Nonreligious Arabs Protest Online To Declare #WeAreHere
Organizers aim to normalize diverse views on faith
[Cairo] A loosely organized group of Arabic speakers “La Deeni” (“of no religion”) kicked off its first online protest Tuesday under the hashtags #WeAreHere and #22Feb22. The idea for the protest began on the Clubhouse audio chat room app and grew to include many social media platforms.
The activists declared Tuesday the International Day of Nonreligious Arabic Speakers.
“La Deeni is a term that unites many who do not believe in any [organized] religion, for example, the atheist, the agnostic, and the deist, who believes that there is a first cause for this universe without believing in any religion, in addition to other categories,” one of the organizers explained to The Media Line.
This is the first year of this protest. Organizers aim to normalize diverse religious views and count the number of those who have moved away from organized religion in the region. They raised more than $6,000 from 148 individuals on GoFundMe to support the movement.
Amna Nosseir, a professor of Islamic thought and philosophy at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, says there are 4 million La Deeni in Egypt.
The organizers, who prefer to remain anonymous to protect their security, explained to The Media Line that “the money from the donations will be used to purchase a website, rent internet servers, and secure the site’s packages. The remainder of the funding will be used solely for promotional videos for the demonstration.”
Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, told The Media Line, “The phenomenon has been growing gradually but has accelerated in the last 10 years after the Arab Spring, thanks to social media and atheist activists living safely abroad, away from Muslim countries.”
Their numbers have grown due to increased “education, internet and social media, disappointment resulting from the ‘yellow fatwas’ [controversial religious edicts] and the behavior of religious clergy and extremist Islamist organizations, in particular the attacks by extremist ideologies against women and religious minorities,” he notes.
“Every TV channel has a mufti who competes for viewers with other sheikhs. Tabloid fatwas concentrate on women and sex,” Sadek says.
On more than one occasion, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has said that the principle of belief is freedom, meaning all citizens have the right to embrace any religion or no religion. In July 2015, he said that many Christian, Muslim, and other youth have become atheists because they could not stand the abuse, injustice, killing, vandalism, and destruction in the name of God. He added that he is not worried because this will end.
Makarios Lahzy, a human rights lawyer in Egypt, told The Media Line, “There is no doubt that technological progress and revolution in the world of social media have made it impossible to maintain a single narrative of a particular religion. It is expected that the number of atheists, agnostics, deists, Quranists, evangelists and perhaps Buddhists, among others, will increase.”
Yet atheists still face serious legal repercussions for expressing their beliefs.
Earlier this month, the appeal of Anas Hassan, who was arrested in 2019 for administering “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page, was rejected. His sentence of three years imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($19,100) stood unchanged. In 2013, Alber Saber Ayer, a 27-year-old computer science graduate and activist, was also sentenced to three years in prison for defamation of religion. The prosecutor in Cairo accused him of disseminating through the internet material that is punishable under Articles 98, 102, 160, and 161 of the Criminal Code, all of which regulate crimes of defamation of religions and incitement of discord.
Ishak Ibrahim is a researcher specializing in freedom of belief and religious minorities at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. In his December 29, 2021 report, “Atheists in Egypt: Life on the Edge of Civil Death,” published by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), Ibrahim points out that in 2014, the government announced a national plan to eliminate atheism in collaboration with both Muslim and Christian religious institutions.
The minister of endowments, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, said there was a plan “to immunize, confront, treat and prevent” the spread of atheism. Al-Azhar established the Bayan Unit to confront atheists, conducting face-to-face interventions to convince them of the “moderation of Islam.”
Ibrahim’s report states, “Egyptian churches have followed the line of fighting atheism. Moreover, the words of their leaders have become regularly present in the official discourse to the extent that they cited atheism − for the first time − as a reason for the invalidation of marriage contracts in the Christian Family Bill that is being proposed by the Egyptian churches to the Ministry of Justice. The response plan included various activities, such as the organization of events.”
The Egypt Council of Churches held a conference to address atheism, and many booklets have been published on the subject such as A Conversation with an Atheist by priest and famous preacher Daoud Lamei and The Illusion of Atheism by Father Ibrahim Azer, a teaching assistant at the Theological Seminary of Al-Muharraq Monastery. Azer believes the 25 January Revolution of 2011, which forced President Hosni Mubarak from power, to be one of the most important causes of atheism.
Meanwhile, Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, the leader of the Coptic Church, has dedicated a number of his weekly sermons to the topic of atheism, underscoring “the grave danger it poses to Egyptian society, even if the percentage of atheists is small.”
Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb, the sheikh of Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious university for Sunni Islamic learning in the world, said in December 2021, “It is not true that religion is the cause of the downfall of civilization. It is true atheism and materialistic philosophical tendencies that are the cause of this downfall and the cause of civilized and human backwardness.”
He stressed that there is no cure for all the tendencies of atheism that drive the corruption of human society, which he described as an “incurable disease,” except through religiosity, which is considered the strongest and most influential way to lead humanity toward peace, justice, and equality.
The grand imam is not alone in his attitude. A majority of Egyptians continue to be very antagonistic to Muslims who reject Islam. A 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that more than three-quarters of Muslims in Jordan (86%), Egypt (84%), and Pakistan (76%) support the death penalty for apostasy.
The TIMEP report goes on to note that not only are state institutions fighting atheism, but incitement has led to “violent persecution, including the threat of violence, physical harassment, and violent assaults due to religion or faith. Although there have been no reported violent incidents or major assaults against atheists, some have complained that they have been assaulted by society at large, whether by their families or neighbors who learn of their beliefs.
“On top of this, some have been suspended from work after their beliefs have been reported to their employers, forcing many atheists to masquerade for the sake of personal safety. An atheist once recounted his experience, saying, “Atheists live like drug dealers; they fear coming out as atheists because they will lose many of their friends, will be treated as outcasts, and will be accused of psychopathy,” the report continues.
In 2014, Tawadros said the main reason for the existence of atheism is the lack of dialogue in society and the lack of enough time for the family to develop ways of dialogue. He stressed that even if the percentage of atheists is few, “it is the greatest danger facing our society because religion has a great place in our country. Philosophies like the sect of existentialists and atheists, which emerged in the last 100 years ago, have paved the way for atheism, which is trying to spread by every means and show.” The pope believes that the solution is in dialogue, patience, and love, not violence.
Lahzy says, “If the state remains dependent on the institutions of traditional religions in managing people, it will soon face great challenges. All attempts to confront and extinguish atheism are in vain. People may hide their convictions out of fear and indifference, but the belief is still there. It is inevitable that the state will have to adopt clear policies in favor of freedom of religion. This is something that I think the political leadership is well aware of, or at least this is confirmed by el-Sisi’s repeated and repeated statements on this particular file.”
The protest organizers went to great lengths to protect the privacy of participants, noting that they did “not expect large numbers of participants to participate in the first demonstration, because the majority of nonreligious people in the Arab countries live in a state of fear and secrecy. Therefore, the next step will be to publish the numbers of participants and to confirm that they participated and voted safely without anyone violating their privacy or arresting them. Then we expect that participation will be much larger next year.”
Sadek contends that “Egyptians are only religious externally like veils, beards, prayers, etc., … but when it comes to applying religious edicts, such as cleanliness being next to godliness, strong work ethic, and honesty, they fail.
“We only need to look at the corruption index from Transparency International, the number of visits to porn websites, and the extremely high level of sexual harassment [99.3% of Egyptian women report being sexually harassed – M.N.]. These indicators show that religion is used as rhetoric or identity but not in practice except to oppress others,” he says.
Yet the organizer noted that they receive support daily from Muslims, Christians, and Baha’is, who advocate for freedom of belief. Some of them donated to the digital demonstration. He went on to say, “This is the society we look forward to, where every individual is absolutely free to choose his belief.”
Lahzy asserts, “There is no problem with their presence. People, in different cultures, languages, and places, have always believed and not believed in what they want. And if there is a problem with their existence, then there is a problem with the presence of Muslims and Christians, etc. … Because they all have absolute belief among their faithful. The problem is not in their existence. The real problem is in rejecting their existence, fighting them, pursuing them, inciting against them, besieging them, arresting them, and disrupting their lives. Whoever commits these acts must answer this question: What is your problem with their presence?!”
Mohammad Abo Ahmad, a lecturer at Al-Azhar University and a Ph.D. researcher in the principles of Islamic jurisprudence, says, “I don’t like this kind of demonstration. While I see that we are all citizens, regardless of our faith or lack of faith, I am afraid that it will have a negative effect … and the believers will tell you that we will hold a demonstration, too, and it will become an electronic war.
“I hope that we will reach the point of peaceful coexistence and that citizenship and law will govern us and the state will look at us as citizens regardless of our religious beliefs and promote the values of religious freedom in our society inside and outside religions. This is what I hope will happen,” Abo Ahmad says.