Atheism -a belief, or should we say lack-of-belief, that’s becoming more apparent in Egypt, a predominantly Muslim country. But does that mean we’ve arrived at a place where atheists could openly express their views? Not yet.
Atheists all around the country are finding it difficult to talk about their beliefs with others, even their own family members. A , Pew Research study in 2013 found that 86 percent of Egyptians believe the death penalty should be applied to those who leave Islam, so it’s understandable why ex-Muslims would like to remain in the shadows.
We talked with some of Egypt’s atheists, who all agreed to participate as long as they remain anonymous. They seemed comfortable expressing their opinions with us but they were fearful of being exposed, feeling that they might get in a lot of trouble.
“You can’t tell people you’re an atheist here. It’s not good for you. Their perception of you will change because they’re conditioned to think that Islam is the one and only truth. [To them] anything else is wrong, even Christianity. A lot of people I know find it difficult to interact with Christians just because they have a different religion. Anything that separates people from each other is not good for the community,” said A.T., a medical student who recently left Islam.
Some atheists aren’t concerned about revealing who they are, even appearing on television or presenting their views on social media. However, there are consequences.
One example is Ahmed Harqan, an Egyptian atheist who appeared on a few talk shows, where in one of them, he was thrown out. “We don’t want atheists or infidels here anyway. We’re presenting an idea to teach people a lesson about infidels, atheism and all those disgraceful things in our society,” the host, Rania Yassin, had said. Harqan also claimed to have received several death threats and was once attacked on the street alongside his wife because of his beliefs.
A similar incident happened with TV presenter Reham Saeed when she kicked her atheist guest off her show because of her controversial views on Islam and the Prophet Muhammed.
Hamed Abdel-Samad, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who took a 180-degree turn and became an atheist, had also received death threats from several people, including an Al-Azhar cleric. He now resides in Germany and has an Arabic show on YouTube called Box of Islam, in which he discusses Islam in details and expresses his atheistic views.
“With the common Egyptian mentality, especially among the poor, it’s hard for people to imagine different values and morals from the ones they were taught. The mainstream media isn’t helping either. They should talk about this more often. They themselves probably know very little about the issue,” said M.H., a film student who defines himself as agnostic.
Although he’s uncertain of the existence of God, he is very much against the idea of religion. He believes religion is unhealthy for society because it limits people’s perspective about the world and allows their minds to be easily controlled.
“First, I found out that authority doesn’t have to come from religion, which was when I began to doubt. Then, when I started reading philosophy and history, I found out that the Abrahamic religions are taken from much older mythologies and philosophies. So I realized that they aren’t as sacred as I was brought up to believe as a young boy,” said M.H.
“For me, what really convinced me is science. I read a lot about science since it’s my field of study, and I discovered that science really disproved religion a long time ago. There’s a lot of scientific evidence that contradicts certain religious beliefs, evolution being an example,” said A.T.
Of course, the arguments differ on the other side of the coin. Some people cannot put themselves in the atheists’ shoes, while others simply refuse to accept atheism as a concept to begin with.
“When you ask an atheist, ‘where do we come from?’, they merely answer, ‘we came into being by chance.’ The word ‘chance’ is quite amusing really, because nothing in this world comes by chance,” said Fadel Soliman, a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, on his show in which he often talks about atheism.
“I’m not defending atheism at all, but what did you see from them? They’re just people with ideas, that’s all. You like it, you don’t like it, you refuse it, you accept it... as a community, you have the right to listen and understand ideas, then you either take it or leave it, whichever. But if we don't understand that enlightenment is the main path to ending prejudice and violence, then we have a huge problem,” said Youssef El Husseiny on ON LIVE.
“I’m not saying that Islam should disappear, all my family members are Muslim, so there’s no problem. I just want people to at least learn how to use it correctly. I think there are good things in Islam that make Muslims live comfortably among each other, but not when it comes to people with different views. And the world is made up of different views so we can’t live that way,” said A.T.
O.T., a political science student and atheist, does not expect the concept of atheism to be accepted in Egypt anytime soon. “I don’t think that’s something that’s going to happen in the near future because there are a lot of things that go with acceptance, which includes an atheist being able to publicly say ‘I’m an atheist’ without risking his own life. I think we’re a long way from that,” he said.