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Religious Freedom in Egypt

Religious Freedom in Egypt

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Abstract: The Egyptian government has played a major role in creating and maintaining a religiously intolerant environment in Egypt that is hostile to non-Muslims and any Muslims who deviate from government-endorsed religious norms and traditions. This intolerant environment… Read more
Abstract: The Egyptian government has played a major role in creating and maintaining a religiously intolerant environment in Egypt that is hostile to non-Muslims and any Muslims who deviate from government-endorsed religious norms and traditions. This intolerant environment… Read more

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Published by: The Heritage Foundation on Nov 24, 2010
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Religious Freedom in Egypt
Samuel Tadros 
The Egyptian government has played a majorrole in creating and maintaining a religiously intolerantenvironment in Egypt that is hostile to non-Muslims andany Muslims who deviate from government-endorsed reli- gious norms and traditions. This intolerant environmentthat stifles independent thinking and religious liberty is thenatural breeding ground for Islamist extremists. The U.S.should encourage the Egyptian government to address thisroot cause of Islamist extremism by establishing and pro-tecting true religious freedom at home.
Religious liberty, Islamist extremism, and terrorismare closely interrelated. Therefore, the struggle for reli-gious freedom is at the heart of the current war againstterrorism, and the U.S. government should treat it assuch, particularly in Egypt, a country that is strategi-cally important to the United States. With a population of 83 million and located atthe center of the Middle East, Egypt has long domi-nated its Arabic-speaking neighbors politically andculturally. While military defeat in 1967, economicdecline, and political stagnation have eroded someof its influence, Egypt remains an influential coun-try in the region due to the realities of geography,size, and history.Religious freedom in Egypt—or, more precisely,the lack thereof—turns on the interrelationship of four forces in Egypt: the regime, the religious estab-lishment, the Islamists, and society at large. Eachentity has its own internal considerations and goals
No. 2487November 9, 2010
Talking Points
This paper, in its entirety, can be found at:
Produced by the Asian Studies CenterPublished by The Heritage Foundation214 Massachusetts Avenue, NEWashington, DC 20002–4999(202) 546-4400 • heritage.orgNothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflectingthe views of The Heritage Foundation or as an attempt toaid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.
Egypt’s ongoing cycle of religious intoleranceis driven by four forces in Egyptian society:the regime, the religious establishment,Islamists, and society at large.
Of these four, the regime is the key to stop-ping the cycle of intolerance because of thenatural capabilities of the state and itsauthoritarian nature and because the stateplays a major role in perpetuating the cycleof intolerance.
By enacting and enforcing laws that protectthe rights of religious minorities and the rightof independent religious thought, the regimecan break this destructive cycle and fosteran environment that is resistant to Islamic extremism.
Religious freedom must be a part of any realdefense against Islamic extremism that bothmaintains people’s freedoms and diminishesreligious radicalism and Islamist terrorism.
No. 2487
page 2
November 9, 2010
that help to diminish religious freedom, but thedynamic relationship between them creates theongoing cycle of intolerance. Given the nature of this dynamic, any attempt to deal with religiousfreedom issues in Egypt must start at the state level.The U.S. government should use every availableavenue to encourage the Egyptian government toenact and enforce laws that protect the religiousfreedom of all Egyptians.Religious freedom must be part of any realdefense against Islamist extremism and terrorismthat maintains people’s freedoms.
The Religious Environment in Egypt
Egypt’s population is predominantly Sunni Mus-lim. Exact numbers are impossible to ascertainbecause such statistics are a state secret. This secrecyis reminiscent of a police state, which Egypt remainsin many respects, but the secrecy also serves thestate’s interest in deflating the numbers of religiousminorities. According to the latest official censusfigures (1986), Christians account for less than 6percent of the population. To stanch criticism, latercensuses have simply not given any figure. The U.S.State Department places the number at 8 percent to12 percent,
while the U.S. Commission on Interna-tional Religious Freedom (USCIRF) cites a range of 10 percent to 15 percent.
The government doesnot acknowledge the existence of non-Sunni Mus-lim groups, which are deemed deviant versions of Islam. Independent sources estimate that Shiites areless than 1 percent of the population.Non-Muslim groups include Christians, 2,000Baha’is, and 120 elderly Jews, who are the remnantsof a once thriving Jewish community that num-bered in the tens of thousands. Christians are gen-erally referred to as Copts, and a majority of thembelong to the indigenous Orthodox Church. Size-able minorities belong to the Catholic Church andvarious Protestant sects.The story of Egypt’s tense relationship with theconcept of religious freedom is deeply rooted in his-tory. Government activity in areas of religion inEgypt’s post-Ottoman era has been associated withtwo phenomena that have had lasting effects on theunderstanding of religious freedom: the mind-setcreated by the Ottoman millet system and modernnationalism.From the 16th century through the 19th century,the Ottoman Empire organized and modernized themillet system. While the system was quite tolerantfor its times, it was based on a notion of each reli-gious group as a nation. Each religious group wasgiven autonomy in its own affairs, but the side effectwas that these groups were viewed as both alien andconstituting a collective identity. With such a men-tality, new religious groups were viewed with suspi-cion as they deviated and broke away from theorganized and recognized sects. The emergence of modern nationalism in Egypt exacerbated this per-ception. Egyptian nationalism, first emerging in the1919 revolution against the British occupation, wasbased on the concept of national unity—the unityof Muslims and Christians, the unity of two distinctgroups that are united in the national project. Otherreligious groups were suspect.The lack of a philosophical foundation for indi-vidualism resulted not only in the development of group identity, but also in the state adhering to thisgroup mentality regarding individual citizens. Theorganized religious communities were all too will-ing to adhere to this arrangement. Religious leaderswere given full control of both heavenly rewardsand the earthly success of their coreligionists. Oncethe Egyptian nationalist project collapsed and wasreplaced by other identities—Arab nationalism andIslamism—it was only a matter of time before thedynamics between religious groups turned sourand the state became suspicious of religious minor-ities and deviations.Concern for religious freedom in Egypt has longbeen focused on the plight of minorities, especiallyChristians. In reality, Muslims have been the great-est victims of the lack of religious freedom. While
1.U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Egypt,” in
International Religious FreedomReport 2009
, October 26, 2009, at
(September 16, 2010).2.U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom,
 Annual Report 2010
, May 2010, p. 230, at
http://www.uscirf.gov/ images/ar2010/egypt2010.pdf 
(September 16, 2010).
page 3
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.

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