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Godless Pests: The War Against Atheists in Egypt

Is banning atheism the best way to combat it? Mouwafak Chourbagui argues that the proposed law in parliament will hurt Islam more than it will restrain atheism.

"Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are
presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new
evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is
extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it
is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize,
ignore and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with the core belief”
Frantz Fanon


A foreign friend of mine was recently asked by a taxi driver, “what is your religion?” When he responded that he had none, the taxi driver asked him to repeat a sequence of words in Arabic. “Now you are a Muslim,” he said proudly to my baffled friend. As he was leaving the cab, the driver added: “Thank you, you’ve made my path to haven a little easier.”

Had my friend been a non-religious Egyptian, he probably would have played along. We know the rules of engagement; don’t ask the taxi driver to turn down the volume of the Koran on the radio, buy some gum before returning home after a night of drinking and never ever respond with 'agnostic, atheist or post-modern nihilism with a zest of queer anarchism' to the question of what  your religion is. If you deviate from these rules, it is the path to hell on earth that will be made easier, perhaps even the path to jail.

Atheism is not explicitly illegal in Egypt, but the country has strict laws against blasphemy and contempt of religion that are constantly used to target nonbelievers. The head of the Parliament’s committee on religion, Amr Hamroush, wants to remove that ambiguity; in December, he introduced a bill to officially criminalize atheism. Top officials from Al Azhar – who support the ban -  have stated that the bill would punish those who have been 'seduced' by atheism. They are missing the point.

It’s not that people are so much seduced by atheism as they are disillusioned and frustrated by the official expression, the oppressive reality of religiosity. In a context of growing extremism and insecurity from terrorism, the government wants to disseminate and oversee a spread of 'moderate Islam’, but if 'moderate Islam' deems penalizing atheists a shrewd and necessary step, then what does it say about our concept of moderation?

Recently, Egyptian atheist Mohammad Hashem appeared on Alhadath Al Youm and was kicked out of the studio for having the nerve to not believe in God. Even more chillingly, the other guest on the show, the former Deputy Sheikh of Al Azhar Mahmoud Ashour, recommended that the young atheist receive psychiatric treatment for his 'mental illness'. But the true champion of the 'debate' was the host Mahmoud Abd Al-Halim, encapsulating perfectly society’s reaction to godlessness: shout, shame and shun.

To Abd-el Halim and many others, people like Mohammad Hashem are extremists and heretics bent on destroying the moral fiber of Egyptian society. To Mohammad Hashem and an increasing number of young Egyptians, people like the TV host and the former deputy Sheikh of Al Azhar, are the purveyors of a so-called moderate version of Islam that, in reality, is extreme. He isn't wrong. 

If Muslims only marry Muslims, Copts only marry Copts, if there is no room for civil marriage, no social acceptance for couple cohabitation, no whisky in Ramadan, no Ramadan in Fatma's midnight delights, no pork in Said's sandwich, no hotel room without wedding ring, no homosexuality without shame and no atheism without secrecy, then we are not in a moderate state - we are in an extremist one. Religion is not only what is idealized inwards, it is also about what is palpable on the outside.

It fascinates me how people are so lucid and eager when it comes to pinpoint symptoms of fascism that happen elsewhere, but are so high on cognitive dissonance when it comes to their own backyard. Imagine that, during a whole month, Muslims were told in foreign countries that their kids would be forced to eat pork at the school cafeteria, that mosques would be shut down, that wine would be mandatory in each dinner and that Satan's music (heavy metal apparently) would accompany every cab ride. Wouldn't we be appalled by it? Well that’s what we force onto minorities, non-practising Muslims, and nonbelievers during Ramadan.

We should all – including the most ardent believers - be outraged by this new proposed law on banning atheism because what is at stake here is the integrity of the religion. If we accept that Islam should be a tool for control, we disfigure its spirituality and guarantee that people will turn away from it, not because they have read Nietzsche but because they feel oppressed by its panoptic whip. It is dangerous and oppressive to have men act as the link between the material and metaphysical world; if we need to control the interpretation of religion and impose is on the collective, it highlights, not the power of religion, but its vulnerability.

Today, there are only 13 countries in which a citizen can be imprisoned or killed because of blasphemy or apostasy, and all of them happen to be Muslim nations. More alarmingly, this is not a belief held only by those in power: a 2010 survey by Pew Global showed that 82% of Egyptians believe that people should be stoned for committing adultery and 84% believe that those who leave Islam deserve the death penalty.

In the end, we are all lost children of the universe looking for meaning. But we will continue to stagnate as a society if we continue to impose sanctity on everything, from religion to The Nile, to make sense of our existence and we will continue to lead oppressed and oppressive lives if we continue to look up towards invisibility for guidance and not straight ahead towards possibility for fulfilment.

Extremism is not solely about jihad or beheadings; it is about the weight of religion on society, its footprint on the public sphere. Extremism does not start by beheading heads; it starts by beheading minds.

So perhaps moderation should start with simply letting others be.


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