Religion vs. state: Atheism and Al-Azhar

Typically, atheists in Muslim countries prefer to keep their beliefs secret, fearing their lack of faith will lead to their death.

In Egypt, the situation is different; young Egyptians have been touting atheist and agnostic ideologies on social media, which raises questions regarding the real number of atheists in Egypt, and how the government and religious institutions are dealing with them.

Recently, massive controversy surfaced on social media outlets when Al-Azhar — Egypt’s largest Muslim beacon — released a statement that the country has the highest number of atheists in the Arab world. The statement was issued by a member of Al-Azhar’s technical office Ahmed al-Malkai in an interview on privately-run news channel Al-Nahar.

“It is not only the role of Al-Azhar and the government to combat atheism, but families are also responsible for the phenomenon,” Malkai said during the interview. “All questions that have been raised by atheists were met with proper answers from Al-Azhar.”

Egypt Independent investigated the relations between the institution of Al-Azhar and atheists in Egypt, and how they are responding to clerics’ repeated calls for dialogue.


The accruing demographic of ‘disbelievers’

According to a report issued in 2014 by the state-run Dar al-Ifta, the number of Egyptian atheists reached 866.

Many Egyptians opposing the lack of religious faith are promoting a dialogue-based persuasion strategy to deal with the phenomenon, instead of marginalization.

There are, however, those who consider it a personal freedom that no one has the right to interfere with, and argue that Egypt will only achieve progress if people focus their attention on the workforce and production instead of citizens’ personal matters.


Legitimizing dissident beliefs

There is no clear acknowledgement of atheism in the Egyptian constitution, as only Islam, Christianity and Judaism are officially listed.

The undersecretary of the parliament’s religious committee Amr Hamrowsh considers the recent declaration that Egypt is the Arab country with the highest rate of atheism to be “incorrect information”.

“Atheism in Egypt is only present in individual cases, not a phenomenon as promoted through some media outlets,” says Hamrowsh. “The Egyptian constitution does not mention atheism as an official belief system, so it is hard for the parliament to issue legislation that will grant atheists freedom of belief, ” he explained.

In 2014, Endowments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar launched a national campaign in co-operation with the Youth Ministry to combat the spread of atheism, claiming it represents a danger to national security.

Similarly, Malkai believes that atheism is a phenomenon that should be combated, and said that Al-Azhar is holding seminars to discuss ways to eradicate it.


Citizenship and worship

“In any developed country, there is a principle that is followed — citizenship; no one can ask you about your religion or beliefs, and all laws are applied without religious discrimination,” Mohamed Ismail, an Egyptian atheist, told Egypt Independent on Thursday.

Ismail stated that the citizenship principle is not likely to be applied in Egypt, stressing that Egyptians are obsessed with religion and refuse to acknowledge any faith that is not Abrahamic.

Ismail has adopted atheism as his personal ideology since 2012. He noted that it is not easy for an Egyptian to declare themselves atheist in front of others, as it could put them at fatal risk.

An Egyptian agnostic, who spoke to Egypt Independent on condition of anonymity, agreed that being open about ‘dissident’ beliefs can incite danger.

“I started to be agnostic after intensively studying science, which made me realize religion is a man-made concept,” she said.

She rejects the call for dialogue with Al-Azhar and any state–sponsored religious institution, claiming that engaging in dialogue with clerics would not be fruitful, as their ideology is different; she believes that Islam promotes terrorism.

However, Ismail says that the recent representation of Islam on the part of the clerics is a good step, as in the past there were only people from Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood political currents that acted as spokespersons of Islam, and they contributed to the religion’s distortion.

Nevertheless, Ismail also does not think that engaging in discussion with them would be beneficial, saying, “I can read what they have to say in books.”

According to former undersecretary of Al-Azhar Mahmoud Ashour, “there is no justification for reluctant refusal from atheists to engage in open dialogue with Al-Azhar, as it is not like IS or any extremist groups that kill atheists.”

Ashour noted that it is important for all state institutions to encourage atheists in Egypt to engage in dialogue with Al-Azhar or churches, as he considers atheism a psychological disease that should be addressed.

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