Brian Whitaker | ( al-Bab.com
The Egyptian parliament’s committee on religion has announced plans to make disbelief in God a crime. Under the current law against “contempt of religions” atheists can be prosecuted for expressing their disbelief in public but the committee’s proposal would go further and criminalise disbelief itself.
In 2014, little more than a week after Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was sworn in as Egypt’s president, the government announced that it was preparing a national plan to “confront and eliminate” atheism. A few months later Al-Shabab, a government-linked newspaper, stated that atheists were “the country’s second enemy after the Muslim Brotherhood”, and quoted a psychologist saying that “atheism leads to mental imbalances and paranoia”.
As part of its effort to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood the Sisi regime began promoting a version of Islam that is often characterised as “moderate” – though “militantly mainstream” might be a better term. Theologically speaking it is middle-of the-road and relatively bland but, like the regime itself, it is also authoritarian in character.
The result of this is a kind of enforced centrism. While allowing some scope for tolerance – of other monotheistic religions, for example – it confines religious discourse to the middle ground. While the main purpose of this is to sideline Islamist theology, at the other end of the spectrum it has led to atheism, scepticism and liberal interpretations of Islam being treated as forms of extremism.
Saudi Arabia adopted a similar position in 2014 when “promotion of atheist thought” became officially classified as an act of terrorism.
Atheism in the Arab countries is generally viewed by the public with horror – so to some extent the Egyptian regime is playing a populist card. Small and relatively defenceless minorities such as atheists are an easy target and portraying them as a threat to the nation’s well-being helps to divert attention from the regime’s failings. A similar process was seen in Egypt recently with the moral panic over homosexuality and rainbow flags.
An article in Rose al-Yusuf quotes Amr Hamroush, a member of the parliamentary committee, as saying legislation is needed in order to close down all atheist websites since their ideas “destroy the values of society”.
However, even in Egypt the proposal is proving controversial. The article goes on to quote others who point out that while laws can control people’s behaviour, they cannot change people’s beliefs.
Brian Whitaker is former Middle East Editor of The Guardian.