Cairo University and Engineers’ Syndicate remove religion box from documents, but is everyone happy?
Controversy has been recently raging in Egypt over a proposal by MP Alaa’ Abdel-Moneim of the Support Egypt bloc in parliament to remove the religion box from Egyptian ID cards.
The issue is not new; it has been for decades high on the agenda of liberals and seculars, with the objective of rooting secularism as a mainstay for a modern, civil Egyptian State. The State, they insist, should remove the religion box from ID cards as a measure to prove it has nothing to do with a citizen’s religion whatever that may be.
But Islamic conservatives think otherwise. They argue that removal of religion from ID cards challenges Islamic dominance in the Muslim-majority Egypt; the Constitution’s second article, they argue, states that Egypt is an Islamic country. They also insist the move would wreak havoc with Egyptians on the family law front—Egypt has separate family laws for Muslims and Christians basing on their respective religious principles. Yet the answer is simple, liberals say; individuals may obtain from the civil register a certificate citing their religion whenever needed. Watani recently reported in depth on the topic in its Sunday 9 October issue; also online:
Cairo University leads
The controversy took a distinctive turn, however, when two Egyptian institutions, Cairo University and the Engineers’ Syndicate, decided not to wait for any law to remove the religion box from official papers, but to enforce it themselves in all papers that concern them. They based their decision on the Constitution which stipulates that all Egyptians are equal in rights and duties before the law, and that there shall be no discrimination between them on any grounds, including religion. Accordingly, they took the initiative of removing all reference of religion from official documents relevant to them.
The first to do so was Cairo University. On 11 October 2016, Cairo University President Dr Gaber Nassar issued a decision to: “Remove the religion box information from all certificates, documents, and papers issued or tackled by the university when dealing with students, workers, staff, and any auxiliary authority whatever that may be; and in all the university’s colleges, institutes, and centres whether undergraduate or graduate.”
To a question of what documents pertaining to the university required information about the religion of the applicant, Dr Nassar replied that they were indeed very few; he quoted the example of Cairo University’s Institute of African Studies which required of students and employees to cite not only their religion but also the sect they belonged to. Dr Nassar’s office had received a complaint to that effect from the Coptic student Mina Nader Morqos who had attempted to apply to the said institute on 7 September 2016. “This is in no way acceptable,” Dr Nassar said. “We strive to build a secular State far removed from religiosity or fanaticism. The mere request that an individual cites his or her religion means that this religion is a factor in decision-making. This should never be so.”
Engineers follow suit
Following close on the heels of Cairo University was the Egyptian Engineers’ Syndicate. On 14 October, the Engineers’ Syndicate Secretary-General Muhammad Khedr announced the syndicate’s office authority had taken a decision to remove the religion box from all papers the syndicate dealt with. It is expected that the decision would be final once it is officially approved by the syndicate board in its meeting in Alexandria on 8 November, especially given that the Syndicate Head Tareq al-Nabarawi strongly supports the decision.
Emad Thomas, member of the syndicate board, said that once the Engineers’ Syndicate approves the decision, it would be the first among Egypt’s syndicates to take the decision to remove the religion box from all its papers. According to Deputy Secretary-General of the Syndicate, Fayeq Girgis, the decision comes to crown a long campaign to remove the religion box from the syndicate’s papers. “It is a wise decision,” Mr Girgis said, “since it confirms that Egypt is secular and does not discriminate among citizens because of their religion. The Constitution bans discrimination, and the presence of the religion box has been behind many instances of religious discrimination against Christians.” He said that applicants requiring to be registered as consultant engineers had to cite the religion they belonged to in the application forms.
The Egyptian Bar Association, the lawyers syndicate, for its part proudly announced on 16 October that no syndicate papers whatsoever required citing a person’s religion. The Journalists’ Syndicate too declared their papers did not include a religion box.
Despite widespread support from Egypt’s seculars and liberals for the initiatives by Cairo University and the Engineers’ Syndicate to remove the religion box from their official documents, it was no surprise that the proposal should come under heavy fire from religious conservatives. The surprise, though, was that many intellectuals and politicians criticised the move.
Minister of Higher Studies and Scientific Research Ashraf al-Sheehi lost no time in condemning the Cairo University initiative. The following day to Dr Nassar’s announcement saw Dr Sheehi comment on the Cairo University initiative during a meeting he had with the faculty and staff of Fayoum University in the town of Fayoum, 100km southwest Cairo. “The decision is unjustified at the time being,” he said. “It will work to inflame sectarianism and widen the rift between students of different religions, which is unacceptable in universities.” He insisted that the majority of university presidents rejected Dr Nassar’s decision on grounds that it would work chaos in the Egyptian society.
Dr Sheehi was not alone in his condemnation of the initiative to remove the religion box from official papers. A number of MPs were vocal in their criticism of the move. MPs Omar Hamrouche of the Religion Committee in parliament and Atef Mekheilaf of the Human Rights Committee both said the initiative lacked legal backing and had been taken at the wrong time. “It stands to inflame sectarian tension,” Mr Hamrouche said. “I am totally against removing the religious box from any papers at all; it will do us no good.”
Forces of darkness
Mounir Megahed, coordinator of MARED, Misriyoun (Egyptians) Against Religious Discrimination, described the ultraconservative stance on the part of MPs as an indication of the dire need for legislative reform. All legislation, he said, must be rid of discriminative articles. “The bold, long-aspired initiative by Cairo University and the Engineers’ Syndicate is a step on the path of full citizenship rights for all. I hope other Egyptian institutions would soon follow in the same footsteps, until we can remove the religion box from all ID papers, a demand we have been calling for since years back.”
MARED launched a signature campaign for a statement to support Cairo University’s initiative which it described as a confirmation that the university was absolutely impartial to an individual’s religion. The statement denounced all criticism of the initiative, whether this came from Islamists or conservatives. It declared, however, that the removal of religion from documents was not enough to put an end to discrimination; other legal measures should follow. It called for the removal of the religion box from ID cards, the purging of school curricula from any material that overtly or tacitly promotes discrimination, and the swift formation of a commission for battling discrimination. Over 220 individuals, many of them public figures, and 23 political parties and organisations signed the statement.
According to MP Emad Gad, those who criticised the removal of religion from official papers are but representatives of forces of darkness that wish to take Egypt backwards, or are flirting with the Salafi extremists who are swiftly losing ground with the Egyptian public. “But Egypt will go back to being Egypt,” Dr Gad says, “where citizenship rights and pluralism reign and discrimination has no place.”
Not by law alone
Political analyst Kamal Zakher applauded the initiative by Cairo University, saying that the only difference between one Egyptian and another should be work and achievement, not religion. The initiative upholds just that, he says.
For their part, MPs Marguerite Azer and Aida Nassif recognised the initiative as a step towards full citizenship for all Egyptians, and hoped it would lead to the more basic step of no religion box on ID cards.
MP Muhammad Abu-Hamed pointed out that, despite the initiative, there will still be on the ground individuals who discriminate against others on basis of religion. “There must be strict monitoring of incidents of discrimination,” he says, “because religious bias is entrenched in the souls of many Egyptians who see the ‘other’ as inferior and act accordingly. This is what we should seriously fight.”
In total agreement with MP Abu-Hamed was Adel Ramadan, a lawyer and legal representative of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “The initiative to remove religion from official papers is a commendable move. But, in and by itself, it can never achieve the results we aspire for where abolishing religious discrimination is concerned. Other measures should follow in order to eventually put an end to discrimination. There should be no discrimination in the appointment of university staff or faculty, in oral exams, or in the entrance criteria to the various departments of study.” It is no secret, he said, that students are openly asked about their religion during oral exams, and that many excellent candidates for faculty posts are excluded because they are Christian. Medical schools in Egypt are notorious for the unwritten rule of banning Christians from specialising in gynaecology. “All such practices and many similar others should come to an end,” Mr Ramadan said.
Discrimination alive and kicking
“The change we talk about is no overnight task,” education expert Kamal Mugheith explained. “We need to purge school curricula of all religious-biased material, and root instead citizenship-oriented education. The Education Ministry should be up to its responsibility on that head, as should the Culture Ministry which should disseminate liberal thought.” Mr Mugheith admitted that this may take years to achieve, “but we should start directly.”
Watani decided to visit Cairo University campus to sound students on the initiative.
Many students knew nothing about the initiative but, among the Muslims who knew, most saw no need for it in the first place. “What religious discrimination?” said Mahmoud Murad, a Science student. “Many of us face some form or other of discrimination at the hands of some professors. It has nothing to do with religion. Christians are overly sensitive, that’s all.” Others insisted it was not a sound or justified decision; there were no or not many papers that required an applicant to cite his or her religion. “What’s wrong with citing one’s religion? And if someone intends to discriminate against Christians, he or she does not need the religion box to do so,” Ali Muhammad said.
A few, however, recognised the initiative as a step towards fully excluding religion from decision-making and, as such, applauded it. “A person should be judged according to merit, and merit alone,” said Khaled Muhammad who studies architecture.
Samer Samir of the Faculty of Commerce said that discrimination was a fact on the ground. “Let us not bury our heads in the sand,” he said, “discrimination is alive and kicking. Any action to put an end to it, even if long-term, is to be applauded and upheld. We should build upon such actions until we finally become a society with no religious bias.”
Needed: a sea change
“Dr Nassar’s initiative is definitely a courageous step,” Sherine Hany, a graduate of Cairo University’s School of Medicine says. “But will it put an end to discrimination against us Christians? We don’t need a religion box to identify us; we are known through our names, the way we dress, the way we talk; in short our entire demeanour. Discrimination is not merely on paper, it stares us in the face during oral exams and all steps for advancement. It dwells in the souls of fanatics; this is what we should fight.”
Marina Magdy of the Faculty of Commerce said Dr Nassar’s decision warranted all respect. But again, “What difference will it make?” she said. “Christians are easily recognisable, and can thus be discriminated against according to whim. We need a sea change in general perception for any change to take place.”
The opinions expressed by Dr Hany and Ms Madgy were repeated by many Christian students.
Theodora Gamal, a bright, outgoing History student at the Faculty of Arts said Copts had survived centuries of discrimination, through faith. “We continue to do so,” she said, insisting that it would take much more than laws or regulations to abolish religion bias in the community. Watani ventured the comment that the initiative was nevertheless a step towards official non-discrimination. “It means the State is effectively announcing it has nothing to do with your religion; that religion is your concern and yours alone,” Watani said. Ms Gamal’s face brightened up. “Oh, I hadn’t looked at it this way,” she said. “This then obviously means we’re on the right path, even if it takes another generation to get there.”
Reporting by: Nader Shukry, Irene Saad, Amira Ezzat, Madeleine Nader, Erin Moussa
19 October 2016