The Ministry of Youth and Sports recently announced what could be seen by many as “war on atheism” (AR). In cooperation with the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Al Azhar, the Ministry of Youth announced a plan to support Egyptian society. The plan, according to the Ministry of Youth, was formulated in light of a concern for Egyptian society. The Ministry saw fit to focus its efforts not on fighting youth unemployment, marginalization, or their imprisonment for protesting, but on atheism. Atheism, the Ministry claims, negatively affects society and hinders its development.
The statement and the war it announces raise some vital questions: What does the Ministry of Youth have to do with fighting atheism? Is atheism even a crime punishable by law? And why now?
According to its website, the Ministry of Youth and Sports has posted a number of strategic goals that it aims to fulfill over the five-year period from 2013-2017. These goals, naturally geared toward Egypt’s youth, include fostering the better use of free time, guaranteeing freedom of speech, establishing political and societal participation, developing health and cultural awareness, and increasing dialogue and communication. It is worth noting that none of these goals include limiting atheism or inviting youth to be more religious or adhere to values and morals.
The Ministry’s statement on the plan to fight atheism was made by the Head of the Central Department for Parliament and Civil Education, Neamat Sati. Her comments on the ministerial plan reveal an alarming level of factual errors and ignorance of citizens’ rights.
First, Sati considered atheism a new phenomenon that only started to appear in Egypt recently. This information is anecdotal at best and was not presented with any supporting evidence. In fact, to the contrary, ample evidence indicates the presence of believers and non-believers in Egypt throughout its history. This was evident at least as early as the liberal period, when, during a battle between two authors in 1937, Ismail Adham wrote “Why Am I an Atheist?” in response to an article entitled “Why I Am a Believer.” At that time, Egypt was a country that allowed and accepted religious pluralism. This changed, however, with the advent of religious extremism and a drop in empathy, leading many—especially atheists—to be fearful of expressing their religious affiliations. As further evidence of Sati’s confusion, there is no indicator of the number of believers and non-believers in Egypt currently, making it next to impossible to determine a trend in overall numbers.
Second, Sati described atheism as a disease that needs to be treated, another error that reflects lack of understanding as well as intolerance. Sati, rather than addressing the questions raised by atheism, resorted to diminishing it to a lower status by accusing atheists of being sick and in need of treatment. Furthermore, by considering atheism a mental illness, “patients” are rendered unable to realize their decisions and thus require a guardian to determine the choice and method of treatment.
Third, Sati’s remarks contradict Egypt’s constitution and international law.. Article 64 of Egypt’s constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute,” and the following article states that “the freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed, and every person has the right to express their opinion in speech, writing, photography, or any other method of expression and publication.” In 1993, the United Nations approved an interpretation of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party. This interpretation confirms the freedom to believe and the freedom not to believe; it explicitly states that its aim is to protect monotheistic and non-monotheistic faiths, as well as atheism. By fighting atheism and justifying it by saying that “freedom of religion” only covers state-approved Abrahamic religions, Egypt is failing to adhere to its obligations under international law.
As for Egyptian criminal law, it does not include any clear and direct text criminalizing atheism or those who chose to believe in religions other than Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. It does, however, include poorly worded articles to criminalize contempt of religion or offending religion. Unfortunately, without clear language and definition, these laws are open to interpretation; the national security apparatus thus plays its role by arresting some who declare their atheism and imprisoning them for contempt of religion. On December 12, 2012, atheist blogger Alber Saber received a three-year prison sentence for this crime, and the Ismailia Court of Misdemeanors is currently trying blogger Sherif Gaber for a Facebook post on atheism.
Sati is not alone in her remarks. Recent statements from other religious authorities and state leaders display their view of atheism as a dangerous phenomenon with the potential to dismantle society. Grand Imam of Al Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, in an interview for Channel 1 of Egyptian state TV on June 27, suggested that atheism in Egypt was a result of Egyptian youth being affected by a wave of atheism in the West. He explained: “New atheism now has institutions, associations, and funds, and youth are now encouraged to attack religion. This reminds me of Marxist atheism, which targeted religions at the time, calling them the opium of the people.” Al-Tayeb thus cast atheism as part of a familiar “fifth-column” of national enemies.
The Council of Egyptian Churches has also adopted a project to counteract modern atheism in cooperation with Islamic institutions and bodies. Instead of these religious institutions carrying out their mandates to present to their followers the values, morals, and strengths of each religion without coercion, they have targeted those who disagree with them with criticism and incitement.
This escalation of rhetoric about atheism cannot be viewed independently of a larger context of heightening moralism. This new moral landscape was referenced outright during President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi’s inaugural speech at the Kobba palace. During the speech, Sisi spoke of the importance of strengthening morals and values to an audience that included a large number of state officials. Sisi even went so far as to criticize the moral level of society, calling on every Egyptian family, school, mosque, and church to entrench good morals, noble values, and higher ideals in the hearts of their members.
In this context, the Ministry of Youth is following an approach use religion to appeal to the emotions of the religiously conservative Egyptian people. This approach is not a new one, but has been employed by all previous regimes, especially in times of economic, social, or political crisis and the failure of regimes to handle them. This strategy was especially prominent during Sadat’s rule in the early 1970s; at this time it was accomplished through prevalent discussions about establishing an Islamic state and via the strengthening religious institutions that echoed the same voice (whether official ones such as Al Azhar or unofficial ones such as Salafist organizations). The Muslim Brotherhood also used this very same rhetoric during their time in power, stating that its primary role was to apply divine law and return the glories of the Islamic state; the Brotherhood’s use of this rhetoric increased after their failure to handle societal disquiet and solve the people’s economic and social ailments. Sati’s comments, the Grand Imam’s statements, and Sisi’s speech all point to the use of the very same practices, a worrying development for Egyptians’ freedom of belief and expression. The Egyptian government’s current trajectory is very dangerous to religious freedom, which is expected to continue its downward spiral in light of the lack of commitment to international human rights agreements and even to the text and spirit of the Egyptian constitution.