By Mona Eltahawy
Jan. 27, 2015
It took one session on Jan. 10 for a court in the Nile Delta province of Beheira to sentence Karim al-Banna, a 21-year-old student, to three years in prison for saying on Facebook that he was an atheist. The student’s lawyer complained that he was denied the right even to present a defence, but an equally chilling aspect of Mr. Banna’s case is that his father testified against him.
Also telling is that Mr. Banna was originally arrested, in November, when he went to the police to complain that his neighbours were harassing him. This was after his name had appeared in a local newspaper on a list of known atheists. Instead of protecting him, the police accused him of insulting Islam.
Such tag teams of family, media and state are not uncommon in cases against atheists. Because atheism itself is not illegal in Egypt, charges are laid under laws against blasphemy or contempt for religion. In 2012, a 27-year-old blogger, Alber Saber, received a three-year sentence on charges of blasphemy for creating a web page called “Egyptian Atheists.” In 2013, the writer and human rights activist Karam Saber (no relation) was convicted of defaming religion in his short story collection “Where Is God?”
Similar charges have been used for political purposes against Egypt’s Christian minority. In 2013, a Coptic Christian lawyer, Roman Murad Saad, was sentenced in absentia for “ridiculing” the Quran. From 2011 to 2013, Egyptian courts convicted 27 of 42 defendants on charges of contempt for religion.
It is no surprise that Mr. Banna’s conviction occurred on the watch of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army general who led the ouster of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood to become president. Regardless of which way the seesaw of power in Egypt tips — toward the Islamists or toward the military — it is always a heterosexual, conservative Muslim man who heads the moral hierarchy. The further from that identity you are, the more vulnerable you are.
If anything, Egypt’s nominally secular ruler is more Catholic than the pope, to borrow a metaphor from another religion. Assuming the role of defender of public morality is a deliberate reminder that the Islamists do not hold the copyright on piety. This is not new: The regime of the ousted President Hosni Mubarak often vaunted its religiosity to outdo its Islamists rivals.
Nowhere is this morality power play exercised more vehemently than in curbing perceived religious and sex crimes. Hence Egypt’s witch hunt against gay men. Rights activists say that 2014 was the worst year in a decade for gay people in Egypt, with at least 150 men arrested or put on trial. Same-sex relationships are not illegal, but gay men are targeted under “debauchery” laws.
Last month, 26 men were arrested in a televised police raid on a public bathhouse in Cairo. The men should never have been arrested, but the surprise was that they were all acquitted on Jan. 12. Understandably upset at their loved ones’ ordeal, the families of the acquitted men chanted “Here are the real men!” ever-keen to reassert their relatives’ identity as heterosexual, conservative Muslims.
After the outcry that followed the men’s humiliation, the court’s ruling perhaps reflects a tacit acknowledgment of prosecutorial overreach. But why all this hullabaloo over already marginal groups like atheists and gay people?
Dar al-Ifta, the institute for the study of Islamic law that is responsible for issuing religious edicts, was deservedly derided after it published a report in October saying that Egypt had the highest number of atheists in the Middle East: exactly 866— hardly a plausible number in a nation of 87 million. Yet the pro-government media and religious officials are waging a “war on atheism.” Atheists are described alternately as threats to national security or as carriers of a dangerously contagious virus.
In this atmosphere, it’s impossible to gauge people’s candid views on religion. For those who don’t genuflect to the official order, a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in Egypt long provided cover. But to admit atheism is to invite not just arrest but a threat to one’s life.
In a speech this month honouring the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, Mr. Sisi called on Muslim leaders in Egypt to start a “religious revolution” to counter the jihadist message of the Islamic State. He also sent his foreign minister to the solidarity march after the attacks in Paris at the office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket.
The contradiction in Mr. Sisi’s aim of keeping the heterosexual, conservative Muslim man at the top of Egypt’s moral hierarchy is glaring. You can’t trump the Islamists in their piety and lead a campaign against minorities like atheists and gay men even as you condemn extremist violence and show solidarity for free speech and free thinking.
This week we mark the fourth anniversary of the 2011 revolution. Although it has not delivered the political freedoms it called for, it did begin an unravelling of authority that has left Egypt’s self-appointed moral guardians disconcerted and scrambling. Armed with social media, more people are insisting on asking and telling — about personal belief and sexual identity. A reckoning is long overdue in a country where religion and morality have so often been bent to suit the political expedients of its rulers.
Despite the clampdown, atheists are openly challenging such hypocrisy. Social media has allowed those who “deviate” from the authoritarian template to find one another and express themselves in ways that the regime, its men of religion and its media otherwise deny them. A religious revolution has begun, but not on Mr. Sisi’s or the clerics’ terms. We all stand to gain if fathers no longer testify against sons, and families no longer feel the need to prove their loved ones are “real men.”
Mona Eltahawy is the author of “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.”