Egypt’s Atheists Struggle for Full Citizenship Rights

Search form

Egypt’s Atheists Struggle for Full Citizenship Rights

Egypt’s Atheists Struggle for Full Citizenship Rights
Thu, 10/3/2013 - by Manar Ammar

Religious leaders in Egypt, Muslim and Christian, have once again found a common subject to unify around: the ban of other religious minorities, including atheists, who seek to enjoy their same rights.

Proposed amendments to Egypt’s constitution that extend rights to religious minorities, beyond Copts and Jews, have angered both sides. But they've also provided a chance for non-believers to speak out and be heard. In the now-suspended constitution, the third amendment states that the religious laws of Egyptian Christians and Jews are the main principles of legislation determining personal status laws, religious affairs and people's choice of spiritual leaders.

The new amendment would replace "Christians and Jews" with "non-Muslims," opening the door for long awaited rights to other religious minority groups and non-believers who are not Muslim, Christian or Jewish.

The amendment was rejected by al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, as well as the Coptic Church. Some conservatives went on a frenzy in the media, describing how the change would threaten society and its morals by allowing those of different faiths to be governed by the proposed amendments, as it could allow “sons and daughters to marry their parents.”

The Islamic Group Gamaa Islamiya released a statement on September 21 denouncing the proposed change, saying it will give rights to those whose religious legislation "allows for incest or gay marriage."

"This amendment also means the existence of personal status laws to atheistic groups, pornographic or Satanists, and that represents an attack on religious and ethical values," said the conservative group.

Ultra-conservatives' scare campaigns against political opponents, in which secularism is viewed as an end to religion, has been increasing since the January 25, 2011, revolution. The group, a former militant organization whose members denounced violence in prison during the 2000s after carrying out a decade of attacks, was blamed for assassinating President Anwar Al Sadat and is a visible political player with influence among its base of Sunni conservatives.

Telling worshipers who to vote for, and tarnishing opponents with anti-religious sentiments, some sheikhs have fought secularists tooth and nail and proved effective doing so, notably in last year's referendum on the Islamic led constitution. Many moderate members of the committee to draft the 2012 constitution walked out, accusing the Islamists of hijacking the process and forcing their vision on the nation.

The final version of that constitution earned strong condemnation by human rights groups that said it ignored critical rights issues and put Islamic views in its place. Mixing politics with religion is nothing new here, but implying in plain language that only certain religious groups should have full rights, is. Insulting religion was a charge that brought many activists to court during the Mubarak era, and the process has continued since the revolution.

Albert Saber, an atheist activist with a Christian background, was arrested in September 2012 after a mob of angry religious men surrounded his house, accusing him of posting a copy of a 2012 film on his blog. The American made film deemed offensive to Muslims was made by Egyptian-Americans in California. Saber, who called the police requesting protection for his family, was instead arrested. He was reportedly abused by police and subsequently accused of insulting religion.

Saber was later released and an Egyptian court sentenced the filmmakers to death in absentia, after clashes broke out in protests outside the American Embassy in Cairo.

While insulting religion is not treated lightly either in laws or society, a small group of atheist activists are still managing to be heard — and attacked — online.

Egypt’s second amendment, which remains intact, says that Islam is the state’s religion and Arabic is its mother tongue, leaving millions who don’t follow Islam in need of their own legislation. For example, since the Coptic church doesn’t allow divorce, Christian couples in Egypt must prove their marriage is void and obtain a court order, though even then they risk the Church not recognizing the divorce or other future engagements.

In late September, the head of al-Azhar was quoted in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper as saying that freedom of belief is for everyone, but “practicing, building worship houses and legislation is exclusive to the three divine [Abrahamic] religions.”

He added that “allowing non Muslims, especially ‘earthy’ religion to do so, is something Egypt doesn’t know.”

The church’s Archbishop Aramiyah expressed similar sentiments, urging the Constitutional Committee tasked with developing the country’s latest document to only include Christians and Jews specifically in the article. He told the press that changing the amendments will “harm Muslims and Christians.”

In response to the archbishop’s statements, a group of Coptic activists staged a small protest on September 25 outside the Coptic Cathedral in Abbassyia, northern Cairo, to “protest the notion that religious freedoms in Egypt are exclusive to Ibrahamic religions.”

Egyptian atheists, albeit a small minority in a largely conservative society, have sent a letter to the Egyptian interim President Adly Mansour urging him to consider the rights of non-believers.

“We are a group of Egyptian citizens, who love this country. We wish to live under a secular state, not religious and not military, we wish to see a state that entrenches the values of freedom, justice and equality,” opened the letter addressing President Mansour, which was signed by a group of outspoken religious freedom activists.

“We want a law that looks at all Egyptians with equality, without looking at any racial, sexual, or religious differences,” the letter continued, and called for the cancellation of the second amendment which they said blocked non-Muslims from reaching high positions of power in the state.

“Our demand is a humane legitimate demand, in light of the human rights declaration that Egypt has signed onto,” they wrote.

The letter angered conservatives, whose resentments made headlines. On September 23, al-Azhar’s former deputy, Mahmoud Ashour, told the press that the change “will bring uncountable problems upon Egypt” and added that it will not only “allow the son to marry his mother or the brother marrying his sister or even gay marriage, but it [could] turn our society from a religious by nature one to an exporter of earthly religions and phenomena that would deteriorate the fabric of the community and bring upon unneeded problems.”

While the wait, and the battle, continues for the right not to believe in Egypt, international concerns are growing over the role of religious freedom in this country still struggling with sectarian violence and tensions since the July military ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.

Article Tabs

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.

Despite the 828-page Dodd-Frank Act, the derivatives pyramid has continued to explode to a value now estimated to be as high as $2 quadrillion.

HSBC, Deutsche Bank and the Bank of Nova Scotia have been accused of attempting to rig the daily global price of silver in the latest price fixing scandal to rock the banking industry.

The British Medical Association joins a growing movement of institutions – including dozens of universities, foundations and even the World Council of Churches – dumping oil, coal and gas holdings.

A community without dollars is not a community without wealth.T his basic insight lies at the heart of the community resilience movement.

This summer, the CIA's private Amazon Web Services cloud—shielded from the public behind a wall of national security—becomes operational.

Posted 6 days 3 hours ago

Extensive research and reports commissioned by the fracking industry are treated as seminal, informative works within the U.K. government – but to date, no one outside industry vouches for its safety.

Posted 6 days 3 hours ago

From the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to the Trade In Services Agreement, massive trade deals are being advanced in coordination with a militarized police state.

Posted 4 days 6 hours ago

A few days after thousands marched on downtown Detroit last weekend, the city suspended mass water shutoffs for 15 days – leaving more than 15,000 households already disconnected.

Posted 4 days 6 hours ago

When a journalist in a news article refers to a woman as “strident,” you know what you’re reading is a hit piece – and that's what the New York Times produced about Occupy Wall Street activist McMillan.

Posted 5 days 6 hours ago

In November, I joined African-American voters on “Souls to the Polls” day. Their wait for a ballot: four hours. Then I went up the road to an all-white polling station. Wait: zero minutes. Is it really time to gut the Voting Rights Act?

In the wake of the Jordan Davis verdict, a history lesson.

Amidst Greek Crisis, Censorship of Journalists

A reporter goes on trial for releasing a list of 2,000 wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts who may face investigation for tax evasion.

Apple isn't the only gigantic corporation avoiding taxes. Google, whose founding mantra was "don't be evil," is bending over backward to avoid paying up.

BERLIN—Until she divulged her husband’s financial records to the IRS three years ago, Genette Eysselinck was a proud American, born on an Army base in North Carolina, and living in a small city in

Sign Up