Reflections on Religious Freedom Issues in Egypt

Jul 11, 2014

Egypt's civil liberties have been called into question several times since the January 25 Revolution. Most recently, Egypt issued a law limiting preaching at mosques to graduates of Al-Azhar University. While this has come under heavy criticism both nationally and internationally, this decision is an attempt by Egypt to regulate, not restrict, religious freedoms, and in so doing puts Egypt back on the road to recovery from years of religious misinterpretation.  

When I was a young Egyptian growing up in the 1950s, the grand “Keniset Deer El Malak” (Church of the Monastery of the Angel) painted the background scenery to my formative years. And as the daughter of a devout Muslim, my father's Quran recitals after fajr (dawn) prayers provided the soundtrack to those years. 

While family rules prevented children from joining adults in Muslim ceremonies, our large balcony that towered over churches offered us a bird’s eye view of neighboring Christian weddings. We practically attended weddings and funerals from the comfort of our balconies. We used to see priests frequenting our street. Our greetings back then were either “good morning,” “good evening,” or “saiida” (happy) depending on the time of day. Fast forward five or six decades, our greetings have now transformed into “assalamu alaikom” (peace be upon you) regardless of the hour or the occasion. We are told this is the salute of Islam. Back then, the only headscarves we saw were those worn by women coming to Cairo from rural areas. It was more of a social dress code, nothing like today's hijab which is taken by many as a sign of piety. We used to walk the streets safely without harassment.

As a post-graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1970s, I found myself unable to answer a question about whether I was Sunni or Shiite. When I asked my father, he said the question was “irrelevant.” At school, I shared a desk with Awatef, a Jew. Even the mention of religious denomination nowadays feels awkward because such issues were not discussed when I was growing up. We all fit under one broad, all-encompassing, tolerant category: “Egyptians.” 

From the 1950s to the mid-1960s, Egypt lost much of its cosmopolitan class. It lost its pluralistic and tolerant nature. The exodus started with Jews who left in a hurry during the mid-1950s, in many cases leaving their belongings behind. The 1970s saw some Christians and even Muslims leaving. The tolerant, all-embracing Egypt gave way to a much narrower and less diverse society. The once softer, cosmopolitan nature of Egyptians yielded to a more rigid, judgmental, perhaps even fearful nature. This societal change brought with it a new discourse, which crept into our schools and places of worship—a new discourse proclaiming that the only religion is Islam and that Christians and Jews will burn in hell. Churches, which were once part of the Egyptian landscape, were torched and looted as if Christians were non-Egyptians. As always, economic factors weighed in on the decision of some Egyptians to leave. The world watched as Egyptians lost their freedom of belief and freedom of expression, to name but a few civil liberties that were lost. 

The Muslim Brotherhood's battle with the Egyptian state began from the organization’s inception in 1928. The power play meant political compromises that included turning a blind eye to the language and doctrines that made their way into school curricula—with new words slowly becoming the norm. Political powers often looked the other way at mushrooming boutique mosques where radical religious discourse influenced the minds of millions of Egyptians every Friday. Ground floor building mosques spread like wildfire as developers built them to benefit from tax breaks. These mosques saw the rise to fame of self-appointed sheikhs, who became idolized despite having no credentials or academic qualifications whatsoever. Meanwhile, building a church necessitated the approval of the president. Over the course of 40 years or so, Egypt shed its cosmopolitan nature and became inward looking. All things Western became godless, and cultural specificity was used to push the oldest civilization and nation-state into a different place. Women’s bodies became politicized terrain and their very lives subject to power and control. Women juggled their femininity as they covered their bodies with many layers under the scorching sun. What is hidden often becomes sexualized, and soon women’s bodies hidden under layers of material became an object of harassment and violence. The layers on women’s bodies became a metaphor of what Egypt had become. The greater the number of layers, the uglier the sexual harassment became. The gap between the two sexes widened dramatically. Layers have even eaten their way into the unified call to prayer (adhan). At prayer time, one is subjected to an array of conflicting and out of tune “noise” that has nothing to do with the peaceful and serene adhan we used to hear as children when it was one or two mosques per district. It was all in the name of booking a place in heaven as good Muslims. 

Children were raised to be acutely aware of the difference between Muslims and Christians. There are practically no visible Jewish communities left today. Textbooks were revised, and the field was left unchecked for teachers to innovate and distort students’ minds with hate speech against their fellow Egyptians in the process. My daughter fired a tutor once for telling her son that God likes Muslims more than Christians, and that the former are guaranteed a place in heaven. The traditional flag and national anthem salute have faded away from some schools’ daily routines, being deemed as impious. Girls were separated from boys; their minds were filled with notions that instilled inferiority. The space available for girls shrank by the day, while boys were entitled to everything. The world continued to watch idly as Egyptians kept losing more and more of their freedoms and rights. 

Egyptians held on to their identity under foreign occupation. It is only recently that the true Egyptian identity is embattled by a fictitious tension. It is also taking a back seat to the Arab and Muslim identities even though Egypt has been around longer than the Arab identity and all the religions. The threat is worrying because it comes from within. Worst of all, religion—a very precious component of the Egyptian identity—is used to regressively redefine this identity and divide its people. This struggle is an issue that has occupied my thoughts for some time.

Egypt, which has long been a regional cultural hub, was expected to benefit greatly from globalization. Suddenly, however, those seeking to redefine Egyptian identity began to use the very elements of our cultural strength to undermine this culture. Our cultural strength was targeted by attempts to wipe out our heritage and diversity under the guise of religion. Once again, the world watched as writers were prosecuted, works censored, and heretics denounced.  

  I was prompted into writing this article as I followed the debate and protest that was unleashed against a law limiting religious oration and lessons to Al-Azhar graduates. Debates mostly outside of Egypt revolve around the fear that Egypt is moving toward an authoritarian state with stricter limitations on freedom of speech—the same freedom of speech that has been diminished over the years before the eyes of observers around the world. Concerns have suddenly been voiced against what is seen by some as a state monopoly on religious discourse, encroachment on freedom of belief, and a crackdown on pluralism in Egypt. The decision to unify Friday sermons also came under fire with some raising concerns that preachers can now be manipulated by the government. Understandably, it is being perceived as part of the political competition with the Muslim Brotherhood who had adopted a discourse to push for violence and sectarian strife and used religion to promote certain political ideologies. Assurances that requiring a permit for oration regulates rather than eliminates religious pluralism did little to ease the concerns of “those concerned for freedom of speech.” Others claimed that the timing of this move meant that the state fears a cooptation of the upcoming parliamentarian elections by political Islam. Few saw it as an attempt to separate religion from the state or as the state assuming its responsibility to protect its citizens against extremism.

Such a row triggered two concerns. First, is the role of Al-Azhar as defined by the constitution and whether it will control the affairs of mosques and preachers. The second is the independence of Al-Azhar, whose budget is provided by the Egyptian state. Sheikh Al-Azhar put such concerns to rest as he declared recently that Al-Azhar is not a religious authority, but rather an institution for opinion and ijtihad.[1]

These latest moves have to be put into the context of the deterioration of religious freedoms in Egypt over the course of many decades. Criticizing these laws in isolation is like critiquing a movie based on only watching the second half. For those who missed it, the first half of this movie saw the creation of a wedge between Egyptian Muslims and Copts to manipulate them into sectarian strife. The first half of the movie saw churches being torched and entire Coptic families evicted from villages they had lived in for decades and sometimes even forced to flee the country. Those criticizing the latest decisions obviously missed the forced disappearances or kidnappings of Coptic girls. Did those advocates of religious freedoms also miss the 2012 constitution giving unelected clerics the right to determine crimes and their requisite punishment, and in so doing bypassing parliamentarians and the legal system? Were all these events not significant enough to raise concerns about discrimination and religious freedom at the time? Or is it just a case of not having a thorough grip on modern Egyptian history?

I see what is happening today as a necessary and long-overdue correction, of course. Extreme circumstances warrant drastic measures aimed at dealing with the root cause behind the manipulation of the minds of young men and women. Unsupervised preachers have harmed our national unity.

The measures taken recently by the Ministry of Endowments are still not enough. It will not suffice to correct the damage done over decades of the state turning a blind eye. It must go hand in hand with a host of other preventive measures such the following:

We must start a national dialogue against discrimination based on a religious and sexual basis. Egyptians must be candid and transparent in dealing with problems. Facts must be revealed to the public. All cases must be dealt with through a due process of law. Security measures to control the spread of extremism will no longer do the trick. I must emphasize the importance of the word “dialogue” here since the only way to truly convince people to do away with discrimination is by educating them on its dangers. This is a tough task because we essentially need to re-shape the way the typical Egyptian psyche is built over time.

Egyptians must tackle the culture of religious radicalism that has crept into school curricula, media, and religious discourse. People need to uncover certain myths that made them susceptible to discriminatory and backward religious discourse and strangled the voices of moderation. Egyptians who once allowed themselves to believe that voting for a certain candidate reserves them a place in heaven need to allow rationality and logic back into their lives. The Ministry of Education must monitor fanatic teachers who have become an obstacle to conveying modern and reasonable approaches to their students. Streamlining who can and cannot address the minds of Egyptians through religious discourse should be viewed as regulating religious oration, not restricting it.

Egyptians have now a chance to build a civil state based on the rule of law. It is up to Egypt’s intellectuals and liberals to ensure that the measures taken by the Ministry of Endowments mean that the state has finally woken up and is trying to assume its responsibility to protect the right of every Egyptian to freedom of belief, thought, religion, and speech without discrimination. The new Egyptian constitution affirms that freedom of belief is absolute and equally applies to all religions. The measures that the state has resorted to are only one step toward ensuring freedom of belief and freedom of thought. Egyptians have been living under religious fascism for decades. There were no checks and balances, and the result was a deep-rooted contempt for other religions. Egyptians of different faiths— whether they are Christians, Jews, or Baha’is—have suffered humiliating discrimination and a shameless denial of their basic rights. Some religious satellite television channels were fanning hate speech against them, and the state did nothing to stop this. Only a year ago, the state banned some of them. As we look to the future and work to rebuild our country, it is absolutely imperative that we give equal attention to rebuilding the Egyptian psyche and bringing it back to what it once was not too long ago—a model for tolerance and enlightenment—and reinstating the awe-inspiring, authentic Egyptian culture as the powerhouse that guides the region.

 

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