Egyptian lawmakers will consider a bill which would criminalize not believing in God.
The proposed bill was discussed by the head of parliament’s Committee on Religion, Amr Hamroush, in December, and would make atheism a form of ‘contempt of religion’. Amr Hamroush argues that lack of belief in God is a form of contempt of religion, which is already a crime under Egyptian law, punishable by up to five years in prison.
He told newspaper Youm7 that there would be a great role for Al-Azhar and the Church, as religious institutions, in preventing atheism from spreading further, and is quoted as saying: “Atheism rates are on the rise in Egypt. It is a dangerous trend that needs to be curtailed as it threatens the very fabric of our society.”
In another interview, Hamroush suggests that legislation is also needed to shut down atheist websites, as atheistic ideas “destroy the values of society”.
The Global Terrorism Index puts Egypt at rank 11 out of 163 states recorded, with 261 terror incidents across the country in 2017. However, the high level of violence is driven by violent Jihadi terror groups including ISIS affiliates (and not at all by atheists!).
On 4 January 2018, Amr Hamroush announced that the Committee on Religion would publish an explanatory note on the draft law, as just one of several steps Egypt would take to “combat atheism”. The law reportedly consists of four articles. Article 1 will define atheism. Article 2 will criminalize atheism and specify punishments to be imposed on atheists. Article 3 will stipulate that penalties would be withheld if a person renounced their atheism, a provision which likely borrows from common Islamic practice on the application of ‘apostasy’ laws. Article 4 will dictate that the penalties declared in the law are severe.
Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Islamic religious institution, unsurprisingly supports the proposal to make atheism a crime, and pledged to punish those who had been “seduced” by atheism. Hamroush has said he is consulting with Al-Azhar on what punishments will be appropriate.
Egypt’s war on atheism
There have been waves of panic about atheism in the predominantly conservative Islamic country for some years, largely driven from the top-down by government officials, religious leaders, and some media. The ‘crackdown’ on atheism has included a campaign to ‘inoculate’ or ‘educate’ young people away from atheism. Some highly questionable regional polling data in 2014 determined that there were precisely 866 atheists in the country. The figure was used as a justification for the ‘war on atheists’, though ironically the figure (which would represent just 0.001% of the population) is undoubtedly a huge underestimate and was dismissed by atheists locally as “highly unrealistic”.
The former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, in September 2014, put the level of atheism at 12.5 percent of young people (which is more realistic but the origin of the figure is unclear). Figures from the Family Court state that 6,500 women filed for a divorce in 2015 due to their husbands’ atheism. (Under the Personal Status Law, Muslim women can apply for divorce if their husbands denounce religion.)
The Sisi government has been pushing a line that has been described as “militantly mainstream“, targeting some conservatives and extremist interpretations of Islam as well as atheists and liberals.
Police have raided internet cafes that were alleged to be meeting places for atheists, and while atheism has become a hot topic in the country’s media, those invited to advocate atheism in televised debates have faced death threats and harassment.
Last month, a 29-year-old computer science graduate Ibrahim Khalil was detained on the accusation of ‘contempt of religion’. He was accused of running a Facebook page called ‘Atheism’ on which he allegedly published “distortions of the Quran” and advocated atheism.
Another student, 21-year-old Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna, was sentenced to three years in November 2014 for announcing on Facebook that he was an atheist.
The media, religious leaders and politicians sometimes link atheism to homosexuality, which is similarly reviled, and promote the idea that atheism and homosexuality are mutually reinforcing “psychological imbalances”.
IHEU president Andrew Copson comments, “To pass this law would be a grotesque violation of the rights of non-religious people. To equate not believing in God with extremism, and to scare-monger about the end of society, is not just factually wrong, it is an insult to non-religious people everywhere, it risks heightening discrimination against the non-religious, and it distracts from and makes a mockery of the real challenges of terrorism and intercommunal violence that Egypt faces. Instantiating in law an obvious prejudice against humanists and the non-religious generally would be a clear violation of the human rights to freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”
Around the world
Other weird and often unconstitutional laws proposed in Egypt include banning ripped jeans, banning western names, charging people to register for Facebook, encouraging female genital mutilation, mandating virginity tests for university students, and fining people who break off engagements to be married.
At least 73 countries worldwide have laws against blasphemy or apostasy (or both), usually with a prison sentence and in some cases providing for the death penalty, as documented in the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report.