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Millennial Letters

Debating Atheism in the Heart of Cairo

Like many men in predominantly Muslim Egypt, Mohamed Abdelfattah was named after Islam’s most famous prophet. But he thinks the faith represented by his namesake is being challenged like never before in modern Egyptian society. While the world warily watches the country’s new Muslim Brotherhood president, also named Mohamed, this young journalist thinks everyone’s missing the real story: Egypt’s seismic search for meaning.

Abdelfattah makes his case by way of a recent debate headlined “Atheism and how atheists think” that was held—of all places—at an old Cairo mosque.

During the event, one 18-year-old Egyptian high school student proclaimed: “As an atheist, I believe that faith is against our very humanity and the source of warfare and bloodshed.” That’s a bold statement in Egypt, and certainly a bold thing to say to a mostly Muslim audience. Indeed, Abdelfattah said it was the first time he’d seen a public meeting on the subject of atheism, which had been considered, he said, “sensitive and taboo” before the opening up of society heralded by the ousting of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

But past perceptions are changing fast, he says, detailing the February 16th event exclusively for Millennial Letters. Some specifics of the event have been withheld for the safety of those involved.

The four-hour exchange started with a 40-minute presentation on atheism that seemed more or less a discussion starter. The speaker gave a historical account of atheism since classical times and concluded with the state of disbelief in modern Arab and Egyptian histories.

This was followed by arguments for and against the existence of a God taken from among a crowd of several hundred, with each participant limited to two minutes. 

The moderator of the discussion, seemingly a deep believer in Islam, was tense. He regularly emphasized the importance of keeping the arguments as civil as possible. The mosque where this debate was held rests in the heart of Old Cairo. It seemed less a house of worship exclusive to the faithful and more a public space where youth would flock to socialize, chill, do homework.

One man argued that Egypt won’t be able to move forward until everyone starts “fighting Islam,” using the Arabic expression commonly used as a pejorative by Islamist authorities against secularist opponents. But this speaker turned the phrase on its head, claiming that on the contrary, “This is the way forward.”

I’m sure most of the attendants hadn’t ever spoken with an atheist face-to-face. For many of them, the existence of “such people” is conspiratorially linked to a foreign plot bent on destroying the Muslim nation. Thus, the debate showed them that many of Egypt’s atheists are young, just like many members of the young religious audience, that they are educated, and that they look the same as everyone else.

It was a purely intellectual debate. There were no ad hominem attacks. There was no opportunity for distorting one another. No intermediary sheikh, or Islamic religious leader, was there to explain what atheism is or how atheists think. It was, rather, atheists themselves announcing their presence.

One could also see globalization at works during the discussion. Classic Egyptian literature, whether supporting or refuting the faith, was dismissed by the new generation as intellectually outdated. Instead, YouTube videos of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Sam Harris were reference points for the debaters.

It made me feel sorry for one Salafi preacher who sought to portray secular humanism as a “danger to religion” to a generation that long ago set sail in the boundless ocean of information that is the Web. This is an information highway on which there is no policing of traffic and where the exchange is beyond the wish or capability of anyone who wants to stifle criticism.

One of the most eloquent pro-atheist speakers argued that political Islamists are actually playing an unintended role in the advancement of secular thought in general. He believed that their rise to power is contributing to the greatest secularizing Egypt has ever seen. Atheists, he said, should go get some popcorn and sit back and watch the Islamists contribute to their own demise.

The look on many people’s faces as they listened was more one of intrigue than condemnation. As the discussion wrapped up, youth flocked around a few of the well-versed atheist speakers to get their contact information. As people talked, they seem to be moved more by intellectual curiosity than with trying to refute an argument for the sake of it.

Could we ever imagine such a gathering occurring before the revolution that overthrew Mubarak? No. Would Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood–backed government wish to silence such a thing? Of course. But it can’t.

In a country where individual liberty is shackled by societal norms more than it is contained by a state apparatus, being able to express contrary values in public says a lot about the level we’ve reached in Egypt today. What we are seeing is a public sphere that has been empowered like never before, gatherings that are free of the constant threat of a State Security officer arriving to shut things down. Young Egyptians own their space, and they are steadily utilizing it for their own progressive agenda.

On the sidelines of the debate, I saw two military policemen praying. In pre-revolutionary Egypt, this would have scared the debaters. But they no longer seemed to care. After all, we have seen months upon months of courageous protest activity that has openly challenged the military establishment.

Pity the news media are too busy feeding on the same stereotypes rather than challenging entrenched beliefs about Egypt. Reporters who see the country only through the lens of revolutionary reporting will miss what’s really happening.

Instead, the media should have society itself as its source. And that, mind you, doesn’t mean defining “being on the ground” as the asphalt of downtown Cairo. It also doesn’t mean taking a few quotes from fruit sellers or people eating shawerma lahma (kebab) in order to break the ice with a local vendor.

Rather, it should represent what this debate itself showed: an honest, critically minded departure from prejudice and the views generally held about Arab societies. Instead of catering to what the reading public expects to hear, challenging stereotypes will better serve readers around the world who truly want to understand “the other” in a globalized world.

Egypt is not becoming another theocracy like Iran. It’s a different age, different actors, and different spheres. There remains to be a fight over the soul of Egypt and its identity. But it’s the youth who will ultimately decide that. And in a battle of will, they will surely triumph.

More about Mohamed Abdelfattah, who is a Cairo-based journalist, here

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