By Khaled Diab
In Egypt and other Arab countries, the atheism taboo has been broken. Atheists are rebelling against the status quo and demanding to be seen and heard.
Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world’s narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab
Wednesday 26 March 2014
Sometimes a film can change your life. This is exactly what happened to Alber Saber, but not in the way people usually mean. Little did the young activist suspect that the fevered imaginings and rantings of a religious bigot on the other side of the world would spark furious chaos right outside his front door. The “film” – or, more accurately, trailer – in question was Innocence of Muslims, the low-budget YouTube sensation that caused global controversy in 2012 for its crass and offensive depiction of Muhammad.
On 12 September 2012, a mob of angry neighbours gathered outside the apartment building where Saber lived with his family, angered by rumours that the boy next door had posted the controversial video on his Facebook page.
In fact, Saber had not posted the video. So why did the angry mob target him? Perhaps because Saber comes from a Coptic family – like the maker of Innocence of Muslims – and, unlike him, is an atheist.
Distressed and concerned, Saber’s mother phoned the police, expecting them to turn up and protect her son and the rest of the family. Instead, the police returned the next day to arrest the outspoken blogger and activist who was actively expressing his atheistic convictions on social media. Saber was insulted during his interrogation and a junior officer incited fellow prisoners against him, provoking one of them to cut him with a razor on his throat.
In December 2012, Saber was sentenced to three years for “insulting” and “disdaining” religion by “creating webpages, including Crazy Dictator and Egyptian Atheists”. “This made me feel that anyone who thinks differently to the religion or ideology of the state is a criminal,” he asserts. “But I will not give up my right to think.”
During his appeal, the young activist fled the country. “I really miss my life in Egypt because I am now living in Switzerland far away from my family, friends and country,” he told me from his exile, “even if my country does not respect my rights and has caused me a lot of trouble.”
Saber admits that despite the dangers he faced in Egypt, he did not want to flee. “If it were up to me I would stay and defend myself even if I were to be executed,” he said in an interview at the time.
The sensationalist corners of the media had a field day during Saber’s ordeal, depicting him as the atheistic equivalent of the Islamophobic, Quran-burning American pastor, Terry Jones. “A segment of the media inserted untruths about my case. They alleged that I burnt or tore up the Quran,” he recounts. “Many people still believe this, even though my case revolved around the articles and videos I made about my personal beliefs.”
And it is not just Saber. Ever since the revolution took off in 2011, Egyptian non-believers have felt emboldened and empowered, emerging from the shadows to carve out a space for themselves on social media.
This has had a ripple effect on the mainstream media.
For example, the widely watched 90 Minute talk show recently hosted a young atheist and social media activist, Ismail Mohamed, in an episode titled ‘Penetrating the secret world of atheists in Egypt’. While the programme brought the subject of atheism to a public platform, it was a missed opportunity to promote a mature public debate on non-belief. Despite the presenter’s assertions that she wished to give Mohamed a podium to express his views, she displayed blatant hostility towards the subject. Her guests included a psychiatrist who suggested that atheism was caused – as is similarly suggested about homosexuality in the Arab world – by psychological, financial and family problems and so atheists deserved patience and pity.
The inconvenient truth is that atheism is not a psychological disorder. “I did not become an atheist,” counters Milad Suleiman, a young atheist blogger from Imbaba, a poor Cairo suburb that was gripped by an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. “Atheism is a state of thought. It has no specific starting point.”
Paradoxically, many atheists arrive at their convictions as the product of an attempt to deepen their faith, understand their religion better or silence doubts plaguing their consciences. “When I started university in the 1980s, I realised that I was very knowledgeable about lots of things, except my own religion. So I decided that I was going to delve deep into it and be as expert as possible,” Ayman Abdel-Fattah, a socially minded businessman and affably outspoken atheist in his late 40s, told me in a noisy watering hole in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek. But instead of reaffirming his faith, this exercise, Abdel-Fattah admits, “gave me the shock of my life” because he found that the founding fathers and mothers of Islam were very human, for the most part cynically political, motivated by self-interest and riven by infighting, jealousy and overriding ambition.
Others begin their journey as deeply conservative believers. “I was a very religious person when I was a teenager. I used to teach kids in church and remote villages about Christianity and Jesus,” recalls Mena Bassily, a young Egyptian computer scientist now living in New Zealand. Unsatisfied with the clergy’s textbook responses to his growing doubts, Bassily embarked on a journey of spiritual self-discovery that eventually led him to jettison his faith.
Before the revolution, Abdel-Fattah says, Egyptians preferred to adopt a deathly silence on the subject. “There was not a single attempt for any serious academic study or genuine analysis of the social repercussions of the trend, despite the fact that it was easily observable through the blogosphere and social media at large,” he points out.
So what prompted the media to wake up to this phenomenon? “[Everything] changed after it became apparent [that] the Islamists were going to take over,” Abdel-Fattah explains. “[The media] concluded there was one, and only one, reason for this ‘atheism tsunami.’ It was the Islamists’ rule.”
The expression “atheism tsunami” evoking images of a Biblical god flooding the world with atheists rather than the more conventional water, fire or brimstone, was memorably used by Amr Adeeb, the loud-mouthed host of the popular talk show al-Qahira al-Youm (Cairo Today). The ‘experts’ on Adeeb’s show concluded that young people were turning to atheism as a reaction to the reactionary brand of Islam that had taken hold in Egypt.
“Following the coup, a lot of people reacted against religion as a rejection of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” observes Amira Mohsen, a British-Egyptian journalist and media analyst. In addition, the military regime has manipulated the widespread fear that Egypt could become the next Saudi Arabia to demonise the Muslim Brotherhood and justify its persecution of the movement.
Blaming radical Islamists appeals both to atheists and religious moderates. For atheists, it supports the hope that society will, one day, throw off the shackles of conservative religion and choose secularism instead.
For religious moderates, placing blame elsewhere sustains their belief that it is not religion which is the problem but the way it is abused by extremists.
But while disgust at the surge of Islamic extremism may have prompted a number of Egyptians to abandon their faith, far greater influences appear to be intellectual conviction, more openness sparked by the 2011 revolution, and a gradual discarding of old, tired philosophies that tried to create homogeneity by ignoring the country’s diversity.
“Egyptian society has always been diverse and varied in terms of beliefs, opinions and cultures,” notes Alber Saber, the exiled blogger. “This has made many tolerant of those with differing outlooks.”
Beyond Egypt’s mainstream media, a profound public debate on belief has begun. This can be observed particularly in social media, which has seen a profusion of blogs, citizen journalism and films tackling this complex topic.
In the progressive ranks of the Egyptian media, there have also been efforts to portray atheists sympathetically. For instance, the online al-Badil (Alternative), which describes itself as “the voice of the weak”, produced a video documentary in which a number of atheists were given the space and freedom to elaborate on their beliefs, lives, concerns and worries.
Atheists hope that the revolution of consciousness which has overtaken Egyptian society will expand to include them. “I don’t think I will witness any earth-shattering changes for atheists’ rights or recognition in my lifetime,” concludes Ayman Abdel-Fattah, “but I’m also certain that the momentum has reached an irreversible point.”
Tunisia: the atheist spring?
Tunisia, the unexpected epicentre of the revolutionary wave that washed across the Arab world is once again providing lessons to the rest of the region in what freedom truly means.
The only difference is that this time around, instead of being the first to rise against a despotic regime, Tunisians were the first to pass a new constitution. This is a document that, despite being drafted in compromise with the moderate Islamist al-Nahda party, guarantees “freedom of belief and conscience” and, most notably, contains no references to Sharia.
Calling the constitution entirely secular may, however, be a bit of a stretch. Islam is still defined as the religion of the state and it is clearly stated that the president must be a Muslim. Also potentially problematic is the state’s dual duty to “protect the sacred” and to “prohibit charges of apostasy”. This could one day potentially be used to curb freedom of belief, a right that includes that of questioning the sacred and being an “apostate”.
It is in fact no coincidence that, although Tunisia tolerates non-believers more than most other places in the Arab world, atheism is still a taboo. This limitation is especially noticeable in the media, segments of which deliberately spread lies about what atheists are and what they believe. One example is that of the male student OM, whose name was concealed for undisclosed reasons. In an interview with Tunisialive, he complained about a journalist who interviewed him about his beliefs and afterwards wrote that “atheists worship stones and the sun, and that they drink urine and blood”.
Until recently most Tunisian atheists kept their convictions behind closed doors, but since the post-revolutionary rise of Islamist parties, more and more are starting to become vocal. At the same time, there seems to be a growing acceptance of atheistic beliefs.
“There are a number of associations that have made the defence of atheists’ rights their main battles,” says OM. “I am hopeful that we will reach a stage when atheism is tolerated.”
Unholy in the Holy Land
The Dome of the Rock. The Holy Sepulchre. The Western Wall. As the cradle of the Abrahamic faiths, the Holy Land is better known for belief than non-belief, yet atheists walk amongst the faithful.
However, when it comes to Palestinian non-believers, life can be lonely and finding like-minded people difficult. “I don’t know many non-believers,” George, a Palestinian atheist from Jerusalem who works in IT, told me.
Whether this is a sign that Palestinian atheists are few and far between or that they keep a low profile is unclear. “The Palestinian media doesn’t deal with the issue,” George explains.
Atheism wasn’t always confined to the sidelines as it is today. In 1948, after the loss of Palestine doubts about the importance of religion were widespread. For the first decades of the Palestinian struggle against Israel, communists played a prominent role in Palestinian politics and society. Although Palestinian and Arab communists were ambiguous about their convictions regarding the existence of God, they were openly sceptical or hostile towards organised religion.
For instance, the writings of both Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani deal with shaken faith. “God does not come to the poor,” Darwish declares in one of his poems, while a character in one of Kanafani’s stories declaims: “May the curse of the God who does not exist anywhere pour down on you.”
Non-belief in the cradle of Islam
As a strict Wahhabi theocracy, Saudi Arabia does not tolerate the presence of other religions or other branches of Islam in the public space. Conversion and atheism are both considered “apostasy” and according to the Kingdom’s law are punishable by death.
Unsurprisingly, citizens and foreigners living in Saudi are very careful when expressing their views about religion. But there are a growing number of exceptions who are challenging these restrictions.
One example is Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari who, in early 2012, posted three tweets on an imaginary encounter with Muhammad during the festival of the prophet’s birthday (mawlid) in which he declared “I shall not bow to you” and “I have loved aspects of you, hated others”. After more than a year and a half in prison for his “blasphemous” outburst, Kashgari was finally released in October 2013.
This is part of a broader backlash against Saudi’s Wahhabi establishment which has included a civil disobedience campaign by women wishing to drive. Even the fearsome Mutaween, the once untouchable religious police, is coming in for increasingly harsh criticism and opposition, including lawsuits and protest actions, especially after its agents drove two young brothers who were playing music off a bridge to their deaths in a high-speed car chase.
Despite the risks involved, an anonymous and secretive atheistic underground movement, albeit a small one, has emerged in Saudi. In order to discuss and share ideas this group of dissident atheists mostly gathers in online forums and chats, but in rare occasions it also manages to meet face to face. “We non-believers have meetings and groups in a lot of Saudi cities,” one atheist told Your Middle East in 2013. “If you go into them, then you will be shocked by the numbers and elements of society.
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This feature first appeared in the March 2014 edition of The Outpost.