Egypt, still divided…

December 28, 2009

(En)Forced identity crises in 2009 Egypt. This bullshit troubles me. Let me start with my background…

I was introduced to the difficulties of religion in Egypt three years ago. While discussing my aspiration of pursuing an Egyptology career with my then Mortuary Archaeology of Ancient Egypt professor, Ann Macy Roth, I was told about the various dig opportunities open to someone in my position. Field schools in Arizona were easy to access, but difficult to fund. Canadian digs were cheap and simple to sign onto, but would provide relatively little useful knowledge. Egyptian excavation projects were tough to find and tougher to get: miles of paperwork and background checks completed would still often result in unavailable funding or cancelled digs.

However, Professor Roth told me, it certainly would be worthwhile to try.  So we discussed what I could do and walked through negotiating the paperwork. And what I will always remember the most about that walking through was a simple question saying, “What is your religion?”.

Well, that’s easy enough. Atheist, I thought.

No. No, no, no, no, no.


No. You can be Christian.You can be Muslim. You can be Hindu. You can be Buddhist. You can be any religion you find interesting or fun. But you cannot NOT have a religion. Your application will be rejected at once, and you will be forever blacklisted by the antiquities commission.

Eke. What on earth are we to make of this state-authorized detestation of the religionless among us (the plural hyperbole of me)? I wonder if the agnostics or the (rapidly increasing) number of people identifying as spiritual would be accepted within these requirements. Unclear as my understanding likely is, I suspect they would not be. Christian, Muslim, Jew: those are labels with real meaning, points of reference. You can make any kind of harsh judgment much easier if you define yourself in those terms.

But if all this comes to is denomination, affiliation, Egypt is guilty of enforcing the institutionalization of faith. [Note, radicals among us: I said faith not morality. Faith is a decision and one that must be made individually. Morality is intrinsic in whatever form it assumes and we share the experience of inheritance whether or not we share values. Yes, I think it is that clear cut. And, yes, you can be a good person without faith.] This enforcement troubles me. We must collect ourselves, they say, and communally believe in different angles of one thing, complete trust in the unprovable. It is ridiculous.

That is what makes a new report on BBC Online all the more disturbing. Written by Christian Fraser, the report describes the difficulties Coptic Christians face in acquiring identity cards in the country. The ID cards, which Egypt requires for “employment, education and access to any public services,” carry details similar to a passport. But, more interestingly, they note an individual’s religious affiliation, which some human rights activists have found leads to discriminatory hiring practices.

For those interviewed, the issue was hardly as simple as facing the rejection of their CVs and job applications. The ID cards are meant to be the empirical, cliff-notes version of an individual’s real identity. Instead, this group of Christians are being asked to provide evidence for their religion, to prove their religious identity. Part of the problem lies in the 80% to 90% Muslim majority of the country. The Islamic idea that a “father determines the religion of his children” just screams brainwashing to me. Yes, a father who abandons his family should have his religion impressed upon them as a momento that can live with them since he cannot. That is bullshit! These thoughts develop over time: religion should not be indoctrinated nor should it be assumed to be possessed by lineage.

Then there is the danger of apostasy’s punishment. Some interpretations of the Qur’an suggest that leaving the Islamic faith is punishable by death. And to be incorrectly grouped or simply appropriated a faith where such conditions exist (possibly without your knowledge), you risk severe consequences. While I do think it is entirely wrong that these Christians are unfairly punished, I would without a doubt prefer to take steps validating my religion than risk any strict interpretor taking justice into his own hands. But I do not imagine this to be the dominate Islamic teaching any more than I imagine that the Coptics are free from fault.

It all goes back to the necessity of religion in Egypt. The ID says you must have something, and that is not why the ID is an issue to Egyptians (only to me, it seems). Why this ID is so contentious lies in the necessity of having it agree with your actual religious beliefs. You do have religion. But, and this is key, is it the right religion for the government? Did Jesus get it right or was he just another prophet misinterpreting God’s word? Breaking it down like that seems an awfully sad prospect. The icon (western puppet?) of the Middle East falls into the ages old trap.
Back to the source of my ignorant leaps…The ID card cannot be excised from the Egyptian’s everyday life as religion cannot be removed from the card itself. Religion is life in Egypt even to this day, and the battle is between Christians and Muslims. Those complaining want Christian ID cards. As one refused a Christian identity card, this woman interviewed says, “You need a card for everything in Egypt, even to be buried.” Ok, fair enough, it is a necessity. But she adds, “Where will they put me when I die? I don’t want to be put in a Muslim grave.” Hot button stuff.

The Narmer Palette, discovered in 1898 in Hierakonpolis

The legendary unification of Egypt, occurring circa 3100 BCE, brought together two different and independent regions. The name of that mythic hero responsible for uniting Upper (Southern) and Lower (Northern) Egypt has been obscured by time and conflicting scholarship. Yet whether you believe it to be Menes (of the ostracon) or Narmer (of the famed palette, pictured left), you must admit that another of that sort would be welcome. A divided Egypt still exists, different demographically and geographically from before, but facing similar challenges of unity.


2 Responses to “Egypt, still divided…”

  1. […] Add this to the disturbing list of trends being passed by Egypt’s government, as reported in my long article Egypt, Still Divided. […]

  2. […] ago, I made two closely-dated posts, expressing my concern over worrisome developments in Egypt. The first discussed a new mandate that required identification cards listing one’s religious […]

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