Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spoke recently about issues relating to religious awareness. In a brave and clear demeanor, he further explained that “we are born Muslims and Non-Muslims through our ID cards, by inheritance.”
The president added that when all of us were younger we didn’t know whether we were following the right path or not, concluding that to do this successfully everyone needs to have the courage to question our beliefs until we reach the truth.
The president’s words are important and courageous, particularly at a time when the world watches on as extremists win the legitimacy of creating a government and international recognition follows.
The Egyptian president has succinctly identified the root cause of decay in the Muslim mind: fear.
Speculation mounted about the ramifications of the president’s words. Some assumed that it meant the much-anticipated removal of religious affiliation from our ID cards.
This interpretation caused supporters and detractors to voice their opinions before the details are manifest into legislation. To be clear, I fully support the removal of religious affiliation from the IDs because it can be maliciously utilized by religious bigots to discriminate against Christians.
My support emanates from Egypt’s constitution that states that all citizens should be equal regardless of their religion, social class and sex. Declaring or withholding our religion on official documents is a mere formality that neither adds nor takes away from the amount of faith that resides within our hearts.
There is much more that deserves our attention upon reading the statements made by the president. The acknowledgement that we are all believers, that faith is an innate quality regardless of its diverse manifestations is provocative now.
His next point accentuated this, saying that from birth we are mindlessly indoctrinated into the religions of our parents. Muslim parents have Muslim children, Christian parents have Christian children.
Most children grow up in this baptized milieu of religious singularity to embrace, or rather inherit, not only the principles of that religion but also their parents’ particular interpretation of the faith, and all the biases that accompany their predispositions.
Dogma is inherited through generations to finally become sanctified as the ultimate truth.
Children are rarely introduced to other religions and when they socialize with children of other faiths, their interactions are always marred with a discreet suspicion that they are different. Accordingly, an invisible barrier is constructed to define oneself against the other.
The catastrophe is that this process of generational/religious inheritance is recreated automatically, and symbiotically as a natural process much like passing our DNA to our children in utero. And so, we pass our beliefs in life with the mindless, blatant matter of fact that no one dares to question. The awareness that this indoctrination can be harmful is ridiculed if not attacked as blasphemous attacks on our religious values.
In Egypt Christian children are required to memorize certain verses from the Quran and some prophetic sayings because they are included within the Arabic curriculum, but not from the Bible.
When it’s time for religion class, Christian students are usually chaperoned by their teacher outside so that their Muslim colleagues can attend their Islamic religion class while they are ushered into a different space to attend their Christianity class.
The message to impressionable students is clear: Islam is the religion of the majority and so Christianity needs to recede to the confines of the margins. As a child in school, I used to hate this moment of segregation. It felt incredibly unjust for students to be ostracized from the class environment, for them to be compelled to know my religion when I was forbidden to know theirs. I remember finding a Christian religion textbook in my desk one day at school. It was the first time I read about the resurrection of Christ. I was so captivated not only by the narrative but by the illicit activity of reading something I wasn’t supposed to read.
The late and brilliant Egyptian Novelist Gamal al-Ghitany used to call for the necessity of teaching Coptic history alongside with Islamic and Pharaonic history to no avail.
Can’t we teach a comparative religion course that at least addresses Islam, Christianity and Judaism along with other religions?
The president correctly identified that we are facing a crisis of awareness that is incredibly limiting. We restrict ourselves because we are unaware and afraid of others whom we believe are different. The great Sufi Master Ibn ‘Arabi once said “awareness is the veil-keeper of knowledge”.
The initial stance of humanity is knowledge; awareness is the veil that is either opaque or transparent. We must have the courage to understand awareness while seeking the truth that resides within ourselves, but more importantly, we must instill this courage into our children too.