The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged atheism
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). 

When I was in Cairo recently I also heard that the Greek Club, a Downtown institution, has lost its liquor license. There are rumors that Horreya, a historic bar where in patrons drink Stella beers under high whitewashed ceilings, will be raided soon. 

Some have suggested that President Sisi and his men are trying, through these moral clean-up campaigns, to bolster their religious credentials — to appeal to pious Muslims and show that the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t born of anti-Islamic animus . But I’m not convinced this regime needs to compete for that sort of legitimacy. And there’s nothing particularly Islamist about targeting gays or atheists; this kind of bigotry in Egypt is deep and cuts across social classes and political ideologies. 

There are other explanations. First of all, the mercenary ones. What happened to the wallets and cell phones of the men arrested in the raid on the bathhouse? I would bet you they never saw them again. What does a cafe or bar in Downtown Cairo have to pay in bribes to operate freely, to take over the sidewalk, to have the noise complaints of neighbors ignored, let alone to keep a liquor license? Businesses that exist on the edge of social approval are easy pickings for extortion. 

Furthermore, the way I see it, in the summer of 2013 a terrible mechanism was put into motion. In this mechanism, the media generates hysteria, and the security sector produces repression. This mechanism now continues to run, although its primary target — taking the Muslim Brotherhood out power, putting the military into it, and undermining the aspirations of January 25 2011 — has been accomplished. But journalists still have to report about something, and the country’s economic problems, human rights abuses, and the conduct of its war on terrorism are all out of bounds. Other kinds of headlines are needed. Meanwhile, the police has a dangerously free hand. Officers want to show their zeal, to assert their presence, and to seize opportunities for advancement and profit. And the entire political zeitgeist requires threats. If these happen to be imaginary threats, or even in fact the opposite of threats — society’s most vulnerable minorities and “deviants” camouflaged as threats— all the better. It makes trumpeting the state’s efforts to fight them and its victories against them all the easier.   

There is a moral crisis in Egypt today: It’s the way the powers that be are encouraging and empowering all of society’s lowest, worst tendencies.

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.

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?”

By far, the most interesting bit of the interview was when Harara asked a silent Saad how drugs and weapons are smuggled into Egypt when the strong army is standing there supposedly protecting them. Saad then asked him what he thought of the war in Sinai, to which he said he owes the army nothing, since it is their job to fight terrorism, and that in order to evaluate their performance there Saad should go to Sinai and asks the people there.

(Harara did say that the MB was a terrorist group and that 30 million took to the streets on June 30. I will forgive the latter because of his eye condition, but we seriously need to agree on a definition of the word terrorist.)

On el-Mehwar, talkshow host Reham al-Sahl told us that when people denounce religion and ask for their rights in the constitution, we must stop and talk about it.

By talk, she meant get an atheist and demand to know why he is an atheist -- Could it be because he has psychological problems? Financial problems? Was he given bad interpretations of the Quran? Was it the bad MB sheikhs? Where are his parents? It's the psychological problems, just admit it. 

Ismail Mohamed, the atheist, came on the show to explain what he wants from the constitutional committee, which is to respect minority rights and decriminalize talking about atheism outside one's home. Instead, he got an interviewer who said astaghfir allah (i.e I seek forgiveness from Allah) out loud every single time he said something contradictory to Islam because she doesn't have an inner voice, apparently. 

In addition to the host's scorn, Mohamed received angry phone calls from viewers reminding him that it is illegal for him to talk about atheism and "cause strife" in society. An Al Azhar theologian pointed out that talking about not being a Muslim implies that something is not right in Islam and t amounts to defaming religion -- a crime according to article 98 of the penal code.

There was one call from his own mother who blamed the combutar for his condition and said his siblings were too upset to look at the TV right now.

At one point, el-Sahly asked him why he was being nice to his mother at all since bir al-walidyan (kindness to parents) is a Muslim concept entirely alien to 5.4 billion non-Muslim humans on the planet. She later called a psychiatrist to tell him about this case of a young man who doesn't believe in God and when asked why, says he is free to believe whatever he wants.

Then a viewer called to praise the TV host for her intelligence in detecting the implicit link between the atheist and the Muslim Brotherhood, who obviously recruited him to become living evidence of the secularization of the country and prove that the ouster of Morsi and the crackdown on his supporters is, indeed, a war on Islam. That was just one of the many people who accused Mohammed of being a foreign cell, or at least part of one. When he apologized to his friends for being unable to speak and present their point of view, el-Sahly asked if they were inside or outside of Egypt. Where all the Jews are.

Alternating between glancing sideways and silence, the theologian, Dr. Badr Zaki, spoke to announce the refutation of the theory of evolution by, you know, "all of the people who work in the sciences of embryology and humanities," with the confidence of one who thinks no one will google what he says.

(Just for the record, evolution is mentioned, just like Mohamed pointed out, in schools here, but in stride. Universities are not exactly crawling with the Dawkinses and Gervaises of Egypt. Professors almost always introduce the subject as an obsolete, wrong theory, misrepresent it and then conclude with things like: Why are monkeys still around if we came from them?)

Another dead atheist-theory, Dr. Zaki enlightened us, is psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud, who like Charles Darwin was an ex-Jew, as is everyone who makes up such theories.

In the end, el-Sahly essentially kicked Mohamed off her show (he said he was going to withdraw from the discussion, or their idea of it, but wanted to say a last word and she refused) and was criticized by a judge on the phone for irresponsibly spreading his ideas by giving him precious airtime.

"We are not spreading his (way of) thought. We reject his (way of) thought. And I think this was obvious from the beginning of the episode," she defended herself. And rightly so.

The reaction that sums it up best for me was my neighbor's: "The kid (Mohamed) said there is a book that says God is dead! May God burn his house the way he burned his mother's heart. Did you hear her cry?" (She didn't.) "Reham was good though. She's got a pretty face" (She doesn't.)

Meantime in sports, el-Ahly’s football star, Mohamed Abu Terka, and his teammate, Ahmed Abdel-Zaher, are still under attack. The former for failing to accept his medal from the current sports minister, which people took as a rejection of the government the minister is part of, and the latter for flashing the Raba’a sign in a match. Abdel-Zaher said he only did in solidarity with the martyrs and not as a political statement, but he got suspended for fourth months (and may be traded away) nonetheless. Much like Kung Fu Mohamed Ramadan who was banned from playing after wearing a t-shirt with the Raba’a sign on it.  Abu Treka, on the other hand,  was reportedly fined 50 thousand pounds although the exact reason why he wasn't on stage is unknown. Ibrahim el-Manisy, editor of al-Ahly Magazine, says he was not on stage because he went back to the locker room to get a shirt that had the number 72  to honor the Port Said martyrs.  

It is worth noting that sports clubs don't have actual written laws regulating political statements or promotion during games (because it never happened before) and that these punishments are arbitrary, according to the minister of sports.

However, to avoid future confusion, the Daqahlia board of referees suggested never giving 4 minutes over-time in a soccer match because then they would have to do the four-finger sign and it might be mistaken for condemnation of a massacre. Instead, referees can just give 3, 5 or any other less potentially controversial number of minutes. If it is absolutely necessary to give 4 minutes, it is  presumably acceptable to make two victory signs -- or a three-finger sign with one hand and a one-finger with the other (provided it is not a middle finger, lest that should be misconstrued as an objection to the new sign rule) -- and the players could just do the math. And in the lucky event that players are within earshot, a referee could always just flash a five-finger sign and shout "Subtract one."