For some time, I have been receiving emails from some foundations about a course entitled “How to talk to an atheist?” I ignored the whole thing the first couple of times, but was intrigued when the same email kept coming almost once a week, so I decided to see what this is all about. When I checked the “course description,” I found out that “talking” to atheists meant talking them out of their decision to become atheists and I was even more intrigued. Why would anyone want to interfere in people’s personal choices in such a blatant manner, let alone be trained in the strategies required to do so? I have no idea if there are any people who enroll in this course and if they are already out guiding stray sheep back to the flock, but that is not the point!
A ‘remarkable rise’ in atheists
A few days ago, I read that Egypt’s predominantly-Islamist legislature is to discuss the reasons and repercussions of the “remarkable rise” in the number of atheists in the country. Those discussions, from what I understood, are to bring together all state institutions that influence public opinion to figure out the means of containing the crisis before it gets out of hand. Let me first point out that it is impossible to have accurate statistics of the number of atheists in Egypt, not only because of the lack of documents that prove so, but also because in a country where the official discourse is becoming increasingly hostile towards minorities, including Christians, it will be a little bit unwise of atheists to “come out” at this stage. However, the actual number of atheists and whether or not it has actually increased lately is not the problem!
Like any dictatorship, the regime is selecting a group of enemies on whom it can lay the blame for anything it chooses to label as “destabilizing”Sonia Farid
What matters most here is the sudden interest in an issue that could not in any way be linked to any of the innumerable political, economic, and social disasters Egypt is currently going through and that is too personal to be a subject of public debate to start with. It is very easy to go along with the traditional conspiracy theory and claim that this is just another of those distraction ploys the regime has been in the habit of devising to sedate frequent bursts of discontent and we cannot totally rule out this option. However, it will be simplistic, and quite hazardous, to stop at that simply because of how deliberate the choice of topic is and how ominous the outcome could be.
Abolishing freedom of faith
Warnings of rising atheism have nothing to do with the danger they might pose to national security which is compromised on many other fronts that the government is totally overlooking. It actually has to do with laying the foundations of a religious state and abolishing all principles of citizenship and which include freedom of faith. Like any dictatorship, the regime is selecting a group of enemies on whom it can lay the blame for anything it chooses to label as “destabilizing” and a term as broad as “atheist,” like its medieval equivalent “heretic,” would be perfect for instigating public opinion and presenting the state as the guardian of faith. The charge known as “deriding religion,” which was leveled against a number of journalists and activists, was actually a prelude to that of atheism and a test balloon in a society that does not see religion as debatable and would automatically turn against anyone who is suspected of questioning its very essence.
Add to this the fact that Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, have for some time been trying to present the any of opposition’s initiatives against them as malicious attempts to undermine the Islamic identity of Egypt and establish a “secular” state which, according to them, has no other business except marrying off homosexuals and promoting abortion. Labeling any of the troublemakers as “atheists” would, therefore, be much easier than other hackneyed charges that no longer sell like the traditional “compromising national security,” “inciting violence,” and “spreading false information” or the brand new “insulting the president” and would guarantee substantial damage to the public support the accused would have gotten had the accusation been any of the above. It might not be long before new laws are drafted to criminalize atheism and to come up with all absurd types of legal definitions and incriminating evidence.
Freedom as a restricted concept
Presenting atheism as a malignant ailment that is bound to destroy the Egyptian society also portends a serious clampdown on personal freedoms and which, of course, includes choice of faith. Dealing with atheism as a problem implies an obligation to follow particular religion(s) and transforms those who do not conform into outcasts, thus generating a sense of hostility that can later translate into aggression towards difference and rebellion. Freedom would, paradoxically, become a restricted concept and would only be practiced within the limits set by an authority whose only means of survival is the subjugation of its subjects. This would not only apply to religious beliefs, but would eventually encompass all sorts of ideologies that are seen as detrimental to the ruling powers and all sorts of actions that stir the indignation of the public at their inefficiency. And if we assume that freedom of thought is the most sophisticated form of human emancipation, it is no longer hard to imagine what the fate of other freedoms would be if this one is eliminated.
Although I realize that this is not the crux of the matter, I couldn’t help asking myself if the number of atheists in Egypt is really on the rise and if so what the reason could be. It was then that I wondered if the esteemed institutions that decided to sound the alarm bells on the catastrophe are not aware of why such a drastic change could happen at that point in time and in a society that is generally known to be religious. I was also curious to know if they decided to champion the cause because they want to lay the blame on another party or just hide their role in the very problem they are trying to solve or simply furnish a proper introduction for a whole set of drastic measures to come or all of the above. I was even more curious to discover if they were taken by surprise that it is their own religious discourse that created those anti-religious sentiments or if this discourse was originally meant to create those sentiments.
A few days ago Pope Francis said that atheists are “good people if they do good.” He was not under any pressure to say so and would not have been reprimanded had he implied otherwise. He was not interested to know how many atheists there are or what their reasons might be and did not launch any initiatives to “talk” to them. He simply had the moral responsibility to deliver such a universal call for tolerance and coexistence, one that, believe it or not, might change many people’s take on Christianity, unfortunately the exact opposite is occurring in Egypt with regards to Islam.
Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at email@example.com