There are atheists in Egypt. Apparently some good did come out of the 2011 uprising. Hard not to be cynical because of the return of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“I never knew there were any atheists in Alexandria until 2011, after the revolution. Before the revolution, all this time, I was thinking that I am the only one here,” recalled 30-year-old Gabr.
“It was very lonely. My computer was my world. Until 2011, I was just contacting foreign people and almost stopped contact with Egyptian people. You feel like you are so different, you are against everything religious people say, you can’t meet them in the middle.”
For a time after the 2011 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak, there was greater freedom of expression in the country, and atheists began to be more publicly assertive. Yet at the same time, the power and influence of conservative Islam grew, with the election of Mohamed Morsi as president and Islamist parliamentary candidates’ success at the ballot box.
In late October it was reported that Sherif Gaber, a 20-year-old student, had been arrested after allegedly setting up a Facebook page calling for atheism. The author Karam Saber is currently appealing a five-year prison sentence after being convicted of contempt of religion and defamation in his book Where is God? And in December 2012, Albert Saber, an atheist blogger and activist, was sentenced to three years in jail after being found guilty of “defamation of religion”.
Noha atheist says she is an “intellectual Muslim” to hide her atheism.
Noha Mahmoud Salem, 53, describes herself as a former “fanatic” and Salafi. She began wearing the niqab, or veil, at the age of 21. At 24, she married a conservative Muslim and they had three boys together. But around the age of 30 she began having doubts about religion, and she stopped praying.
Both Noha and her husband thought she might have a psychological problem. She went to see specialists who told her she was suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder and needed strong medication. The medication didn’t seem to help, and she was still questioning her faith, so she was given stronger and more harmful drugs. She became like a zombie, she said.
“It stopped my thinking and I was afraid that some damage had been done to my brain,” she recalled. “When I stopped the medication, my brain gradually recovered.”
But her questioning of religion continued. Noha finally got divorced from her husband in 2007, after nearly 25 years of marriage. She does not, however, describe herself as an atheist. “It is better to say I am a ‘Muslim’ but ‘an intellectual Muslim,’” she said, “because when I say ‘I am a Muslim’, people will begin to hear me. Otherwise they will be my enemies.”
Yet she cannot get her three sons to listen to her. Her relationship with them is a big source of anguish. She describes them as Salafis. They treat her harshly, and warn her that she is going to hell; meanwhile, she tells them there is no hell.
“They always tell me that I am psychologically troubled,” she says. A few months ago, Noha got a certificate from a psychologist in Alexandria proving that she is mentally well. What did her family say? “No, the doctor is wrong; he didn’t give you the right diagnosis.”
Jim Newman, bright and well