CAIRO: Outside, the January evening air is blowing wet and cold, better suited to London than Cairo. Inside this brightly lit Nasr City café, all is cozy and warm, as young Egyptians cluster around tables in study groups and discuss politics.
The interview has wrapped up and it’s time to go when the couple sitting beside us flags our attention.
“Psst, we couldn’t help overhearing you talking to that Muslim Brother,” Sophia says, pushing aside her laptop. “But we just want you to know that in this ‘100 percent religious’ country, we belong to that non-percent.”
“And what is that non-percent?”
“Atheism,” she says, her dark curls at odds with the sea of hijabs in Cilantro.
“We just believe more in science and reason,” 23-year-old recent pharmacy school graduate Sophia, says, glancing around for eavesdroppers.
“But,” adds Sam, who is sharing her piece of chocolate cake, “you can get in big trouble for even questioning religious matters or asking theoretical questions. Even with my parents,” 25-year-old telecommunications engineer adds, “I don’t bother bringing it up.”
“Sam” and “Sophia” may be well educated, and the setting, Starbucks-esque cafe Cilantro, may be upscale, but what they talk about is still so heretical in this country, that being Jewish is often more acceptable.
Sam was raised Coptic and Sophia Muslim. Her father disowned her when she told him she no longer considered herself Muslim.
“He disowned her for thinking for herself, can you believe it,” Sam says, in obvious admiration of Sophia’s rationality.
Technically atheists can be sued, though it’s rare. In 2000, a State Security Court found atheist author Salaheddin Mohsen guilty of “holding Islam and the Prophet Mohamed in contempt and questioning the divine sanctity of the Holy Qur’an.”
Salaheddin had called for the establishment of an Egyptian Atheist association.
While still largely underground, atheists in Egypt have found a small community and support online. Sam and Sophia met on the social-networking site thinkatheist.com.
“The sad thing is, a few decades back, Egypt was much more liberal,” Sam notes.
“People could flirt in public, laugh, wear what they wanted, even, god-forbid, have pre-marital sex.”
“Flirt in public”—a bit ironic said in this upscale and urbane cafe where occasionally hand-holding couples who laugh too loudly are asked to leave for “inappropriate behavior.”