The Arab Spring and the coming crisis of faith

One Gallup poll has declared Egypt the most religious country in the world. But there are good reasons why Egypt may be joining the US, Canada, and Europe in the rapid rise of its non-believers.

Egyptian atheists joke at how the media collectively referred to them as Christian when they helped form human chains to protect Muslims praying in Tahrir Square. They call themselves the “non-percent” in reference to official state records that deny they even exist. Blasphemy laws and social stigmatization have discouraged many of Egypt’s non-believers from ‘coming out’; and have led one Gallup poll to declare Egypt the most religious country in the world.

This may be changing, however, with many activists in the region openly proclaiming their lack of faith. Ironically, the biggest threat to religion may result from the tempestuous rise of political Islam in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The Turkish President predicted as much during a recent visit to Tunisia, when he warned, “If a political party that comes out in the name of Islam fails, it will defame and humiliate the religion itself”.

Despite being notoriously difficult to quantify, atheism appears to be on the rise in many countries. The National Religious Identification Survey revealed that the so-called “nones” have increased faster than any other religious group in the US. Similar trends were observed in Canada, Australia, Mexico, the UK and Europe.

In the Middle East, a growing number of youth are using social media to question religious dogma and challenge taboos; while in Egypt, a new film dubbed “The Atheist” aims to respond to what its director sees as a “notable rise” in the number of local atheists.

Governments across the region have responded by introducing strict laws against those who offend religion. “We need this legislation because incidents of cursing God have increased,” said one Kuwaiti MP after his parliament passed a bill stipulating the death penalty for such offences. Lawsuits along similar lines have occurred in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Tunisia and Egypt.

Loss of faith is a very personal phenomenon and therefore its causes are not readily amenable to scientific inquiry. For the average citizen in the Middle East, daily reports of murder, rape and vandalism have taken a huge psychological toll. The desecration of mosques, burning of churches, and stories of forced virginity tests conducted by the forces of the regime have no doubt left many feeling lost and confused.

But public disenchantment with the performance of the dominant Islamist parties may have caused the most damage. In Egypt, the majority of citizens voted for Islamist MPs believing they were the antithesis to the state’s legacy of corruption. Embarrassing incidents such as a nose job scandal surrounding a Salafi MP and the disqualification of a popular TV preacher after he had lied about his mother’s US citizenship in order to run for presidency, have begun to leave many Egyptians disillusioned about the moral shortcomings of Islamists.

Mindful of the perils of the public let-down, some religious authorities are starting to wash their hands clean of political Islam. “They can do good and they can do bad – but they’re just Muslims. They are not Islam”, delivered one Imam during the Friday sermon.

Political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell point to the mixing of religion with politics as the main reason behind the rise of atheism in the US. In their book, American Grace, they argue that since the 1990s many American youth have been turned off by the religious Right's politicization of faith. The Catholic Church’s sex scandals have no doubt also contributed to the disillusionment with contemporary institutional religion in the west.

Islamists argue that secularism, humanism and modern day atheism are products of a Christian theocracy, along with the church’s opposition to science, which they say has no counterpart in Islam. Nevertheless, their Islamic revival project hinges on the application of Islamic law through state legislation, and the belief that this would put the country on the path towards societal reform.

Assef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Illinois, describes how the Islamic state in Iran has generated both external and internal adversaries who bemoan the dangers to both religion and the state of a religious state. After a phase of initial trial and error, Islamism, he argues, would be compelled to reinvent itself and gradually dismiss the Utopian conception of the “Islamic state” in favour of a system that fuses Islam with civil liberties. This outcome Bayat has described as  “Post-Islamism”.

Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, meanwhile argues that the Islamist project is challenged by a more personalized religiosity that “unlinks personal faith from collective identity, traditions, and external authority”.  Moreover, the call for democracy in the Arab world ensures a diversity of opinions even within the realm of religion, and this ensures that the dominant ideology will not go unchallenged.

In fact, there are many narratives that predict the failure of the Islamist project. In Egypt, Islamists face a weak economy, high unemployment, a collapsing public health sector, a power struggle with the ruling military and exaggerated post-revolutionary aspirations. After an embarrassing performance in Parliament, the Islamist majority have encountered mounting public criticism, internal defections and a deteriorating legitimacy. One report has already found that 45% of those who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party candidates would not do so again.

But Bayat’s gradual post-Islamist turn is unlikely to happen in the immediate wake of the Arab revolts. Revolutionary discourse demands immediate convincing steps as opposed to gradual reform. Legitimacy is just as impatiently withdrawn as it is bestowed. Traditional authority is challenged and conventional attitudes are subjected to relentless scrutiny. Furthermore, in the absence of strong religious institutions, like the currently embattled Al-Azhar, the Islamic revival project may very well precipitate a crisis of faith in the world’s most religious country.

To read more of our Egypt coverage, visit our Arab Awakening page.

About the author

Tamer Fouad is a political commentator and blogger on current affairs in Egypt whose writing has appeared in the Guardian, as well as the Council on Foreign Relations blog (links below). He is a contributing author to Voice of America's Middle East blog, and writes regularly about liberalism, democracy and the Arab transition on his own blog http://democrati.net