A country that ranks among the worst for religious freedom may actually take steps to make it a little easier not to be Muslim.
We’ve known for a long time now that Egypt is not a safe country for atheists. People who have said publicly that they don’t believe in God, like Karim al-Banna and Alber Saber, have received prison sentences of up to three years for the crime of “blasphemy” or religious contempt.
In 2014, government officials said (in an eerily specific way) that there were exactly 866 atheists in the country. It was a way of suggesting they knew who the people were and that the number was getting lower all the time. But in a country of nearly 95 million people, there’s no way that number was even close to accurate. Estimates put the true number anywhere from two million to four million.
Earlier this year, an Egyptian court even blocked YouTube for a month — for the entire nation — because there was a video that supposedly depicted Muhammad in an unflattering way.
All of this suggests Egypt is no place for anyone who’s not part of the majority Muslim religion. However a legislator, Ismail Nasreddin, is hoping to (slowly) change that with a bill that would remove religious affiliation from the national identification card.
“The draft was motivated by what President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said before the World Youth Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh on 4 November — that every citizen has the right to worship or not to worship what he or she likes, and that religious beliefs are a personal matter in which the state should not interfere,” said the [Nasreddin].
President Al-Sisi also stressed the importance of reforming religious discourse, adding “there shouldn’t be discrimination upon religious grounds or whether a citizen is Muslim or Christian.”
Nasreddin argues “Al-Sisi’s call for religious tolerance” is underwritten by the constitution.
All of that sounds good, but well-meaning critics say this bill isn’t going anywhere. Whatever Al-Sisi said, the Islamic majority has little tolerance for religious freedom.
Humanists, who have repeatedly called for the “divisive” and “discriminatory” religious demarcation on ID cards to be scrapped, welcomed the bill but are skeptical about the likelihood of its endorsement.
“Over the past several years, there have been several discussions about removing religion from ID cards, but they have all come to a dead end,” Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Al-Monitor. “If the bill is signed into law — and that’s a big if at the moment — it is definitely welcome.”
He makes a good point. In 2016, a similar bill was proposed and swiftly defeated.
It’s hardly surprising that a bill granting citizens more freedom to be openly non-Muslim isn’t going to go over well with the powers that be. But their inability to pass something like this suggests they’re afraid. They know non-Muslims exist. They know those people spread ideas quietly, in secret. They also know the greatest threat to their own power is the ability for Egyptians to think critically out loud. Oppressing them is the only hope they have.
Other lawmakers may pay Nasreddin lip service, but there’s virtually no chance they’re going to support his bill.
(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to Brian for the link)