EGYPT - In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief.
Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online TV channel. Free Mind TV defends the right not to believe.
Edited and produced in a studio in the United States, Free Mind TV says it wants to promote nonreligious liberal ideas in the Middle East.
On the screen, the presenter appears to be in a sophisticated studio. But in reality, presenter Ahmed Harqan, a former Muslim, sits at a card table in a small bedroom in Egypt, with a green cloth hanging behind him.
He asked that his location be kept secret, because many of his countrymen consider atheism an insult to religion, making it dangerous to openly not believe. He speaks from personal experience.
Harqan said that in one instance, people on the street were trying to kill him and his wife, Nada Mandour, so he ran into a police station. The people followed and told the police that he appears on a TV program, insulting Islam. The couple were arrested.
After they were released 24 hours later, they had to move to a different house to avoid threats and harassment.
Mandour, also a former Muslim, shoots and directs some Free Mind TV programs. Since she abandoned religion two years ago, she said, most of her family has abandoned her. Mandour said they hate her for being critical of religion and ultimately declaring herself a nonbeliever. She no longer sees her parents and is not allowed in the family home.
Nonbelievers from Christian families in the Middle East face similar dangers, said Ayman Ramsy, a former Christian who appears in the broadcasts.
Ramsy said it is not technically a crime to be an atheist in Egypt. But he said he had been arrested for expressing his beliefs publicly, accused of compromising the values of society and of insulting religion.
Free Mind TV began broadcasting late last year when Iraqi producer Khaldoon Alghanimi moved to the United States, where he feels it is safe to talk about the dangers atheists face in the Middle East.
Self-proclaimed atheists are punished across the Arab world. In some cases, they are given jail time; in some countries like Saudi Arabia, atheism is considered a crime worthy of the death penalty.
In Egypt, Harqan said he hoped the TV project would encourage people with controversial beliefs to speak openly, diluting the taboo.
Harqan speaks freely, but keeps his location secret. In Egypt's religious society, he said, universal acceptance right now is not likely.