Egypt: The land of no atheists?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013 1:12 PM 
Al-Azhar mosque - Amr Dalsh/Reuters
Any views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not of Aswat Masriya.

By Arwa Gaballa

Behind the shadows, as Islamists work their way to the top of every state institution in the Middle East's largest country, Egyptian nonbelievers wonder if there is room for them under Islamist rule. 

"The constitution defines Egyptians as Muslims and Christians. This alienates anyone else who does not fit into these categories," a 24-year-old teacher who describes himself as a "secular humanist" says.  

Last week, a constitution written by an Islamist-dominated assembly was approved despite outrage from different groups who argue that the text does not represent all Egyptians. President Mohamed Mursi, who once led the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, pushed forward the constitution that was written by his allies amid violent clashes between his opponents and supporters. 

As bearded ultraconservatives demand stricter Islamic laws, some unmarried Egyptian women wonder why their menstrual cycles are late as they sip on cocktail drinks at local bars, some tolerant doctors perform pro bono abortions for women who cannot present marriage certificates and a difficult to estimate number of non-believing Egyptians live in constant fear of their identities being revealed.

Concerns are only rising as Egypt is seen to be racing into a new era of intolerance and polarization, but who can really challenge those who claim to speak in the name of God?

"An Islamist Egypt is a fascist Egypt. It is an Egypt that will use the faith people have in Islam as a religion to gain political power and to exclude and alienate all who are different," says a former pious Muslim who now describes himself as "Godless and free."

Islamic preachers reported to be directing the devoted on how to vote in elections and referendums has almost become an acceptable behavior in Egypt, with promises of going to Heaven hovering over ballots of "democracy."

While some Islamists widely attack liberals and Christians, describing them as "infidels" (some even going as far as justifying their killing), nonbelievers are not even acknowledged, let alone guaranteed rights in an Islamist Egypt. 

“The Egyptian people are religious by nature, and there are no atheists,” said Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most prominent Islamic scholars, if not the most, a few days ago.

The second article of the new constitution reads: "Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic is the official language and the principles of Islamic Sharia (law) is the main source of legislation."

The third grants Christian and Jewish communities in Egypt the right to resort to their own laws and principles in their personal lives, religious matters and in choosing their spiritual leaders.

Disputes over whether legislation should be based on the "principles" or the "laws" of Islam were exhausted during the drafting process but legal experts say that the key is in the actual application of the law and not the wording of the text.

"They will not be stricter because the new constitution makes it so, but because the Brotherhood themselves do not tolerate atheism. If there was another ruling party with the same constitution, they would not be as strict on atheists as the MB," an aspiring Egyptian journalist who refers to herself as an "atheist" argues.

"Nobody in Egypt made a decision to be an atheist without truly understanding and accepting the consequences. What I am actually worried about are the people who will be mistaken for atheists when all they did was crack a joke or disagree with a popular Muslim figure on a subject," she adds.

Well, actually, an award-winning Egyptian cartoonist is currently being questioned after she was accused of insulting "Prophet Adam" in a newspaper caricature. The purpose of the drawing was to mock Islamic preachers who promise the faithful of Heaven to guarantee their votes. (Article 44 of the new constitution forbids the insulting of “all messengers and prophets” but does not specify what qualifies as an insult.)

Even worse, 18 months after screams of "Freedom!" rocked every corner of the over-populated country scholars once claimed would never revolt, a Christian Computer Science graduate was sentenced to three years in jail for expressing his views on religion. Alber Saber, 27, was arrested after being accused of uploading an anti-Islam film that prompted violent clashes across the region and producing other films which mock heavenly religions.

Contempt of religions is criminalized under the Egyptian Penal Code. Article 98 states: “Anyone who exploits religion to promote extremist ideologies (orally, in writing or in any other manner) with the purpose of stirring up sedition, disparaging or disdaining any divine religion or its believers or jeopardizing national unity or social harmony shall be imprisoned for a period not less than six months but not more than five years or fined an amount not less than 500 Egyptian pounds but not more than 1, 000.”

Exploiting religion to promote extremist ideologies? Rings a bell, anyone? A video of an Islamist, who is also a member of the assembly that wrote Egypt’s new constitution, arguing that child marriage is approved by Islam has circulated the internet in recent weeks. Is that not “extreme” enough?

How about another Islamist who described churches as “mafias”, insulted the late pope and threatened to burn down all the churches in the area and got away with it? It seems that the “Contempt of Religions” bill may have only been drafted to safeguard Islam but other religions are up for grabs.

"Restriction on freedom of expression dismantles culture, restricts scientific progress and hinders education," says an Egyptian-Canadian engineer who identifies himself as “agnostic”.

While many rights groups, local and international, have slammed the new constitution arguing that it undermines social freedoms, Article 45 states: "Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. Every human being has the right to express their opinion orally or in writing, photography or other means of publication and expression."

Not comforting enough? Here is another:

Article 43 of the constitution states: "Freedom of belief is safeguarded. The state guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites and the establishment of houses of worship for monotheistic religions, in accordance with the law."

But again, the key lies in the actual application of the laws and not the wording of the text. Although, the text may also be debated for what happens to those who do not believe in monotheistic religions and may thus not necessarily believe that Islamic law should be the main source of legislation? Should the constitution not represent all Egyptians equally?

"Men are granted two thirds of the inheritance while women are given one third. Men are allowed multiple wives while women are allowed one. Men are allowed to marry from other religious backgrounds and women are not allowed and so on,” the Egyptian-Canadian lists these as examples of what he believes is inequality in Islam.

"I am afraid Egypt will slip into a period of 'medieval Europe' where the church was the main driving force behind the ignorance, intolerance and abuse to human integrity. History teaches us that there is no progress under religious, dogmatic ideology," he adds.

According to Article 60 of the new constitution, all citizens are required to take religion classes before they apply for university. This is not a new feature in Egyptian schools; religion classes (Islamic and Christian) were always mandatory in all national schools.

However, in an ideal world, why must somebody who does not believe in God be forced to sit through an hour-long class to learn about Islam or Christianity because their birth certificate says they are of a certain religious affiliation?

Will there ever be an alternative to skipping religion class then being sent to detention only to have a bewildered counselor stare into the eyes of a non-believing child and ask, “Who skips religion class?”

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