By Khaled Diab
New attempts to address the divide between Egypt's Muslims and Christians must be supported, not undermined, by the state.
23 October 2009
You may not expect it from the clergy, but a Belgian priest is proposing that, with plummeting church attendance and the recession, some of the country's 4,000 churches – especially those “only visited by pigeons” – should be demolished or reoriented for other, more secular purposes in order to free up resources to maintain more important places of worship.
In contrast, empty churches are not a problem for Egypt's more pious Christian community. In fact, overcrowding is more of an issue. Part of the reason for this is that, like their Muslim compatriots, Copts are becoming outwardly more religious. But they have to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to secure a permit to construct new churches or even to repair existing ones.
To redress an issue that has long been a sore point, a coalition of 36 Egyptian human rights groups are lobbying for the introduction of a unified building law for places of worship. This campaign is unlikely to go down well among Islamists and Christianophobes who hold the unfounded conviction that Copts are wealthier and more privileged than Muslims and are out to Christianise Egypt.
In many ways, the debate in Egypt mirrors that in Europe where far-right and other Islamophobes stoke irrational fears of the imminent creation of a Eurabia (what I call the European Umma myth) and campaign against the building of mosques. However, there are some key differences. Although some European Muslim communities are centuries old, in western Europe, Muslims have only been around in significant numbers for a couple of generations. Aside from their religions, Copts and Muslims are ethnically, socially and culturally indistinguishable, since most Egyptian Muslims were once Christian and before that ancient Egyptian polytheists.
It is this homogeneity that makes the deteriorating position of the Copts and the gradually worsening relations between the two religious communities over the past three decades so troubling and painful for those millions of Egyptian Muslims and Christians who still enjoy cordial relations. Many look with nostalgia upon a time when people where Egyptian before anything else, during both the era of secular Arab nationalism and the earlier Egyptian struggle for independence, whose symbol was a green banner bearing both a cross and a crescent.
Against the ideological backdrop of national unity, issues of religious division were taboo for years. The state has lived in denial of the problem, which it has contributed to with its recent hamfisted attempts, in order to appease the growing conservative Islamic current, to juggle the conflicting roles of champion of secularism and defender of Islam.
Tired of regular clashes between Muslims and Copts – which flare up sporadically, often fuelled by rumours of conversions and intermarriage – progressive and liberal Egyptians have, in recent years, shattered the taboo surrounding national unity. Given Egyptians' love of and penchant for humour, one of the most successful recent treatments of Muslim-Coptic tensions was a hit summer comedy, released last year, starring Egypt's top veteran comedian Adel Imam and Omar el-Sharif. In Hassan and Morqos, Imam, a secular Muslim, plays the part of a moderate Coptic theology scholar, while Sharif, who converted to Islam from Catholicism to marry the Egyptian screen legend Faten Hamama, plays a devout but mild-mannered and tolerant Muslim.
Faced with the wrath of extremists from both their communities for their moderation, the two characters are forced to go underground as part of a witness protection programme and assume identities in the other religion – a plot device that is used to scathing comic effect. Chance makes them neighbours and they become good friends in the mistaken belief that the other shares a beautiful expression of their own hidden faith.
Although I found the film went too far in its bid to draw parallels between the majority and the minority, it was generally very honest and very funny, mocking Muslims, Christians and the government mercilessly. The comedy went down well with critics and cinemagoers alike, but almost predictably provoked the ire of Islamists, some of whom ridiculously claimed that, by playing the role of a Christian, Imam had effectively converted and become a missionary.
Alaa al-Aswany, currently Egypt's top novelist, has also been addressing the thorny issue of Coptic-Muslim relations. In his novel Chicago, about Egyptian academics based in the American city, he challenges another two-dimensional caricature – that the Coptic opposition abroad is made up of sell-outs who have become agents of the west.
Although there are certainly opportunists in the diaspora who exaggerate the situation in Egypt for their own gain, the character in the novel – like numerous real-life expatriate Copts – left Egypt to escape unofficial discrimination which saw him repeatedly overlooked for promotion at his university. After finding success in America, he used his influence to struggle for reform in Egypt and highlight the plight of his co-religionists, not out of opportunism or hatred, but patriotism and love, as a young Muslim student who accuses him of treachery eventually discovers.
If it continues, this growing maturity and honesty in addressing religious tensions bodes well for the future. If not, then the final scene of Hassan and Morqos, in which the two families join hands while around them a mass riot between Muslims and Copts burns with righteous fury, could be a foretaste of things to come. A good first step to show that faith is a private matter would be to remove religion from ID cards.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 17 October 2009. Read the related discussion.