The cross and the crescent united
In response to the terrorist attack in Alexandria targeting a church, Egyptian Christians and Muslims have come together in solidarity. Now it is time for the government to act, writes Moataz Billah Abdel-Fattah*
The demonstrations of solidarity between Muslims and Christians in Egypt in the wake of the terrorist bombing that killed 22 Egyptian Christians affirm that the social fragility that plagues so many other Arab societies has not yet taken hold in Egypt. Rare have been the occasions that Christians and Muslims have felt compelled to rally, waiving the crescent and the cross and chanting, "We will live together or die!" and "Egyptians against terrorism!"
Yet, regardless of whether the perpetrators of the crime at the Two Saints Church were Egyptian or foreigners, it is impossible to deny the mounting tensions between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. That these tensions have their roots in social structures and attitudes place two types of responsibilities on the shoulders of the government: one cultural and ethical, the other institutional and legislative.
Egyptian society is experiencing a conflict between two schools of thought with regard to its Christian community. One believes it should be accorded the status of ahl al-dhimma, the Islamic doctrine that grants communities classed as "People of the Book" (Christians, Jews and certain other non-Muslim religions) special status in a state governed by Islamic law. The other regards Christians as fellow Egyptian citizens who should enjoy full and equal rights with other citizens. Interestingly, both schools turn to Islamic heritage to support their case, which the government should take as a cue to stand firmly against the types of religious discourse that threatens to cast Egypt back to the era of ahl al-dhimma. Certainly, this concept was very just for the Middle Ages, when the notion of citizenship was still centuries into the future. It was a codified way of accepting religious diversity in a Muslim society by guaranteeing certain non-Muslim communities three essential rights: the right to live in safety, freedom of worship, and the right to work. Some Muslim jurists have gone further to maintain that these rights could be expanded to include some political rights, such as the right to hold public office (up to the position of minister) and the right to serve in the army if the non-Muslim proves loyal to the Islamic state.
However, in the minds of a large segment of Egyptian fundamentalists, and according to some Al-Azhar textbooks, the notion of ahl al-dhimma epitomises what should be the true, eternal and immutable relationship between Muslims and non-Muslim peoples. Some even go to such extremes as to hold that in an authentic Islamic society Muslims should only live with Muslims, but if there had to be non-Muslims then these should remain subject peoples, rather than fully competent citizens. One of the books assigned to students at Al-Azhar is Al-Rawd Al-Murabba, written by Sheikh Mansour Al-Bahouti in the 17th century with the purpose of summarising the position of the Hanafi School of jurisprudence on various issues. The author states that Omar Ibn Al-Khattab instructed Muslims not to introduce non-Muslims into social gatherings or to host gatherings for them, and not to greet them, to congratulate them, offer them condolences, to pay visits to them or to attend their feast days. The second caliph is also said to have enjoined Muslims to prohibit the construction of churches and the reconstruction of those that had been destroyed.
The government must try to prevent such books being taught in any capacity but as juristic works that do not morally or legally apply to our times. It should do all in its power to ensure that the prevailing discourse in our media, our schools and our houses of worship promotes peaceful coexistence on the basis of full and equal citizenship regardless of religious affiliation. This stance is fully supported by more significant Islamic scriptures pertaining to the right of non- Muslims to live in full equality with Muslims. An example is to be found in the Prophet Mohammed's pledge to the Christians of Najran (then a district of northern Yemen): "To the people of Najran and its surrounding and all who profess the Christian faith in the lands of the earth, their property, lives, creed, churches and all they possess, whether large or small, are under the protection of God and the guardianship of His Prophet Mohammed. I shall protect their churches, their creed, their houses of prayer and the positions of their monks, and I shall guard their religion and creed wherever they may be with the same care that I protect myself, my property and the people of Islam, for I have given them the pledge of God that they shall have as Muslims have and shall be bound by the same duties as Muslims are, so that they can be partners with the Muslims in both their rights and their duties."
Clearly then, the government must take decisive steps to promote the type of religious discourse that supports the concept of equal citizenship which, in turn, requires legislative and institutional action. Firstly, there must be laws criminalising religious discourse that degrades or offends practitioners of other religions and their religious symbols. The Egyptian penal code punishes incitement to murder. It follows logically that it should also punish incitement to sectarian strife. Many countries in the world have laws aimed at preventing hate crimes.
The government also needs to seriously consider the Christians' demand to reduce legal and bureaucratic encumbrances against the construction of churches. The way forward in this regard is a unified law for the construction of houses of worship, applied equally to all citizens. A workable proposal towards this end is already available in the form of a draft bill presented by the National Council for Human Rights to the prime minister and the People's Assembly five years ago. Islam would not be jeopardised by more churches, just as Christianity would not be threatened by more mosques. In all events, the real spirit of both Islam and Christianity would inform us that what Egypt needs is not more churches or mosques but more schools, hospitals and factories.
Politically, Copts are under-represented in municipal and legislative bodies in relation to their proportion of the population. It might be useful, here, to reconsider the proposal to reform the electoral system on the basis of proportional lists that would guarantee diverse sectors of society (men and women, Muslims and Christian, rich and poor) a share in local and national representative bodies. Certainly such a system would help overcome outmoded attitudes that take religious affiliation, gender and family connections as the main criteria for choosing one candidate over another.
It is also important to consider the religious affiliation section on official documents. The obligatory mention of religion on identity cards and the like make it very difficult for individuals wishing to convert from one religion to another. One proposal that should be taken seriously is to leave that section in official documents option in order to prevent the state from intervening in personal matters of faith and also in order to prevent discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation.
The government must take serious steps on both the cultural/ethical and legislative/institutional fronts. It must mobilise all the institutions that shape public awareness (such as the ministries of education, information, religious endowments, and culture) and it must engage civil society organisations and public opinion leaders in order to fortify Egypt's immunity against attempts on the part of countries plagued by sectarian and ethnic divisions to export their sources of strife to us. After all, Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq are not far away.
* The writer is an associate professor of political science at Cairo University and Central Michigan University. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, www.ispu.org.