Non-believers: atheism in the crosshairs of Egyptian legislators
Federica Zoja 2 May 2018

The Arab spring uprising opened the way to public debates inconceivable in North African countries before 2011. Yet, the reaction of the Cairo authorities has been very hostile to “free thinkers”, including citizens who eschew religion.

In Egypt, the Ministry of Youth, the university mosque of al-Azhar and the national security forces work as a team to identify, arrest and incriminate atheistic citizens.

A law that prohibits blasphemy has been on the books since 1982, allowing the state to pursue atheists who express disbelief in public. But in recent months, the campaign against atheists has taken a new turn. Amr Hamroush, the vice-president of the parliamentary commission for religious affairs has drafted an ad hoc law that would criminalize atheism in Egypt, even in private.

The existing law provides for periods of imprisonment of between six months and five years for «anyone who uses religion to promote, through speech, writing, or any other medium, extremist ideas with the aim of spreading discord or to belittle or disdain one of the monotheistic religions or their different sects, or to harm national unity». While atheism is not directly prohibited, the text is sufficiently ambiguous that those claiming religion lacks any factual basis are at risk.

Between 2011 and 2013, 42 Egyptian citizens were tried for having openly declared themselves atheists (not merely being suspected of it), according to a 2014 report – Besieging Freedom of Thought – published by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a human rights organization. Their condemnation (and that of other bloggers, intellectuals, artists who have “come out” as non-religious since), is not surprising. Yet the decision of those people to break a social taboo shows amazing courage.

Despite this ongoing repression, the political and social earthquake that hit the North African country from 2011 on has legitimized debates that would previously have been unimaginable, including the right of people not to believe. Moreover, the trend has been steadily increasing, thanks to the social networks and discussion forums made available by groups trying to defend personal freedoms.

Traditional actors, however, have given little ground in the debate. At the beginning of March 2018, the broadcaster “Egypt TV” hosted a debate between Mohammed Hashem, a young declared atheist, and a prominent sheikh of the al-Azhar university, Mahmoud Hashour, during the talk show “al-Hadath al-Youm” (The Fact of the Day). Yet as soon as it began, the discussion descended into an attack on Hashem when he invoked reason as the basis of his non-belief, stating «there is no scientific evidence of the existence of Allah». The host, Mahmoud Abd al-Halim, suggested he visit a psychiatrist, calling him «confused and unreliable».

Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has led Egypt’s war against atheists: in 2014, he promised to «erase» the phenomenon of atheism. And the campaign is backed by the Council of Christian churches, which -while not promoting criminalization outright – has joined Dar el-Iftaa, the Islamic institution responsible for issuing fatwas on the issue, in condemning atheism.

It is worth sketching the details of the proposed law, which is still being drafted by lawmakers. The first article will define atheism; the second will criminalize it, imposing sanctions; the third will establish the possibility for the guilty to retract and deny atheism; and the last will detail the penalties for those convicted, which are expected to be severe for the most serious cases.

While hard numbers are hard to come by, the head of the Catholic Church in Egypt, Rafic Greiche, estimates that today there are about two million Egyptian atheists, «especially from Muslim families» (AsiaNews, January 2018). In 2014, the leaders of al-Azhar warned that Egypt had the highest number of atheists in the Arab world: 866 people.

The topic has assumed a prominent place in public debate in other North African countries that have experienced – directly or indirectly – the so-called Arab Spring and the open discussion of the right to free expression that came in its wake.

In Tunisia, as with so many issues of individual rights in the post-2011 period, the public debate has been rather schizophrenic. On the one hand, in August 2012 the popular Islamist Ennahda party then in government was able to enact particularly strict anti-blasphemy legislation. On the other, a major victory was won in October 2017, when the Association of Free Thinkers, an NGO founded to defend the rights of Tunisian non-believers, was granted authorisation by the state, a unique outcome in the Arab world. Its members, who seek to defend the secular nature of the country and its constitution, have for years been subject to threats and attacks by radical Islamists. The Association has abolition of the law that punishes those who do not respect fasting during Ramadan as a key goal and has also brought disparities in the treatment of Tunisian women in inheritance on to the public agenda.

In Algeria, the latest news, and the information campaigns of young bloggers and intellectuals, confirm that not much has changed since 2015, when the poet and writer Rachid Boudjedra was “excommunicated” by the Algerian ulema for declaring himself an atheist. Indeed, a report issued at the end of 2016 by the International Humanist and Ethical Union found «non-believers are socially invisible» in Algeria. The report – called Free Thought – noted that the enactment of regulations against blasphemy and apostasy has seen atheists driven underground, afraid to speak publicly.

Non-believers in Morocco are no better off. In the Kingdom of Mohammed VI it is illegal for atheists or non-religious to declare their positions openly and – unlike in Tunisia – associations of non-believers receive no public backing. Indeed, it remains the case that a spouse’s atheism is sufficient reason to seek a divorce under the country’s legal system.

However, one recent step in the right direction has been moves to decriminalize apostasy, legislation for which is still being drafted. In a truly historic development, this move has been backed by the Islamic establishment in Morocco. In the summer of 2017, the Superior Council of Moroccan ulamas overturned a 2013 fatwa that had outlawed all apostasy as inherently sinful. The new interpretation, which distinguishes the religious from the political level, draws on the writings of the illustrious Muslim scholar, Sufyan al-Thawri, who lived in the eighth century after Christ. This innovative reading of al-Thawri’s argument considers apostasy punishable by death only if accompanied by a “political betrayal” towards the community of origin, ndr. On the basis of this ruling, Moroccan legislators have been able to draft amendments to the current law, which condemns all apostates to death, against the wishes of Morocco’s conservative Islamist fringe. Surprisingly, national and Arab media in general have shown little interest in these developments; most reporting has come from Francophone sources.
In any event, if Moroccan legislators succeed in changing the law, greater freedom will be extended not only to those converting from Islam to another Abrahamic faith, but probably also those who declare themselves agnostic or atheist.

As for troubled Libya, if it is true that in the immediate post-Gaddafi period there was a flourishing of independent media keen to host debates of all kinds, it is equally true that atheists and agnostics have continued to live at risk of repression and victimisation as under the Colonel’s rule. Those writing on social media or exposing themselves openly as unbelievers risk, at the very least, being ostracised by family and society. At worst, they risk their lives, since atheism, as in neighboring Egypt, is seen as a leading threat to the social and political stability of the country.

Credit: Khaled Desouki / AFP