Egypt's Atheists Want To Speak Their Mind In Post-Mubarak Era

Alone in Cairo
Alone in Cairo
Jano Charbel Sherif Zaazaa

CAIRO - Five male members of an atheist group congregate in one of Cairo’s crowded downtown bars, sipping beer and Pepsi as they discuss their thoughts on religion, sex, science, culture, politics and Egypt’s new ruling regime.

The group, which also shares idea on an atheist website, has been holding weekly meetings since Mohamed Morsi won the presidential election on June 24. It consists of both former Muslims and former Christians.

Mohamed, the group’s founder, says the group holds get-togethers “as a forum where we can openly speak our minds.” Like the other atheists quoted in this story, his full name has not been used for his own security.

Group members say they do not seek to proselytize. “We are not a church, nor a religion,” one says.

Commenting the ongoing trial of Egyptian atheist Alber Saber on charges of blasphemy for his Facebook posts, the group member says that this trial “worries me, and has made me think twice before posting my thoughts on Facebook.”

Discussing atheism or criticizing religion in Egypt can only be done in closed circles like these.

Several Facebook groups about atheism have been “voluntarily” shut down over the past few weeks, and most atheists appear to be keeping a low profile since Saber’s arrest last month. On the other hand, other atheists have been “coming out of the closet” and expressing their beliefs — or disbelief — as openly as possible.

The Internet has connected many non-believers, introducing them to a virtual community that shares their outlook.

The widespread taboo of “thou shall not question” has gradually weakened with the advent of forums, blogs, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Before the expansion of social networks in the region, the most prominent blog among non-believers was the Network of Arab Atheists, created in 2006, explains Shady, another non-believer.

Though it has been hacked many times, the site acted as a portal for many anonymous atheists in Egypt and the region.

Since then, the number of Arab atheist groups, blogs and forums has grown noticeably.

Most sites have not been set up to promote atheism, Mohamed explains, but rather as forums for likeminded people to share their thoughts.

He says there has been a massive increase in new members since the revolution. “The numbers went up dramatically, more than tenfold; it’s as if people were waiting for that space of freedom to express themselves openly.”

Offline meetings are regularly organized through his group, although the locations are never publicly advertised.

What is possible or permissible, in terms of atheists’ freedom of expression, is determined not only by Egypt’s criminal law, but also by law enforcement officials and popular religious sentiment.

The ‘A’ word

In Egypt, atheists represent a small segment of the population that refuses to adhere to religious doctrines. This tendency has been more or less tolerated, as long as atheists keep their beliefs to themselves.

On the other hand, disseminating atheistic views can be viewed as blasphemy, denigration, defamation or contempt of religion — all crimes punishable by law.

The state “does not recognize atheism, as a belief or religion, by law,” says Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

Egyptians cannot put “atheist’ on their national ID cards in the space allocated for religion, Azer explains. They must choose from three religions: Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

One atheist, Ahmed, explains that, given the conservative nature of society, most other Egyptian atheists would probably be unwilling to have “atheist” written on their ID cards, out of fear of discriminatory treatment or abuse at the hands of officials and employers.

Azer says the willingness to tolerate or criminalize atheism is still being tested under President Mohamed Morsi.

“The Morsi government isn’t clearly against or with these freedoms. We still have the same laws and same mentalities as before,” he says.

While it might be tolerated to one extent or another, atheism is not welcome in the religious society of Egypt. Families can go as far as disowning their own relatives, friends might turn away, and, in more conservative communities, the reactions to atheism or atheists can be calamitous.

Neveen, at 27, is a graduate of biology school who lost her faith years ago. Egypt Independent sat in on an informal discussion with her and several of her friends, who share a similar understanding of the world.

Their stories of growing up in a country saturated with religious beliefs reveal intolerance to any mindset that deviates from the “God-sent” norms.

“Why are we hated for the way our minds are wired?” she exclaims despondently. “Why are we scorned, looked down upon and persecuted for our personal logic?”

She recalls being grounded for questioning a verse in the Koran that conflicted with what she had learned in biology about the stages of fetal development. The incident propelled her yearning for knowledge and her choice of career.

Her friend Mohamed says he has been living a secret life, hiding his atheism from his parents since the age of 19, pretending to fast and pray when he is called to.

“I put my head down and act the way they do. I know they’ll never understand,” he explains in a somber tone.

Should I stay or should I go?

Abdel Aziz, an atheist and advocate for freedom of thought, left Egypt for South Africa after failing to find any common ground with the culture he was raised in. Although his family had accepted his way of life, he could not deal with a society that treated him like an outcast.

He has a different opinion regarding the Egyptian mentalities toward atheists.

“I think atheism has already been spreading among the community, especially over the last decade,” Ahmed says. “More people will come to question the fundamentals of religion.”

As for Mido, who has more recently ‘come out’ of the atheist closet, he believes that the ideas are spreading.

“But I don’t see it taking over religion, especially not in Egypt ... perhaps in several hundred years,” he says.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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