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Middle East's fear of atheism

Andreas Gorzewski / wsDecember 23, 2014

In Egypt and other Arab states, societies are heavily influenced by religion. Even so, many people evidently regard themselves as atheists, and both governments and religious institutions see this as a threat.

Ägypten Al Azhar Moschee in Kairo
Image: picture-alliance/ZB

There are exactly 866 atheists living along the Nile - at least according to a recent survey by the government-run Egyptian institution "Dar al-Ifta," which keeps tabs on religious issues in the country. How exactly that number was determined is unclear, but the institution's verdict on the threat is surprising: according to Dar al-Ifta, the fact that 0.001 percent of the Egyptian population does not believe in God is a reason to sound the alarm bells. After all, no country in the Arab world apparently has a higher number of "godless" people - Morocco being the runner-up with a purported 325 atheists.

The Dar al-Ifta figures contrast sharply with a poll conducted in 2014 by the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Having canvassed 6,000 young people, the university - which has a formidable reputation in Sunni Islam - came up with an atheist proportion of some 12.3 percent of the Egyptian population. That would amount to 10.7 million of 87 million Egyptians.

Appearing on state TV in October, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, warned that atheism was no longer a side issue - the conscious dissociation from any religion was, he said, a social problem. According to the Gulf News daily, the Egyptian Ministries of Youth and Religious Endowment both pledged to launch campaigns designed to combat this attitude. Moderate religious scholars, psychologists, and social scientists were to be sent out to thwart the loss of faith among the young. "Young people are alienated by militant preachers who tell them 24 hours a day that they will go to hell," Al-Azhar professor Amnah Nusair told Gulf News.

Ägypten Al Hosari Moschee
A mosque in CairoImage: DW/A. Hamdy

Whether they are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, hardly anyone in the Middle East publicly renounces religion. But the number seems to have increased in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, and most Arab countries have seen the emergence of atheist groups with their own Facebook pages. Their numbers appear to be very small: the "Tunisian Atheists" group has about 6,900 "likes," while the "Sudanese Atheists" have almost 3,300. The "Atheist Society in Egypt" recorded 585 at the time of writing, while the "Feminist Atheists in Saudi Arabia" have all of 61.

Saudis equate atheists with terrorists

The government in Saudi Arabia, which imposes a particularly strict interpretation of Islam, seems to feel especially threatened by this attitude. In spring 2014, Saudi Arabia declared that, from a legal point of view, atheism was as dangerous as religiously motivated terrorism. But in a global survey published in 2012, the Win/Gallup International research institute determined that 19 percent of Saudi Arabians rated themselves non-practising. A further five percent categorized themselves as atheists. By comparison, according to the same survey, no atheists were recorded in Iraq, where a mere nine percent had labeled themselves non-practising.

The strong reaction to people quietly turning their backs on religion comes as a surprise in the face of the real threat posed by radicalized islamists. In Islam, sowing seeds of discord is considered a grave sin, and someone who denies God's existence can easily come under suspicion of creating dissension among the faithful. Then again, politics plays a role as well. In Egypt, the government does not want to play into the hands of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which was removed from power in 2013, by failing to take action in the face of atheists. In order not to provide the Muslim Brotherhood with a target, the political leaders in Cairo portray themselves as defenders of religion.

In most Arab countries, being an atheist is not outlawed outright, but the laws against religious defamation often leave enough leeway to take action against atheists, and such cases are recorded by human and civil rights groups again and again. In December 2014, security forces in Cairo raided a café purportedly visited by atheists, with the authorities declaring that satanic rites had been practiced there. On its Facebook page, the "Atheist Society in Egypt" commented: "Even the Muslim Brotherhood didn't go this far when it was still in power."