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Egypt Unwrapped

The Fate of Avveroes

Egypt secularists took to the streets of Cairo last year
On the evening of September 13, Alber Saber was sitting inside the apartment he shared with his family in eastern Cairo when a crowd began to gather outside his house.

It was not long before the mob turned violent, screaming out that they wanted to kill the young man.

Alber’s crime was to be the person behind a Facebook page dedicated to Egyptian atheists.

If you want to know how unpalatable such views are to many people here, then the mob justice erupting on the Saber family’s doorstep one week ago provided ample evidence.

Eventually Alber’s mother called the police, but according to the NGO ActEgypt – an organisation attempting to publicise the blogger’s case – instead of dealing with the crowds, after arriving at the apartment they arrested Alber instead.

He is now being investigated for contempt of religion, apparently in relation to a video he posted online criticising the major monotheistic creeds.

Alber’s plight comes at the same time as another high profile blasphemy case – that of Bishoy Kamel, a Coptic schoolteacher, who this week was sentenced to six years in jail for posting cartoons on Facebook which were deemed to be insulting to Islam.

In a week during which rioting has broken out across the Middle East following the now-notorious Prophet Muhammad video, issues of faith and religion have seized centre stage in the world’s media.

Despite attempts by much of the American and European press to portray recent events as a quasi-apocalyptic, anti-Western conflagration, in most countries the Molotov-lobbing has been highly localised and carried out by the tiniest of tiny minorities.

But that is not to deny how deeply offended a great many Muslims feel when confronted by any slight against their religion.

In terms of the Prophet Muhammad, with whom most believers feel a very real atavistic connection, these sensibilities are considerably sharpened.

Recently I visited the weekly meeting of The Secularists, a political group established last year to try and fight for clearer distinctions between God and politics in Egyptian society.

At every gathering the members discuss literature or philosophical ideas related to their cause. This week there was a talk on Ibn Rushd, perhaps better known in Europe as Averroes, the 12th Century Islamic thinker from Andalusia who attempted to reconcile Aristotelian thought with the teachings of the Prophet.

Eventually, while serving as personal physician to the Moroccan caliph Yaqub al-Mansur, Averroes was dismissed – a victim of his own unorthodox interpretation of Islam.

To Western eyes, the cause of The Secularists seems a pretty straightforward one. But in Egypt – where many liberal political parties have stopped using the term “secular” because of its atheist connotations – they appear to be fighting a losing battle.

With just a handful of members at every meeting, they will have to work very hard to avoid the ignominious fate of Averroes.

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Alastair Beach
Alastair Beach is a freelance reporter based in Cairo who has worked for a variety of publications, including the Independent, the Sunday Telegraph and Spectator. He was previously based in Syria.

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