It took Conor Sheils weeks to track down Egyptian atheists willing to open up, prompting him to realise that the fear and discrimination they face is much worse than he'd imagined. He finally speaks to two young non-believers to find out more.
Allah is the only God and Muhammad is his prophet according to the Quran. But what if you think differently? Atheism has long been a dirty word in Egypt and those identifying as Atheists face discrimination on a daily basis. This view became apparent to me very quickly after spending weeks searching for anybody willing to talk about what many Egyptians see as the ultimate shame. After much searching, I finally found two people willing to meet and discuss their views and the challenges and threats they face in Egypt today.
Moustafa is a 20-something student who lives in a middle class Alexandrian neighbourhood. He is candid as he talks about what lead him down the path to Atheism. "I was a moderate religious person raised is a such family, too. I took religion as a fact without thinking about it until I was around twenty, I guess. One day a good friend of mine who was Indian wanted to show me his God, Sayi Baba. He opened his wallet and took a picture of the guy, an old man almost naked sitting on a bench, one leg on another and holding his toes with one hand. I had to try my best not to laugh as he was a very good friend of mine. When I left him and was driving home, first I was laughing a lot thinking how stupid he could be to count such a man as god. But before I got home I was almost horrified that my god was the same to him, had I told him that he is invisible and is omnipresent. I decided to re-read the holy book to find out the logic and reason the more I read the more I found how fake it is, how illogical it was. It was from then that I realised that religion wasn't for me."
Moustafa is frank when he speaks about the struggles faced by Egyptian atheists. "Life in Egypt is very hard not only for Atheists, also for Christians and even for Islamic minorities, like Shia'as or Baha'is. Egyptians seem to be calm and peaceful folk but in reality when religion comes in between, they are worse than you can imagine." I ask Moustafa about the challenges he himself has faced as a result of becoming an Atheist. His voice dips as he pauses for a moment to reflect. "In university I had a conflict with my girlfriend then because of my views and lost her because of that. I also lost a number of very close friends and unfortunately my family still refuse to speak with me because of my choice. They dont understand that if God existed, then he created this brain to think and decide what's right or what's wrong; to decide whats logical and what isn't."
It is clear that this conflict with his family has had a devastating effect on Moustafa even several years later. "They still dont accept the idea of me turning my back on God. In Egypt you can not express who you really are and you have to live a double life." The latest figures claim that Atheism is on the rise in post-revolution Egypt yet, such is the level of secrecy that many are ashamed to admit their darkest secret. Social media networks also feature several prominant Egyptian Atheism groups counting a thousand+ followers with many using false aliases. However, threats and attacks from religious extremists and conservative Egyptians are common and incidents often go unreported amid fears of further trouble at the hands of a conservative police force.
Sarah is a 17-year-old youth torn between a strict Muslim background and a desire to follow her own spiritual path - an empty one. "Atheists are a peaceful people. We know how we feel in our hearts. However, I've only been able to tell a handful of my friends and definitely not family. It's so difficult to have the majority of a country hate you because of your personal religious views, or lack thereof. There is so much hate when all we ask is to be respected in the same way that we respect the views of others - but here in Egypt it doesn't happen like that. I'm tired of being told I will go to hell."
Sarah claims she has been made to feel like an outcast, even by those closest to her, because of her beliefs. "My boyfriend broke up with me when he found out, that is how bad the stigma has gotten. It's disgusting. I'm too scared to tell my family as I can't even imagine what they would do. People talk about democracy and freedom in Egypt - but for us it will never happen."