Cairo's moral panic

On December 7, the police raided one of Cairo’s few working hammams, a run-down bathhouse in the center of the city where gay men sometimes cruised. They marched over twenty nearly naked, cowering patrons out into the street. A female reporter, Mona El Iraqi, and her investigative team instigated and filmed the raid for a program called “El Mustaghabi” (”The Hidden”). She defended her actions by saying she was trying to raise awareness on World HIV Day. The men have been subjected to anal examinations, which supposedly can determine if they are gay. They have been charged with prostitution and debauchery. 

This is just the latest, most shocking instance of what has now become the biggest crackdown in years on gay and transgender people. 

The authorities have also shut down some noisy street-side cafes in Downtown. A month after one venue was closed an official described it as an “atheists’ café,” whose customers also allegedly worshipped Satan.  Presumably said this was said to aggrandize the raid and to justify it. It also sustains a politically useful narrative about the kids hanging out Downtown — those same “revolutionary” ones — being troublemakers and worse. Some of the local media was happy to expand on the theme. A special report by El Watan about “The Street of Apostates’” in Cairo was sub-titled: “Violence and Drugs and Politics and Atheism.” Meanwhile, inviting (presumably terribly naive) atheists on TV only to yell at them, threaten them, kick them off the platform, call their mothers, or diagnose them as psychologically imbalanced remains prime entertainment. Men of religion recently got in on the act, announcing their concern over Egypt’s alleged 886 atheists (a mysteriously precise number that elicited a certain amount of skepticism and hilarity).

Read More

Arabs Without God

I just bought my copy of Brian Whitaker's new book on atheism in the Arab world, Arabs Without God. This is the third in a series of books Brian – a veteran Guardian reporter and the man behind one of the oldest blog and websites on the region, al-Bab –has written over the last several years that deal with freedom of conscience and/or lifestyle in the Middle East, and they've always been interesting.

In a blog post announcing the book, Brian writes:

The aim of Arabs Without God is not to make a case for atheism but to argue for the right of Arab atheists to be treated as normal human beings. The first half, based on interviews with non-believers, looks at how and why some Arabs choose to abandon religion. Chapters in this section also explore the history of Arab atheism, arguments about the divine origin of the Qur'an, and the way atheism relates to gender and sexuality.

One of the more unexpected discoveries was that Arab atheism is somewhat different from atheism in the west: "scientific" arguments about the origin of the universe are much less prominent. In interviews, the issue most often cited by Arabs as their first step on the road to disbelief was the apparent unfairness of divine justice. The picture they had acquired was of an irascible and sometimes irrational Deity who behaves in much the same way as an Arab dictator or an old-fashioned family patriarch – an anthropomorphic figure who makes arbitrary decisions and seems eager to punish people at the slightest opportunity.

There is an excerpt of the book here. I am a fan of such publishing efforts on issues that may not find a wide commercial audience (especially ones that can bypass the publishers), so if you have an interest in these issues I'd encourage you to get a copy of the book.

1 Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Last week in Egypt in TV

Last week in Egypt in TV

A new occasional feature from our contributor Nour Youssef, who watches a lot of TV.

Earlier this week on Al-Nahar TV, political activist Ahmed Harara, who lost his vision to police rubber bullets in protests, became perhaps the first non-Islamist to openly attack Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military.

After making Mahmoud Saad read the names and ages of all those who died in the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, he briefly explained to Saad why El-Sisi's army is no different from Tantawi’s. First, el-Sisi was a member of the hated Field Marshal Tantawi’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that injured and killed protesters -- he justified the virginity tests and had Tantawi seated next to him in the Oct. 6 celebration last month.

Calmly, Harara moved on to note the militarization of the state, mentioning the general secretary of the cabinet who is an army general and the 17 new governors as an example. Even the police general, Samy Sedhom -- the man who called in on Al-hayah TV to clarify that the police forces in Mohamed Mahmoud only had plastic shields to injure the outlaws posing as activists, and conveniently lost phone reception when asked to explain the number of eye injuries that occurred -- is now the deputy governor of Sharqiya. (It is worth noting that his retirement age was reportedly  extended and he was promoted to head the Supreme Council of the Police under Morsi.)

“[The military and the police] who still arrest and torture people till now...they are going to make the memorial service for the people they killed?” Harara asked. “Do they want to provoke us so we would go down to the streets for them to kill us?”

Read More

Of atheism in Muslim lands

De l’athéisme en terres d’islam - Idées - France Culture

I heartily recommend this excellent hour-long radio show (in French) on atheism in Arab countries and the link between the uprisings and demands for greater individual rights in recent years, notably in the Maghreb. A really good show and its page has good references, too.

Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.