According to press statements by religious authorities on Wednesday, Egypt has the highest number of atheists in the Arab World, amounting to 866.
This contentious figure was cited by Ibrahim Negm, advisor to Egypt’s Grand Mufti, based on an international survey, conducted by independent polling and survey group “Red C” in 2014.
Negm added that the country has witnessed a marked increase in atheism over the past four years, with a number of Egypt-based groups appearing online, including, “Atheists Without Borders,” “The Atheist Brotherhood,” and “Atheists Against Religions.”
An Egyptian atheist, “X,” whose name is being withheld due to security concerns, commented: “I trust that the number of atheists in Egypt far exceeds 866; at least ten times, if not a hundred times this number, maybe even more … There are likely more than 866 atheists just in downtown Cairo right now … I don’t know how they arrived at this figure. I haven’t heard of such statistics, or a survey being conducted about atheism before today.”
“Given the religiosity and conservatism of Egyptian society, nearly all atheists keep a low profile and do not publicly announce their atheism. So, even if there were a survey or census conducted, many atheists would not disclose their non-belief in religion. It’s a matter of ensuring one’s physical and psychological security.”
Negm claimed that, “while this number is not very large,” the increase in atheists “should ring alarm bells” across Egypt.
In a televised interview with another adviser to the Grand Mufti, Magy Ashour commented that the increase in atheism is “a dangerous development.”
Speaking on Wednesday on the privately owned Al-Hayat TV channel, Ashour called for the formation of religious outreach groups targeting the Egyptian populace, especially the country’s youth, in order “to dispel” atheistic thoughts and religious misconceptions.
According to a host of local media outlets, Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s official body for Islamic jurisprudence, cited three reasons for this increase in atheism: A reaction to the violent tactics of extremist, terrorist, jihadi and takfiri groups; disillusionment with religious doctrine, due to its exploitation by extremist groups for their own political goals, and misinformation regarding religious doctrine circulated by unqualified clerics.
Atheist X agreed that many Egyptians “have been repulsed by religion,” due to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies. “The number of atheists in Egypt may appear to have risen since the January 25 Revolution as a result of the increased use of social media networks, and greater margins for freedom of expression during the first few years. However, atheism and agnosticism have been around for decades, even several centuries in Egypt.”
Under the brief governance of the Muslim Brotherhood, from 2012-13, scores of atheists and religious sceptics stood trial and were sentenced to imprisonment on charges of blasphemy. A number of cases are still in process.
Since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013, there have also been concerted campaigns to combat atheism.
In May 2014, the Egyptian Council of Churches announced that it would establish interfaith committees with mosques and Islamic clerics, with the objective of controlling and confronting atheism amongst members of both faiths.
In June, the Ministries of Youth and Religious Endowment, in coordination with teams of psychiatrists, announced a national strategy to eradicate atheism.
Atheism has also come under attack from mainstream media. In September 2014, Al-Shabab (The Youth) newspaper, an affiliate of the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, published warnings against atheism.
“Atheists are the country’s second enemy after the Muslim Brotherhood,” the paper cited a psychologist as saying, adding, “Atheism leads to mental imbalances and paranoia.”
According to Red C, there are 325 atheists in Morocco, 320 in Tunisia, 242 in Iraq, 178 in Saudi Arabia, 170 in Jordan, 70 in Sudan, 56 in Syria, 34 in Libya, and 32 in Yemen. X feels these numbers grossly underestimate the number of atheists across the Arab World.