01/20/2015 10:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In The Middle East Sharing Atheism on Social Media Ends Badly

WITNESS via Flickr

Best to keep your non-believing status messages to yourself -- if you are an Egyptian citizen that is. Karim Ashraf Mohammed Al-Banna has been sentenced to prison for sharing his atheist identity on Facebook.

After his name appeared on a list of atheists Al-Banna approached police from the northern Egyptian city Idku to file a harassment complaint. Al-Banna informed the police he was being harassed because he was an atheist. After all the Egyptian constitution "ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief," according to Human Rights Watch.

Instead of protecting the 21-year-old college student the authorities decided to arrest him.

In Egypt "freedom of belief" is protected only to a degree. If you criticize Islam you can be prosecuted under religious contempt. Religious contempt is a very broad term, but essentially anything seen as blasphemous to Islamic teachings can be considered grounds for religious contempt. Espousing atheism on Facebook apparently counts.

Even sadder, Al-Banna's father testified against his son in court. Al-Banna made the mistake of trusting the police and maybe even his father too. An Egyptian court has sentenced Al-Banna to serve three years in prison for "embracing extremist ideas against Islam."

There is still hope for Al-Banna in his legal appeal.

The Huffington Post UK reported that Egyptian Sherif Gaber Abdel Azim (then unnamed) had been arrested for a similar act. Azim had created a Facebook group aptly titled "atheists," but was fortunate to get away with a mere 15-day detention. Unfortunately Al-Banna is looking at a much longer stay in prison.

In 2014 the Egyptian government announced the country of over 80 million is home to a mere 866 atheists. Shockingly this was considered the largest number of atheists of any Middle Eastern country. The al-Sabah newspaper believes there is as many as 3 million Egyptian non-believers in the country -- but there is no statistic to back that up.

Why are all these atheists cropping up on social media? Seemingly it is one of the few ways that these non-believers can network safely. The internet is a dark place for many reasons and also serves as a refuge for the fringes of Middle Eastern society: atheists.

For instance the Facebook page 'Black Ducks' is about atheists in Egypt. Unfortunately you can't take a look at the affiliated YouTube channel -- it has been terminated by Google for copyright infringement.

According to Al-Monitor's sources, Twitter is also a popular way for atheists to communicate. Social media's anonymity makes it an excellent tool for oppressed atheists. Arab Atheist and Middle East Atheists are twitter accounts that freely expresses religious criticism from The Middle East.

On the other hand, Saudi Hamza Kashgari was arrested for a tweet about the Prophet Muhammad. Kashgari had fled to Malayasia only to be extradited back to Saudi Arabia to face the consequences of his tweets.

If you are planning on being atheist in the Middle East best be careful not to draw too much attention, especially online.