Who stands against our freedom to be non-believing citizens? A discussion with Egyptian atheists and agnostics activities

15 August 2017

March 31, 2015 at 4:26pm

Members of the Initiatives of Atheists and the Non-Religious at the “Forum on Religion and Freedom”: our announcement of our ideas causes a shock that society needs in order to stop denying our existence and our rights

“Who stands against our freedom to be non-believing citizens?” was the title of the open discussion that was organized by the “Forum on Religion and Freedom” on Tuesday 24th March 2015 at the premises of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The discussion hosted members of the Initiatives of Atheists and the Non-Religious. Following are some of the excerpts of the discussion.

Amr Ezzat, researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the coordinator of the forum:

The Forum on Religion and Freedom, which is about 3 years old, has been exposed to diverse issues related to religion and its intersections with freedom, rights and democracy. We began in September 2012 with a forum about Al-Azhar and its relationship with the state. Most of its guests were Al-Azhar scholars who were representatives of Al-Azhar institution and among them was the current Minister of Endowments. It could seem that there is a big difference between the nature of the first forum and the nature of the current one in which we are holding discussions with atheists and non-religious groups, but in reality there is a big link between both.

In the first forum we discussed the necessity of Al-Azhar becoming independent from the state as well as the state becoming independent from it, in addition to the society and Muslims at large becoming independent from its exclusive official representation as this is in conflict with freedom of plurality and religious diversity among the general populace and among Muslims. It also makes the state a representative of Muslims at large and a guardian of the rights of others, rights accepted or refused based on what Muslims accept or refuse. This is closely linked to our forum today. The state deals with non-believers on the basis that they are dangerous to “the Muslim Society” and not on the basis that they are citizens who enjoy freedom of belief. The state still sees that the country’s citizens are formed of majority Muslims who comply with the population’s understanding of how to officially deal with religious matters. The Endowments Ministry and Al-Azhar are official institutions of the state, and other sects await permits and licenses from the state to pursue their religious activities and await the tolerance of Muslims towards those activities.

Today we wish to go beyond merely repelling attacks and incitement waged by state entities against non-believers on the basis that they pose a danger equivalent to terrorism – according to statements of the Minister of Endowments – and that they are affiliated with Western entities that seek to destabilize the nation – according to statements of the Head of Al Azhar – and start at a different point that asks the following to the state and society: why do you stand against the freedom of some citizens to be non-believers? Based on what right?

We opened up the discussion with founders of initiatives that have forayed into this path by announcing their existence and their beliefs courageously.

The meeting was attended by:

Ahmed Harkan: blogger and founder of “The Free Mind” digital channel

Islam Ibrahim: founder of the “Declaration of Atheism” page

Hany El Meehy: founder of the “Egyptians without Religion” page

Ismail Mohamed: blogger and producer of the “Black Duck" program

Islam Ibrahim: The aim of setting up the Declaration of Atheism page is to publish the names, photos and ages of those who wish to announce their atheism in order to confirm that atheists are not just a Facebook phenomenon but are citizens who are present in society and some of them have the courage to show their real identities to people. We reached 450 Arab atheists who announced their identity on the page but we faced many threats and our page was closed down more than once because of campaigns to report it. Some of those who announced their atheism faced harm and harassment and sometimes attacks on the streets and at police stations. Some have even been transferred to the prosecution because of this, namely Karim El Banna who was convicted to three years in prison on the charge of contempt of religion after being beaten up and attacked in his city, Edko.

Amr Ezzat: Due to a wave of announcements of religious non-belief, a state of shock has taken place among some people and this shock was behind the official and popular reactions, some of which included violence. One of those whose public appearance caused a shock was Ahmed Harkan, who appeared on a popular program and announced his atheism and criticized Islam sharply. This shock caused him a lot of problems and accusations as well as his eviction from his residence and being chased down. I advised Harkan to avoid appearing in public for a while as the accusation of contempt of religion has become a repeated accusation against anyone who wants to express a different belief. He replied that the shock factor is important for society. But did it have a positive effect on the situation of rights of non-believers?

Ahmed Harkan: In spite of everything, the shock factor has a very positive and important effect. If we hadn’t done what we did, then we would all continue to pay the price. If every atheist and non-religious person spoke out the authorities will not be able to target them all and treat them as unwanted minorities. If everyone was braver in expressing their beliefs and their rights, things would be better.

Ismail Ahmed: I will start my talk by reading one of the messages that I receive daily from different countries because of the “Black Duck” program in which I hold discussions with people from different religious groups that are despised and I broadcast them on YouTube. The message says: “I tried to contact you from a fake account before and you didn’t respond to me. I have been an atheist for years and of course I cannot announce this. I have become less social and I mingle less with people because of this. Try to make a program that brings together like-minded people so that they can appear and express their views.” End of the message.

Me too, when I began steering away from religious thought I started looking for like-minded people. Then I decided to face the media blackout that refuses to listen to our voices and offered a service to other atheists, for them to tell their stories. In Upper Egypt, for example, there are many stories, all of which are unfortunately dramatic. People’s voices have to be heard. They have to speak up amid the silence of many intellectuals and politicians with regards to defending rights to freedom of expression.

I started by inviting several atheists outside Egypt such as Albert Saber and Aliaa Mahdy. There was a problem with inviting people who are in Egypt due to fear. However, after I gained the trust of many people, I started hosting others who live in Egypt such as Islam Ibrahim. I also benefitted from this experience. When I first began the discussions I was always charged with my point of view and tried to impose it on the guest. Over time many of my ideas changed and I learnt different ideas and points of view. Overall, the “Black Duck” experience was part of the process of breaking the fear barrier. I am now working with Ahmed Harkan on setting up the “Free Mind” digital channel.

Amr Ezzat: Most gatherings of atheist and non-religious groups are preoccupied with discussions on religion, philosophy, and science that refute creeds and respond to religious thought, but there is an absence of gatherings for them that have a “human rights” nature and focus on their demands and on addressing the abuses they face. Among the few who started steps in this direction was Hany El Meehy, founder of the page “Egyptians without a religion,” who insisted for a long time on heading to the Civil Registration Authority to change the religion field of his personal ID card from Muslim to Non-Religious.

Hany El Meehy: The page “Egyptians without a religion” began in 2011 and is concerned with the status of non-religious groups in Egypt. I headed to the Civil Registration Authority and the official entities to change my ID card’s religious field to my real belief. I dealt with six government entities and held discussions with a large number of employees. The most tolerant among them gave me dirty looks, and some of them insulted me and kicked me out. I still held onto my right and presented an official request and awaited an official written reply. The response arrived that I have to choose between Islam, Christianity and Judaism only. This is in breach of the constitution. Does the state have the right to force a particular religion on me? Does absolute freedom of faith as stated in the constitution mean that any citizen who is not Muslim, Christian or Jewish has no existence?

A minority requesting recognition or individuals with rights?

Participant’s comment: Don’t you think that atheism or non-religion are new labels just like religions? Isn’t it better to step outside of all labels?

Participant’s comment: During your talks, I noted more than once that you speak about atheists in the sense that they are a minority or a sect. Do you agree with me that atheists have in fact turned into what looks like a sect or a minority and that this is something negative?

Ahmed Harkan: Atheism is not a religion and therefore we are not gathered around a particular religion. We are first and foremost demanding the omission of religion labels in personal IDs but the shared circumstances of atheists and what they face as well as their like-minded ideas is what brings them together.

Islam Ibrahim: We are not a sect or a closed group. Our demands are the same as the demands of any person who wishes to live with dignity regardless of their ideas.

Amr Ezzat: The state’s way of dealing with religious matters is to deal with citizens as members of sects. It deals with Sunni Muslims as the “populace” and manages religious matters through official entities that are part of the state: the Endowments Ministry, Al-Azhar and the Dar Al Iftah (Edicts Authority). Individual Muslims and Muslim groups, especially the non-Sunni ones, have no legal right to collectively practice Islam without the management and supervision of the state. Christians and Jews are recognized religious groups awaiting the permission of the state and the tolerance of Muslims to practice their rites and build their houses of worship, and any citizens with beliefs outside of those groups are not recognized. There is no legal foundation for respect of freedom of belief as a personal right for a citizen. For example, for an Egyptian to marry they have to lie and undertake a religious marriage contract, either Islamic or Christian, and outside of that they cannot legally marry.

Participant’s comment: Honestly, I don’t understand the insistence on writing “non-religious” in the religion field in the ID cards. Are we addressing groups that want to prove their existence or that want to achieve citizenship and cancel the religion field altogether from IDs?

Ahmed Harkan: Our core demand is to delete the religion field completely from all documents.

Hany El Meehy: In my view, delete it from the personal ID cards only but keep it in other documents for whoever wishes to have them.

Ahmed Harkan: The religion segment should also be deleted from birth certificates. No one has the right to select a religion for a child before they grow up and choose their beliefs.

Amr Ezzat: There is an old human rights demand which is to delete the religion field from the ID cards, but this has been met with strong refusal and needs a lot og political and social power for the battle to be waged. But current attempts to prove the true belief of the citizen are logical and useful in my assessment because if the state and society want the religion segment to remain then at the very least they have to face up to religious diversity and accept that there are non-believers. Also, proving one’s beliefs will open up another controversial discussion on civil rights of non-believers such as civil marriage for example.

Participant’s comment: I want to sympathize with atheists and with them acquiring their rights but most of them focus on criticizing religion and religious people using aggressive words and this turns me away from sympathizing with them.

Ahmed Harkan: I have the right to express my view without living as a humiliated and broken [person]. I have the right not to live the life of a liar. These are my views on religion and its ideas and symbols.

Ismail Mohamed: I don’t know how people can speak about the attitude of some atheists when we are being chased down, with our rights assaulted and incitements made against us. Can you first support our rights to enjoy equality then we talk about our manner of speech and our words?

Islam Ibrahim: We are not a sect or an organization. Each of us has their own manner, and what we are asking for, first and foremost, is respect for all people, believers and non-believers. Everyone is free to express their beliefs.

Participant’s comment: What is the reason for the discrepancies in what’s happening to atheists? How come Albert Saber and Karim El Banna faced verdicts while Ahmed Harkan and Ismail Mohamed did not face the same fate? Are there differences in the way the state deals with different cases of atheists?

Ahmed Harkan: I faced detention and was presented to the prosecution and there are reports filed against me and my colleagues but with no referrals to trial yet.

Hany El Meehy: I faced detention because of my beliefs more than once. Since the nineties until today.

Amr Ezzat: The state doesn’t have a plan to chase down atheists. The problem is that the state doesn’t offer any basis by which to protect freedom of belief and therefore leaves all those with beliefs other than those of the “recognized religions” outside the framework of protection and always threatened. There are entities in the state that stir incitement and spread hate speech and others that call for and practice discrimination, and leave a wide space for society to abuse non-believers. There are also abuses by employees of the state: police, prosecution, and the judiciary who behave mostly outside of the constitution and the law and exploit the legislation pertaining to contempt of religion to refer non-believers to the prosecution. In most [of the legal] cases of contempt of religion, the police and prosecution and judiciary are in agreement with the enmity of the people and their expression of anger [towards non-believers]. Therefore each case faces different factors.

What is to be done?

Participant’s comment: What is the point of trying to demand the rights of non-believers when the majority of the society itself is against these rights and when most intellectuals and politicians don’t want to wage this battle so that they don’t lose the people?

Ismail Mohamed: I am optimistic because I thought that human rights organizations sufficed only with collecting data. But this forum and the concern of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights with the issue shows that there is change. In my view there should be a role played by political parties and intellectuals and we have to invite them to take part and show solidarity with the rights of everyone.

Hany El Meehy: Our attempts to claim our rights are necessary. I am entitled to marry without problems and without claiming I am Muslim or Christian. It is my right that there should be associations expressing my views. I am entitled to all citizenship rights no matter what my views are. This is why I moved to correct the religion field in the ID card.

Amr Ezzat: One of the main goals of the forum is to open up discussions on issues of religious freedom and inviting those who are interested, not only to discuss these issues, but also to volunteer and help and support. At the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, we have been working towards freedom of belief since 2002 and we follow up on this through reports, studies, and legal support. We invite everyone to become engaged in issues of religion from the perspective of freedom of religion and belief because this is the perspective that can bring people of different beliefs together and bring together those who wish to take steps towards living in a democratic society based on foundations of respect and upholding of rights and freedoms. We invite you to follow us and participate with us and support us.

Report prepared by: Mohamed Medhat

Following is the link to the report in Arbic via website of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights: