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Egyptian atheists launch web video series

An Egyptian couple regularly transform their bedroom into a studio to produce an online TV program on atheism.

Every week, Ahmed Harqan and his wife Nada Madour transform their bedroom into a TV studio. Lime green bed sheets cover one of the widest walls, creating a green screen background. Do-it-yourself wooden tripods hold cheap fluorescent bulbs to illuminate the folding table they turn into a news anchor desk. A mattress and some pillows are scattered about the floor to prevent echoing and enhance sound quality.

Once Madour finishes the countdown to one, she signals her husband, who sits facing a camera and a laptop used as a teleprompter. “My dear audience, today our episode is going to discuss interreligious hatred and sectarian anonymity,” Harqan states.

Harqan and Madour are atheists who have moved away from their religious, Muslim families to a coastal city, where they keep a low profile. Harqan is one of the few Egyptian atheists who appears on national television to discuss his beliefs openly, without concealing his identity. Such media appearances have made him a known quantity and the target of several physical attacks by angry zealots. “We have been threatened and forced to leave our homes several times,” Harqan said, stressing that he does not wish to reveal his current location for fear of retribution.

The couple are part of a volunteer network of Egyptian atheists who create shows to air on Free Mind TV, an online channel that began broadcasting daily in March and currently airs seven shows, mostly dedicated to criticizing the foundations of Islam and Christianity. “During the few occasions [when atheists] appear on mainstream media, we always get interrupted and never get a chance to fully convey our message,” Harqan said. “We had been discussing creating our own TV channel since 2013.”

There are at least 30 volunteers around the world, mostly Egyptians, who research and videotape shows for Free Mind TV. Harqan’s show “Isn’t It?” showcases segments from Egyptian media and comments on them from an opposing perspective. Harqan said of his role, “I am not very talented in facing the camera or addressing crowds, but there are very few people who are willing to address society with a message that is shocking to them.”

Once videos are completed, they are sent to the channel’s owner and manager in the United States, where a team of volunteer editors and producers add graphics, edit the videos and supervise the broadcasting process. The manager, Khaldoon al-Ghanimi, an Iraqi businessman, is currently living in the United States, where he is seeking asylum because of his beliefs. “It had been my dream to start this channel, but I knew it would have been impossible to do so while living in the Middle East,” Ghanimi told Al-Monitor by phone.

Ghanimi, who has Shiite Muslim roots, sold media equipment and was a broadcast engineer for Iraqi TV channels. When Ghanimi's colleagues learned that he had averted from religion, he was forced to emigrate to Syria in 2007 and then to Jordan in 2011 following death threats and other forms of harassment.

In 2013, Ghanimi met Harqan online, where they chatted about their shared vision of creating a TV channel. After saving seed money for a station, Ghanimi relocated to a Midwestern state, where he rented a small studio, and recruited Arab and American atheists to help him jump-start production.

According to Ghanimi, at least 2,000 viewers watch Free Mind broadcasts daily, and the numbers are steadily growing. “We started the channel with modest capabilities, but our impact is expanding,” said Ghanimi, noting that the goal is to have a satellite broadcast within a year.

Free Mind TV reaches out to volunteers via networking, collects small donations through its website and has only one paid employee, a producer. Ghanimi said he has already received offers from organizations and individuals to help fund the operation, but he prefers not to accept any funding during its initial phase. “I do not want anyone to force a specific agenda on the channel,” he said. “Once we establish a broader base of viewers, we will be able to negotiate from a better position.”

While Ghanimi operates in the United States — far from the threat of persecution and protected by free speech laws — Harqan and Madour are well aware of the risk in broadcasting anti-theist messages from Egypt. While Egyptian law does not specifically criminalize atheism, several atheist bloggers have been jailed for rejecting religion.

Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), told Al-Monitor that governments in Egypt exploit incidents of scorning religion to score political points and increase their popularity. In 2007, ANHRI defended Karim Amer, the first atheist blogger to be sentenced to prison for insulting Islam. Eid said that despite Amer's conviction, the authorities have not displayed a logical pattern in pressing similar charges.

Sometimes they target and crack down on specific atheists and persecute them, while at other times they do nothing, even allowing them to appear on TV without consequence. Eid said, “It all depends on whether the state will benefit from a case at a specific moment or whether a particular blogger has animosity toward a certain state security apparatus.” 

Harqan avoids speaking about politics on his show, preferring to focus exclusively on theological criticisms. He remains aware, however, of the risk even that entails. “There have been numerous complaints filed against me with the public prosecutor, and at any moment he might decide to press charges,” Harqan said. Until then, Harqan’s home will continue to double as a studio, and more volunteers might be tempted to join him.

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