Old religious realities in a not-so-new Egypt

At the moment, Egypt is operating under a Constitutional Declaration issued soon after the recent military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

This temporary declaration replaced a constitution signed by Morsi in 2012, after Islamist parties pushed it through a referendum process that turned off many voters. That new constitution replaced an ad hoc, provisional document used after the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. His regime had operated for nearly 30 years under a 1971 charter.

Yes, it’s all quite complicated. What outsiders must grasp is that the fine print in any Egyptian constitution is not what is inspiring the rising tide of bloodshed in local communities that is frightening leaders of the land’s religious and ethnic minorities, said Samuel Tadros, author of “Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity.”

Leaders of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christians, an ancient community that makes up about 10 percent of the population, are not “focusing so much on what is happening at the national level,” nor are they “just worried about attacks by radical Jihadists,” said Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “They are worrying about being attacked by their neighbors, by the people they go to school with, the people they ride the bus with every day. …

“You can say what you want about religious freedom in this constitution or that constitution. But once this hatred has reached the level of your local neighborhoods it will take generations to bring about some kind of change.”

This growing atmosphere of hostility and lack of concern about religious freedom can also been seen in Pew Research Center reports covering surveys done in Egypt in the past three years. The bottom line: Muslims in Egypt have become “considerably less tolerant of religious pluralism” than most Muslim communities in the Middle East and around the world, according to a Pew analysis by Neha Sahgal and Brian Grim.

Restrictions on religion in Egypt in 2011 already included “the use of force against religious groups; failure to prevent religious discrimination; favoritism of Islam over other religions; prohibitions on Muslims converting from Islam to other religions; stigmatization of some religious groups as dangerous sects or cults; and restrictions on religious literature or broadcasting.”

In one Pew poll, only 36 percent thought it was very important for Copts and other religious minorities to be able to “freely practice their religions.” At the same time, more than 60 percent declined to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believed Egypt’s laws should strictly follow the Koran.

“Egypt is the rare case in which people are actually comfortable with the fact that others are not free to practice their faith,” said Sahgal, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Many Egyptians even see this low level of religious toleration “as a good thing. … You don’t even see this in a nation like Pakistan, where at least — in theory — people believe others should be able to practice their faith to some degree,” she said, in a telephone interview.

It is especially significant that a majority of Egyptian Muslims believe sharia law should govern the lives of all Egyptians, not just Muslim believers. Compared with most other Muslim lands, a much higher percentage of Muslims polled in Egypt want sharia law to control both criminal and public laws, as well as “domestic” laws affecting marriage and family life. Among the vast majority of Egyptian Muslims who support sharia, noted Sahgal, 86 percent favor the death penalty for Muslims who convert to another religion.

None of this is new, stressed Tadros. Coptic believers died in massacres and churches burned in the Mubarak era, as well as in the tumultuous months since Muslims, Christians and secular liberals rallied together in Cairo’s most famous public space during the Arab spring rallies that sought real change.

The prevailing attitude nationwide is that “Christians are supposed to pray at home and stop trying to build all those humongous churches with big domes and crosses on top,” he said. “Egypt is an Islamic state and Christians should not be doing anything that calls that into dispute. …

“That’s what people believe all across the real Egypt. It’s crucial to remember that there is more to Egypt than Cairo and there is more to Cairo than Tahrir Square.”

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • MuhamadFarhan

    In the name of good movers singapore, what has happened to the Middle East?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X