A Life of Pretending: Being Egyptian and Atheist

Apr 24, 2018

By Anthon Jackson

Note: All the names in this story have been changed, aside from those of public personalities.

The sun was almost directly overhead as I slipped out from the rambling alleys of the Khan al- Khalili into the open square. Al-Hussein Mosque towered ahead to the north. The call to prayer blasted from its pencil minaret, its solemn strains echoed by a cacophony of loudspeakers across the city. Exhausted and craving coffee, I headed for the strip of tourist-trap cafés lining the square’s western edge, and was barely seated when a young Egyptian couple motioned for me to join them for a game of backgammon.

As I’d come to expect after nearly a dozen visits to Egypt over the years, the question of religious identity came up within a minute, and I answered honestly. Just as often I’d opted to lie, claiming to be Christian for civility’s sake, but I told this stylish young couple the truth: I’m not religious. A host of experiences answering the same question across Egypt had me braced for a look of pained disappointment. But ‘Amr’s eyes lit up with a smile as he leaned into the table: “I’m an atheist too.”

Rather than going our separate ways, ‘Amr, Sara, and I walked together towards Bab Zuweila, climbing to the spacious roof of the Mosque of Sultan al-Mu‘ayyad for panoramic views of Old Cairo and, even more precious for ‘Amr, for solitude. With no one around, he unloaded his journey towards nonbelief, from teenage skepticism to angry backlashes from friends in whom he had dared confide. Among the latter group he couldn’t recall a single non-hostile reaction.

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6 comments on “A Life of Pretending: Being Egyptian and Atheist

  • An excellent article, the best I’ve read here. I can vaguely feel the struggles of the Egyptian non believers, as I suppose most of us on this site can; the rejection by family, the hole left by non belief, the gradual moving away towards indifference, the occasional backsliding, the attempts by the state and organised society to stop the slither and impose hegemony (I’m writing from Ireland, at a divisive time)… We have never faced the threat of death or imprisonment, and Western societies provide plenty of comfort zones, so our struggles are only a pale shadow of theirs, but still we can use our experiences to get a glimpse of what they must go through every day.

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  • I read this article when it came up on Quillette and thought it was right on the mark. Very interesting.

    I like his discussion of deep vs shallow apostacy:

    Here, Zuckerman emphasizes the importance of social context: the more ubiquitous the religiosity, the more likely apostates are to experience transformative rather than mild apostasy, and to be deep rather than shallow apostates. So, while Danes may more often casually abandon religion, Egyptians – living in one of the most religiously restrictive countries on earth – more often carry the impact of their apostasy long after they’ve left religion. Indeed, the seeming abundance of deep and transformative forms of apostasy in Egypt speaks to the power and dominance of its religious discourses.

    I’ve read Zuckerman’s book some years back and appreciated his findings. It was the first I’d heard of the situation in Denmark regarding their religiosity and it’s effect on society there. The deep or shallow apostasy by country/region also makes me think of the same effect even in families on a smaller scale comes to mind. In my own family those of us who have had to break away assertively (me) have a deeper apostasy than those who grew up in a secular family who never had dealings with the established religion of the extended family and surrounding culture (my kids and nephew).

    There’s so much good information in this article that I could take it apart one paragraph at a time with each of them inspiring a whole discussion in and of themselves.

    Yes Phil, Quillette is an important website for us. I appreciate their mission.

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  • 4
    flyingfsck says:

    I live in the middle east and it is clear that there are large numbers of atheists here. Whenever a religious holiday period starts, the country empties out of people who want to escape to Europe and elsewhere to get away from it all and streets become almost deserted.

    However, these people all understand that religion is merely one of the ways that governments need to control the simple people and they play along while at home, in order to preserve the peace and enjoy the low crime rate that is ensured by the mullahs scaring everyone with fire and brimstone if they don’t behave.

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  • mullahs scaring everyone with fire and brimstone if they don’t behave.

    Pity that the mullah hypocrites don’t behave themselves then torment everyone else for the same things they do every goddamn day.

    How can the simple people finally learn this lesson?

    Simple people in my own country still live in thrall to the repulsive evangelical pastors even when we see the reality of their corruption on national TV. Even that seems not to be enough. Discouraging.

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  • Hello

    I live in egypt in alexandria nera the famous library there.
    I want to say that the only thing that coud truly get the egyption minds to work again is by inspiring and helping a scintific and knowledge revolution for two main reasons :

    first : islam can’t be defeated by logical thinking as muslim scientists and philosopher’s have nearly answered all issues that troubled the people , and people accept their sayings.

    second : Egyptians don’t realy know the quraan now . most of them don’t read the quran or even know the most basics of islam. they are muslims becaous thier parents are. and if u faced these people who are the majority with the fact that evolution is a fact and we know alot about the universe itself their minds will start to question eventually leading them to see the bigger picture of the universe and the human race which at least in my case made me atheist at the edge of 17 although my family is part of the muslim brotherhood.

    if only you could present modern science to Egyptians through thier islamic golden age scienctist which will make many of them promote and accept it and which is the aim of this foundation.

    the main problem here is’t islam , it’s ignorance.

    hope all the world become a better place for our desendance.


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