Freedom of, not from, religion in Egypt
Mortada Mansour - YOUM7/Essam elshamy

CAIRO: “If you want to be an atheist, do it in your bathroom.”

Mortada Mansour, a recent entry to the current presidential race, is known as a firebrand. In his comment above, however, given in a press interview shortly after announcing his candidacy in April, he expressed a common sentiment towards those who do not identify with a religion in Egypt.

Security forces in Alexandria announced March 26 their intent to arrest atheists who announce their atheism in public, even on Facebook or through other means. Although atheism is not technically illegal in Egypt, those who openly question or deny religion, in particular Islam, can be charged with contempt of religion or insulting Islam.

The government recognizes only Abrahamic religions, and both visitors to the country and those born here must have a religious label; visitors must report their faith to obtain a residence visa, and Egyptians must have either a Muslim or Christian label printed on their national identification cards from birth, which is determined by the religion of the child’s father.

The Arabic word for atheism, kofr, encompasses three concepts: atheism, agnosticism, and blasphemy, and religion in Egypt is inextricable from the language and culture.

Egypt’s 2014 constitution guarantees the freedom to choose an Abrahamic religion, but for those who reject or question religious practices the law is murky and can make rites of passages such as marriage difficult. Egyptian law forbids the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man, and in cases where both parties are atheist, but with non-compatible national IDs, even a civil union can be practically impossible.

Life as an atheist

“I am not an atheist of an existent entity; I believe that no God exists, and the scientific method is the best explanation of everything,” said Mustafa, 22.

Mustafa said he is not yet open about his beliefs to his family, although he suspects that they have noticed how his beliefs run counter to theirs.

Mustafa added that he wants a civil marriage law in Egypt, noting that an atheist man with a Christian ID would be unable to marry an atheist woman with a Muslim ID.

S., 37, who identifies as non-religious and declined to use his full name, told The Cairo Post that he once believed in a God, but questioned the validity of any one religion. Raised as a Muslim, he said he was dissatisfied with the answers to his questions about doctrine, such as how the Prophet Mohamed could have recited a “doaa” [prayer] before using the bathroom in the Bronze Age while living in the desert, where no such facilities existed.

“Muslims, in my point of view, confirm freedom of belief when they call on non-Muslims to join Islam, but they don’t accept that some Muslims may practice their freedom to believe and have the right to leave Islam,” he said.

The call by the Alexandria Security Director’s to arrest the atheists “is an unconstitutional statement that conflicts with the right to freedom to belief, which the constitution guarantees.”

S. said that the January 25 Revolution led some non-religious people and atheists to announce their beliefs, but extremist Islamic currents also pushed others to fundamentalism.

Further, one does not need to self-identify as an atheist to invite legal scrutiny. Islamic studies professor Nasr Hamed Abo Zaid was forcibly divorced from his wife by the Egyptian Court of Personal Status in 1995 after his lectures were deemed by some colleagues as blasphemous, and they filed a suit against him.

The suit alleged that he was an atheist, citing his referencing to the Quran as a “text” instead of a divine source in one of his articles. The court ruled that he was guilty, and also divorced him from his wife with neither parties’ consent, as under Egyptian law, a Muslim woman may only be married to a Muslim man.

Abu Zaid and his wife fled Egypt to the Netherlands, where he continues to teach Islamic studies at Leiden University.

Legal standards

“Believing or not believing in God is a personal issue; as written in the Quran: ‘The Truth is from your Lord; so whoever decides, then let him believe, and whoever decides, then let him disbelieve [Al-Kahf]’,” Professor of Philosophy and Islamic faith at Al-Azhar University Amna Nousair told The Cairo Post.

Nousair said that Islam guarantees the freedom of belief, so it would not be legitimate to arrest atheists for theirs, but said that announcing one’s atheism between friends or social media pages could be considered as an invitation to atheism, which is “a crime.”

She said that atheists who announce their beliefs and talk to people about it are “warriors against Islam,” and that arrest was appropriate in those cases.

Karam Saber was sentenced to five years in prison for blasphemy by the Beni Suif Court in March , for publishing a book of short stories called “Where is God?”

Head of the Writers Union Mohamed Salmaway told Al-Masry Al-Youm on March 30 that the union plans to file a lawsuit, announcing that such a verdict is unconstitutional.

Mina Thabet, a researcher at The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms told Al-Badil newspaper on March 27 that the Alexandria Security Director’s decision was “criminal,” and that the constitution guarantees the freedom of religious beliefs and the freedom to practice different rituals.

Thabet added that such a call to arrest atheists conflicts with international treaties that Egypt has joined.

No one in Alexandria has yet been arrested in accordance with the security director’s decision.

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