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Tolerance and diversity

Only by reversing policies and norms that encourage divisions within the society can Egyptians hope to peacefully co-exist and live in harmony.

Shahira Amin

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.

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  • Thank you again, Shahira, for taking the time to remind us all to move toward tolerance, as a step toward true acceptance and embrace of each other’s differences.

    Someday, the quiet ones who don’t agree with the words of hatred, will raise their voices to drown the others out. Let us hope this happens in our lifetime.

  • Sami Halfawi

    Shahira Amin you rightfully identified the main reason for the problems we are suffering now: Ignorance. When Dr. Amed Zowel was asked how would Egypt solve its problems, his answer was one word: Education. Through good education we can improve our understanding of ‘the others’ and indeed of our own religion. Ignorance is what pushed many preachers to say that something is ‘haram’ or forbidden just because it was easier to say so than to look for justifications that permits that matter. Why spend effort to research and study when it is much easier to say ‘that is not permissible’. The search for truth is always harder than lies. Also many preachers mounted the wave of satellite TV stations and became ‘moftis’ without having the least credentials or knowledge of making a fatwa (religious judgement). Tha has created a confused generation of young Muslims who think they are doing the right thing because they say it on TV!. Those self-appointed moftis use very elastic statements to suit any situation and cover their ignorance so they always appear knowledgeable in the eyes of their spectators. I remember the story of somebody who asked a preacher about how to clean his house wall after his dog urinated on that wall. The preacher said “the wall must be knocked down and rebuilt seven times to be purified”. The man was shocked as that was going to cost him a fortune, so he asked “what if that wall was your house wall?”. The preacher replied “in that case, just a dash of water would suffice to make it clean!”.

  • Tarik Toulan

    OK Ms. Amin, I agree with your viewpoint that intolerance is a malady that threatens Egypt’s security and stability. However, it’s unfair to put all the blame on Muslim fanatics, as reportedly there are also some non-Muslim Egyptians who have practices that urge on hatred against Muslims. I remember a Christian Egyptian living in the USA who was reported early this year calling for the invasion of Egypt by the US to liberate Egypt from the Muslims’ occupation. You might have also heard of a Christian clergyman from Egypt, Zakarria Butrus who has shamelessly been insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on Al Hayat TV channel.

    Hence, to address the problem properly, you will have to blame all the parties and individuals involved in sowing the seeds of hatred and sectarian division.

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