Is Egypt going through a crisis of faith? During my recent visit to Egypt, I met so many non-believers that it was almost tempting to think that atheism has become the country’s fastest-growing "religion." In addition, atheists are becoming more confident, assertive and outspoken.
This, for example, is reflected in the daring decision by a group of atheists to submit publicly their demands for the complete secularization of the state — something Islamists, especially ultra-conservative Salafists, passionately oppose — to the committee drafting Egypt’s new constitution.
On a personal level, though I have written about my loss of faith for years in Western publications, I recently “came out” as an atheist/agnostic in an Egyptian newspaper, and the reaction of readers and social media was surprisingly warm and positive.
This conflicts with the mainstream Western view of Arab/Islamic religiosity and fanaticism in which such a confession of faithlessness should have led to a fatwa against me and even my death. But, as I pointed out in my piece, non-believers have always been an integral component of Egyptian society and, after being driven more underground in recent years, atheists have recently been making their presence felt.
How exactly did this occur?
“I reckon the reasons behind the rise in the number of atheists in Egypt are the Muslim Brotherhood and other faith merchants, because people uncovered their lies,” Bassem, an old friend of mine, opined in a Cairo club where we had just watched the World Cup’s curse of the Pharaohs’ afflict Egypt on the soccer pitch yet again.
As I mulled over his point, I was struck that, by pure coincidence, the friends who had gathered round the table were almost all non-believers of one stripe or another.
“I’ve heard many people talking about the rise in the number of atheists and I also heard some Egyptian thinkers say it on talk shows, so I assumed that the lies of the Salafis and the Brotherhood’s leaders were behind this,” Bassem elaborated.
For non-believers like myself, there is a certain appeal to the notion that what toppled President Mohamed Morsi’s disastrous 12 months in office has made Egypt lose its religion — and for some, this may possibly have been the case.
However, attempts to link the two are probably more wishful than actual. For some, they may even be political. The Muslim Brotherhood always made a big song and dance about how much more pious they were than the rest of society, so the suggestion that they drove people to abandon their faith helps undermine their holier-than-thou airs. Moreover, in the high stakes and dirty battle for the soul of Egypt between the military and the Brothers, the top brass are quite happy to promote the idea that the Islamists aren’t “real Muslims.”
When after eight decades of waiting in the wings, the Muslim Brotherhood were finally put to the test, millions of Egyptians lost what faith they once had in Islamism, and its passing off of illusions as solutions, but not in Islam itself.
Ayman Abdel-Fattah, a wealthy businessman and staunch atheist in his late 40s, believes that what Morsi and the Brotherhood unintentionally succeeded in doing was to “force people to think about and evaluate the position of religion, in which sphere it belongs.”
“I think they showed people, even a lot of their former sympathisers, that it doesn’t matter what you think about religion, that religion belongs in a separate sphere,” he elaborates.
While most Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian, remain strong believers, a significant and seemingly growing minority has given up on God and religion altogether. But since no official statistics exist on this "forgotten minority", it is unclear whether the community has grown or whether the revolution, which began in January 2011, has made them more open about their beliefs and more willing to swim against the current.
Unlike in many parts of Western Europe, where religion is dying out and so can be discarded by individuals without too much conscious effort, for many atheists in Egypt, where religion is conspicuous and public, the road to non-belief is paved with soul-searching doubts and soul-destroying questions.
For example, Abdel-Fattah's path actually began as a quest to reinforce his faith with knowledge. “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,” he told me in a noisy watering hole in upscale Zamalek, where philosophy seemed to be the last thing on the punters’ minds.
Instead of confirming and reaffirming his faith, this exercise, Abdel-Fattah admits, gave him “the shock of my life.” At school, he’d been given to believe that the prophet Muhammad was some kind of angel, and his companions were like saints.
But the picture Abdel-Fattah assembled over years of study proved to be very different: 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, he concluded.
Abdel-Fattah’s investigation of Christianity and Judaism, the New Testament and Old (Torah), proved to be no more satisfactory, nor did his study of polytheism. This led him to abandon not only his religion, but faith in any religion or god.
Like Sufi mysticism in reverse, the road to the profane can have many starting points. For Abdel-Fattah, it was his birth religion, Islam, for Mena Bassily, it was his inherited faith, Christianity. “I was a very religious person when I was a teenager,” recalls Bassily, a young computer scientist who now lives in New Zealand. “I used to teach kids in church and remote villages about Christianity and Jesus.”
Then, uncertainty began to set in, and the questions began to multiply in his mind. When the clergy answered his misgivings by telling him that God “knows what is best” and that He has “a plan we cannot question,” Bassily was incensed. “I don’t hate anything in the world as much as someone asking me not to think.”
The young doubter then embarked on a journey of spiritual self-discovery. “I started studying the Bible and Christianity myself, along with a lot of prayer and fasting for enlightenment to come from above,” Bassily explains.
Unexpectedly, he saw a different kind of light than the one he’d set out to find. Whereas Abdel-Fattah had set off to complement his scientific knowledge with spiritual insight, Bassily “got really curious about science, history, and philosophy”.
Further study and investigation led him to the conclusion that religion was manmade and God did not exist. But it took Bassily a while to get comfortable in his own skin and come out of the closet. “It was only a year ago that I began to freely identify myself to people in Egypt as an atheist,” he noted.
For some other atheists, doubt starts early in life, but is met with denial, often so as not to disappoint the community or family, especially if their household happens to be very religious.
“I always felt that religion wasn’t something natural to me,” confesses Amira Mohsen, a British-Egyptian journalist and political analyst. “Even as a child, I remember thinking it was pointless but I was convinced that these thoughts were just Satan whispering in my ear.”
In light of the fact that Mohsen’s Egyptian father was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and her British mother, with the passion of the convert, was once even more conservative than her husband, it is unsurprising, even though Mohsen spent many of her formative years in comfortably secular England, that her young mind saw the devil in her doubts — a struggle that lasted for much of her youth.
“I had something of a religious revival during my early 20s; then I moved back to Egypt and that's when I truly abandoned religion,” Mohsen recalls. “I was so disgusted by the things I saw around me.”
“I am responsible for my actions and don’t need some artificial construct to tell me how to live my life,” she adds. “I guess religion may work for some people but not for me.”
The fact that Mohsen ultimately abandoned her faith in Egypt is bound to surprise many Egyptians. Nevertheless, some will draw comfort from the notion that it was the influence of the secular West, where Mohsen has spent much of her life, that caused her to deviate from the “straight path.”
There are some who believe that atheism is a phenomenon which is limited to the “Westernized” urban elite. “Quite the contrary. The past three years changed my mind,” observes Ayman Abdel-Fattah. “I have discovered that there is a large strata of young people who are not wealthy, who are not even lower middle-class, who converted to atheism.”
I personally know people who received a completely conventional Egyptian upbringing and were raised in some of the most traditional corners of the country but still wound up abandoning their ancestral faith.
One old friend of mine was born and grew up in Minya, famed as the bridge to deeply conservative Upper Egypt. Despite having a father who was an Azharite scholar and religion teacher — but one who had raised his children to believe in free inquiry — my friend eventually became an atheist, though he never told his mother for fear of breaking her heart. His transformation occurred after he moved to Cairo to go to university in the 1990s. This was at a time when Islamists were in the midst of a wide-scale campaign to intimidate and cow society — including throwing acid in the faces of female students— into following their beliefs.
The main difference between atheists from Egypt’s richer classes and those from poorer backgrounds is that wealth, power and a more permissive environment enable the former to be more open about their beliefs. “I was lucky enough, from the start, to be master of my own domain. I never had to work for anyone. I never answered to anyone,” explains Abdel-Fattah.
Amira Mohsen tells of a poor man who worked in printing whom she once met in Cairo. “He told me how he’d read many newspaper articles and books about Marxism and had become an atheist based on what he had read,” she relates. “He told me he had been an atheist for 35 years now but was still too afraid to tell his wife and family and spent his life making excuses.”
But it is not just the poor who conceal their loss of faith from loved ones. A young, well-educated, upper middle-class relative of mine has still not come out of the closet to his family, fearing the rejection of his parents, even though he is now a successful professional and parent.
And that is probably the crux of the matter for most non-believers in Egypt — the reaction of friends and the community, the ostracisation and isolation, the sense that society would view them as errant and deviant.
That is why finding like-minded comrades and friends is important. Take Amr, a young software architect from Alexandria. Although his faith had been shaken for quite some time, his “real journey into doubt and scepticism” did not begin until he met Remoun, who would soon become one of his best friends.
Today, a confident, if very private, atheist, Amr was a co-founder — along with Mena Bassily — of a closed Facebook group dedicated to atheism in Egypt, which they envisioned as a way to help themselves and other non-believers to connect with like-minded people to offer one another mutual support and understanding.
Although in America and in many parts of Europe, the issue of atheism in Islam boils down to the theological question of apostasy, and whether or not it is punishable by death, the vast majority of Egyptian non-believers do not lose sleep over this issue.
It is true that in the most repressive Islamic regimes, such as in Saudi Arabia and Iran, “apostasy” is punishable by death, and atheists there live in constant fear for their lives. However, there are also numerous Muslim countries, like Turkey, where atheism in perfectly legal and acceptable. Majority-Muslim Albania had the distinction of being one of the few countries in history that actively strove, during its communist era, to eradicate religion from society. But luckily this repressive and bloody period, in which atheism became an intolerant state religion, ended in 1991, and today Albanians are free to believe, or not, in whatever they want.
In Egypt, there is actually no legislation outlawing atheism. Of course, that does not mean that atheists’ only fear is social rejection. They are discriminated against and occasionally persecuted.
The fact that the state does not recognise them is discriminatory and leaves them vulnerable. Crusading Islamist lawyers and a government which tries to counter Islamism by pretending it is the safeguard and protector of the faith have led to the detention or imprisonment of numerous atheists (and even believers), including Abdel-Kareem Nabil (aka Kareem Amer) and Ayman Youssef Mansour, on the vague charges of “insulting” religion.
But attitudes are shifting and the revolution has forced Egyptians to confront many social realities that they had ignored before, including the presence of such previously ignored minorities as atheists. “The revolution put a spotlight on lots of things and lots of phenomena that were underground and which we didn’t know the extent of,” observes Abdel-Fattah.
And while many Egyptians are becoming more inclusive and open, society has become far more polarized and the situation is very fluid. This means that the situation could improve dramatically for atheists or that non-believers could find themselves pushed back underground.
“We are seeing more and more sectarian violence in Egypt,” points out Amira Mohsen. “If people are attacking Christians or Shiites, then imagine what they would do to an ‘infidel.’”
And even if society continues to become more tolerant of dissenting beliefs, the ongoing breakdown in law and order could lead to greater religious vigilantism. “I respect people who are courageous enough to come out of the closet completely to their families and society. They are all heroes in my book,” says Amr. “But as we all know, heroes die. I do not want to die because some delusional and emotionally disturbed guy thinks my death will get him some virgins in the after-life.”
Even in the best case scenario, the process of acceptance and the struggle for equality will take many long years. “When I look at what things are like in the United States, I realise that I have to temper my expectations,” concludes Abdel-Fattah. “I think it’s going to be an uphill struggle, a very long fight.”
“But let’s look on the bright side,” he urges. “Three or four years ago, no one would’ve imagined that people would actually go to the Committee of 50 [drafting the new constitution] and say: we are atheists and we ask for our rights to be included.”