The conviction that people of other faiths or sects are deviant or heretic has for years been constantly hammered into the psyche of Egyptians, encouraging hatred and physical violence against «the other.»
“From all the countries of the world we come in turn to you. Of different races, different creeds and different colour too. We learn together day by day. In time our paths will part but with each one of us we’ll take understanding of each other.”
Last night I remembered the above lyrics. They are the lyrics of a song we used to sing as children every morning when I was studying at the Ghana International School in Accra. We would start our day listening to the national anthem and then we, the school students, would sing the song together in the school-yard before walking up to our respective classrooms.
At the time, I repeated the words without a deep understanding of their meaning nor did I realize then the profound impact they would have on me later on in life. Little did I know that the song was in fact a lesson in tolerance and respect for diversity. What we were really saying was that we may have different religions, different languages, different coloured skin, but we all belong to one human race.
That to me is the most valuable lesson I learned growing up in a foreign land exposed to different cultures. I now realize what a blessing this was and how fortunate I’ve been.
Most Egyptian children aren’t quite as lucky. From an early age, there is segregation along religious grounds at primary schools in Egypt: public and private. Muslim children attend religious instruction classes whilst Christian students are usually asked to leave the classroom to either play in the yard or do their homework in the library.
During Arabic language classes, Copts are often forced to study verses from the Quran. In some government schools , ignorant teachers have been reported as telling their students that all non-Muslims are ‘infidels’ and will go to Hell and that Christians are “dogs and pigs” and Jews are “apes and pigs.”
This worrying trend towards separatism has continued unabated for decades.
And schools aren’t the only places sowing seeds of hatred and incitement against non-Muslims. At mosques too, extremist preachers have for years been fueling sectarianism by citing less tolerant verses from the Quran in their Friday sermons. It is not uncommon for worshippers at mosques to hear impassioned hate speeches labelling non-Muslims as “heretics.” Some radical preachers even make explicit calls for Jihad. Some months ago, I overheard a preacher at a mosque near my home vowing that «one day we shall kill all the Jews.»
The worshippers responded by chanting «Amen.»
In contrast, some years ago while on a visit to the Moroccan city of Casablanca, I met a man disguised as a woman in a nikab (face veil) in the women›s section of the mosque. When I asked him what he was doing there, he whispered that he was a government informant who was there to make sure the sermon delivered by the «Mourshida,» or female guide, was moderate. I later learnt that informants had been placed in all Moroccan mosques to guard against extremism and hate speech.
In recent years, a plethora of Saudi-funded satellite channels infiltrating Egyptian satellite space have helped spread Wahhabism, a rigid and less tolerant version of Islam. Such channels have been allowed to brainwash their audiences and radicalise youth. They have also largely succeeded in driving a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims and have gradually chipped away at the country’s diverse and rich cultural heritage.
Having to state one’s faith on the Egyptian national ID card is yet another flagrant example of deliberate attempts at segregation. Foreign friends have confided that they’ve often felt perplexed when asked by a complete stranger in Egypt if they were Muslims or Christians.
Last week’s tragic incident in Suez in which a young man who had been walking with a girl was stabbed and killed by bearded men after refusing to disclose the identity of the girl is but a natural consequence of the climate of mistrust and segregation that has prevailed in Egypt for decades.
The recent upsurge in attacks on girls who are not covered up should not come as a surprise either. Such violent incidents should not be blamed on «fanatics who are now emboldened by the Islamist leadership in place.» The blame should instead be directed at the previous authoritarian regime which for years allowed — even encouraged – such sectarian hatred to grow unchecked. Only by reversing policies and norms that encourage divisions within the society can Egyptians hope to peacefully co-exist and live in harmony.