Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

On Religious Tension in Egypt, from Leading Thinkers

Note: Sorry for a lack of new news and stories. There a number of good ideas floating around in my head, three texts in production, but nothing finalized yet. Instead, here is an interesting review I wrote for Arab West Report from a few months ago. It depicts the nature of discourse on the religious question in Egypt, as described by some of its leading thinkers. I hope you enjoy.

There is no religious strife (fitna) in Egypt, but there is religious tension; there is no Christian persecution in Egypt, but there is Christian discrimination. This, in summary, was the message presented in a seminar organized by the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), hosted by the Evangelical Church of Heliopolis, on February 17, 2010. The session was moderated by Dr. Nabil Abadir, secretary general of CEOSS, and included three prominent members of Egyptian society. Dr. Mustafa al-Fikki is the president of the committee for foreign relations in parliament, and was described as a leader in promoting national unity, being a member of the National Council for Human Rights. Dr. Abd al-Muti al-Bayoumi is professor of philosophy and Islamic law at al-Azhar University, and is greatly concerned with the renewal of Islamic thought in the modern age. Dr. Makram Naguib is pastor of the Heliopolis Evangelical Church, and maintains friendly relations with both of these figures. Each of these distinguished guests participated in the seminar under the title, “Social and Sectarian Tensions: Towards Societal Peace”.

Dr. Abadir opened the seminar by stating that Egyptian society is changing. Whether these changes come from inside or outside the country is open for debate and is often a point of contention; what is clear, however, is that these changes have religious implications. The tension which is gripping Egypt in many sectors is social tension. Though it cannot be tied directly to the religious differences which exist between Muslims and Christians, it takes residence within them, presenting the tension as a religious issue. The important question is how to resist these negative changes while keeping respect to society, culture, human rights, and civil society? How can national peace be preserved?

Dr. Fikki supported the words of Dr. Abadir that sectarian troubles are a part of social troubles in general, adding that these stem from a lack of political transparency and social stagnation. The government, he declared, bears responsibility over the long run for its failures to purify the educational curriculum and political discourse from sectarian spirit. Education and military service are the two primary means of instilling national unity into the population, as it provides a place of contact and cooperation between members of the two religions. Instead, the government has allowed the language of absolutes—religion, to mix with the language of relativism—politics. The government is not the primary perpetrator, but it has stood by while this societal transformation has taken place. Citizens, meanwhile, remain largely ignorant of one another and of the other’s religious beliefs. Such knowledge, however, are the building blocks of good relationships. Dr. Fikki ended his presentation with a renewal of the call for the government to pass a unified law for building houses of worship. This could be done within twenty-four hours if the will was found, and is a crucial step in signaling to the nation the equality of all citizens. Political changes can lead the way for subsequent social advancement.

Dr. Bayoumi opened his address by confirming that there is no religious strife in Egypt, but that tension certainly exists. He believed this was due to the national project being lost among many in society, having been replaced by certain elements[i] with a religious project for the nation. Islam, however, does not support this change. Religion, as Dr. Fikki mentioned, is the realm of absolutes, and Islam defines God and religion in these terms. At the same time, the religion demands interaction with the world, and as such there are elements of Islamic practice which are relative to ages, countries, and cultures. Dr. Bayoumi esteemed common origin of all Abrahamic religions, stating that God in Islam exhorted Christians and Jews to follow the teachings of their books. Muslims have erred in calling these groups ‘unbelievers’ and their books ‘corrupted’. They have erred further in seeking political rule over them in particular and over society in general. Prophetic government was a civilian rule; Islamic government is found in the application of its principles. As Muhammad Abdu has stated, Islamic government is often found among non-Muslims (Editor: Dr. Bayoumi wrote his PhD about Muhammad Abdu, an Islamic reformer of the first part of the 20th century). Dr. Bayoumi closed his remarks with a call for renewing the educational system, which currently focuses on rote memorization. Though this is necessary for all of society it is also imperative for Islamic scholars, that they may be freed from the tyranny of the text in order to share in a necessary cultural revolution, which allows religion to change with the times and ceases to divide its particular adherents.

Dr. Naguib confirmed the importance of Dr. Bayoumi’s religious remarks by asserting that the pattern of co-existence is the norm for human relations, from the first chapters of Genesis, but that it is so easily disturbed, as seen in the story of the Tower of Babel. The problem in Egypt is similar, as Muslims and Christians speak the same language but cannot understand each other. This is due to the fact that society has become increasingly religious, a process aided by government procrastination in taking real measures consistent with its positive rhetoric. The slowness in creating democracy and civil society is causing many to lose faith, and these take refuge in their religion, both Islam and Christianity. It is not that Egypt has made no effort in this direction; on the contrary it has a long history of liberal values. The problem is that Egypt is like Sisyphus; once it has nearly rolled the rock of a civil state to the summit it crashes back down. From here, the agenda of the civil state starts again, but unfortunately it begins at ground zero, with nothing gained from previous attempts. Dr. Naguib expressed his fear that the crisis of co-existence will only become more dangerous in the days to come, and urged the government to decisively reform the educational curriculum. All ideas of religious absolutism and particularism—for any religion—must be removed in favor of engendering the multiplicity of thought, which will lead to a culture which embraces all.

Following the presentations there was an extended time of audience participation, asking questions and presenting their comments. Though it seemed that Christians represented a majority of the audience as seen through the questions posed, the general theme of response was supported also by Muslim inquiries. These included criticism of the media, print and television, for failing to support national unity and educate about Christian belief. There was also a general questioning of the effort to insist on unity between the religions. Rather than seeking for commonality, would it not be better to simply admit differences but accept each other anyway? Egypt in general, it was said, lacked a culture of accepting differences. Finally, there were proposed various criticisms of the government, and wonderings about who would implement the fine words of this seminar.

This final point was my lasting impression of the time spent. Though I was pleased to hear the dialogue both from the presenters and from the audience, I wondered about the point of the meeting. What good would any of this do? My impression, given the location in upper class Heliopolis and furthermore in a church, was that it was a service for airing grievances among those discouraged but distant from the tensions in society, especially the Christians among them. The seminar provided an opportunity for prominent members in government linked agencies like the Azhar and the National Council for Human Rights to express their opposition to societal trends. Such a word could provide comfort for troubled hearts, as well as evidence that within government voices exist for co-existence, national unity, and social development. This is necessary and useful civil society behavior.

Yet what good will it do? I suppose that the voices which spoke today have been speaking for some time, and will continue to speak. Yet my focus is not on actualizing change in the government but in society. Specifically, how will the value of these words reach those who are engaged in sectarian tensions—the grassroots people who give worry to the denizens of Heliopolis? Proposed solutions offered included the reform of the education system, the passing of a unified law for building houses of worship, and changing the culture of traditional Islamic education. While each solution is good and will have an effect over time, who is preaching the message of co-existence to the masses? Government and civil society organizations bear much responsibility for the long term trends and the institutional constructs. Who, however, is touching human hearts? Seminars such as these renew the political discourse, but who is renewing social integration and cooperation? Furthermore, where are the plans to do so?

Certainly each sphere has its due, and is deserving of encouragement. Yet I am eager to meet those implementing such ideals on the ground. I was glad to have been in attendance, for I met some of the major spokesman of these ideals. It is the macro picture wherein power and influence lie. Perhaps becoming familiar with this world will assist in understanding how it works, and provide introductions to those who labor in the grassroots. It is in the micro that change and redemption take place. Though by the end I was weary of words, words play an important role in motivating deeds. May these words find connection with living hands and feet.

[i] It was not clear to the author, perhaps for language reasons, if he defined what these ‘certain elements’ were or who was behind them.