Egypt does not have a history of sectarian strife but pretending that all is rosy in communal relations could lead to the Balkanisation of Egyptian society. Restoring faith in national unity requires migrating religion to the private domain.
Egypt is an ethnically (or, better said, culturally) homogenous society. Thousands of years of continuous history as a distinct nation – even when it was reduced to the status of a province in powerful empires from the Roman to the Ottoman – have ensured that Egyptians see themselves, first and foremost, as ‘children of the Nile'.
That's not to suggest that Egyptians are some kind of pure-blooded race – we are as mongrel as they come. Positioned at the crossroads between three great continents and at the heart of the ancient world, all manner of occupiers and tourists have left their mark in Egypt's crowded gene pool. Even today, many Egyptians have parents or grandparents who are Arab, Turkish, Albanian, Armenian, Indian, French, English and more.
But Egypt has this way of making newcomers live by its norms. This covers religion.
Ethnically and culturally, Egypt's Muslims and Christians are hardly distinguishable. It is no accident that the word Coptic comes from the Greek word ‘Aiguptios' which is itself derived from the Ancient Egyptian Hut-ka-Ptah (Estate of Ptah) in Memphis.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in traditional Upper Egyptian village life, where one community may frequent the local mosque and the other the local church, but beyond that, they are indistinguishable in the way they walk, talk, eat and dress (even the women dress in the same black galabiyas and headscarves). At the modern, liberal end of the scale, they are also hard to tell apart. One amusing sign of this is the way many Christians use Muslim turns of phrase in their normal conversation, such as “saley ‘ala el-naby” (pray to the prophet), “ahlef ‘ala el-mushaf” (I pray on the Quran), etc.
A kind of madness
While I was in Egypt last month, worshippers in three churches in Alexandria were attacked. Several were injured and one elderly Copt died of his stab wounds. The chasm between official fantasy and rational possibility seemed to have widened to absurd proportions.
In a country where, according to the official discourse, people of different religious persuasions live in complete social and spiritual harmony, anyone who attacks a member of another faith must naturally be mad and a loner. However, insanity seemed to have bestowed the culprit with the ability to bend time and elude the police, as he reportedly used public transport to move between the three churches, which are located across town from each other, in record time, and managed to get past the security at the door without being noticed.
This official version of events may have been more convincing if Alexandria were a peaceful haven, but it has a track record of Muslim-Christian friction. Last year, a video of a play – which had been staged for one night in a church three years previously – depicting the re-conversion of a Christian who had embraced radical Islam lead to riots in the streets of Egypt's second city. The fact that the tape surfaced in a district in which a Coptic candidate was set to thrash his Muslim Brotherhood rival was probably more than just a coincidence, despite the Brotherhood's ostensible attempts to calm the situation.
The government's willed blindness made Copts feel abandoned and beleaguered, which led to angry sentiments spilling over during the funeral of Nushi Dawood, laying the ground for two days of inter-communal clashes which were brutally put down by the police.
Again and again, the price of denial is shown to be higher than honest admission of a problem, yet the government insists on this policy. This was also the case with the sectarian clashes in Kosheh, a village in Upper Egypt with a Coptic majority, in 1998 and again in 2000. After the murder of two Copts in 1998, the village's local police force reportedly rounded up hundreds of Christians for questioning, allegedly torturing several of them.
Instead of promising to investigate the allegations and to bring to justice any wrongdoers, the government's reaction was to deny anything had happened in the village, fuelling suspicions among Christians.
The festering situation brought violence to the village two years later, when, in 2000, violent rioting, following an argument between a Coptic shopkeeper and a Muslim customer, resulted in the deaths of 20 Copts and one Muslim.
National unity is a sacred cornerstone of Egyptian official discourse and, up to a point, Muslims and Copts have a common identity and pursue common causes. Millions of Egyptians of both faiths interact daily as friends and co-workers and the mainstream Coptic insistence on not being classed as a minority is admirable.
“Throughout its long history, there has never been discrimination in Egypt between Muslim and Christian. No power, external or internal, is capable of shaking national unity,” President Mubarak claimed after the latest violence in Alexandria.
But to suggest that Copts are equal citizens is stretching reality too far. Muslims are fond of pointing out how wealthy and successful in business many Copts are. But they are severely underrepresented in the political establishment, the army and the police force, and the situation is worsening. For instance, President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party only fielded two Coptic candidates in last year's parliamentary elections.
It is encouraging that enlightened members of the Muslim Brotherhood acknowledge that there is a problem and espouse the need for healing. “We need to admit that there is a Coptic problem and begin moving immediately and steadily towards resolving it,” wrote Abdel-Moneim Abul Futouh, of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau, in Al Ahram Weekly. “There is much tension in this country as a result of the stifling despotism we've all endured for the past 50 years. It is natural under such circumstances that tensions should build up in the way we've just seen.”
But Abul Futouh conveniently overlooks his organisation's role in alienating Egyptian Copts. For instance, Mahdi Akif, the conservative supreme guide, said in a recent interview that Egypt as a nation was secondary to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
Despite the claims of more liberal Muslim Brotherhood members that the party is for all Egyptians, their overt promotion of an Islamic identity and their association with the idea of the Ummah has left Christians feeling threatened and fearing that if the Islamists were ever to gain power, they would turn back the clock one and a half centuries and reintroduce the second-class jizya-paying (head tax) dhimmi – i.e. protected minority – status which left Egypt with the Ottomans. This is regarded as particularly insulting by Copts, since they have as much right to be identified as Egyptian as any of their Muslim compatriots.
More generally, society is gradually becoming more overtly Islamic in character, which has led to the growing religiosity of the public domain. This has manifested itself most conspicuously amongst Muslims over the last quarter of a century in their choice of dress. Christians have also followed suit and are increasingly reverting to wearing gold and silver crucifixes and tattooing crosses on their wrists in a counter-assertion of their religious identity.
This overt religiosity is gradually driving a visible wedge between the communities. During my last visit to Egypt, a Christian friend told me with concern that a few of his Muslim friends had experienced a spiritual rebirth after listening to evangelical preachers like Amr Khaled and had stopped calling him. Whether this was due to the fact that he was a Christian or because of his lifestyle wasn't entirely clear.
Part of the problem is that Copts are suffering from the increasing frayed relationship between Arabs and the West. Although Copts abhor US-led militaristic interventions in the region as much as any other Egyptian, they are often hurt by association with their ‘co-religionists' in Washington and London. If the depiction of western ambitions in the Middle East as that of a ‘crusade' against ‘Islam', rather than a grab for resources, continues to gain credibility in the eyes of ordinary people, then Egyptian and Arab Christians are likely to suffer.
In addition, the growing belief that secular democracy is little more than the calling card of imperialism and that ‘Islam is the solution', as the Brotherhood never tire of telling us, will likely lead to the further marginalisation of Copts in Egypt.
As much as we may aspire to equality between all Egyptians, as long as Islam is the only constitutionally recognised state religion and Copts cannot run for president – nor even build churches freely (based on an archaic Ottoman-period law) – then they will remain a little less equal, in the eyes of the law, than their Muslim brethren. In the social sphere, as well, Copts are seeing their star falling, as more and more Muslims look upon them with suspicion as potential ‘fifth columnists'.
One step in the right direction would be to level the legal playing field. I believe that the constitution should be amended to recognise Christianity as Egypt's second state religion and that the law against apostasy, i.e. converting out of Islam, should be repealed. On theological grounds, the Quran does not set a punishment for apostasy and the days in which it was dangerous for the nascent Islamic community are long past.
In addition, someone who is born into a particular religion has no choice in the matter and should be allowed to make a conscious decision as an adult. This is implicitly recognised in the Muslim term for apostate, murtad (a rebounder). More importantly, in the modern society we should be striving for, each individual should have the freedom to choose whatever belief system she or he wishes to govern their private life. If they make the wrong choice, they'll find out after they die.
Another important move would be to remove a citizen's religion from his or her identity card and other official documentation to avoid charges of official discrimination. In addition, it would avoid the complications of how to note down non-standard faiths, such as the recent spat over Egypt's 2,000-strong Bahai community underlined.
The Administrative Court upheld the right of Bahais to be identified as such on their ID cards on 4 April. This ruling “sent a strong message that it is the right of every Egyptian citizen to adopt the religion of their choice,” Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Private Rights (EIPR), was quoted as saying.
But not everyone is happy with the ruling. One sheikh interviewed on TV expressed his horror at the ruling. Although his tone was calm and measured, his words were not. He claimed calmly that Bahais were effectively heretics, according to Islamic belief. But because Egypt was a tolerant society, he added, they have been left to their own devices since the 19th century. However, he asserted his view that they have no right to be described as Bahais on official documents and, since the default state religion is Islam, they should be identified as Muslims.
Removing religion from officialdom would avoid such uninvited prying into people's religious convictions. In addition, it would help Egypt deal with the complexities of being a modern society, as the day is bound to come when there will be, say, Hindus or Buddhists seeking identification papers.