Freedom of choice, the real birthright

Khaled Diab
10 Min Read
Khaled Diab
Khaled Diab
Khaled Diab

Unlike eye colour and skin tone, religion is not hereditary. This reality needs to be reflected in Egyptian identity documents and personal status laws.

In Egypt, like in many other traditional societies, the idea that religion is hereditary is so widespread that it is written into the law and children are stamped with the seal of their faith, on their birth certificates, from the very moment they are born.

But unlike eye colour and skin tone, children cannot naturally inherit their parents’ beliefs. Even the controversial idea of a ‘God gene’, if it were ever to be proven, does not predispose a person to a particular religion but to spirituality in general. In addition, it is a well-known worldwide phenomenon that youngsters reject and rebel against the beliefs of their parents and elders.

Yet millions of Muslims are entirely convinced that not only are the offspring of Muslims automatically Muslim but that the natural state of all newborns is Islam, presumably before the world ‘corrupts’ them.

But does Islam itself back up this belief? Well, the Quran, as on so many other controversial subjects, is actually silent on the matter. Those who advocate the idea of Islam as a birth right base their belief on a hadith which states: “There is none born but is created to his true nature.” The Arabic word used is “fitra” (“innate nature”), which is certainly so ambiguous as to possibly signify anything.

Moreover, the notion that a child is born a Muslim, even if the parents are Muslim, contradicts the Quran’s own injunctions guaranteeing freedom of belief. “There is no compulsion in religion,” the Muslim holy book tells believers. And following the same example, Mohamad’s own Constitution of Medina guaranteed equal political and social rights to non-Muslims, including pagans.

And what greater “compulsion” can there be than to force an innocent mind unready to make the most serious commitment in life, its greatest leap of faith: to adopt a belief system before (s)he has the intellectual, emotional and cognitive capacities to do so?

Of course, it is not just Islam that sees religion as hereditary. In many ways, Christianity does too. No child becomes truly a Christian until (s)he is baptised and undergoes the holy rite of confirmation, which suggests freedom of belief. However, since the Church expects every God-fearing parent to do this shortly after their child’s birth, then this innocent baby has also had a faith thrust upon it before it can fairly be asked to make its own mind up.

So, what is behind this phenomenon? It is partly a manifestation of the common instinct people have that their children should grow up like them. Just as individuals often want their offspring to inherit the family business, they also want their children to adopt their dearest and most cherished beliefs.

Collectively, it is a kind of numbers game. In the ideological arena, the number of followers a particular faith commands has significance in the eyes of believers, and what more effective way to guarantee “natural growth” than through the automatic passing on of the flame of belief from one generation to the next. For a growing religion, continued growth adds to its self-confidence, while for a shrinking or minority faith, it helps arrest the attrition, boosting the community’s confidence.

But is this fair to children, and to the eventual adults they become? Absolutely not. Religion is not a birthright, and suggesting it is wrongs both those who would have chosen this path of their own volition, by depriving them of agency, and those who would have followed another path, by robbing them of choice.

While there is a fair chance that a child raised in a particular belief system will adopt it voluntarily as an adult, there is no way of knowing if this is the case in Egypt. In addition, the current system makes no allowance for those who wish to live by another religion or none.

It would be far better for all Egyptians to be born without a formal religious affiliation and then to choose the faith system that suits them once they come of age. This true freedom of belief is not only good for individuals but also for Egypt’s various faith communities, and society as a whole.

As an Arabic expression suggestions, numbers in and of themselves are as meaningless as counting lemons. What matters more is the quality behind these numbers. What good is counting X million believers if these believers did not choose their faith freely?

In fact, it opens the door to deceitfulness and hypocrisy, as those who do not truly believe are afraid to voice their doubts due to social (and sometimes even legal) censure. Rather than having the dead wood of uncommitted believers or even non-believers, would a religion not be far stronger and more robust if the community was made up of voluntary believers? Society is also far stronger and better off when citizens can live honestly and express their convictions without fear of stigmatisation or worse.

Moreover, rather than a sign of supreme confidence, forcing a belief system upon newborns can be interpreted as an indication of weakness. After all, if a religion is confident that it illuminates the true path and that its truth is self-evident, then surely it would prefer that its followers make a conscious decision to adhere to it. And those who choose the “false” path have only themselves to blame and, if proven wrong, will get their comeuppance in the afterlife.

So, how do we translate this freedom of conscience to a workable reality in the Egyptian context?

A good first step would be to remove the religion field in birth certificates and other identification papers. This would not only safeguard an individual’s freedom of belief, it would also protect citizens against arbitrary or systemic discrimination based on their religious convictions.

Like in many other parts of the former Ottoman Empire, Egypt’s personal status and family law is still largely based on the Ottoman millet system. While this system of confessional self-rule was once a leading example of religious pluralism and tolerance in action, it is showing its age in the 21st century.

Today, the array of beliefs goes far beyond the “three heavenly beliefs” recognised by Egyptian law. In addition to outright non-believers, you have those who belong to other faiths, such as Baha’is and Shi’a Muslims, those who wish to convert but find it hard to do so now and those who interpret their faith in a non-traditional fashion.

To accommodate all these groups and give them equal rights to Egypt’s conventional religious communities, I propose the creation of a parallel civil court system based on modern universal values to run in parallel with the three established family court systems.

Once these civil courts are in place, Egyptians, regardless of the religious affiliations of their ancestors, will have the freedom to choose which personal status system to follow based on their convictions. In order to avoid the risk of ‘shopping around’, a citizen must choose a single court system in its entirety, and not the part that suits him/her. For example, a couple should not marry under Canon law and then divorce under Shari’a.

Naturally, given the emotive nature of religion in Egyptian public discourse and the controversy surrounding apostates, we are probably a long way away from adopting such a pluralistic system. But if Egypt wishes to live up to its revolutionary commitment of equality in deed and not just in words, then it needs to find a fair way to deal with those who subscribe to other belief systems, even if they happen to be a minority.

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Khaled Diab is an Egyptian journalist, writer and blogger. He writes for a range of leading publications in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. He has spent half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe. His website is Follow him on @DiabolicalIdea