how local the discussion is.

Lately I had a lot of discussions with feminist friends about a growing trend that rejects men who want to join feminist groups and initiatives. I yelled and said, don’t complain then about how your calls fail and your cause has no popularity, you scare away your allies and make enemies of those who want to help. I was angry because I wanted to help. Or maybe I was angry for other reasons. Another friend recently posted on Facebook an excerpt from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) about the mentality of people who belong to an oppressive majority when they decide to join the oppressed group. Of people who recognize an absence of justice and make the decision to leave their safe bubble and start fighting alongside the less privileged, the excerpt says that unfortunately most of the time they retain a lot of their former bubble’s culture, including a continual skepticism that those who they see as weak can actually solve their own problems. They continue judging their choices and acts, even after superficially merging with them, according to the same values that allow the strong to keep controlling the weak, who don’t know what’s right for them.

The relationship between Egyptian intellectuals and other citizens reminds me of the famous joke about the fox, the lion and the monkey.

There was a lion who always enjoyed asking a poor monkey, “Why are you not wearing a hat?” every time he saw him, then beating him up. The monkey complained to the fox, who promised to have a word with the lion. After a nice chat at a party, the fox whispers in the lion’s ear.

Fox: “The monkey’s having a hard time with you. I’m not saying you shouldn’t beat him up, but try to make it sound like it’s for a reason.”

Lion: “Yeah, so what should I do?”

Fox: “You can ask him to get you an apple, for example. If he gets you a red one, you beat him and say you wanted a green one, and if he gets you a green one you beat him and tell him you wanted a red one.“

Lion: “Cool, got it. Good idea.”

A few days later, the lion runs into the monkey and the fox in the jungle, and the lion yells at the monkey: “Hey, go and get me an apple.” The monkey starts walking away, then stops, turns around and asks the lion: “Do you want a green apple or a red apple?” The lion, surprised, looks at the fox. The fox slaps the monkey’s face and shouts: “Why are you not wearing a hat, you idiot!”

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