Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why Being an Atheist in Egypt Can be Dangerous for your Health

 by Nomad

Egypt provides us with an example of why blasphemy laws make a mockery of the war on terrorism and extremist ideologies. 

The right to question authority, in the Western-styled liberal democracies,to challenge the established view or to reject religious dogma is just something we all take for granted.
It comes with living in a free society. It's a fundamental liberty for all human beings that, when it comes for example to religious beliefs we are free to obey the dictates of our own consciences.
In Egypt, however, those who dare to openly express doubts about their faith risk  the threat of state-approved violence and legal prosecution.

The Gaber Case
If the reports are true, then the October 2013 arrest of Sherif Gaber, a student at Suez Canal University in the northeastern city of Ismailiya, was utterly surreal. 
It involved armored cars surrounding his home in the middle of the night. Was he, you might ask, some kind of religious extremist plotting an attack? Was he a jihadist ready to blow himself up for a distort interpretation of his faith?
His crime was only that he was a non-believer, an atheist. For expressing his skepticism, he was charged "for insulting Islam and promoting atheism."

Following his arrest, Gaber was held in custody for several weeks before being released on bail. This week the court finally heard the case. Gaber is still in limbo, on bail pending a re-trial which could increase his sentence from one year to two years. 

In an interview with Daily News Egypt, Gaber explained that the problems first began when he challenged a science teacher. The teacher had told the class that homosexuals should "be crucified in the middle of the streets." This was apparently not something Gaber's conscience could accept, especially from a science teacher. 

After this challenge to the lecturer's authority, the teacher  proceeded to wage a campaign against him, aimed at public ridicule and inciting other students reactions. By printing posts from Gaber's Facebook page which expressed his personal doubts about religion.
In an effort to humiliate and intimidate the student, the lecturer also threatened to submit the print-outs as "evidence to the university’s president and the prosecutor general." The lecturer actually began collecting signatures to have Gaber removed from the university. 
Gaber believes he was reported by a fellow student to the university who, in turn, took the matter to the police.

Another atheist sentenced in Egypt. University reported disbelieving student to the authorities
A lawyer for the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, Ahmed Ezzat commented on the case:
“We have often called for the cancellation of that law as it’s a real assault on freedom of belief. Also Gaber just called for his idea harmlessly, without violence or insulting any other religion.”
No Protection for Dissent
What happened to Gaber is growing more common in Eygpt. Authorities in the conservative nation have begun cracking down on atheists who openly express their views. While the three main religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism are constitutionally protected, non-believers, it seems, are not.

Sarah Leah Whiston, the Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes:
“Atheists are one of Egypt’s least-protected minorities, although the constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief and expression."
While there are no laws against atheist in particular in Egypt, its penal code is in such a shambles in the country that legal prosecution is based on a charge of "contempt of heavenly religions,"desecrating religious symbols and mocking religious rites in public.
*   *   *
In addition to prosecution, critics of the main religions and atheists face the threat of violence by fundamentalists and even neighbors.  
It is a legitimate fear too. 

Take the example of Alber Saber, a 30-year-old computer science student and blogger. Formerly a Coptic Christian, Saber later chose to become an atheist.

When he was accused of promoting the trailer for the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims, his home was surrounded by a crowd that chanted for his death for heresy and atheism. The crowds tried to break down the door or burn down the Saber home. In desperation, Saber's mother summoned the police for protection. At this point, things took a twist. 
Saber was arrested the following day. Saber stated that, while incarcerated, officers incited other prisoners to attack him. While in custody, he was reportedly beaten and cut with a razor.

Although no evidence was found on Saber's computer that Saber had uploaded the offensive film trailer, he was nevertheless charged with "defamation of Islam and Christianity, insulting the divine and satirizing religious rituals and sanctities and the prophets under articles 98, 160 and 161 of the Egyptian Penal Code", with a maximum sentence of six years' imprisonment. 

In December 2012, Saber was found guilty, sentenced to three years imprisonment. In the end, Saber was eventually released on bail and fled the country.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that after the military deposition of the Muslim Brotherhood, a certain amount of tolerance would have emerged toward non-believers. 
In fact, the opposite is true. 
Today, atheists are "the country's second enemy after the Muslim Brotherhood." As one atheist blogger writes:
While for what happened to the revolution, all I can say is that the corrupt system that people died for is still alive and it just grew a beard.
Atheist as a Treatable Patient
Atheism is, oddly enough, also considered something of a psychological disorder since authority cite that it is caused by "mental imbalances and paranoia." (Under the circumstances, who among us wouldn't be paranoid?)

If the idea that atheism is mental disorder might sound preposterous to us, then consider the full implications.
One source describes the plight of one 52-year-old woman who, having previously been conservative najab-wearing "fanatic," began having doubts about her religion at about the age of 30.

She and her husband were persuaded that she was suffering from a psychological problem. Specialists told her she was afflicted with a kind of obsessive compulsive disorder.The woman was treated with strong medication and, when the treatment had no effect on her religious doubts, the medication became progressively stronger.
She recalled:
"It stopped my thinking and I was afraid that some damage had been done to my brain.When I stopped the medication, my brain gradually recovered."
It would not be the first time that an autocratic regime used psychiatry as a tool to eliminate openly-expressed dissent that contradicted the socio-political dogma. One example of this kind of repression occurred under the Soviet leadership of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev
Russian novelist, historian, and critic of Soviet totalitarianism, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called the Soviet practice a form of "spiritual murder."

Human rights organizations all agree that "psychiatric confinement of sane people is uniformly considered a particularly pernicious form of repression."

Names on a List
This is not the first time that an atheist has been arrested. In January,  another 21-year-old, Karim al-Banna, was jailed for three years for declaring on Facebook that he is an atheist. 

Egyptian-American writer, lecturer and  activist Mona Eltahawy explained to the New York Times:
"The student’s lawyer complained that he was denied the right even to present a defense, but an equally chilling aspect of Mr Banna’s case is that his father testified against him.
Banna's defense attorney said that his own father claimed that Banna was "embracing extremist ideas against Islam."
Eltahawy adds:
"Also telling is that Mr Banna was originally arrested, in November, when he went to the police to complain that his neighbors were harassing him. This was after his name had appeared in a local newspaper on a list of known atheists. Instead of protecting him, the police accused him of insulting Islam. Such tag teams of family, media and state are not uncommon in cases against atheists."
The handling of the case by the Egyptian courts is much more like a shake-down by thugs. According to his lawyer, Banna received a a three-year prison sentence, and if he pays a bail of 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($ 140 or 117 euros) the sentence can be suspended until a verdict is issued by an appeals court.

According a AlJazeera report on Egypt atheists. how this minority is treated by society depends on luck. Said one Egyptian atheist,
"You can be an atheist and telling people, and nothing can happen to you. Or you can be fired from work, your life can be destroyed, acts of violence can be taken against you. It depends where you are, the circle of people around you. For me, the people at work don't know. The people at school didn't know. You have to keep your opinions to yourself. It's a stressful situation."
That's clearly an understatement.

Deeply Committed
In June last year, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the US government had released $575 million in military aid to Egypt that had been frozen since the military coup that toppled the elected president Mohammed Morsi. 

In "candid talks" with the new president- former Defense Minister, Abdel Fattah El Sisi,, Kerry reportedly emphasized also America's "strong support for upholding the universal rights and freedoms of all Egyptians including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association." 

To his credit, Kerry said (regarding foreign journalists who were falsely arrested)
“I call on [Sisi] to make clear, publicly, his government’s intention to observe Egypt’s commitment to the essential role of civil society, a free press and the rule of law.”
Critics can easily dismiss Kerry's words as mere lip service. 

In closing, Kerry also added that America was "deeply committed to seeing Egypt succeed,"
But what does success really mean in an Egypt where young people are casually arrested for expressing religious doubts? What does success mean when the police, doctors, professors, and unruly mobs are used to intimidate harmless minorities and enforce religious dogma?

In the so-called war of religious extremism and terrorism, we must ask what happens when an intolerant conservative society itself become the source of the terror for a minority?
As one atheist remarked:
"I'm not afraid of the government, I'm afraid of the people. Society is the problem."