The demand for the religion box to be removed from Egyptian ID documents has been proposed several times and profusely discussed over the past few decades, but has been time and again rejected. Conservatives argue that it does not contribute to religious-based discrimination and so might as well stay, since it adds to the definition of a person’s identity, whereas liberals believe religious affiliation should not officially define a person and that such a definition in practice entrenches discrimination.
There is no doubt, however, that removing the religion box from national ID documents would be a symbolic move that would confirm the State deals with citizens on equal footing, regardless of religion. Now Jordan has taken the lead in this direction by creating Smart ID cards that do not indicate the holder’s religion, and these are now replacing traditional ones. To show his support for the move and encourage Jordanians to register for the smart ID cards, King Abdullah II visited the country’s passport authorities to obtain his own ID that includes a data chip containing background information about the holder for security purposes.
The Turkish government has also omitted the religion box from ID cards, but in this case to assure its compliance with democratic civil standards in order to join the European Union. The electronic chips on Turkey’s new ID cards do, however, show detailed information about the cardholder’s religion.
Criticism from conservatives
A proposal to remove the religion box from Egyptian ID cards was presented to Egypt’s House of Representatives a few months ago by MP Alaa’ Abdel-Moneim of the Support Egypt bloc. It stirred huge controversy, drawing heavy criticism from conservatives who argued that it violates the Constitution’s second article which states Egypt as an Islamic country and Islam the main source of legislation. They contended it could lead to chaos among Egyptians who, they claim, have lived peacefully together for thousands of years without discrimination based on religion. Conservatives believe that MPs would be better off tackling more essential issues that directly affect the lives of Egyptians, such as electricity, water and housing, rather than addressing nonessential issues which create confusion and division.
Conservatives also voice concerns of chaos on the level of family affairs should the religion box be removed from ID papers. They especially cite the case of marriage between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, which is strictly forbidden in Islam, even though the reciprocal situation of marriage between a Muslim man and a Christian woman is allowed. They also fear that the application of Islamic inheritance laws, which give a man double the portion of a woman in inheritance, might be at risk should identity papers include no religion box.
This cannot be justified, however, because the Islamic inheritance law which Egypt follows is applied to all Egyptians equally, to Copts as well as Muslims. The new family draft law for Christians in Egypt, which will possibly be put before parliament in its current round, carries no provision for inheritance. This means that, barring any unforeseen development on that score, the Islamic law for inheritance will still apply to all.
Contradicting constitutional articles
Liberals, on the other hand, argue that civilised nations consider mentioning religion on official documents as a clear path to discrimination; such countries include France, the United Kingdom and even Singapore which is home to some 30 religions.
Mounir Megahed, founder and director of the movement Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination, reminds that his movement was among the first to demand that the religion box in ID cards should be omitted. “This way,” he says, “the State clearly says it is impartial about the religion of citizens; no information on their religion can affect the manner in which the State deals with Egyptians.”
No surprise then that liberals strongly support the idea of removing the religion box from ID cards. They believe it a necessary step towards full non-discrimination, arguing that the religion cited in identity documents has led to discrimination against Copts. As evidence, they cite the dearth of Copts in leading official posts. As for contradicting Article 2 in the Constitution, liberals claim the constitutional article is in itself discriminatory and contradicts other articles that call for full equality among Egyptians regardless of religion.
Not in Egypt
“Removing the religion box from ID cards may work in other countries, but is not possible in Egypt,” says Sheikh Dr Ahmed Mahmoud Kreima, professor of Fiqh (Islamic jurisdiction) at al-Azhar University. The Egyptian people, he says, need real social and cultural awareness to enhance citizenship and achieve social justice and equality. “This is what MPs should be talking about, not the religion box,” he says.
“The chance of being appointed to a leading position should be given to whoever qualifies for the job regardless of his or her faith.” Sheikh Kreima believes that MPs should focus on major citizenship problems, “not small issues that could lead to serious social problems regarding marriage and inheritance”. He stresses the importance of solving the root causes of fanaticism first and foremost.
The majority of Egyptians are Muslim and, according to Sheikh Kreima, if the religion box were removed from ID cards there could be dire social consequences. “What if,” he asks, “a young Coptic man claims to be a Muslim and marries a Muslim woman…then she discovers his real religion? What do we do then?”
Dr Kreima believes that for the religion box to be omitted from ID papers there should be a valid religious dialogue. There can be no such dialogue, he says, without applying the seventh article of the Constitution, which states that al-Azhar—the Cairo-based Islamic institution and university which goes back to the 10th century and is now the leading authority in the world—is solely responsible for Islamic affairs. This, he says, would effectively close the door to those, such as the Salafis, who issue fatwas that offensively disdain Christianity. He suggests developing an intellectual project based on increasing awareness and educating people on the real meaning of religious tolerance and spreading love and peace.
Non-discrimination takes away from Muslim rights?
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) stated in a recent report that the proposal to remove the religion box from ID cards should not be discussed aside from sectarian tension. There is a growing feeling among the Muslim majority that every step to reduce discrimination against non-Muslim Egyptians is taken owing to external pressures exerted on Egypt, and that it takes away from the rights of Muslims and amounts to pampering non-Muslims. Within this context, removal of the religion box from ID cards may be misinterpreted by a few or many of the Muslim majority, and would accordingly deepen the sectarian problem.
Yet, as EIPR says, this is no reason to dismiss the proposal, but it should rather be studied in a social and political context. If it were approved it would have to be implemented with extreme caution to allow for possible long-term effects.
Any study to remove the religion box from ID cards should not overestimate the impact of this move, which to a large extent would be symbolic.
With regard to putting an end to problems related to citing religion in official documents, the question of members of the Baha’i faith is a case in point. Baha’is cannot obtain passports, even though the application does not include a religion box, without appealing to the National Council for Human Rights in each individual case and after making specific arrangements with the Ministry of Interior. The documents are issued to Baha’is under an exceptional law that obliges them to obtain passports for newborns. Neither would the proposal solve the problem Baha’is face when they need a death certificate, owing to the insistence by the government that such certificates include one of the three religions recognised in Egypt: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Registering a new religion
The limitations and symbolism of the move to omit the religion box in ID papers increase in cases related to conversion and the registration of a new religion in official documents. The problems faced by converts from Islam to Christianity, and even by Christians who convert to Islam and back to Christianity—go further than ID cards and religion boxes. Since conversions from Islam are not accepted on both the official and communal levels, such individuals while Christian are considered by the government to be Muslim. This not only forces converts to be officially Muslim, but also makes it impossible for them to marry as Christians. In case of women converts this is especially hard since, being recognised by the State as Muslim not Christian, they can in no way marry Christian men; it goes against Islamic sharia. The children of Muslim converts cannot be registered as Christian since their parents were never registered as such in the first place; they grow up officially as Muslims forced to study Islamic religion in school and subject to Muslim family laws. The real problem here is the religion mentioned in the official registers, not only on ID cards.
Ali Zain al-Abideen, professor of law at the Police Academy, says the Constitution clearly states the principle of equality and non-discrimination between Egyptians because of colour, religion or sex. The only law that is applied according to religion is the family law. Dr Abideen opposes the removal of the religion box from ID cards because of its importance in case of marriage for example. It is possible for a Muslim man to marry a Christian woman, but in order for the opposite to occur the man must convert to Islam. In case of inheritance, if a Muslim married to a Christian woman dies his wife cannot inherit, and vice versa.
In Egypt, most given names reflect the religion of those who carry them. Christians are usually named after saints whereas Muslims tend to bear the names of historical Islamic personages, so even if the religion box were removed it would still be possible to ascertain one’s religion.
The former Coptic MP Ouda Qawas describes the proposal as a civilised initiative. “It is a fact that each citizen has full rights and duties stipulated in legislation, and accordingly religion should not affect such rights or duties either positively or negatively,” he says.
For his part, Father Bishoi Helmy, previous Secretary-General of the Egypt Council of Churches, is all for removing the religion box from ID papers. “Identity papers,” Fr Bishoi says, “denote the relation between an individual and the State. Religion, however, denotes the relation between a man and his Maker. What can the two relationships have in common?”
5 October 2016