10 April 2011
Ad-Din wad-Dawla wat-Ta’ifiya (Religion, the State, and Sectarianism); Nabil Abdel-Fattah; Al-Masry Foundation for the Support of Studies on Citizenship and the Culture of Dialogue; Cairo 2010
The researcher and rights activist Nabil Abdel-Fattah can generally be counted on to be particularly informative about current events, supporting his arguments, as he does, with reliable information. Equally important is the fact that his point of reference is the belief that the stability of society depends first and foremost on the secularisation of State institutions and equality between citizens regardless of race, religion or gender.
Mr Abdel-Fattah has stuck to this stance since the publication of his first book, Al-Mushaf wal-Saif (Qur’an and the Sword) in 1984. Mr Abdel-Fattah is editor-in-chief of the annual report on the religious status in Egypt, which has been issued for the last two years. His last book, Ad-Din wad-Dawla wat-Ta’ifiya (Religion, the State, and Sectarianism) makes compelling reading. It discusses a variety of issues regarding the rise of fanaticism, the notion of religious minorities, the relationship between religion and politics, and others.
In the first chapter Mr Abdel-Fattah discusses the rise of religious fundamentalism. He stresses the role of tele-preachers who disseminate fanatic concepts through satellite TV channels, and whose numbers have been on the rise during the past couple of decades. He indicates that religious fundamentalism is by no means a new phenomenon. Taha Hussein, (1889 – 1973), the Egyptian writer and critic who was among the prominent figures of the Egyptian enlightenment movement in the first half of the 20th century, had unleashed a barrage of criticism against those who thought that Muslim identity should be defined by religious affiliation. He warned that such an argument posed a threat to national identity.
Mr Abdel-Fattah investigates with thorough precision the relationship between the concept of citizenship and religious minorities. He starts by posing the questions: does the presence of numerical minorities write off the notion of citizenship? What are the barriers that prevent the separation between religious identity and citizenship rights? He indicates that when the journalist Sanaa’ al-Said interviewed Pope Shenouda III, he dismissed the claim that Copts were a ‘minority’ on the grounds that they are part and parcel of the Egyptian people. In the same interview, the Pope expressed his opposition to the formation of political parties on a religious basis of any kind. He summarily rejected the idea of a Coptic party.
Politics and religion
Mr Abdel-Fattah traces the phenomenon of religious fanaticism among both Muslims and Copts. He indicates that, in a similar way to Muslim fanatics, Christian diehards oppose artistic creativity if they deem it offensive to their faith or Church. They opened fire against the 2004 film I love Cinema because they saw in it a degrading image of their community and Church.
The politicising of religion on the part of Islamic and Coptic religious institutions alike is a topic the author discusses at length. Examples in this context include the public support by religious leaders for this or that State official or specific political party, or unreserved support for the State’s foreign policy.
The absence of genuine State institutions, Mr Abdel-Fattah writes, leads the political regime to ask for fatwas (religious edicts) in support of its stances. Such an attitude embarrasses the religious institution and places a heavy burden upon its shoulders. Hence there is little room for renewal of religious thought. Mr Abdel-Fattah suggests that State domination over religious institutions began in the aftermath of the 1952 Revolution. As for the roots of sectarian discrimination, the starting point was the absence of a Coptic presence in the ranks of the free officers—except for one low-ranking officer—who brought about the 1952 Revolution. Cosmetic measures applied by Nasser—including the appointment of a handful of Coptic members to parliament—failed to address the way Copts were suffering from political marginalisation.
Education and the media
The author believes education plays a major role where religious fanaticism is concerned. He refers to examples that expose the religious bias of school curricula designers. The West, for instance, is presented from a religious perspective through the Crusader wars, and is referred to as a synonym for colonialism and domination, while its role as a source of knowledge and science is overlooked. There is little room for relativity given the dominance of absolutism over the curricula language.
In case of the media, the fact that a plethora of media outlets has religious frames of reference helps promote fanaticism and sectarianism. The radical camp in the region, led by Iran, plays a significant role in spreading extremist ideas through satellite TV channels.
Is there a way out?
To diffuse the current sectarian tension, Mr Abdel-Fattah calls for the amendment of laws inconsistent with citizenship rights. This includes reforming school curricula, encouraging the study of comparative religion and promoting a culture of dialogue among the adherents of different religious faiths. All this indicates that the State has a major role to play in liberating the Egyptian soul from the forces of extremist thought. And the issue assumes especially significant proportions at the current time when Islamist movements have gained power and precedence on the post-25 January revolution political scene in Egypt.
Talaat Radwan is a liberal, independent writer and critic