31. Religious Freedom and Civil Society in Egypt

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31. Religious Freedom and Civil Society in Egypt
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December 23, 2002
Cornelis Hulsman


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The text of a lecture on human rights and civil society in Egypt, including a discussion on numbers of exaggerated stories in the West, rumors and civil society.

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[The text of a lecture presented on a Missio conference "Möglichkeiten christlich-islamischer Zusammenarbeit bei der Umsetzung der Menschenrechte und dem Aufbau von Zivilgesellschaften", Berlin, 11.3.2002 - 14.3 2002. Possibilities for Christian-Muslim cooperation in realizing human rights and building civil society. The conference was the follow-up of the Missio Conference in September 2001 on "Christian Persecution?"]

I would like to thank Missio for my second invitation but even more for the invitation to Dr. Maged Mussa Yanni, chairman of Justice and Peace in Egypt. After all I am not an Egyptian. I am a sociologist who has tried to understand Egyptian society since I first arrived in the country in 1976. This is not to say that I lived in the country for all those years. I traveled back and forth between the Netherlands and Egypt, lived there for two years in the 80ties and have been living there since 1994 with my Egyptian wife and children. I therefore present things as I see them, which may be different from how Egyptians would present them. For that reason it is good Dr. Maged is here. After my presentation he will show what Justice and Peace in Egypt is doing.

I founded the RNSAW in 1997and am its editor-in-chief. Since the days of my study at Leiden University I have been interested in Christianity in Turkey and the Arab World. My interest gradually shifted to Egypt and later to the study of Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt. Egypt is in many respects a very interesting country. It boasts it has, with the Azhar al-Sherif, the most important center of learning in Sunni Islam. It furthermore has the largest indigenous church in the Arab World.

But numbers are a problem. Some Coptic activists, but also some clergy, claim with the greatest of ease that 20% of the Egyptian population is Christian. The most recent US Freedom of Religion report puts the number at 8-10% (that’s a change from last year when they wrote 10%). A Jesuit priest in Minia has been systematically asking young Christian army conscripts how many Christians there were in their unit. On the basis of this he calculated that the number of Christians is probably no more than 5% of the total population. That’s a shock isn’t it? Numbers, unfortunately, are inflated for political reasons. Egyptian Christians are arguing for more church permits, more Christians in higher positions, etc. And higher numbers help.

At this conference, with so many bishops and priests, I have to explain that I am not a theologian. I am trying to understand Muslim-Christian relations from a sociological point of view. When I started my work I was shocked by many appalling stories about Christians being discriminated against and persecuted and I wanted to investigate them. Theses stories were produced by Coptic activists in the West and certain human rights lawyers in Egypt. Then came an even greater shock. I discovered that these stories, that were often eagerly believed in the West, were nearly always vastly different from how they were initially presented.

There are obvious differences in presentation between Coptic activists abroad and Christian leaders and Christian organizations such as Justice and Peace in Egypt. How can these discrepancies be explained?

The answers for the activists are easy. According to them anyone who disagrees with them is on the payroll of the Egyptian authorities. That they cannot provide any evidence for their allegations doesn’t matter to them. According to Coptic activists church leaders are not able to say in public what they think and say privately. Or, and this is what they say of Catholic and Protestant church leaders, they collaborate with the Egyptian government. And thus, the conclusion is easy. They claim a monopoly on the truth.

Reality is more complicated. Church leaders certainly want the best for their people and since it is good to speak in public about national unity, between Muslims and Christians, they do so. But this is not always done in private. By the way, this is not just a characteristic of some Christian leaders but also of some Muslim leaders. I am accentuating the word some. Not all do this. Mind you, some speak both in public and in private about national unity and thus the need for dialogue while others don’t. This creates confusion and distrust. When is a certain opinion genuine and when not? That is primarily a matter of experience.

But there are other things that should make one cautious. First of all there is a lack of transparency. Decisions are made without explaining them or explanations are given but not trusted. This applies to both government and religious institutions, Muslim and Christian. It also applies to many other institutions in society such as universities, companies, etc. I have often heard people saying something to someone and then they turn to me and give me their real opinion. I am sure Dr. Maged must have experienced this in his work as well.

This lack of transparency creates mistrust and that in turn is the background for many rumors and conspiracy theories. Because a given interpretation is not trusted people will make up their own.

Lack of knowledge and transparency makes it possible to promote your own interpretation of events for your own reasons. People blame others not because there is any evidence but because they want to get even with them for some other reason. People would blame the Egyptian government or any foreign government for incidents if they already have negative opinions about them, for whatever reason. Blame does not need to be based on evidence.

Let me give you a few examples that show how rumors come into being:

a) An Egyptian couple divorced. An Egyptian court decided the father should be given custody of their 10-year-old daughter. The mother, who also had French nationality, disagreed, kidnapped their daughter and took her to France. She claimed he was a Muslim extremist who wanted to circumcise their daughter. French feminist organizations jumped to her aid, so did much of the French media. But these were lies, deliberately spread in an effort to prevent her daughter from being returned to Egypt. He was certainly no extremist but a very liberal minded person who had campaigned against the circumcision of women in Egypt. A French court decided in his favor and his daughter was returned to him.

b) A Dutch woman was very unhappy about her marriage to an Egyptian and committed suicide. A Dutch court decided to give the woman’s parents custody of the children. He disagreed, kidnapped the children, brought them to Egypt and tried to return to Holland via Paris, where he was arrested. He was sent to Holland and sentenced to several years in prison for kidnapping his children. In an interview with an Egyptian paper he obviously played on the sentiments of Muslims in Egypt. He claimed this happened to him because the Dutch authorities did not want his children to have a Muslim education. The decision of the Dutch court was not related to this and in other cases custody of children has been given to the Muslim parent.

c) An Australian woman had been giving a lot of support to a poor Egyptian family, including finances for the children’s education. The eldest daughter misused the goodness of this woman by swindling her. She claimed she was studying and received money for expenses never incurred, when in fact she was working. The Australian woman discovered this and filed a complaint with the police. After she had done this, the girl claimed she had been proselytizing her. Many people love using religious rumors. It always works to get people on your side against the person at whom the rumor is directed. Christians may make claims about being persecuted and Muslims may make claims about proselytism.

It is not just a lack of knowledge about the circumstances and transparency, rumors and conspiracy theories that create a smokescreen for observers. Stories are easily exaggerated. Some Egyptians have told me genuinely that they believe they have to exaggerate because people in the West will not take notice of their situation otherwise. Information can be manipulated. That is certain facts are deliberately left out and others are accentuated. And if you discover this they’ll ask ’Did I tell you a lie? No.’

The issue of honor is extremely important and is linked to difficulty in admitting mistakes. And thus people try to convince you that they were not wrong, others were. Accept no blame for yourself, your family, your church or mosque. Both Muslims and Christians do this. This tendency is very obvious in stories about Christian girls being kidnapped. At least that is how most Christian parents would respond after the conversion of their daughter or son to Islam. Claiming pressure was involved makes the other party responsible and draws attention away from mistakes you may have made. Errors such as not paying enough attention to Christian education in the family or family conflicts that may have forced a girl to escape through conversion to Islam. The reality is always more complicated than how it is usually presented.

Loyalty and authority are extremely important. The bishop, a priest, father, sheikh or anyone else in authority has spoken and thus his word should not be criticized. In 1998 I was at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights to discuss the issue of a large number of Christians arrested in al-Kosheh. I told them what I had experienced. The bishop had written a report about what had happened including the story of a ten-year-old boy who had allegedly been tied to the ceiling fan in a police station. Of all forms of abuse we have heard used by Egyptian police, such as beating and electric shocks, this was not one of them. And thus I asked the bishop for his source. This was his sister. I asked the sister for her source and she said her brother told her. But when I asked her brother, who was in the company of his mother and a priest, he knew nothing. I gave the bishop a copy of the recording made with the boy. He obviously didn’t like the fact I had discovered an element in his report not to be true. Someone spoke with the boy and from that moment on he started telling visiting journalists that the police had tortured him in this very unlikely manner.

These are reasons to be extremely skeptical of any information that is presented. This is what I was teaching my students at AUC. What is the source? Did he witness a specific event or was it hearsay? Are there contradictions in the information obtained? Why? Could there be specific interests involved? Does this mean no information is to be trusted? No, but certainly great care is needed in reporting.

The difficulties mentioned above are the backdrop of Egyptian civil society. In preparation for this presentation I asked several church leaders and scholars for their definitions of civil society, human rights, religious freedom and persecution. There were some remarkable findings.

First of all the definition of civil society. The majority of Egyptians wouldn’t know what you are talking about. Interest in civil society is limited to a small number of intellectuals and activists. Perhaps the most famous advocate of civil society in Egypt is Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim who was recently released from prison after being charged with damaging the image of Egypt abroad and misusing funds from the European Community. Human rights activists abroad believe these charges were trumped up.

I spoke with Ibrahim days before coming here and he defines civil society as the totality of initiatives and associations that are not government [and not family]. These initiatives and associations are independent of the state and take place with the free will of citizens to defend a cause, serve an interest or to express a collective sentiment. Civil society is that free space which people aggregate with their free will, outside state institutions, to serve specific interests, causes or to express certain opinions.

Ibrahim, and with him most other Egyptian intellectuals, believe the space for civil society in Egypt is much larger than it was 30 years ago, since the end of the Nasserist era. The late President Nasser, who came to power in the revolution of 1952, nationalized private companies and introduced strong security apparatus which left little space for civil society. The state, in those days, was all-powerful. Nasser believed what he did was best for the country and the great majority of the population loved him.

The first changes towards more space for civil society came with the open doors policy of the late President Sadat in 1974. The free space for civil society began to grow. People were allowed to form political parties, press freedom increased, many NGO’s, including Ibrahim’s Ibn Khaldoun institute, were founded.

Ibrahim believes 1994 was a turning point. In this year, the man who had such good relations with high government officials organized a conference on minorities in the Middle East. This was first criticized by the well-known journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, then by Coptic Orthodox pope, Shenouda, and many others. The criticism in the media became so strong that Ibrahim felt obliged to move the conference to Cyprus. This was not the government or was it? Heikal was close to the former presidents Nasser and Sadat. Did the government encourage him to write his first article? But then why did so many others follow? Wasn’t that an expression of a sentiment in society? From this moment it became almost fashionable to speak about the unity of Copts and Muslims as one tissue.

Dr. Abdel Monem Sa’id, the director of the Al-Ahram Institute for Strategic Studies and a close friend of Ibrahim isn’t so sure whether 1994 should be seen as a turning point. But both scholars agree that the growth of civil society comes in surges. Two steps forward, one step back and again two steps forward and one step back. There are moments of regression but overall it has been going in the direction of more space for civil society.

Human rights organizations are only a small part of civil society. Most private initiatives in Egypt go in the direction of organizations concerned with development, health and other issues that concern the daily life of Egyptians.

Most people in the West believe we have one universal set of human rights values that is applicable to all cultures in all circumstances. These values are expressed in the UN declaration of human rights and many covenants and declarations that have followed.

Countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Libya claim that this body of literature is Western, that it does not apply to their culture and people and that they have their own set of values. They are saying that Western powers are using these values to further their own interests, using them for their own hegemony, domination and cultural blackmail. This is a sentiment that can certainly also be found in Egypt.

Egypt has signed all declarations. The Universal Declaration was even drafted by an Egyptian, Dr. Mahmoud Azmi, Egyptian Ambassador to the UN in those days.

But is it honored? Implemented? For Ibrahim the answer is mixed. "The declaration was implemented when it suited the state and the state maneuvered around it when it was deemed necessary. They claimed religious imperatives to ignore/deny specific articles, especially those concerning gender and freedom of religion." Dr. Abdel Monem Sa’id agrees but is this a characteristic of Egypt only? Do all states not interpret the human rights declarations as they deem fit?

Egyptian human rights organizations and intellectuals show varying degrees of support for the international body of human rights declarations but the majority of the Egyptian population is not aware of this. For many the notion of human rights is difficult to grasp. It is even irrelevant for many in their fight for daily existence.

The number of opponents to the body of human rights declarations is small. The opposition concerns mainly specific articles on gender issues and freedom of religion that are seen as a Western invention that ignores the basic pillars of the Islamic faith. This has created antagonism among many Muslims against human rights organizations, national and international. Opponents of the international body of human rights declarations have made use of anti-Western feelings, referring to the colonial age and the Palestinian cause. They have turned anti-Western sentiments into a force against human rights, which have been portrayed as a product of the West.

Human rights organizations have often blamed Egypt for a range of human rights violations; one of them is the rough treatment of prisoners. These violations are there but the context is needed to understand, not to justify, them. Policemen, with the exception of the higher ranks, are not well educated and trained. Policemen in police stations are overburdened with many more reports of petty crime than they can handle. The number of prisoners exceeds the available space. The courts are overburdened and so are judges. This puts tremendous pressure on poorly educated and trained people and results in the use of a range of violations, including beating, hitting and worse.

Poor conditions in Egyptian society are to be blamed for a range of other ills. That is why many Egyptians, Muslims and Christians alike, believe addressing social problems takes priority and will help reduce human rights violations.

I have studied many cases of tension between Muslims and Christians since 1995. Coptic activists in the West have often reported about these tensions out of their societal context and thus made them appear to be human rights violations, persecution of Christians. A human rights violation suggests an intention, for ideological or other reasons, but this was rarely the case. Tensions often escalated out of very small conflicts that had nothing to do with religion. The roots of these conflicts could often be found in poor social circumstances.

In September I mentioned the pressure cooker effect. Place a lot of poorly educated people who are fighting for survival together in very poor social circumstances. Add to this the lack of transparency, some rumors, the need to defend one’s honor and loyalty to one’s own kin and you have your mixture ready for social conflict. It is not for nothing that most Muslim-Christian tensions reported in the past years have taken place in such areas. Of course bad preachers have played a role but they would not have had the chance if these social conditions had not existed.

Dr. Abdel Monem Sa’id told me about research, carried out by the National Institute of Planning, on the quality of life in each governorate. Of the 26 governorates Minia ranks 26 [last], Assiut ranks 25 and Beni Suef ranks 24. Minia alone has been good for 77% of all terrorist activities in Egypt in past years. The three governorates are together good for 95% of all acts of terror. These three governorates have also traditionally had a large percentage of Christians. It is not strange that these Christians are also affected by the tremendous social pressures in these governorates.

It is good to be concerned about human rights and freedom of religion but you will do the Christians in Egypt no good if you take issues out of their social context. This happens all the time and creates angry Muslims who often cannot believe that it was not done on purpose. I have heard Muslims, off the record, in private conversations, make statements that show a deep anger with Western reporting, a feeling of not being understood and a feeling they are the victims of an anti-Islamic sentiment in the West. Hisham Kassem, chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights told me last year, during the visit of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, that US-Coptic activists were behaving like a bull in a china shop when it comes to dealing with Muslim-Christian relations. This only adds to the tensions that ultimately are at the expense of the Christian church in Egypt.

Western attention to human rights is often focused on the most visible events: killings, a church burning, etc. But when you are living in the West you rarely see and experience the social climate in which such events have taken place. You see the tip of the iceberg but not what is below the water. To see and experience this you have to live in the country.