Muslim, Christian, or Human Being?

Do you consider yourself primarily a Muslim, a Christian, or a human being? Is your primary allegiance to your religion, or does being part of humanity take precedence over any other allegiance? How you answer this question will define your view of the world and how you treat others. If you see yourself as human before any other consideration, then you will certainly respect the rights of others regardless of their religion. A proper understanding of religion necessarily makes you more attached to humankind, because religion in essence means defending human values: justice, freedom, and equality. But if you think your religious affiliation takes precedence over being a part of humankind, you have started down a dangerous path that will generally end in bigotry and violence.

Religion by nature is not a point of view but an exclusive belief that does not assume the truth of other religions. It starts when someone believes that his or her religion is the sole truth. This contempt for other religions is bound to make you belittle those who follow them, and people who belittle one another can never enjoy the same human rights. This way of thinking will gradually lead you to dehumanize people whose religions are different: you will think about people of other religions as a group, not as individuals. If you’re a Muslim, you won’t see your Christian neighbor as a human being with an independent existence and with his own way of behaving. You will see him as one Copt among many, and think that Copts in general have certain distinctive traits and ways of behaving. You will have taken another step toward hatred. You will say things such as “These Copts are horrible and bigoted. I don’t like them.” You might reach a stage where you find people of other religions disgusting because in your opinion, apart from being unbelievers, they are also unclean. When you reach this stage, dear reader, you are unfortunately a bigoted religious extremist, more likely to commit crimes against others because you have misunderstood religion in a way that has led you to hate and despise others.

Time for some history: In October 1973 war broke out and, thanks to the sacrifices of the Egyptian and Syrian peoples, the price of oil rose several times, giving the oil states in the Gulf unprecedented economic power. And because the Saudi regime depends for its stability on its alliance with Wahhabi sheikhs, millions of dollars were spent to propagate the Wahhabi concept of Islam throughout the world.

The Wahhabi concept of Islam, quite unlike the Egyptian concept, is dogmatic and bigoted; hostile to democracy and unfair to women. Wahhabism generally reduces religion to rituals and practice, taking an interest in the form of religion at the expense of the substance. In the land of Wahhabism, Egyptian men learn that if their wives show their hair in the street, members of the Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the organization responsible for imposing morality by force) will immediately step in. At the same time, Egyptians living in Saudi Arabia realize that the law cannot be enforced against Americans, Europeans, princes, and other powerful people, but is applied rigorously only against Egyptians and other oppressed nationalities. Egyptians in Saudi Arabia are taught that missing prayers is a major sin, but at the same time it is quite another matter for a Saudi employer to abuse Egyptians, deprive them of their financial dues, and have them thrown in jail if they claim their rights. Under Wahhabi thinking, that would have nothing to do with religion.

Over the decades, Wahhabi ideas have spread in Egypt and the most dangerous seed they have sown in Egyptian society is hatred and contempt for Copts. To cite a few examples, compiled by Professor Essam Abdel Gawad in Rose al-Yousef magazine: Sheikh Said Abdel Azim says, “There can be no affection or friendship with Christians”; Abu Islam says, “Christians should come to their senses, because everything they believe in is inconsistent with reality and reason”; Sheikh Ahmed Farid says, “Muslims must not send condolences to Copts when someone dies or wish them anything related to the afterlife, because Hell is the Christian’s only fate in the afterlife.” In any respectable country, statements such as these would be considered criminal incitement to hatred, but unfortunately the Wahhabi sheikhs poison the minds of Egyptians and fill their hearts with hatred.

In the village of Marinab, Copts have been praying in St. George’s church since 1940. Lately, the old walls of the church began falling down, but those responsible obtained the official permits needed to rebuild the walls. Then a problem arose. A group of Wahhabi Salafists appeared and objected to repairing the church, but instead of the authorities enforcing the law and protecting the church, the police and the army held an informal council at which the Salafists dictated their conditions for allowing the repairs to go ahead, stipulating that the church should have no loudspeakers, no domes, and no crosses. How can you have a church without a cross? The strange thing is that even when the church accepted these conditions, it did not save the church from the Salafists. On the next Friday, the Wahhabi preacher at the mosque incited the congregation against the church and, as soon as prayers were over, the extremists set off, surrounded the church, set fire to it, and completely destroyed it; the army and police did not intervene. Criminal attacks on churches have taken place in surprising and suspicious numbers since the revolution.

Why does the iron fist of the military police turn into a kid glove when it handles the Salafists? Why do army and police representatives sit and negotiate with the Salafists and submit to their conditions, as if the Salafists represent a foreign state that is stronger than Egypt? What legal status do the Salafists have that gives them the right to inspect churches and set conditions for building them, to veto them, knock them down, and even set fire to them if they want? Do the Salafists enjoy a certain political standing with the military council, or do the incidents of lawlessness and sectarian violence serve some political interest of the military council’s by justifying the council staying in power on the pretext of maintaining law and order and protecting the Copts from attack by extremists?

Since the 19th century, the Egyptian people have struggled and thousands of them have given their lives for two objectives: independence and a constitution. That was the hope of all Egypt’s leaders, from Saad Zaghloul to Gamal Abdel Nasser: these leaders were not secularists hostile to Islam as the Wahhabis claim, but they understood that a civic state that treats citizens as equals regardless of their religion is the only way to progress. Any attempt to change the civil structure of the state would bring real disaster to Egypt. If the Salafists cannot tolerate the existence of a church when they are just individuals, what would they do to us, Muslims and Copts, if they came to power in Egypt? Islam, if understood properly, makes us more human, more tolerant, and more respectful of the beliefs of others, whereas despising Copts and attacking churches are heinous criminal acts that have nothing to do with any religion.

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