By Borzou Daragahi
May 5, 2015
A lack of belief puts citizens in greater danger than belonging to a religious minority
Egyptian teacher Ayman Ramzy made a confession on a television programme last year that turned his life upside down. He was badgered out of his job, attacked on the streets, summoned to court and publicly shunned, becoming a veritable ghost who rarely leaves his Cairo home.
His confession was not that he was a serial killer or paedophile or pilfered public funds but that he no longer believed in any religion. For that, his life has become something out of a science fiction novel, akin to banishment with not only the collusion of the state and the media, but millions of his fellow countrymen.
“I didn’t think it would be so tough,” says Mr Ramzy, 43. “The problem is that all the people in society are taught to hate each other, whether Christian or Muslim or Baha’i. Even within religions everyone is afraid of other sects.”
Mr Ramzy’s harrowing experience comes amid a broader debate about freedom of conscience in an Arab world teeming with change, turmoil and violence rooted in religion. Buoyed by repressive laws and conservative clerical establishments, Arab societies stigmatise religious minorities and punish those who challenge religious doctrine, according to human rights groups.
The depths to which that intolerance has reached became evident in February, when Libyan groups affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant executed groups of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in mass killings broadcast on the internet.
There are also signs that with the rise of violent extremism in the region pressure on non-believers is increasing, even as atheists and agnostics — struggling to be heard — launch a web-only TV station and secular political party.
Despite claims by western-backed Arab leaders like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that they represent voices of moderation in the face of Jihadi groups such as Isis, none has repealed blasphemy or apostasy laws. Subject to discrimination, religious minorities are decreasing as a proportion of the Arab world. At the same time convictions on blasphemy and apostasy charges have risen in some Arab countries.
Shrinking Room for Debate
Among the most famous cases is that of liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced last year to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for questioning religion. He still faces a possible death penalty on apostasy charges.
“This is symptomatic of a system which tries to silence any different voices by controlling all the layers of the society,” says Ishak Ibrahim, a human rights lawyer specialising in blasphemy cases at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “In the Middle East, religion is not seen as an individual issue. It’s a family and community issue. People fear that if you tolerate dissent there will be social fragmentation.”
Analysts of the Arab world wonder whether the everyday intolerance fostered and embraced by governments, official religious bodies and popular culture paves the way for the violent extremism of groups like Isis.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, I could come out, point to the radio and say, ‘I don’t believe,’” says Ahmad Abiadi, an Iraqi writer. “But now even the secular and liberal people will not allow it. They are afraid when you say there is no God. They will kill you! They will call you atheist or infidel. So you just keep it in your heart for your own safety.”
Intolerance of religious diversity has vexed the Arab world since the failures of secular pan-Arab nationalism in the 1960s. But the apparent increase in bigotry coincides with the rise of extremist groups and ideologies that are wreaking havoc in Arab societies.
On a rainy Friday afternoon on Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street, Iraq’s intellectuals gather at the weekly outdoor book fair, an increasingly rare space in the Arab world where ideas flourish. The market has been targeted repeatedly by bomb-wielding extremists.
Moayed Mohamed Hassan, a 32-year-old journalist, describes himself as a leftist who still believes in God. He says the rise of extremist Sunni insurgents and Shia militias has turned people off religious doctrine and opened the space for discourse.
“There are prohibitions, shortcomings and limitations,” he says. “But it’s much better than before. You can talk.”
But the cultural faultlines are never far away. A few blocks from the book market, cleric Ali Mahmoud is delivering a blistering Friday sermon. Over a loudspeaker that echoes through the district, he demands the sacking of the chief of the journalists’ syndicate; the man had allegedly cracked a joke about the Prophet Mohammed during a private meeting. Or so claimed a Facebook post that caught the cleric’s attention.
“He spoke against the prophet,” says Mr Mahmoud, sitting after prayers. “There are red lines no one can cross.”
The shrill edge to his voice during the sermon has drained to reveal a calm 32-year-old Sunni cleric perhaps struggling to make a name for himself.
He says he is not trying to provoke violence but to prevent it. “We are an Islamic country,” he says. “One word from the journalist can make the street unsettled.”
Protecting the interests, values and security of “the street” or preventing severe social division is a common reason given by enforcers of intolerance, even if they do not advocate violence.
“Freedom of religion means freedom to be Christian, Muslim, or Jewish,” says Aiman al-Idly, a member of the faculty of Islamic law at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s foremost centre of learning. “But an atheist or a non-religion? To advertise and promote it? It is like those who appear drinking alcohol in the street, or walk with prostitutes. So it is a matter that isn’t acceptable.”
Mr Ramzy, born a Christian, is the son of a priest and a student of theology. But he now rejects organised religion as an institution that harms rather than helps people. He describes himself as a humanist and an agnostic. Vocal on social media, he attracted the attention of a popular television talk show called Girls of Good, on which he appeared in early 2014. A teacher who works with disabled children, he explained that he came to his views after reading thousands of books. But the host made no secret of her contempt for him. She summoned an 11-year-old, who began citing passages from the Koran which say that the presence of unbelievers causes discord in the land and that believers must oppose them.
Mr Ramzy’s employer summoned his colleagues and the parents of the children he worked with and began grilling them about his character and identity. He was transferred from a school near his home in northern Cairo to one much farther away. Then he was barred from having contact with students, and later teachers. “I was imprisoned in an office without any human contact,” he recalls.
On the streets he was easily recognised, as the show was repeated again and again and the segment went viral online. Once, he thought he was about to be killed. “You’re the one who says there is no God and no heaven and hell,” said a burly man among a dozen or so pursuing him in downtown Cairo. A friend managed to calm the mob by explaining that he was a wayward Christian and not Muslim so could not be an apostate.
The education ministry filed a case against him at Cairo’s administrative court accusing him of blasphemy, calling for atheism and inciting children to atheism. “It’s an absurd case,” says his lawyer Amr Hassan. “He works with children with mental disabilities who wouldn’t understand him anyway.”
Up until Egypt’s 2011 uprising against longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, blasphemy charges used to be quietly set aside. But Mr Hassan, who specialises in such cases, says of the 12 he has handled in the past three years, all have resulted in prison terms as the definition of “deriding religion” appears to expand. Rights groups counted 42 blasphemy cases pursued by courts between 2011 and 2014, resulting in 27 convictions.
“There is a big problem because blasphemy is not just insulting religion but any religious institution,” he says. “Even rejecting any of the religious rules is considered blasphemy.”
Mr Ramzy was eventually forced to take an unpaid leave of absence pending resolution of his legal troubles. He asked friends in the Gulf to help him find a job, but was warned that his infamy had spread there. He struggles to understand why society views him with such hostility. “It’s about social and family education,” he says. “People were not raised on the basis of freedom. Here everyone thinks that they are right only if the others are wrong.”
In conversations with scholars, many pinpointed the frailty of institutions and economies compared to those of other world powers as the source of intolerance in the Arab world. “We are weak,” says Mohamed Farag, a journalist from a Muslim family who describes himself as agnostic. “We need something to protect ourselves from the outside world and Islam is the only option we have.”
But there is also an element of politically motivated cultural bullying in the long-running conflict between the Arab world’s liberals and Muslims.
Faeq al-Sheikh Ali, a liberal Iraqi member of parliament, recalls attempting to organise a Valentine’s Day celebration for young people in Najaf. Supporters of hardline Shia Islamist parties responded by holding a religious event nearby in honour of the Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
“They waved religious flags and chanted slogans to drown out our event,” Mr Sheikh Ali recalls. “They use force to make others believe.”
For many decades, Arab leftists and liberals pushed discussions of whether day-to-day intolerance contributes to violence and terrorism. But both political forces have become negligible. Even the west has largely written them off, preferring to support military strongmen like Mr Mubarak and monarchs such as the Saudi royals. “While there should be liberal speech in our society, the movement is not really taking part in the Arab world,” says Mr Sheikh Ali. “It’s very strange.”
Animosity towards dissenters remains high. Mr Idly, the Islamic legal scholar, says Mr Ramzy is lucky to be in Egypt, where his case will result at most in a jail sentence, as opposed to other Islamic countries where he could face the death penalty.
“It is not acceptable that he speaks in newspapers or on television to the public to ruin the beliefs of others,” he says. “If someone is a pimp, and he is known for being a pimp, he is usually outcast from everyone.”
Unemployed and fearful of his countrymen, Mr Ramzy for now lives a solitary life as he waits for an end to his legal woes. “I sleep and spend time on Facebook 24 hours a day,” he says. “I look at the walls of my apartment. I’m imprisoned in my house.”
A Loss of Faith — One Man’s Journey from Islam to Agnosticism
The young student of Islam had two questions. If God knows everything, the 15-year-old asked his teacher, how can I have free will and how can he judge us? And if Satan is essential to the story of Adam and Eve of humanity, how can he be in hell?
“How much did Satan pay you to ask that?” the teacher asked, half-joking. The question did not quell the curiosity of Mohamed Farag, then a student at Egypt’s Azhar schools, renowned for their Islamic teaching.
Mr Farag, now 34, was brought up in a pious family in Alexandria. But he drew on his life experiences in Egypt and those of Arab writers in a quest that led him to become an agnostic.
In addition to his religiously themed education, he attended after-school classes at a mosque affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, where he studied wars against Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya and dreamt of growing a long beard and taking up jihad.
He first began questioning the religious themed education when he had a summer job at an amusement park during secondary school. The graduates working alongside him complained of the lack of prospects in the fields they had studied. “I started to see that the process of education had no meaning,” he says. “Why do we study all of the subjects for nothing?”
He studied foreign languages and journalism at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, but felt himself lured to a group of leftist students. “They cursed religion and God a lot,” he recalls.
He says he began expanding his reading to include dissident Syrian writer Firas Sawah, whose First Adventures of the Mind draws out the connections between ancient myths and religious doctrine, and Egyptian historian Sayyid al-Qemany, whose books challenge religious orthodoxy.
By the time he was 25, Mr Farag had stopped praying, though giving up the Ramadan fast took a little longer.