A Life of Pretending: Being Egyptian and Atheist

The sun was almost directly overhead as I slipped out from the rambling alleys of the Khan al- Khalili into the open square. Al-Hussein Mosque towered ahead to the north. The call to prayer blasted from its pencil minaret, its solemn strains echoed by a cacophony of loudspeakers across the city. Exhausted and craving coffee, I headed for the strip of tourist-trap cafés lining the square’s western edge, and was barely seated when a young Egyptian couple motioned for me to join them for a game of backgammon.

As I’d come to expect after nearly a dozen visits to Egypt over the years, the question of religious identity came up within a minute, and I answered honestly. Just as often I’d opted to lie, claiming to be Christian for civility’s sake, but I told this stylish young couple the truth: I’m not religious. A host of experiences answering the same question across Egypt had me braced for a look of pained disappointment. But ‘Amr’s eyes lit up with a smile as he leaned into the table: “I’m an atheist too.”

Rather than going our separate ways, ‘Amr, Sara, and I walked together towards Bab Zuweila, climbing to the spacious roof of the Mosque of Sultan al-Mu‘ayyad for panoramic views of Old Cairo and, even more precious for ‘Amr, for solitude. With no one around, he unloaded his journey towards nonbelief, from teenage skepticism to angry backlashes from friends in whom he had dared confide. Among the latter group he couldn’t recall a single non-hostile reaction.

At the age of 10, ‘Amr’s failure to memorize the Qur’an brought him beatings, the force of which he resented even then. Voiced skepticism throughout his youth earned him further harsh treatment from family members, whose religious discipline he recalled growing progressively more strict along with gradually closer subscription to the channels of Gulf-based imams. Upon coming to terms with his own atheism, ‘Amr – like the vast majority of nonbelivers in Egypt – took pains to keep it to himself.

His girlfriend barely spoke a word, but ‘Amr wasn’t nearly finished. With much more to say than the time in which to say it, he suggested we carry on talking in a downtown café. Here, he said, he’d recently spent a good amount of time with a growing group of Egyptian atheists, all of whom he’d met online, sharing similar experiences and venting frustrations with life as a nonbeliever in one of the world’s most religiously restrictive countries. These gatherings were like manna for ’Amr. He heard dozens of accounts comparable to his own – stories of being evicted, forcibly medicated, losing jobs, being blacklisted from entire industries, losing friends, families – wives, husbands, children – and, for an unlucky few, jail.

‘Amr was on the phone with one of these new friends when a bit of eavesdropping on his mother’s part pulled the curtain on his outright nonbelief. He wishes he’d been more careful. Her discovery poisoned family relations, and ‘Amr’s parents still persist in their efforts to get him psychiatric treatment to ‘cure’ the supposed mental illness of nonbelief.

Still, the downtown group brought ‘Amr hope. At the last meeting, more than thirty nonbelievers had gathered, and he assumed their numbers would only continue to swell. Indeed, the ‘phenomenon’ of atheism has been noted over the past few years across the Middle East. In ‘Amr’s view, Egypt was poised to bound into a future that was inevitably secular. That was in the spring of 2014.

Barbershop in downtown Cairo.

The next time I met ‘Amr was in March of 2017. He asked me to join him at a café in the more upscale, cosmopolitan neighborhood of Zamalek, one of Cairo’s precious few spaces in which he deemed it ‘safe to talk.’ Much had changed.

As in the early stages of his journey from faith, ‘Amr once again felt isolated and alone. I guessed he’d lost about 10 kilos. His eyes occasionally darted towards the door, and his outlook had become as bleak as any I’d yet heard. “Egypt,” he said, “will never change.” He informed me that just a few days after my previous visit, he and his friends were forcibly evicted from their downtown venue with physical intimidation and taunts from both customers and staff who were appalled to discover that ‘Satan worshippers’ were expressing their ideas in such a public setting.

Egyptian media has reflected this deep-seated outrage, addressing atheism as an affliction brought on by a blend of corrupting Western influences and religious ignorance. The two extremes of the latter, according to state media and its cheerleaders, are personified by the militant Islamists of the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood on one hand, and atheists on the other. To fight it, the state has launched a ‘war on atheism’ – an ambitious five-year plan that included the publicizing of nonreligion’s rapacious effects on society, the training of imams to ‘cure’ it, and even a special task force to arrest atheists who are active online.

Five years on, it’s clear that the plan hasn’t quite eradicated atheism. It has succeeded, however, in making Egyptian atheists afraid. Following the café incident, ‘Amr’s entire group fled Cairo. Some managed to escape the country, though the Egyptian coast was as far as most were able to get from the social strictures and listening ears of the capital.

Among the latter group of ‘Amr’s friends was Ahmed Harqan, who had become one of Egypt’s better known atheists online, appearing in a series of unprecedented televised debates. In one such appearance, Harqan recalled his Salafi past, explained the intellectual roots of his own doubts, and claimed that Egyptians aren’t given the space to think critically about religion. Still more insultingly, he argued that the acts of ISIS and Boko Haram aren’t all that different to those of the Prophet and his companions.

Not long after one of these shows, an angry mob attacked Harqan, not sparing his pregnant wife. Both escaped with minor injuries, but the unborn child was lost. Upon reporting the incident at the police station, the officers found them worthy of further harassment, after which they were briefly imprisoned. That was their cue to go into hiding, where they remain today.

I asked ‘Amr about Sara. His non-religious views, he said, had now lost him quite a few friends and girlfriends since my last visit. Just recently, another girl had chided him with a verse from the Qur’an. In response, he pointed out that they’d already slept together. “Did she really think I was a Muslim?” As for Sara, she’d left him within hours of our time together. He’d never revealed his atheism to her until our day of wandering. ‘Amr laugh off the memory, again pointing out the hypocrisy: “And we were fucking too!”

The Revolution Goes Online

During the brief opening that followed the 25 January Revolution, an unprecedented host of voices hurled themselves into Egypt’s public square. Among them were atheists like Ahmed Harqan. Seven years later, public debate had been effectively quashed. In a country admired for its legendary humor and sarcastic wit, few, for instance, would dare openly mock the elections between Sisi and himself.

The internet, however, remains an outlet. Indeed, it’s the only one in which some atheists can air their views and share their personal experiences with religion. In response, pages dedicated to taking down ‘anti-Muslim’ and ‘anti-Christian’ pages have proliferated. And thanks to these vigilant reporters of anti-religious hatred, many posters have wound up in jail.

Despite being branded as incubators of bigotry, online forums for the nonreligious have grown steadily since 2011. For apostates like ‘Amr, ‘Ali, and Haider, these have proved vital, especially at times when meeting another atheist in person was just about inconceivable. Such pages offer much-needed support, buffering newfound identities against a hostile environment.

In early 2015, Haider ‘found atheism’ through the Facebook page of Sherif Gaber, an activist currently in hiding. “He has half a million views on Youtube,” he said excitedly. As of 2018, Gaber’s videos have topped nine million views. Though Haider found them deeply unsettling at first, in time he found reason and humor in them, and he now hopes and believes that the internet will allow his generation to become more vocal and expressive. “We are more brave than before,” he said.

Typical posts share news stories of sectarian violence, videos clips from Christopher Hitchens, Sherif Gaber, or MEMRI. Some are simply quotes. The latter come from speakers as diverse as Iraqi social critic ‘Ali al-Wardi, Egyptian-German atheist Hamed ‘Abd al-Samad, Thomas Jefferson, and Ricky Gervais. Raif, who left religion several years before 2011, laments that it was only after the Revolution that he was introduced to the brilliance of George Carlin.

One popular, satirical account poses as “a member of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue, a sword on the necks of heretics, secularists, liberals, magicians and Shiites.” As with many such pages, its aim is use humor to undermine religious and social distinctions. As opposed to castigating the religious themselves, there’s more often some effort to separate the ideas, books, and beliefs from the people that subscribe to them. Private groups often follow similar guidelines. One cites a commitment to intellectual freedom and pluralism, respect for people of all backgrounds, and rejection of “intolerance in all its forms, whether religious, sectarian, racial or class-based.” Theists are allowed to join the discussion so long as they follow the rule of “mutual respect.”

Of course, there is plenty of in-group/out-group thinking on Egyptian atheist forums, including outright mockery of what many members see as pure religious lunacy. But on closer inspection, nuance isn’t always lost. Many Egyptian atheists take pains to emphasize that the ‘otherized’ entity at the stake in such forums is religion, not the religious. In their sights are doctrines, dogmas, and ideologies rather than the people – who often include atheists’ entire families.

Profiles of Egyptian Atheists

Like anywhere else, the nonreligious of Egypt are a diverse crowd – secularists by default, committed atheists, ardent critics of religion, and everything in between. As in the West, most Egyptian atheists depart from religion while young. They’re more often male, middle- or upper-class, intelligent, and well-educated.

In a book he co-authored entitled The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies, Phil Zuckerman – a sociologist who has extensively analysed data on the nonreligious in the West – has written that there are, broadly speaking, “shallow” and “deep” forms of apostasy. Apostates towards the latter end of this spectrum have severed ties with religion completely. There are also “mild” and “transformative” forms of apostasy. While apostates towards the mild end are more or less indifferent towards the topic, most having never been particularly religious to begin with, those towards the transformative end have most often been raised to be religious. For them, the process of apostasy has often involved “massive psychological reorientation from a religious worldview to a secular worldview,” resulting in alienation or even rejection from former religious communities, friends, and family.

Here, Zuckerman emphasizes the importance of social context: the more ubiquitous the religiosity, the more likely apostates are to experience transformative rather than mild apostasy, and to be deep rather than shallow apostates. So, while Danes may more often casually abandon religion, Egyptians – living in one of the most religiously restrictive countries on earth – more often carry the impact of their apostasy long after they’ve left religion. Indeed, the seeming abundance of deep and transformative forms of apostasy in Egypt speaks to the power and dominance of its religious discourses.

Mausoleum of Shahin al Khalwati.

The Roots of Nonbelief

State media and Al-Azhar scholars blame ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and ‘new atheists’ like Sam Harris for the rise of Egypt’s non-believers. Of course, the roots are a bit more complex than that. As the substantial body of scholarship on nonreligion has shown, the causes are many and various. Still, some currents appear to be of particular importance to Egyptian atheists.

It’s certainly true that Islamism’s rise has been a boon for doubt and disbelief. Here, it seems, Al-Azhar has it partly right. For Eslam, 9/11 amplified the discord between its perpetrators’ ideology and his own liberal, individualized interpretation of Islam, one that also jarred with the mainstream of Islamic discourse in Egypt. Morsi’s brief rule – arguably the peak of Egypt’s Islamist fervor – pushed many young doubters towards critical accounts of religion. For Haider and ‘Ali, more recent apostates, the rise of ISIS – closely followed online – prompted despair and doubt.

It is also true that Western voices have made some impact. Many Egyptian atheists are aware of at least one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse.” Raif, Eslam, and Hazem have all read The God Delusion, the Arabic translation of which has been downloaded well over 10 million times. Haider and ‘Ali laughed as they recalled a televised debate in which Ahmed Harqan had tried to clarify which figure his clerical opponent hoped to castigate when referring to “Charles Dawkins.”

Still, the direct influence of so-called ‘new atheists’ has its limits. To overstate such foreign channels is to overlook the legacy of Egyptian freethinkers and atheists, a memory the Egyptian state has long tried to wipe from the national record. Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayyid, pioneer of the modern translation movement; Salama Moussa, pioneer of Egyptian socialism; ‘Abd al Rahman Badawi, pioneer of existentialism – all were avowed Egyptian atheists. Though officially banned, a host of Egyptian critiques and commentaries on religion have made waves, including the early twentieth-century work of ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi, From the History of Atheism in Islam (available in Arabic here), and, almost a century later, ‘Abbas ‘Abd al-Nur’s My Ordeal with the Qur’an and with God in the Qur’an. ‘Abd al Nur had spent the bulk of his life a pious Sufi sheikh in the Nile Delta before abandoning religion in his early eighties. Written in classical Arabic style, the book’s fiery tone reflects the extreme depth its author’s apostasy, laying out a brutally critical genealogy of Islam.

Through a Lebanese girlfriend, Raif considered himself lucky to obtain a copy of the latter. He called it the lynchpin of his apostasy, the ‘most perfect critique of Islam.’ Similarly impressed were ‘Ali and Haider, apostatizing almost a decade later, though they simply downloaded the free PDF online. Such works’ assaults on religion are certainly no less harsh than those of Harris, Dawkins, or Hitchens.

Certain Western scholars of the Arab and Islamic worlds – when not completely ignoring apostates in the region – prefer political explanations for nonbelief. Their valiant and overriding quest has long been to affirm the humanity of Muslims and challenge notions of Western superiority. Certainly, Egyptian atheists present a challenge to the dominant master narrative that regards secularism and liberalism as a Western-imposed structure of power, perennially at odds with its ‘Other,’ Islamic piety. In light of such a narrative, it’s easy to see why the existence of Egyptian atheists sits almost as uncomfortably with these scholars as with the Egyptian state.

For much of her prominent career, the late scholar of Islam Saba Mahmood dismissed ex-Muslims and imputed treacherous, political motives and outright dishonesty to their concerns with Islam. Charles Hirschkind – an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley – sought to invalidate Abu Zayd’s critique of the Qur’an for its “modernist reworkings” of Islamic modes of interpretive reasoning, while Mahmood described Zayd’s work as “disenfranchising traditional modes of interpretation,” thereby implicitly accusing the reformist Muslim scholar of a lack of authenticity for speaking in secular terms. At the same time, she defended the singular legitimacy of Muslim outrage over the Danish cartoons against critics’ incapacity or unwillingness to understand. For someone who made calls to conceptualize “freedom as a contextual, rather than universal, practice,” and to ‘problematize’ such ‘secular’ notions as human rights and tolerance, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Mahmood showed an unwillingness to understand the growing population of ex-Muslims within her region of expertise.

Individuals such as ‘Amr and Raif are merely inconvenient obstacles to such sweeping theorizations, complicating a grand narrative that strives to pit East against West. More accurately, this narrative pits secularism against Muslim ethics, and frets about the former’s subtle aims of dominating, subjugating, and marginalizing the latter.

Like the scholars of Al-Azhar, these scholars are partly right: in Egypt at least, political concerns do motivate nonbelievers. However, they do not seem to motivate nonbelief. As a group, Egyptian atheists are scattered widely across the political spectrum. In politics, the only real consensus – even among the otherwise politically apathetic – lies in their view of religion’s role, a view upon which they converge in the wake of apostasy. All share the desire for secularism, defined as the separation of mosque or church and state.

A much more unifying factor cited by Egyptian apostates is what Hume called “the problem of the many” – the brush with alternative religious discourses. As has been noted among Western apostates, religious diversity helps to impair the plausibility of all religious discourses, rendering nonreligion a conceivable worldview.

For Sherin, it was bewilderment over the mechanics of the Christian Godhead, exacerbated by Islamic proselytization within her own family. A philosophy of religion class she took while studying abroad exposed her to critical accounts of a range of world religions. Yasmin was led to question her faith while studying ancient Egyptian religion, while Tarek’s curiosity was piqued perusing his father’s collection of books on Buddhism. Raif read much of the Bible and attended church from time to time with friends, prompting a closer look at the Qur’an. As ‘Ali studied Russian culture and consumed Bollywood films, he noticed marked similarities and contradictions among religious traditions, his incredulity gradually expanding to take in elements of his own. Religious multiplicity gave an intellectual push to many, but overall this concern appears to be peripheral to apostasy. More substantial were the concerns of believers arising from within the faiths.

 

Anthon Jackson

 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.


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