Will Atheists Be The Next Target In Egypt?


As we watch footage of Alber Saber being pulled through the angry mob outside his house in a policeman’s headlock, his Coptic Christian mother, Kariman Mesiha Khalil, can’t help but note how much pleasure the mob is taking in their power. In the power his blasphemy gives them over him.

Her son is reported to have been the administrator of a Facebook page for Egyptian atheists with over a thousand likes. He also appears in a video, entitled "Why Did God Create Man?" After citing the Torah, the Koran and the Bible on the issue he surmises:

"They were created to worship him? Well he created them with the predestined task and made some to that end and they have no choice, he created them with no free will. So he made some people, chose some to become prophets, and some to follow them so he can send them to heaven. So you are not a free human, you are controlled in everything you do."

"This is your faith, creed and I did not make this up, this is what your faith says, it is in the Torah, Bible and Quran… why would you question it, because you believe in it, you cannot question it."

"But me, or atheists in general, because we are people who think, and who use their mind, we see that this is unacceptable it does not fit with reason. This is my personal opinion…

… you can go pray to your God, with your head down, nose to the ground and your rear in the air, and make sure to raise your rear high in the air so that he can choose to show me the correct path and at the end it his decision."

His online and real world lives suddenly collided on Wednesday 12 September,  the second day of riots outside the American embassy against "The Innocence of Muslims", a film insulting the Prophet Mohammad. It’s important to note that the film had been online for a while, and that mass outrage was only triggered after ultra-conservative Sheikh Khaled Abdallah, broadcast segments of the trailer.

A Muslim friend and neighbour — his mother only gave us the nickname "Mohi" — had been visiting their house and using her son’s computer. Mohi discovered evidence of his online atheist activities. A scuffle ensued that ended on the street outside, but Mohi spread the word and over the next two days news spread in the neighbourhood. By Thursday evening a large and angry mob had gathered outside.

Desperate, Mesiha Khaiil called the police. When they arrived, it was not the mob they sought to restrain, but her son. They took him to a nearby police station. Half the mob followed, many remained behind. She heard some talk among them of burning down the house, then burning down the church. Later she would be approached by two of the young men who had participated, demanding Jizya, a special tax payable by non-Muslims under the caliphate.

At the first police station (he was later moved), his mother says Saber had a razor blade taken to his throat by other prisoners after the officer bringing him to the cell told them why he was arrested. Given the all-but-unlimited power officers and guards have over prisoners in Egypt, they would have known this to be a command to do violence. Saber has since been moved, but his mother and friends still fear for his life.

Facing charges of insulting Islam, Saber could be sentenced to a maximum of three years. His lawyer isn’t confident, adding that the case is highly political. He described arriving at the prosecutor’s office to find Saber being questioned in his absence. The questions focused on his personal faith or lack of it.

This is an important distinction as atheism is not explicitly illegal under Egyptian law, whereas insulting the prophet is. It isn’t clear on which comments in particular the charges will fall, but his identification as an atheist is no doubt the driving force behind the prosecution. One of Saber’s friends added that the Brotherhood wanted to create a "domestic issue" to distract from an embarrassing the international arena — like Desert Fox and Monica Lewinski in reverse.

Saber is not alone. A presser on Saber’s case was held in the Cairo offices of the Democratic Front. In attendance were a small group of mostly very young men. One particularly baby-faced activist was introduced as Ahmed Saeed, a founder of the Egyptian Secular Movement.

Also in attendance was Mark Nabil, the younger brother of pacifist anti-military blogger Maikel Nabil, whose struggle featured on New Matilda last year, and who was freed after engaging in a hunger strike lasting more than 100 days, broken only rarely by juice and the like and on occasion extending to refusing medication. Saber has also announced, via his family, that he is initiating a hunger strike.

International support will be crucial in a case like this, where those in Egypt who would support him face deep political and social repression. The story has been circulating online throughout atheist circles.

His case, of course, is inseparable from the recent outburst of anger across the Muslim world which centres on the actions of one hateful individual who may or may not be called Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (we do know he’s a convicted con-artist, and he had us all going on the Sam Bacille pseudonym, as well as the claim he was an Israeli, for a while. I just call him, "The Man Who Trolled The World"). There is of course, much more than just this video fuelling the fire.

Last week I wrote about how decades — indeed now nearly a century — of western military intervention and domination in the region have fed into this rage. As Saber’s case shows, there is also an element of religiosity seeking to protect itself from reason. Saber and the brave young men and women like him may be about to bear the brunt of the latest anger.

One thing that I couldn’t help noticing as riots gripped the world, was that many atheists are often, as Saber demonstrates above, as literalist in their readings of the holy texts as the Salafists.

While, obviously, all should be free to speak their minds, many atheists are smug triumphalists who sell enlightenment values short, without Saber’s courage. When he mocks the Muslim with his "rear high in the air", he does so from a position of vulnerability.

He does not do it chomping on Doritos in the comfort of the rich West — rich, in part, on the imperial plunder of Muslim nations. This might sound trivial and petty, but as Christopher Hitchens’ great treason, his going over to the warmongers and imperialists, shows, this attitude can become a mantra of bomb-them-coz-they’re-backwards, merely the most recent and fashionable in a long string of similar justifications for imperial violence.

This attitude, along with hypocrisy about the issue of free speech on the part of the West, makes the situation for people like Saber worse, not better.

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