Toward the end of 2009, an Egyptian blogger announced the imminent publication of his book, A Muslim Atheist. The title is reflective of a concept he believes in, based on his experiences: he isn’t Muslim currently—he used to be, but then he became an atheist. However, after a while, he found himself not entirely sure about the non-existence of God—thus, he was no longer fully an atheist. He is pragmatic, and such pragmatism has led him to live life as he wishes, as if God doesn’t exist, but without completely excluding the possibility that he might. But for Egyptian society, he will always be Muslim. To declare himself an atheist within his social circles would bring about consequences he could not bear; he would be unable to marry a Muslim or a Christian, and would likely forfeit his inheritance.
The issuing of legal documents like marriage certificates and death certificates, as well as things like child custody and inheritance, are all determined based on Egypt’s personal status laws, which are faith based and subject to religious dictates from Al-Azhar and recognised churches. Therefore, anyone who is not officially affiliated with one of the three Abrahamic religions is likely to experience difficulties regarding such matters.
I met Ahmed Montaser (the Muslim atheist blogger) in late 2009 in Tanta. This small town is not far from the city of Damanhour, where Abdel Karim Nabil (writing under the blogger name Karim Amer) — a student at Al-Azhar University, who is known as the “Azhari atheist” — is from. Nabil perhaps wasn’t as pragmatic as Montaser, and the distribution of his writing among fellow students landed him in prison from 2007 until 2010, on charges of insulting Islam and the president of the republic. Montaser and Nabil were among only a few who wrote under their real names and cases such as Nabil’s have since encouraged other atheists to be even more cautious, with many using pseudonyms to avoid meeting the same fate.
I wrote a piece in 2009 entitled “The theory of the Muslim atheist,” which is a status that represents a growing lifestyle choice among certain parts of Egyptian society, despite official denial. Atheists who express their ideas in certain circles don’t usually declare them publically or prosthelytize. By law, and on any official paperwork, they are still considered to be either Muslim or Christian.
With the advent of social media, it has become more difficult to hide one’s views and perspectives. Similarly, in environments and professions that require an expression of self, such as academia within universities, journalism, political activity or artistic practices, it is relatively easy to identify those who express a belief or worldview that is different to the norm, or who are actively opposed to the idea of religion — atheists, the irreligious, the anti-religious and those who are agnostic or indifferent, as well as Muslims who are against the dominant or prevailing schools of thought in Islam. It may also be that those among the wealthier classes in society are afforded a greater degree of autonomy, in terms of having more freedom to express ideas among themselves, though still taking care not to antagonize anyone too much. What has been, and still is, a source of public panic and anger are groups of atheists who advocate for their opinions openly in online forums and blogs, and who criticize Islam, or the Abrahamic religions in general.
Around 14 months after my encounter with the “Muslim atheist,” the Egyptian revolution began, bringing with it hopes for greater freedom of expression. It also, however, brought together large groups of Salafis and conservative Islamists, whose primary concern was to prevent the adoption of western conceptions of human rights, along with more liberal freedoms that might threaten Egypt’s “Islamic identity.” Their discourse contained proclamations of resistance toward atheism, homosexuality and gender equality, along with other sectarian attitudes toward “non-believers.”
A year later, my interest in matters of religion and freedom of belief and speech led me to work as a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights’ (EIPR) Freedom of Religion and Belief program. I have since met with a number of individuals entering into, or seeking to initiate, legal battles in order to be permitted to identify themselves as atheists on their official documents. Generally such requests are immediately denied or disregarded, or the individuals in question are forcibly ejected from government offices and institutions. In all the time I have been interested in freedom of belief, however, I have only ever come across one individual who received an official response to his request. In this case, an officer working in the Department of Personal Status at the Interior Ministry wrote to inform him that it was not possible to write anything other than Muslim, Christian or Jewish under the section pertaining to religion on the Egyptian national ID.
This reply isn’t entirely accurate either, as identifying as Christian or Jewish isn’t commonly an available option for someone that is born to Muslim parents. A common official response in such cases, if one is indeed given, is that apostasy is a crime according to Sharia, and that it is tantamount to disturbing the public order. Though Egyptian law does not stipulate the death penalty for apostasy, individuals can still be deprived from receiving their inheritance or marrying — or they can be separated from their partners, if already married. And here is the inherent contradiction: non-believers, though not officially recognised by the state, can be deprived of their personal and legal rights, which are seen as a privilege of belief.
In September 2012, I asked a priest at a church in Cairo what he knew of the “Christian atheist” blogger, whose home had been attacked earlier that month, after he criticized Islam. Despite the fact that he no longer identified as Christian, and had also been critical of Christianity, Albert Saber was attacked online and in the street beside his family house, when an angry mob chanted hostile slogans and death threats at him. When the police came, they arrested Saber, rather than anyone among the angry crowd.
On my arrival at Saber’s house, where there was minimal evidence of the police having been present, I was told that his mother had gone to the church to seek protection. Saber was convicted of defamation of religion and sentenced to two years in prison. At the time, empowered by the revolution, there was a fairly large campaign for his release. There was also, however, a much larger campaign of hatred and threats from individuals and Islamist groups. This kind of public defense of religion was common under former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, who governed between June 2012 and June 2013. At this time, there were still spaces available for democratic and activist groups to discuss their beliefs, but there were also large spaces for Islamists, who dedicated considerable time to attempting to close such spaces to anyone expressing ideas that could be deemed secular or atheist. The most common method of doing so was through lawsuits for defamation of religion, and so anyone not following the Sunni Muslim school of thought prevalent in the country was vulnerable to such measures being used against them. Many of the cases made were against writers, artists and oppositional politicians during these years.
As this debate continued, state institutions were subject to a certain confusion, precipitated by tension between the conservatism of the judiciary and security services and their recognition of the need to acknowledge some of the “revolutionary demands” for greater freedom. Society was simultaneously dealing with whether to refute or embrace Islamist leadership. Saber was released on appeal, giving him the opportunity to travel and seek asylum in Europe.
At the end of June 2013, the polarization between Islamists and those who opposed them peaked, and the military intervened to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood. The situation then quickly escalated, until all political currents were under siege, apart from those that were very clearly and vocally pro-military. Despite attacks on groups that opposed the military’s approach beginning almost as soon as the Muslim Brotherhood were overthrown, many advocates of atheism expressed sympathy with the military regime, hoping for greater freedom of expression under the power that had ended Islamist rule.
Islamist-led anti-regime propaganda vacillated between arguing that the legitimacy of governance had been violated through a “coup,” and that the new regime was “hostile to Islam.” In response, the official voice of Sunni Islam in Egypt — Al-Azhar — and the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs actively promoted the conservative, Islamic face of the state, supporting its authoritarian and intolerant tendencies.
Since 2014, pro-regime media has been waging an aggressive campaign against atheists through Azhari sheikhs and Ministry-affiliated preachers, as well as some leaders of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Aspersions were cast on atheists through speculations made about them receiving foreign funding and the threat they pose to national security and the moral fabric of society. Such attacks played on notions of nationalism, which themselves are fuelled by the often-repeated statement that Egypt is an Islamic state or a country in which Muslims and Christians are protected together by God, and threatened by atheism. Some satellite television channels invited advocates of atheism to debate certain sheikhs on air, and they were frequently attacked and humiliated, or removed from the television studios.
Simultaneously, tensions began to emerge in schools, universities and certain neighborhoods. Those who made public appearances to support atheism were frequently attacked or threatened, and many left Cairo to go to other areas, where tensions were not so widespread. Security forces continued to follow and monitor their activities online, however.
I spent a lot of time trying to persuade people not to report violations alone at police stations, as in most cases they were either ignored, interrogated or subjected to further attack. Some were even humiliated and detained, as happened to Ahmed Harkan and his wife. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, many of them still held out hope that the state would uphold their right to be protected and would use the law against their attackers. Some were resolute in expressing their views despite persecution, while others voiced a desire for martyrdom in order to remain true to their beliefs.
With the notable reduction of public space for demonstrations and freedom of expression since 2013, it has been harder for Islamists and those opposing atheism to gather and attack individuals or their homes. However, lawsuits against those publicly expressing such views are actively taking place, and online attacks are more common.
In a recent case in August 2017, the Facebook accounts of two atheists working for a company were hacked, and screenshots of their private conversations were made public, along with calls to boycott the company. The employees were subjected to an investigation and submitted their resignations, then were handed to the police, accused of defamation of religion. They were sentenced to six months in prison.
In another case In December 2017, the producers of a television talk show invited a well-known atheist blogger, trapping him, handing him over to security forces, and suing him for defamation of religion, according to his brother. He is still in custody awaiting trial.
In March 2015, I moderated a panel discussion at EIPR, entitled “Who stands against our freedom to be non-believers?” to which some of the most prominent atheist activists were invited. The key perspectives articulated were broadly split into two. On the one hand, there are those who wish to spread the concept of atheism as a personal right that is distinct from the fight for democracy, many of whom base their hopes on a regime that will support freedom of belief — including secularism (to a degree) — while opposing Islamism. The other, to which I am more partial, sees the fight for freedom of belief as something that should not be separated from or viewed independently of the fight for democracy and broader human rights, and that must, on the contrary, include groups with different religious beliefs, as well as those who are pushing for greater freedoms.
There was also a third group silently following the discussion, careful not to place the stability they currently have in jeopardy. Among them were many “atheist Muslims” and “atheist Christians,” with little interest in activism or proselytizing beyond safeguarding the right to freedom of personal belief and dignity. Perhaps among them were some of the vocal bloggers, using pseudonyms.
The book A Muslim Atheist hasn’t been published yet. It is not clear whether this is the result of censorship, or security concerns, or perhaps just the growing degree of pragmatism and a desire for self-protection that is increasingly present among Egypt’s atheists.