Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Growing open atheism in Egypt

by Salman Hameed

The Egypt Independent has a nice profile of the growing number of atheists in Egypt. Instead of just relying on second-hand accounts, the members of the newspaper staff met with 15 atheists at cafe in downtown Cairo. The stories they tell are familiar and heartbreaking: families disowning kids,  parents resorting to violence, and even companies firing individuals for their (non)religious views.

So couple of general comments: It is not surprising that atheists exists in deeply religious Muslim countries. But even within atheism, there are all sorts of different shades - from the more familiar agnostics and atheists, to those who consider themselves not-religious but may still pray regularly (a case of cultural conditioning) to those who cognizantly embrace the surrounding Muslim culture and its affiliated religious customs. But overall we are seeing a increasing trend of self-expression especially when it comes to religious beliefs ("it is my belief") and this comes from the spread of university education as well as an exposure to broader debates via the internet and satellite television (there is also a trend of increased religiosity based on personal interpretation of the Qur'an - and it is shaped by the same self-confidence from education and worldly experience). As much as I disagree with Dawkins' Islamophobia, he does deserve credit for making atheism an acceptable "religious" position worldwide. Not surprisingly, the article also
noted the fact that most of these "open" atheists are young - in their 20s. It is the same generation that has been behind the movements for democratic representations as well.

Where will it lead to? Indeed in the short run there is going to be a backlash. But overall, we are looking at the early stages of the development of religion as a matter of personal belief. While much of these atheists and cultural Muslims may belong to a privileged or upwardly mobile middle classes, there still exists enormous socioeconomic and education disparities where religion can be used as a weapon. This is something we are seeing in Bangladesh right now (see this earlier post: Standing with Bangladesh's Secular Bloggers), where Jamaat-e-Islami has been "accusing" their young rivals of being atheists and has been successful in shifting the focus away from their own atrocities in the 1971 civil war.

So stay tuned on this issue.

Now back to the Egypt article. Here is the bit where these young atheists talk about the consequences of coming out as an atheist:

Those who have come out publicly as atheists have been not only isolated by their friends and families, but also society in general. However, others who turn down their familial religion have faced many worse trials than mere isolation.

Asmaa Omar, 24, who has just graduated the Faculty of Engineering, said that once she revealed her beliefs to her family, they began to physically and mentally torture her. Her father slapped her in the face and broke her jaw. She was not able to eat properly for seven months.

Both her immediate and extended families began to insult her. “You just want to have free relations with boys,” they would say, or “You used to be the best girl in the family,” and “Now you’re a prostitute.”

By now, she said, most of her friends have cut their ties with her and other girls no longer speak to her after she took off her veil.

Milad Suliman, or better known as Evan, was fired from his company over his beliefs. His boss confronted him with the ideas he shared on his Facebook page and told him the company could not have an atheist among its employees.

His family was not happy either. They told him his ideas were shameful and this was the reason their home was no longer blessed.

Another atheist, Sarah al-Kamel, 24, fears this very isolation, thus has chosen not tell her family of her beliefs after her newly adopted ideas created a wedge between her and her friends.

Despite the risks of coming out, many atheists I spoke to claim their numbers have slowly been on the rise following the 25 January Revolution. The rise in atheism could be seen as a by-product of the revolution pushing the boundaries of commonly-held belief systems and breaking down previous political, social and religious restrictions.
Read the full article here.

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