Atheism, Moral Panics, and Struggle in the Religious Field in Post-July 2013 Egypt

Thursday, 14 July 2016: 16:20
Location: Hörsaal 16 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Ghaleb ATTRACHE, University of California Berkeley, USA
Amidst the post-July 2013 Egyptian regime’s crackdown on Islamist ‘terrorists’ and other political dissidents, a new putatively national threat has emerged: the depraved atheist. Regarded by various media outlets, religious authorities, intellectuals, and some political elites as a threat to the social and moral fabric of Egyptian society, self-proclaimed atheists have been the victims of a public smear campaign, physical harassment and social marginalization, arrests, and even harsh prison sentences. The “atheism phenomenon,” as it is called, has especially gained discursive prominence in light of the “religious revival” announced by Egyptian president Sisi in January 2015. Drawing on ethnographic, interview, and newspaper data, this study deploys a Gramscian-Bourdieusian conceptual framework to analyze the rise and form of the atheism phenomenon. In particular, it draws on Gramscian approaches to the moral panics literature and Bourdieusian conceptions of the religious field. In doing so, it argues that the atheism phenomenon must 1) be situated in relation to Egypt’s current economic, political, and religious configuration, and 2) understood as a symbolic contest in an elite-driven struggle to (re)constitute hegemony. But whereas the moral panics literature, including its Gramscian variants, often regards ruling elites as a single, unified organism, I use a Bourdieusian fields approach to contend that equally consequential – for analysis and explanation – are the struggles within elite circles. In this way, I demonstrate that moral panics are not only attempts to reorganize state-society relations by imposing discursive meaning from the top, but also about renegotiating power at the top. In the Egyptian context, the atheism phenomenon has become a symbolic site and struggle for state and religious institutions to designate, negotiate, challenge, and set (however tentatively and inconclusively) their respective roles in the nationwide project of “religious revival.”