Atheists: Egypt’s forgotten minority

By Osama Diab

Egyptian atheists and religious sceptics are a minority that exists in reality but not in official statistics.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Denial has been the primary strategy used by successive governments in Egypt regarding certain issues they deem to be ‘sensitive', even though turning a blind eye has proven to be ineffective when it comes to handling these critical issues.

For example, in the minds and the statements of successive government officials, Egypt has always been free of HIV/AIDS, sectarian tension, political dissent and even sexual harassment.

This same denial strategy extends to and belief. Identity cards, which are used to give undisputed facts about their holders, such as their name, date of birth, etc., cites a person's father's religion as their own. This implies that one's religion and personal beliefs are undisputed facts the same way, for example, that their or name is.

In Egypt , everyone by law belongs to one of the three main Abrahamic religions: , , and – the only religions recognised by the state. Accordingly Egyptian statistics on religious belief are usually very simple:

90-94% Sunni Muslim

6-10% Coptic Orthodox Christians

And that's it – except for some statistics that acknowledge the existence of a very small number of people adhering to the Baha'i faith and a handful of Jews.

Most polls and statistics completely ignore that among these “Muslims” and “Christians” are a number of people who choose not to define themselves as such. Due to the official and social stigmatisation of people holding alternative beliefs,  religion-related surveys in Egypt are often skewed. The most dramatic example of this was when Gallup decided, based on its research, that Egypt is the world's most religious country because 100% of its population is religious. These polls and statistics obviously lack statistical and factual accuracy due to the taboo status of the surveyed topic. A statistic like Gallup's technically means that it only takes a few people who don't consider themselves to be religious to disprove it.

“There are more non-believers in Egypt than most people think,” says Tarek Elshabini, a 23-year old Cairo-based engineering student who doesn't identify with his parents' religion and defines himself as an atheist.

Elshabini thinks that religious sceptics are concentrated in educated and wealthy urban circles. He says they are mostly men, due to the patriarchal nature of the culture he was raised in where men have better chances and more freedom to be exposed to different ways of thinking.

“Most of the works written or made by ‘infidel' thinkers and artists were never properly translated into Arabic, The God Delusion by Richard is a very good example. This book was even banned in most of the Middle East, and the only reason someone like me knew about it, is that I can read English and have access to the  internet,” explains Elshabini.

Unlike Elshabini, Ahmed Amin, a Cairo-based project manager in his 20s who also defines himself as an atheist, thinks that irreligiousity is not confined to wealthier circles and that the less fortunate also have their doubts about religion. He believes that the scepticism of those who belong to lower socio-economic classes is driven by the injustice and unfairness they suffer.

Based on the same assumption, he also thinks that many Egyptian started to walk this path because of the discrimination they experience, often in the name of religion. “I don't know the exact percentage of non-believers in Egypt, since we do not have any statistics that show the religious distribution here. Even regarding Christianity, Muslim Brotherhood members or Salafi Muslims, we still don't know their exact numbers either,” says Amin. “However, I think that there is a small number of non-believers here in Egypt, but what I'm sure of is that this small number is increasing.”

People like Tarek and Ahmed never appear in statistics for a number of reasons. Firstly, the state forces everyone into a religion a few hours into their birth – birth certificates, like ID cards, state the newly born's religion . Secondly, non-theism or religious scepticism is still frowned upon, if not persecuted, in Egypt, which means that most non-believers won't admit to it in public.

Some of the victims of religious intolerance include a large number of thinkers who didn't even come close to announcing their non-belief , but only expressed an unconventional opinion on a “sensitive” religious issue. Farag Fouda, an Egyptian writer and human rights activist who was assassinated by Islamists in the early 1990s, did not even declare his but was only critical of the violence of militant Islamist groups.

Likewise, Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, who defined himself as an Islamic scholar, was declared an apostate by a court ruling based on what he wrote in his PhD thesis. Hw was subsequently forcibly divorced from his wife because he was no longer considered a Muslim and, therefore, shouldn't be allowed to remain married to his Muslim wife.In order to remain with his wife, he had to escape to the Netherlands until shortly before his death about a year ago.

Raising this issue is especially important now, in the wake of the 25 January  which has left Egypt struggling to define and shape its new identity. The main debate in this post-revolutionary period is whether Egypt's identity should be secular or Islamic, and if individual liberties should include belief in any religion or lack thereof.

hose who call for a religious state argue that the vast majority of the population wants that based on these distorted and inaccurate statistics, which are in turn based on social stigma and intimidation faced by anyone who might have second thoughts about what they have been born into.

Given the secular nature of the revolution and the secularism of the who set it in motion, it's simply not a fair game for Islamists to reap the political benefits now, after years of intimidating and violently draining their opponents by threatening their lives, putting their reputations at risk or simply accusing them of being “at war with Islam”.

Many have been talking about the rights of Coptic Christians, Baha'is and other religious minorities, but everyone, even the most devoted rights activists, have chosen to ignore the rights of those who chose to embrace none of the Abarahamic state-condoned religions, and who are possibly the most vulnerable ‘religious' minority in the country.

“The way I see it, Egyptians will never start treating us with respect, unless we start being honest and come out,” says Elshabini “Only then, when we're able to talk about our beliefs and ideologies openly without fear, will they realise how normal we actually are, and they will want to kill us less,” he concludes.

This article is published here with the author's consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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