by Hassan Abdulrazzak 

I have developed this new hobby. Every time sectarian violence breaks out in my home country, Iraq, or when the militant group The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) commits yet another catastrophic crime in the Middle East, I google the phrase “Arab Atheists”. I do this because I hope to find commentaries, tweets and YouTube videos that can counteract the imagery surrounding its absurd, pseudo-religious fanaticism. 

One of the more vocal Arab atheists I found particularly interesting is Ismail Mohammed, a young man from Alexandria, Egypt. Ismail lost his faith in Islam after reading books by the Arab atheist Abdullah al-Qasemi, the British pop-atheist Richard Dawkins, and the British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens. In early November 2013, Ismail agreed to participate in a debate on Egyptian TV with a Muslim scholar, Dr Bakr Awad, and the presenter Reham Al-Sahli. At times, individuals would phone in for questions and comments. The premise of the programme was a controversy surrounding the drafting of a new Egyptian constitution by a committee of notable figures, in September 2013. The committee included fifty members of the Egyptian public, mostly lawyers, political party leaders, activists, unionists, and academics. Following their appointment, a number of Egyptian atheists came out publicly, demanding the constitution be made secular. This, however, led to a public outcry over atheism in Egypt. Various religious and political figures accused Egyptian atheists of blasphemy and of spoiling the youth.

The televised debate, which ended in a scuffle, was important insofar as it marked the first major appearance of an atheist on Egyptian TV. The following conversation is an abridged version of the programme and includes my own comments for clarification.

Reham: I have with me Dr Bakr Zaki Awad, Dean of religion at Cairo University. And I have also Ismail. You are an atheist, Ismail?

Ismail: Yes I am.

Reham: What made you leave Islam?

Ismail: I came here to deliver a message about who we are. I am not here to be tried for my beliefs.  

Ismail told me over Skype that he was invited to the show to discuss the Egyptian constitution. He was unaware that he would be asked to defend his atheist standpoint. Ismail also objected to the title of the show’s episode, “the secret world of atheists.”

Reham: We have the right to know why youth such as yourself have abandoned Islam.  

Ismail: Philosophers and scientists are to blame.

Reham: Do you see cases like Ismail amongst the youth, Dr Bakr?

Dr Bakr: In the name of Allah, the beneficent and merciful, Islam is not afraid of atheism. It has been fought through ages, even in the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed. Those who leave religion have psychological, social, or economic reasons that leads them to reject religion. And the problem is that they do not know true religion. What is leading the youth to leave Islam is the influence of the West. Their civilisation is stronger than ours. Western civilisation is materialistic and more atheistic than religious. Many try to bring these Western ideas to the East, claiming that religion is a drug. But Islam rejects that completely.

Ismail: I am glad that Dr Bakr is accepting of other points of views because, as you know, in Islam you can be killed for apostasy. But I disagree with him that atheism is supposedly the result of psychological, social, or financial problems.

Reham: Don’t you think what he said is true about you? Perhaps you have problems with your family, or perhaps you have money trouble?

Ismail: Science and religion do not agree, that’s the real issue.

Reham: God forgive! I am asking you if you have suffered a psychological problem. Answer me!  

Ismail: I want to talk about how religion clashes with science.

Reham: That is not my question!

Ismail: If you read a reputable science book, which tells you that mankind does not originate in Adam and Eve, will your faith not be shaken?

Reham: No, because I read the Quran, and for me that is more important than any scientific book. It’s the book that I follow before any other.

Ismail: This is our problem today, we reject science.

Reham: I don’t reject science, but if it clashes with the word of God then I will reject it.

Ismail: This is our problem today, we reject science.

Reham: I don’t reject science, but if it clashes with the word of God then I will reject it.

Dr Bakr: Darwin’s theory of evolution has been rejected in the West. But for some reason we still teach it at our schools.

Ismail: Darwin’s theory is not wrong.

Dr Bakr: Many European studies have proved it is false.

Ismail: You should talk to any biology professor at our universities and they will correct you on that point. Your information is wrong. We have lecturers, deans, engineers who are without religious beliefs; and through my own YouTube channel, The Black Ducks, I have been in touch with some of them.

***

Reham: Where is your family Ismail?

Ismail: I don’t like the discussion to carry on like this. I don’t have any mental disability, and I do not need to be questioned in this manner. Why don’t you ask the doctor where his family lives?

Reham: I won’t ask him that because, unlike you, he is not a deviant.

Ismail: If we really respected difference of opinion, you wouldn’t be interrogating me about my family.

Reham: We have the right to find out what drove you to abandon Islam.

Ismail: I am from an ordinary family. My father is a believer and so is my mother. My father accepted the situation to a certain extent, because he is secular.

Reham: What about your mother, how did she take it?

Ismail: She got upset, though I have tried to console her by explaining that my standpoint is based on the work of scientists and thinkers.

Reham: Dr Bakr, how should we confront cases like Ismail. What is to be done with him?

Dr Bakr: Maybe one day Ismail will consider what is best for him – whether he believes his grandfather was Adam or that he was a monkey. Perhaps then he will come to his senses.

Reham: I have Dr Hani Al Souki, a psychologist, on the line. Dr Hani, I have a young man here who says he is an atheist. How do you see his case?

Dr Hani: It often comes down to rebellion, and the attempt to assert yourself: Everyone has faith in God, therefore, I will be different. That’s all. When someone tells me they are an atheist, I tell them, you are not an atheist, you are just seeking the truth. The problem is, they read certain books and websites that encourage atheism when they are lost. They don’t have a place in their families or society, and that’s why they drift off to atheism.

Ismail: Dr Hani, do you think atheism is a crime?

Dr Hani: No.

Ismail: What do you say about a student called Sharif Jabir in Suez who was arrested a week ago on charges of spreading atheism? Do you think such measures are appropriate for a country which describes itself as being progressive?

Dr Hani: If I spread ideas about atheism that clash with religion, then I ought to be punished by the law. It’s not a crime to think about atheism, but it is a crime to inflict atheism on others.

Reham: Do you have a comment, Dr Bakr?

Ismail: I would like to comment.

Reham: Later. Dr Bakr?

Dr Bakr: First, spreading atheism is against the sovereignty of the state. Second, you can’t spread atheism without casting doubt on religion. It shows contempt for religion and that’s not allowed. It is a crime to make someone stray from religion. Can Ismael tell me the benefits of being an atheist?

Ismail: There are no benefits. All that happened is, I used to believe in one thing and now I believe in another thing. That’s all.

Reham: What do you want from the constitution?

Ismail: We want a secular state for the Egyptian citizen, not one based on religious beliefs.

Reham: That’s the first question you answered properly.

Ismail: Yes.

Reham: How come?

Ismail: Because it is an important question, one that will determine the future of all Egyptians. We want a state for all citizens, regardless of whether they are Muslim or Christian. We want a state where a Christian could become president.

Reham: But the Christian has the church to fight his battles.

Ismail: We are against giving power to the clergy to determine how a citizen is treated.

Reham: Are all your atheists friends Egyptians? Do you have links with foreigners?

Ismail: I am not a foreign agent, if this is what you are implying. I don’t receive money from abroad. I wish we rid ourselves of such conspiracy theories, and I am not mad, either.

***

Reham: With me on the phone is Ismail’s mother, now.

The programme makers managed to get the number of Ismail’s family from his friend Ahmed Harqan, who accompanied Ismail to the TV studio. The intervention of his mother came as a total surprise to him.

Ismail’s mother: I am not happy with Ismail’s thinking. I pray to God, and we are a good family. He was a good pharmacy student, but then he began to sit in front of the computer for hours, researching those atheists sites. I don’t know who got him into this subject. And I am not happy with what he is doing now.

Ismail: Hi mum, how are you doing?

Ismail’s mother: He tries to console me so I don’t get mad at him.

Reham: Did atheism affect his education?

Ismail’s mother: No, not at all.

Reham: He said his father approves of his atheism.

Ismail’s mother: His father decided to embrace him until he sees sense again and return to Islam.

Reham: You wanted to say something to your mother, Ismail?

Ismail: Just that I love her very much.

Ismail’s mother: I love you too. I pray to god that he will guide you back to Islam.

Reham: Did you try to bring religious men to talk to him?

Ismail’s mother: No, we haven’t.

Ismail: It’s OK mum. I will bring a religious man with me, on my way back.

Reham: You’re being sarcastic? You think this is funny?

***

Reham: We have your friend Ahmed Harqan, who is also an atheist.

Ahmed was an an ultra-conservative orthodox, Salafist preacher who later abandoned his faith in Islam. He has, since, appeared on several TV programmes and debated the Quran with religious scholars. His life has been threatened on numerous occasions.

Ahmed: Egypt has hundreds of thousands of atheists.

Reham: You have no statistics to back that up, Ahmed.

Ahmed: Please don’t interrupt me as you have been interrupting Ismail. I want to assure Ismail’s mother that there are millions of Egyptians who are atheists.

Reham: No you can’t make that claim! You can’t talk about millions of atheists!

Ahmed: Dr Bakr said, the theory of evolution is wrong, but that is nonsense. All scientists agree that the theory is correct. The theory of evolution is as accepted as the theory of gravity. The discussion with Ismail has been carried out like the Spanish inquisition in the Middle Ages.

Reham: What Middle Ages? We are talking about the unchangeable truth of religion, Ahmed!

Ahmed: I also want to say something to Dr Bakr, I have the Quran and other Islamic books memorised. Your religious view, Dr Bakr, is built around how sound the Quran is, but that simply is not true.

Reham: I am sorry, you can say your opinion, but you cannot attack Islam!

Reham cuts Ahmed off the programme.

Reham: Over to you, Dr Bakr.

Ismail: I refuse to stay if you cut off Ahmed.

Reham: He was attacking religion. That is not acceptable.

Ismail: He wasn’t attacking it.

Dr Bakr: He attacked the Quran, that was clear.

Ismail: I am sorry, I have to withdraw from the programme. I want to thank my friends who follow me and are watching this programme.

Reham: With me is public prosecutor Mohammed Fathi.

Ismail: Can I finish what I am saying?

Reham: I thought you are withdrawing, so that’s it, you can’t contribute any more.

Ismail gets up and leaves.

***

Two days after the programme was aired, Ismail was attacked by a man in a cafe in Alexandria, Egypt. The man, who Ismail vaguely knew but had not much interacted with before, threatened Ismail with a gun. Ismail, thinking he was being played a prank on, ignored him. However, the man then pulled Ismail by his shirt, against the wall, and put the gun against his face. Luckily, people from the cafe interfered, preventing the worst.

When Ismail went to the police station to report the crime, he was followed by his attacker. At the station, the police refused to accept the complaint and insisted he make up with the man who had just threatened to kill him. Ismail was, therefore, forced to drop the complaint. Later, his assailant revealed, “I would have killed you, if it weren’t for your kind mother”. It was at that moment that Ismail realised how much his mother’s concerned appearance on television protected him against attacks he might have otherwise experienced .

Despite repeated death threats, Ismail continues to record his programme, The Black Ducks. He is currently producing an English-language edition of his programme and wants to write a book about his experience.

This piece is an abridged version of a longer text, which was commissioned by Northern Stage and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe 2015, as part of a multi-author show titled “Here is the News from Over There (Over There is the News from Here)”. In the performance, the part of the TV host, Reham, was read by Sara Shaarawi, Dr Bakr and the guests by Lorne Campbell, and Ismail was read by Abdel Rahim Alawiji. The show was directed by Lorne Campbell.

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.


Hassan Abdulrazzak is a British-Iraqi playwright, best known for his highly successful play Baghdad Wedding, which was staged at Soho Theatre (2007). He lives in London and has been widely published, including in The Guardian, The Edinburgh Review, Arab Stages, and Snakeskin. His latest play, Love, Bombs & Apples, which was sold out, was performed at the Arcola Theatre in June 2015, as part of Shubbak Festival, London’s largest biennial festival of contemporary Arab arts and culture. It will return to the Arcola Theatre in summer 2016 as part of a UK wide tour. Hassan can be found on Twitter @abdulrazzak

This feature was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article or feature please contact mend@mediadiversified.org

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