Citizenship vs sectarianism

Sameh Fawzy
Tuesday 12 Sep 2023

The experience of the last few years has revealed the existence of a tolerant social fabric that only becomes stronger in the face of those promoting sectarianism or other forms of conflict


In parallel with the recent economic challenges and the intensified targeting of the Egyptian state, voices known for their affiliation with Political Islam have turned their attention to reviving the sectarian project that has been absent from the public scene for the past decade.

This is the same project that was active during the 1990s and the first ten years of the third millennium. Its main objective is to undermine the foundations of the state by fomenting religious tension, fuelling sectarian strife, and spreading rumours among Muslims and Copts alike.

Its dimensions became evident after the 25 January Revolution in 2011. At a time when people were aspiring to a modern, democratic, and civil state, voices advocating the division of society along religious lines and wanting to dominate those who did not align with Political Islam in their goals and beliefs grew louder.

The threat reached its peak in mid-August 2013, when supporters of the various branches of the Islamist Movement turned to burning and destroying nearly 90 churches and other Christian buildings in Egypt, along with carrying out attacks on state institutions and facilities.

There are now some who seek to revive this sectarian project in all its dimensions. There are electronic platforms stirring up antagonism against Christians and exploiting individual religious conversions to spread hatred and religious disputes and to turn Muslims against their fellow citizens who happen to be Copts. These platforms are also propagating rumours and defaming religious institutions and figures, Islamic and Christian alike.

It is noteworthy that the same platforms that attack the Egyptian state are the ones promoting this sectarian project, indicating a connection in the intentions of those in charge between causing political chaos and religious discord. Without a doubt, the sectarian project, regardless of how it is presented in oppositional or democratic rhetoric, inherently promotes a culture of violence, prejudice, and hatred in society.

It stands in opposition to the long-standing efforts made by the Egyptian state over recent years to establish common standards of citizenship. These efforts have tackled various long-standing issues, including combating sectarian discourse, addressing obstacles to church construction and renovation, ensuring appropriate political representation for Copts in elected bodies, celebrating Coptic culture as an integral part of Egyptian culture, and reaffirming that citizenship is not based on political alignment, but rather on the rights and freedoms of all citizens within the framework of the constitution and the law.

The political leadership has delivered unprecedentedly positive messages regarding shared standards of citizenship on Christian religious occasions, and churches now coexist with mosques in the new urban communities. Important efforts are also being made to foster a broader understanding of religious diversity and to bring about the cessation of all forms of sectarian incitement.

The Egyptian state’s approach to strengthening citizenship in society has sent clear signals to all institutions and entities to follow this path, on the way abandoning any inherited bureaucratic practices that they might have. This has manifested itself in significant initiatives undertaken by various cultural and social entities to enhance common standards of citizenship in all their intellectual and behavioural dimensions.

This is a notable shift in the state’s approach, which now emphasises its commitment to preserving Egypt’s religious heritage as a whole and encompassing the Islamic, Coptic, and Jewish heritage as parts of the heritage of all Egyptians. Any impartial researcher in the field of religious affairs will have been able to observe the many quantitative and qualitative changes that have occurred over recent years.

These changes have not been limited to official relations between religious institutions either, but instead have also extended to community initiatives, shared development experiences, cooperation among civil associations, and the cultivation of better human relations.

The concept of citizenship itself, as developed within the framework of major development projects, has also taken on a more comprehensive meaning, taking into account economic and social rights, as well as issues related to women, children, and individuals with special needs. Last year, I documented many community participation experiences in various governorates as part of an initiative carried out by the Technical Secretariat of the National Committee for Human Rights.

These experiences revealed the existence of a tolerant social fabric at the community level and one that becomes stronger in the face of the sectarian discord that seeks to tear it apart.

This is the citizenship project that we should adhere to, continue working on, and complete the steps that have been initiated in it, in contrast to the sectarian project that aims to promote a culture of discrimination and hatred and undermine the state itself.

* The writer is a researcher in political sociology.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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