Though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent recognition of atheists in his country may have offered a small glimmer of hope for non-believers in the Middle East, Egypt’s decision to detain a man for allegedly starting a pro-atheist Facebook page on Wednesday may be one giant step backwards for those hoping for more ideological pluralism in the region.
The arrest of Sherif Gaber, who has been charged with forming a page called “The group of the atheists,” should also challenge the idea that the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood has helped to put Egypt back on the road towards secularism. Yes, there is evidence that more atheists in the country have been emboldened to publicly self-identify as such following the military-backed coup against Mohammed Morsi. But this phenomenon may be based on a false sense of hope in response to the political marginalization of Islamist groups by the interim government. The intense backlash faced by atheists who have come out does little to attest to this new, supposedly tolerant, religious atmosphere. Remember, religious intolerance was not introduced to Egypt by Islamist parties. It has thrived for decades under various secular leaders, as in the case of the wholesale disenfranchisement of non-state-recognized religious minorities (most notably Baha’is) by former ruler Hosni Mubarak during the 1990’s.
Islamist fear-mongering about the rise of atheism and other changes to Egypt’s Islamic character have caused their political opponents to overcompensate by emphasizing their own religious credentials, even as they advocate against religion in government. And, if anything, the interim government has gone out of its way to venerate the country’s established religious institutions, using them to boost its own religious legitimacy. Which could help explain the unprecedented application of charges against Gaber. According to Mada Masr, which referred to the incident as a “new type of arrest for Egypt’s legal records”:
According to the Penal Code, there are three articles criminalizing such cases.
Article 98 of the Penal code stipulates that “the contempt of heavenly religions” through written, oral or any other means that could lead to sectarianism is punishable by six months to five years in prison, and/or fines of LE500 to 1000.
According to Article 160, the desecration of religious symbols is punishable by imprisonment of up to five years, and/or fines of LE100 to 500.
Article 161 stipulates that mocking a religion or religious rite in public is a crime carrying the same penalties as Article 160.
That Gaber’s atheism is being prosecuted in the first place is troubling enough but that it is being done so under these specific articles should be a bad sign for the broader cause of secularism.
In the Egyptian context, “secular” is also a bit of a misnomer. Even without a religious-affiliated government in power, Egypt still has religion enshrined in its legal code — something that is unlikely to change anytime soon given the reactionary current insulating the government from its Islamist critics. That “secularism” is still a dirty word in Egyptian politics should serve as a reminder that anti-Islamists cannot be considered by default to be true secularists. The focus, instead, is more on keeping political Islam out of government than religion itself.
The idea that tolerance for atheists — or any religious minority — could arise from the current repressive political atmosphere in Egypt is laughable. Dictatorships are not known for being tolerant of dissenting viewpoints and there’s nothing to indicate that Egypt is about to start now.