Conservative Crackdown: Egypt Could Outlaw Atheism

Conservative Crackdown: Egypt Could Outlaw Atheism January 19, 2018

Yes, I am sure other Patheos writers have been quicker than me to post about this, but that’s what comes from having an insanely busy week. Apologies for being out of the equation.

As Newsweek, amongst many other sources, have reported:

Lawmakers in Egypt are seriously considering passing a law that would make atheism illegal.

Blasphemy is already illegal in Egypt, and people are frequently arrested for insulting or defaming religion under the country’s strict laws. The newly proposed rule would make it illegal for people not to believe in God, even if they don’t talk about it.

“The phenomenon [of atheism] is being promoted in society as freedom of belief, when this is totally wrong,” Amro Hamroush, head of Egypt’s Parliament’s committee on religion, said when he introduced the bill in late December.

“[Atheism] must be criminalized and categorized as contempt of religion because atheists have no doctrine and try to insult the Abrahamic religions,” he wrote in the local daily paper Al-Shorouq.

On Thursday, the Committee on Religion announced it would prepare an explanatory note on the draft law in the coming days. It is unclear how authorities would determine who is an atheist if the person does not speak about it.

Egypt’s highest Islamic religious organization, Al-Azhar, supports the proposed law, and its top officials said it would work to punish those who had been “seduced” by atheism.

According to Egypt’s blasphemy law, which was included in the country’s penal code in 1982, a person can go to prison for up to five years if he or she uses religion to “promote, through speech, writing or any other medium, extremist ideas with the aim of spreading discord,” or “belittle[s] or disdain[s] one of the monotheistic religions or their different sects, or to harm national unity.”

Egypt started targeting atheists more vigorously shortly after the 2014 inauguration of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. The new government announced a plan to “confront and eliminate” atheism. Some officials even described atheism as one of the biggest threats facing Egypt.

We have an interesting scenario whereby, due to the influence of the internet, many theocratic or conservative societies are experiencing pressures from individualistic liberalisation. The internet has allowed subversive positions to be better understood and communities of like-minded people to come together in apparent anonymity. For example, homosexuality can be seen and understood, in secret, from within a deeply morally conservative society. The reaction to this, from such societies, appears to be one of doubling down. Morally conservative societies react to liberalisation by becoming more morally conservative or passing such laws that would discriminate explicitly against anyone who does not fall into the strict confines of their moral value system.

Therefore, the reaction to the perceived threat of increased atheism and atheists is to strictly outlaw the position because dealing with it theologically or philosophically would result in public debates and an increased airtime for such a subversive position (from their point of view, of course). Such public interaction with atheism atheists would simply play into the hands of those atheists.

Al-Monitor puts this in context:

Egyptian security forces arrested Ibrahim Khalil, a 29-year-old computer science graduate, on Dec. 21, and prosecutors at the Dokki police station later interrogated him for five hours on accusations of “defaming religion.” He was ordered detained pending further investigations.

Khalil, who comes from a Christian family, is also accused of “administering a Facebook page that promotes atheism.”

“The Facebook page has been used to distort, defame and exploit the Quran. It was also found to contain comments questioning the existence of God,” chief of the Dokki prosecution office Hassan Ali was quoted as saying by the privately owned Youm7.

“During his interrogation by prosecutors, Khalil confessed to being an atheist and to creating the Facebook page to share his views on religion,” according to Youm7.

Khalil’s prosecution is the latest in an increasing number of blasphemy prosecution cases in Egypt in recent years, sending a chilling message to atheists who are now more afraid than ever of opening up about their loss of faith.

“Atheists in Egypt are afraid to publicly come out as such,” Hazem, 35, told Al-Monitor. “If you proclaim yourself a nonbeliever, you literally open the gates of hell; you stand to lose many of your friends and will be treated like an outcast. Your own family may accuse you of mental illness and possibly disown you. We are being forced to live as hypocrites for fear of facing discrimination and harassment.” Hazem, who asked to be identified with a pseudonym for his protection, was born and raised a Muslim but became an atheist when he turned 18 “after reading books on Islam and Christianity and listening to religious debates that left me unconvinced.”

Ahmed Harqan, another atheist activist, told Ahram Online that he was attacked on the street after expressing his views on television in January 2015. When he went to the police station to file a report, he was jeered at and insulted by security personnel. “They handcuffed and physically assaulted me and refused to allow me to file the complaint,” Harqan was quoted by the semi-official Ahram as saying. He was fortunate not to have been detained, but his experience is all too common, bearing witness to the systemic discrimination and hostility atheists face in the conservative society.

While the situation has always been difficult for atheists in Egypt because of the social stigma associated with nonbelief, “things are now even worse than in the past because of a rise of conservatism and a government crackdown, not just on atheists, but on liberals in general,” Hazem lamented.

Trying to understand the demographics of atheists in such a nation is very difficult, as Al-Monitor continues to express:

In the conservative, majority-Muslim country, statistics on atheism are scarce. But while the exact number of atheists in Egypt remains unknown, Dar al-Ifta (the authority responsible for issuing religious edicts or fatwas) has claimed that Egypt harbors the largest number of atheists in the Arab world. The claim was based on highly questionable figures released by “a regional polling group” that estimated there were around 866 atheists in the country in 2014 (roughly 0.001% of the population), according to local media reports. Hazem is skeptical, calling the statistic “highly unrealistic.”

“The real numbers are much higher. This is merely a continuation of the old state policy of officials burying their heads in the sand,” he said, in reference to the survey’s results.

Hazem, like other activists who had hoped the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime would usher in a new era of greater freedom and more openness, is now deeply disappointed.

“I was optimistic back in 2015 when I heard President [Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi’s promises that religion would never again have a say in politics. I believed he would steer the country toward a more liberal direction. It hasn’t happened,” he said.

Changing the law is necessary, but highly unlikely in the present climate:

Rights groups attribute the rise in blasphemy prosecution cases in the last three years to a controversial clause (Article 98) in the criminal code that specifies a sentence of between six months and five years for acts that “exploit religion with the aim of provoking sedition, disparaging one of the three monotheistic religions or any sects belonging to it or harming national unity or social peace.”

Efforts by a group of liberal lawmakers to abolish the disputed clause on grounds that it leaves the definition of blasphemy vague, have thus far proved futile. The group faced stiff opposition from conservative members in parliament and from judicial authorities when they suggested removing the restrictive clause in June 2016. Their proposal has since been shelved and the controversy around it has died down; meanwhile, the blasphemy cases continue unabated.

Amr Ezzat, religious freedom officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, believes, however, that a tolerant, open society and an impartial judiciary are more important than changing the law. “The real problem is that the state has left anyone expressing ‘unorthodox’ beliefs outside the realm of its protection. The police, prosecutors and the judiciary are often on the same page as those that file the contempt of religion lawsuits,” he said.

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