Atheism in Egypt: Human Rights Abuses

Atheism in Egypt: Human Rights Abuses

Mona Eltahawy wrote a piece in the New York Times entitledEgypt’s War on Atheism.” In the article, she writes about a number of concerning cases in Egypt where individuals who have pronounced their atheism have had to face legal charges by the state. For example, Elthahawy writes about “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 defense, but an equally chilling aspect of Mr. Banna’s case is that his father testified against him.” She goes on to write that “Also telling is that Mr. Banna was originally arrested, in November, when he went to the police to complain that his neighbors 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.”

This is far from the only case. For example, in 2012, a blogger by the name of Alber Saber was tried in Egyptian courts because he set up a website page which was entitled “Egyptian Atheists.” He was sentenced to three years in jail (Eltahawy, 2015). 

Many of these charges have come under the leadership of current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took power from the Muslim Brotherhood in a coup during the summer of 2012. She points out that el-Sisi is trying to establish his control, his way, over the public space, and issues of religion nd morality. For example, she argues that “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.”

El-Sisi has tried to dominate this space for sometime now. For example, Eltahawy (2015) points out that “In a speech this month honoring 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.” 

And I have written in my forthcoming work entitled “Sponsoring Sufism: How Governments Promote “Mystical Islam” in their Domestic and Foreign Policies” that El-Sisi is looking to establish this control of religion, and is working to find religious allies, so that he can attempt to gain credibility on this issues, be seen as a Muslim leader, all the while reducing the influence of his main challengers, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. 

Her article is very important, as it illustrates the human rights violations in an increasingly authoritarian Egypt. It is essential that all religious communities (Islam and religious minorities in Egypt), and all non-religious communities (atheists, agnostics, etc…) must be completely free to practice (or not practice) their faith (or freely state their atheism) without government interference or punishment. The Egyptian government is clearly violating a fundamental human right.

Moreover, it is equally troubling that sexual minorities in Egypt have to fear government reprisal for their sexuality. 

All of this is important to point out, because many were quick to support El-Sisi, because he removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power. However, this leader is clearly not building a government on ideas of human rights and citizen voice, and continues to repress atheists, as well as sexual minorities. It is imperative that non-state actors, as well as leaders who have an alliance or political relationship with El-Sisi demand that he protect the rights of all Egyptians. 

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