The Edku Misdemeanor Court of appeal last week upheld a three-year imprisonment sentence for Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna, who was convicted of contempt of religion and of God.
Banna was not the first to have been sentenced, as dozens of young people were imprisoned and fined for the same charge since the 25 January 2011 revolution. This recalls the way the government deals with atheists.
Increased freedom during 25 January revolution
The beginning was in Tahrir Square after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011, where Islamic preacher Safwat Hegazy cried “God overthrew the regime” for a young man to tell him “it was the people who overthrew the regime”. This was an indication of a certain new trend professing itself.
“We cannot believe in a God who wants to glorify himself all the time” was a slogan raised by a number of young people before the revolution, but the dictatorship of Mubarak prevented them from declaring their atheism except in blogs on the Internet. To them, the revolution gave
the green light for them to announce their thoughts freely and boldly.
Expression of atheism online
“Atheism is the solution,” “radical atheists without borders” and “a logical atheist” were some of the blogs posted on Facebook and Twitter after the revolution.
While the majority of atheists prefering not to announce it, some gradually began to move from the virtual world to television screens, holding debates with clergymen in talk shows, although debating religion is a sensitive topic in Islamic countries.
Ismail Mohamed is a young man who posted a program on YouTube called “The Black Duck” for atheists to express their beliefs freely.
Atheists not only started to announce themselves, but also demanded after the 30 June revolution that the Constitution provide a civil personal status law for them that allows them civil marriages.
An electronic magazine called “I think” was also launched with the editorial of its first issue explaining why atheists are against religiosity.
Article 64 of the Egyptian Constitution states that freedom of belief is absolute, and that the freedom of religious practice and the establishment of houses of worship for followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law. And Article 65 states that freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed, and that everyone is entitled to express opinion verbally, in writing, visually or by any other means of expression and publicity.
"Contempt of religion" used to prosecute in courts
According to a report of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, 63 people were brought to trial in 2011 and 2012 on charges of contempt of religions. Among the most famous sentences were a six-year imprisonment for a secretary of a school in Assiut for holding a religious debate, another six-year imprisonment for a Christian teacher in Sohag for insulting Islam and a three-year imprisonment for a blogger named Albair Saber on charges of contempt of religion.
Also, the Armant Court south of Luxor had in June 2014 sentenced Kirolos Shawki Atallah to six years in prison for contempt of Islam, the Ismailia Misdemeanor Court sentenced Sherif Gaber Abdel Azim, a student of Suez Canal University, to a year in prison and a bail of LE1,000 to suspend the sentence, and author Karam Saber was sentenced to five years in prison for contempt of religion in his novel “Where is God.” The verdict was based on the opinion of the Al-Azhar institution.
Isaac Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says the Egyptian Penal Code does not criminalize atheism and the Constitution and international conventions guarantee freedom of religion. “But the security service use the contempt of religion charge as an excuse to persecute religious minorities and atheists,” he says.
He adds that satellite TV channels incite against atheists and that the Youth Ministry launched a campaign to combat atheism, although this is not its job. “The Al-Azhar and the churches contributed to the campaign,” he says. “I think this was all for political purposes.”
He says the current regime continues the policies of previous regimes by using religion to please the conservative Egyptians, a method that was widely used under late President Sadat.
Also, former Alexandria Security Director Amin Ezz Eddin said in a television program that he formed a force of specialist officers to arrest young people advocating atheism.
Atheists are not only persecuted by the authorities, but also by society, as many of them were physically attacked by ordinary people.
In June 2014, a number of high school students in Damietta attacked a 17-year-old student with knives and clubs for relinquishing Islam. And when he went to the police to complain, he was detained for 10 hours.
Residents of the Bitash district in Alexandria caught a young man named Ahmed Harkan, who had declared on television that he is an atheist, and handed him and his wife over to the police. He said they were beaten and insulted in the police station by the officers and the other detainees before they were released.
Atheists prefer to keep quiet
An atheist coming from a Muslim family in Assiut says only his close friend know about it because he does not want to end up in jail.
But Egyptian novelist Hamed Abdel Samad, a resident of Germany who was publicly threatened of murder in Salafi satellite channels after a lecture he gave in Cairo in 2013 about religious fascism, says everyone has the right to declare his beliefs.
“Hypocracy is worse than fundamentalism,” he says, adding that atheists are persecuted by society because people think they are very few. “They should speak out for people to know how many they are. Perhaps society would change the way it deals with them then.”
“Atheists in Egypt are in a difficult situation, whether under the Muslim Brotherhood or its enemies, because there is no culture of dialogue,” he adds. “Society misunderstands the concept of freedom in general.”
“The problem is in the dictatorship of the public mood and the fixed principles of society,” he says. “Freedom of religion must include freedom to relinquish a faith.”
“The notion of keeping a belief to oneself makes no sense,” he says. “Muslims declare their belief everyday in loudspeakers in mosques, on satellite TV channels, in schools and universities and in parliament.”
He says that although President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked the Al-Azhar to reform the religious discourse, the institution formed committees to combat atheism, whereas atheists can contribute better to the development of the religious discourse because they dare raise questions that clergymen cannot.
Since President Hosni Mubarak until President Sisi, religious institutions and officials consider that atheism is a mental and psychological illness, and that atheists are patients in need of treatment.
Endowments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa believes that atheism is a colonial product under the pretext of freedom of belief that seriously threatens the national security of Egypt and the whole Arab nation. He also believes that atheists are not patriotic because only religion teaches sincere patriotism.
An atheist living in Cairo says that if atheists are psychopaths, scientists would also be psychopaths by default as they both use the same reasoning. He wonders how atheists are coined as such if they do not claim they know of creatures that nobody else can see or get revelations from some unknown world.
He adds that this accusation comes from the Dar al-Ifta, which is an institution not qualified at all to talk about psychology, contending that this institution does not know that Sigmund Freud, the founder of analytical psychology, was an atheist.
Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm