Mohamed Hisham, an Egyptian atheist incurred the wrath of Egypt’s conservative Muslim population when he spoke publicly about his atheism on live TV.
by Troy Garnaut
“I am Mohamed Hisham, and I am a public atheist in Egypt.”
The weary but determined eyes of a young man look into the camera as the asylum plea video fades to black. What could drive a gifted student to risk it all, just for imprisonment in his family home and a plan relying on strangers to spring him?
Mohamed explored atheist forums in his early twenties, frequenting Atheist Republic to sharpen ideas flowing from secret doubts about his faith. Describing his family as “hardcore” Muslims in an increasingly conservative society, it came as no surprise that an internet community he’d never met would serve to be his surrogate family, raising his awareness of forbidden knowledge. Always a bright student, it didn’t take long before Mohamed was a critic of all things religion-related and Islam specifically; a critic, of course, online only.
An advert post on Atheist Republic intrigued the now 26-year-old. There was a call for atheists in Egypt to appear on a popular TV show to discuss their ideas. A way to reach a large audience and do something to stem the decades-long rising tide of conservative Islam strangling his homeland was needed. Mohamed and a handful of others decided to find out if this was that way. By the fateful day of airing, however, the handful had dwindled to one. During the drive to the studio, that one thoughtful young atheist weighed the cost and chose to proceed.
On February 11th, 2017, Mohamed appeared on ‘Egyptian Street’ and set the discourse in his country alight. First to ignite were the host, Mahmoud Abdel Halim, and his guest Mahmoud Ashour of the al-Azhar Islamic Organisation. Sputtering with rage and a warped concern for their viewers, only a few moments were allowed for Mohamed to state his position. Calmly, Mohamed did just that. Amidst accusations of mental illness, Mohamed Hisham delivered several concise lines of argument, winning admiration from across the globe.
Controversial ideas carry a cost and Mohamed began to pay for his the moment he was ejected from the show. Callers phoning into ‘Egyptian Street’ demanded his death and dismemberment, with tacit endorsement by the show’s host and cleric guest alike. The studio driver on the way home, informed of the blasphemy, wasted no time insulting Mohamed and threatening him when he went to use his phone. Mohamed was brave, but no brawler. He complied in silence and spent the ride considering his future instead.
Ideas drive behaviour, however, and on March 13th, 2018, he appeared on ‘Youth Talk’, an Arabic-language show on the German TV channel Deutsche Welle. Met with the same indignant and abusive responses as last time, Mohamed accepted it was no longer his words that were making his points, but those of his co-guests. He sat out the shouting match and, with his now trademark calm, silently cemented his superior stance in the eyes of the audience.
Two days later, the costs of Mohamed’s peaceful position began to mount when his family found out their son was an apostate. His TV appearances had been beamed to a nationwide audience, bolstered by millions of additional YouTube views around the world. Discovery was always going to be just a matter of time. The son who they raised was beaten mercilessly and subjected to a campaign of religious indoctrination coordinated from his local mosque. Mohamed prayed for his life, an act to be sure, but one he couldn’t afford to be found unconvincing.
Leading up to 2018 President Sisi tried to tighten the screws on Mohamed’s ideas even further, a push to pass new law paired with crackdowns on atheist and LGBTQ activism. With credible threats left on his TV clips by society at large, and abuse from his family on the home front, this one young man now had an entire country arrayed against him; family, citizenry, and the State. On May 3rd, 2018, a ten-man unit of the State Security Investigations Service rattled his door, and Mohamed faced his biggest threat yet.
Resistance here was futile. Mohamed composed himself to meet his new captors, and unlocked the door, allowing them in. Demands for ID were made and complied with. His phone was snatched and searched. He watched them read his text conversations with a Western atheist (the author of this piece) that should have seen muzzles swing to point at his face and steel clapped on his wrists. And yet…
None of the SSIS units understood English. Did they know who they were looking for, and simply found no evidence they could understand? Or were they searching for someone else? Soon enough though, they had left the bewildered fugitive standing stunned and alone to contemplate his next step.
So what drives a gifted student to risk it all, just for imprisonment in his family home and a plan relying on strangers to spring him? Here it took powerful ideas and selflessness in the service of others, but Mohamed now understood that the only way to keep fighting was from a new base of operations in the West; a new place for him to speak peacefully about life without gods, and for that he needed money and allies. He faced the camera in his room, and began to speak.
“I am Mohamed Hisham, and I am a public atheist in Egypt.”
On May 17th 2018, prominent atheist Sam Harris re-tweeted Mohamed’s GoFundMe campaign to escape from Egypt. The rest of the donations and famous names in the public discourse fell into place from that point. Mohamed now moves into the next stage of his plan; and one day soon this selfless, thoughtful, now-openly gay atheist from Egypt will find freedom and safety. And maybe, he hopes, even find love.
Please click here if you’d like to consider helping Mohamed’s campaign to find safety in a new home.