I attended a seminar the other day on the Coptic Question in Egypt.
Religious minority rights are the Fiat 128 of the Egyptian human rights scene, neglected by the majority of human rights groups. This is perhaps because other rights are more ‘hip,’ or perhaps – as is more likely – analysis of the minority issue in Egypt tends to be from a political or even worse, religious perspective, rather than in human rights terms. A political approach morphs what is in essence an equality issue into something much bigger and much less straightforward; hence when the Muslim Brotherhood pronounce their support for Coptic rights they are accused of exploiting the issue for their own gain, and when groups abroad (both Egyptian and foreign) lobby in favour of Coptic rights their efforts are inevitably rebuffed with accusations that they are pro-American and anti-Egypt.
A religious analysis inevitably leads to a ‘my faith is better than yours’ conversational dead-end, and/or intractable doctrinal wrangling about theological minutiae.
Human rights (the major ones at least) have the virtue of being relatively value-neutral when compared with religion and politics; the rights to live free from torture and to freedom of association whilst they may have their origins in moral precepts, have the virtue of not being grounded in one particular creed or political philosophy – one size fits all, if you like. The problems surrounding implementation, and the extent to which governments actually give two hoots about their human rights obligations is irrelevant at this stage, when what is being considered is the theoretical approach which best suits the problem.
I’m warbling on about this because these were the thoughts which ran through my mind as I listened to the speakers. What amazed me was that during the five hours I attended, human rights were mentioned just once, and when possible solutions were discussed (in the breaks between the audience’s persistent haranging of the Muslim Brotherhood representative) it was exclusively in political terms; the obligatory Marxist analyst surmised that the class war was the root of the problem, while MB guy managed to transmit in short staccato bursts between interruptions that he thought that the problem is not that Egypt has Islam as an official state religion, but rather the state’s treatment of its people. An interesting discussion about the merits or otherwise of establishing a secular state ended without consensus, a Coptic researcher coming out fully in favour while MB man pointed to the example of France, whose rigid secularism cannot always accommodate the demands of its religious minorities.
Despite their ideological differences, unsurprisingly all the speakers shared a common belief that the Coptic issue is part of a larger problem, that of the state’s treatment of its people. As such it is a prime candidate for resolution through human rights, which is after all concerned with regulating the relationship between the state and the individual. A straightforward example is the right to freedom of religious belief, a fundamental element of which is the right to express that belief through worship etc. The building and repair of churches (and not mosques) in Egypt is subject to onerous bureaucratic procedures in conflict with this right – lobbying the government on this very specific point is a crucial part of any larger programme, political or otherwise.
Detractors will raise two issues at this point; firstly, the failure so far of human rights to realise true equality for religious minorities in Egypt; and secondly, the general climate of political disenfranchisement which has rendered citizenship and its attendant rights a theoretical notion. It is crucial, in order not to raise the white flag and throw the whole human rights caboodle out the window, to count accomplishments rather than failures - and there has been progress in Egypt. As for the issue of political disenfranchisement, a pessimist might suggest that regime change of any denomination would not bring instantaneous improvement in this area, simply because people have virtually no experience of what it means to be a citizen, of demanding their rights, and of holding their government to account - rather than being controlled by it. This will not change overnight, it requires democracy and rights education of the type provided by a human rights programme.
A more intractable issue is that of Islam and human rights’ diametrically opposed approaches to the issues of apostasy and proselytism. Not being sufficiently conversant with Sharia law, I am unable to speculate about whether its notorious inflexibility surrounding freedom of religious belief is due to doctrinal misinterpretation, a bad press, or an unbridgeable ideological gulf between its approach and that of human rights…What is clear however is that complete freedom of religious belief cannot happily coexist with laws which forbid or impede conversions out of only one faith.
On a lighter note, the Arabic for secular state (dawla 3almanaya) sounds very like the word for German state (dawla almanaya), and during the occasional interminable, boring comment by an audience member my mind wandered. I childishly amused myself by imagining that what was being propounded was the establishment of a German state where leiderhosen, techno music, Audis and everyone renaming themselves Klaus (even women) would instantly eliminate all religious strife.