No. 2487November 9, 2010
persecution of religious minorities is more severeand noticeable, the Muslims’ lack of ability to thinkseparately about religion and to enjoy the freedomto believe, practice, and worship according to theirown conscience has resulted not only in suppres-sion, but also in a controlled religious environmentthat has proven a fertile ground for Islamists.The basic Egyptian understanding of religiousfreedom is limited, often understood as simply free-dom to worship, albeit under significant con-straints. An understanding of religious freedom asthe right of all faiths to bring religiously based val-ues to the public square is virtually nonexistent.This is partly a matter of priorities. A religious per-son who is not permitted to build a place to worshipis unlikely to be concerned with the right of adop-tion, something accepted by Christianity butrejected by Islam, and thus illegal.The problem is compounded by the associationof religion with social traditions. Because the stategenerally upholds those social traditions andenforces conformity, the religious establishment hasbeen quite content with the arrangement. Only withthe greater radicalization of the Muslim religiousestablishment since the 1970s has the clash with thestate emerged. This arrangement has also beenmaintained, albeit under a different relationship,with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The CopticChurch developed patterns of dependence onEgypt’s Muslim rulers.Religious freedom in Egypt—or, more precisely,the lack thereof—turns on the interrelationship of four forces: the regime, the religious establishment,Islamists, and society at large. Each entity must beaccorded its distinct understanding, but the giveand take between the four entities is what createsthe challenge for religious freedom in Egypt.
The Egyptian Regime.
Western observers oftendescribe the Egyptian regime as secular, in contrastto the Islamists, who challenge the regime, and theIslamists’ definition of the regime. However, thisdescription ignores the regime’s underlying com-plexities. Egypt’s rulers are neither Turkey’s MustafaKemal Atatürk nor Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba, bothof whom shared a modern, secular vision modeledon the French example. While Egypt’s rulers have fought the Islamistsand challenged the religious establishment on vari-ous issues, they have not held a secular viewpoint orattempted to limit the role that religion plays inEgypt. They focused on taking control of religion,which they viewed as a dangerous weapon in thehands of their enemies. Egypt’s three modern rulershave pursued this policy with varying degrees of success using methods ranging from the stick to thecarrot. Human rights organizations have describedthe result: “As religion has been increasinglyexploited as a tool for state administration, the statehas begun to acquire some theocratic features.”
Gamal Abdel Nasser ended the dual court sys-tem in Egypt when he closed the religious courts.This gave the government full control of the judi-ciary and diminished the role of the religiousestablishment. Similarly, he abolished the systemof religiously controlled land, putting it directlyunder state control. While this was partly anattempt to take over the religious establishment’svast financial empire for the state’s benefit, it wasalso an attempt to cut off all of the religious estab-lishment’s independent sources of finance and tomake it dependent on the state for its salaries andprojects. Simultaneously, Nasser greatly expandedstate aid to the religious establishment. Al-AzharUniversity and its pre-university schools wereexpanded dramatically with government money.Since 1952, the number of students at Al-Azharschools and university increased from 3,000 to1.9 million.
The Commission on InternationalReligious Freedom rightly notes that “the govern-ment maintains tight control over all Muslim reli-gious institutions.”
3.Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies,
Bastion of Impunity, Mirage of Reform: Human Rights in the Arab Region
, 2009, at
(September 16, 2010).
The basic Egyptian understanding of religious freedom is limited, often understood as simply freedom to worship, albeit under significant constraints.