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I am Egypt: Bridging the gap between US vs. Them

May, Mona and I had been working together at the same bank for over a year. We had a strong friendship that developed through the long hours we spent together daily at the same office. On one long weekend, we decided to travel together for the first time to the Red Sea. Our friendship grew to a whole new level on this trip; we did everything together from the moment we woke up to the moment we slept, for five days and nights. Our friendship grew closer with all these shared activities, but what deepened our relationship the most was the conversations we had about our relationships, work, family…and God!

The conversations usually flowed smoothly except when it came to discussing our spiritual faith and relationship with God.The first night I brought up the topic, May became very timid and told me: “You know, please don’t let us talk about this issue. We’ll start fighting on who is right and who is wrong and I don’t really want to go through this now.” As a Coptic Christian, I was curious to know how my two Muslim friends viewed God, not to argue, but to understand what really makes us different when it comes to our spiritual views. On our second night together, the topic was brought up again, but this time we felt more flexible discussing it. I asked them a question, “How do you see God?” and we took turns discussing our perspectives. We were cautious at the beginning not to offend each other, but slowly we became less self-conscious and started talking freely about it. I was surprised by the degree of similarity between our spiritual views. Although Islam and Coptic Christianity are very different religions, we as human beings had very similar views of God, and our emotions, thoughts and doubts were pretty much the same, too. On our way back to Cairo, I kept rewinding our conversations and it hit me that although I had had close Muslim friends since the first grade at school, this was the first honest conversation about faith and spirituality I had shared with my Muslim friends!

This wasn’t the case only with me. When I asked my Christian friends about how often they had deep and honest conversations with non-Christians about faith issues, the answer was usually “Never.” Many of the Coptic Christians in Egypt had a sense of mistrust and skepticism towards Muslims because of experiences of oppression and religious persecution, something that is common to religious minorities all over the world. These experiences led many Copts to isolate themselves from the surrounding society and confine themselves to Christian ghettos where the church plays a much bigger role than being just a place of worship.

On the other hand, many Muslims ignored the fact that Egypt is a religiously diverse country. Although Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, where Muslims account for 80-90% of the population--the majority of which are Sunnis--there are other religions that have often been marginalized or neglected. Alongside Sunni Muslims exist a minority of Shi’a Muslims, as well as Muslims who follow the native Sufi orders. The largest religious minority in Egypt is Christianity, where the majority of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Other Christian minorities include Coptic Catholicism and various Protestants. Jews in Egypt were estimated to be a few hundred in 2004. In addition to Abrahamic religions, there are other unrecognized religions and beliefs such as Baha’i faith, Ahmadiyya Islam, and Egyptians who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics.

The apathy and reluctance from the Muslim majority and other religious minorities in Egypt to bridge the gap and build trust and empathy have created a general atmosphere of intolerance and hostility towards each other. Unfortunately, the gap among religions is getting wider due to many factors. First, living in a repressive society with little or no freedom of expression made it challenging for Egyptians coming from different religious backgrounds to discuss their faith freely with others in public spaces. This challenge was further doubled by the psychological fear and mistrust of the “other”. The lack of communication and dialogue between people of different religious backgrounds led to ambiguity about other religions and resulted in the spread of rumors and lies about the beliefs and practices of different religions. Second, the widespread practice of religiously segregated schools—or the segregation of religion classes at integrated schools-- and the appearance of the new wave of faith-based media in Egypt have widened the divisions between Egyptians of different faiths and led to the absence of "safe zones" where people of different religious backgrounds can exercise interfaith dialogue safely and freely. Third, the speeches and ideas of religious extremists have caused more hatred and divisions between different religions in the country, where they used different places of worship to promote their hate speeches.
All of these factors have contributed to more divisions and segregation between Egyptians of different faith backgrounds; and although, in the past, they all interacted in schools, universities and workplace, they remained silent about their religious background in fear of rejection. In many cases, encounters between Muslims, Christians and other religions were either hostile or passive and inattentive. The religious minorities in Egypt reacted to this environment of hostility by isolating themselves more and more from the surrounding community and embedding fear of the "other" especially through the attitudes and speeches given by the religious leaders in worship places. Many churches turned from being places of worship into comprehensive community centers where Christians were deeply involved only in the scope of their churches instead of being more actively engaged in the wider community.The hostility and fear about the “other” extended to not only include other religions, but other sects within the same religion—hostility between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, and between Orthodox and other sects of Christianity, for instance.

However, the scene started to change gradually with the break out of protests in the streets in January 2011. Millions of Egyptians from different religious backgrounds flooded on to the streets to ask for freedom and social justice. At this historical moment, Egyptians transcended their differences.The Quran and the cross were raised in Tahrir square along with the Egyptian flag to announce a new inclusive Egypt.

Despite the unity of the Egyptian protestors in 2011, the sentiments shown in Midan El-Tahrir during the Egyptian revolution were obviously not enough to wipe clean the decades of religious intolerance and segregation. In the new era for Egypt, Egyptians of diverse religious backgrounds need to work hand in hand to rebuild their country and reap the fruits of the revolution. For this to happen, Egyptians—especially the youth—have to be proactive in dealing with religious diversity if they want to have harmony among various religious communities in Egypt.

For this harmony and understanding to take place, Egyptian youth coming from different religious backgrounds need to engage in a deep, authentic and respectful interfaith dialogue that will deepen their understanding of each other and appreciation of their diversity. For the dialogue to be effective, it needs to happen in a safe zone, where youth have the trust and freedom to tackle such a sensitive issue in their lives, and to engage in a transformative interfaith journey.
Lots of projects have taken place on ground to provide this space for youth to communicate with each other on a deeper level. Some projects have used arts and other creative tools that are sometimes more effective than verbal communication. One example of these projects is a book of short stories that was co-authored by Muslim and Christian friends who tell both shocking and strikingly humorous stories from their different religious communities. Another example is “Ana Masry”, a musical Egyptian band formed of Egyptian interfaith youth where their music is all about the richness of Egypt’s religious and cultural diversity.Other groups have used service and volunteerism as a way to bring Egyptians from different religious backgrounds together to engage in building one, unified community. This has proved to be a very effective way to build trust between people and embed within them a sense of having a shared cause, common goals, and a sense of unity. An example of this is the “Salafeyo Costa” group, a voluntary group that was established by a group of Muslims and who later were joined by youth coming from different religious backgrounds to help rebuild their community and engage in social and economic development programs. Such groups also provide the opportunity for youth to engage in discussions that revolve around important issues in their communities. An example of such an issue is gender roles and how different religions view men and women and the roles they play in a given community. Such discussions challenge the participants to view their communities in a different light, and use their critical and analytical skills to reflect on their beliefs, values and behaviors.

The more we have these safe spaces in Egypt where people from different faith backgrounds can come together to build a relationship of trust and empathy, the more we have hope in a more tolerant Egypt that embraces human diversity. Having these spaces is a necessity, as Dr. Martin Luther King put it: “Because we can never live apart, we must somehow learn to live with each other in peace.”

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Comments

nasreenamina's picture

My dear Mirette, you had

My dear Mirette, you had talked about an important issue: I am speechless and touched for this story. Is true muslims are not the only people with Faith in arabs countries and now, in the frame of arab springs there is a big opportunity to think about a different society: one with more equity for women and when all the people is equal to worship the way they chose and where the state protect the free of religion and multicultural expresions. Thank you for this sight, it was very educative for me. Warms Regards

One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion

Follow me @DivinaFeminista

mirette's picture

Thank you Nasreen for reading

Thank you Nasreen for reading the article and for you feedback!

Leslie Stoupas's picture

A Great Reminder!

Mirette,

This is such an inspiring reminder of how important it is that we talk to each other when we live in a diverse society. Fear of the unknown often inspires more fear, followed by hostility and violence, but a willingness to move past that fear and learn about the "other" can make deep and lasting changes to society. Thanks for reminding us how important it is that we learn about each other and see what is beautiful in each and every one of us! What changes we can make!

Leslie Stoupas

mirette's picture

Thank you Stella for

Thank you Stella for everything!

Stella Paul's picture

Small efforts can bring big change

Dear Mirette

Its almost the same situation in India where the Hindus and the Muslims are always at the loggerheads. And now, atrocities against Christians are also taking place. At this, I don't think there is a quick fix formula, because faith is a matter of heart and the change has to happen within people themselves. So, the more people take part in spreading the word of peace and 'unity in diversity', the better. By writing this post, you have played your part. I believe this is how things will change for better one day.

Love

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

mirette's picture

Thanks Stella!

Thanks Stella!

Abigail Fern's picture

Important Call for Change

Mirette,

Thank you for starting your article with your personal experience about opening up to friends of different faiths. This example demonstrates how small change can grow to be bigger change. Your topic is a very important one and I like how many different aspects of it you cover. In order for there to be peace, we must first be open to differences, and then focus on the similarities. The world, including Egypt, has a long way to go, but with voices like yours guiding the way, we are all one step closer to harmony and understanding.

Love,
Abby Diskin

mirette's picture

Yes, there is a long way

Yes, there is a long way Abby, but I believe small projects like this will truly make a difference!

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Wonderful and Timely

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us about religion in Egypt. It is such a timely story to share, given everything that is happening in Egypt and the surrounding countries. The current international media tends to only paint a picture of Egypt where right-wing Islamic parties are taking over government and day to day culture. It is heartening to hear of the projects you mention that are trying to bridge the divide between diverse communities in Egypt. How much do you see these projects happening at a national level? Is there much motivation to expand the projects?

Great job, keep up the good work!

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

mirette's picture

Unfortunately Rachel none of

Unfortunately Rachel none of these efforts are happening on the national level because racism is such a widespread issue in Egypt, that only a few are trying to break through it. A big part of the bigotry and hatred are actually embedded by the regime. The hope now is in the enlightened youth who really believe in diversity and love of the other.

bennettml's picture

Bridges

Mirette- thank you for this story about one of the most important bridges that need to be built to create a better world. Religion and lack of tolerance and understanding has been the foundation of killing and atrocity since the beginning of time. Your story is so well written and shows us how steps can be taken to change religious discussion into something that brings us together rather then something that tears us apart. Your story is a wonderful blend of personal and community. It pulls us in to learn more. Keep writing!

MLB

mirette's picture

Thanks Mary for everything!

Thanks Mary for everything!

parwana fayyaz's picture

Dear Mirette:

Thank you so much for your wonderful piece. I liked the way you said that, "Other groups have used service and volunteerism as a way to bring Egyptians from different religious backgrounds together to engage in building one, unified community." I saw the pictures and I was truly inspired by people's harmony for one another's freedom in the protest. I have written my piece on ethnic discrimination in Afghanistan. And one thing that is very important for being the "bridge" for filling the "gap" is to let one another feel free of talking about freedom, country as a home to all nations or ethnics, and to suffer together for goodness of their country and future generation.
I believe that harmony within a Bi-national or Multi-national country does exist and show up by the time when suffering and pain reach to its average. It will happen to my country as well. People will protest for betterment of their country rather then for their sects, beliefs, or religions.
Best regards,
Parwana Fayyaz

mirette's picture

Thanks Parwana for taking the

Thanks Parwana for taking the time to read the article. I have to read your article sometime, I've always been interested to read more about Afghanistan. I'm sure no one wants to live in bigotry no matter what their religion or belief is.

MaDube's picture

Hi Mirette

Great post and indeed a timely analysis given the October 2011 lashes and the continued tensions between Orthodox Christians and Muslims. I have one question for you though which you can answer if you feel comfortable doing so. When I was in Egypt (till November 2011), I attended a number of meetings in which the Muslim Brotherhood participated and one of the predominant sentiments I gathered from their representatives was that should they win then they want to turn Egypt into an Islamic democracy, modelled along the lines of the Turkish example. I know that the Brotherhood with their 47.2 % representation failed to get the majority of seats in parliament as an absolute majority would have made it easy for them to implement this idea. But they could easily caucus with other parties to implement reforms that could lead to Egypt becoming what they term an Islamic Democracy. First, do you see the Egyptian youth-especially the revolutionary youths accepting this kind of development? And second how do you see this impacting the ‘gap’ between the two main faiths in Egypt, Islam and Christianity? One other separate issue, you know that women from conflicting parties can reduce or ignite the flames of a conflict. How can Muslim and Christian women come together to build peace in Egypt? Do you think the way in which people express their different religions is actually a barrier to building the bridge between the two faiths? At the moment I picked up the vibe that it is easier for affluent Muslims and Christians to get along because their differences are not so obvious until they state which religion they believe in. For instance when I visited the community in 6th of October and the other time in Heliopolis, I could not tell who was Muslim or Christian because both Christians and Muslims did not wear headscarves’ and long sleeves to cover their arms. But a visit to Nasr City, Giza or Downtown would show you who is what because of the way they are dressed an they tend to stick together according to their different religions. I look forward to your thoughts.

Best,

MaDube

mirette's picture

Thank you MaDube for taking

Thank you MaDube for taking the time to go through the article. To answer your questions:

First, it's very tricky to talk about the revolutionary youth in general, since the youth we participated in the protests, including me, had different ideological backgrounds. Some of them envisioned the new Egypt as a secular country, while others wanted religion to be the basis of the constitution. However, I would say that social justice and equality was a main demand in the protests, which entails that all citizens are equal regardless of their religious backgrounds. It's very tricky to have a political party with a religious background to achieve this kind of justice.

Second, I would say that before the revolution, many Egyptians were living in a state of denial, denying the fact that Egyptians ARE religiously diverse. I guess now, and specifically after the recent clashes, people are becoming more aware of the different religions that exist in Egypt, and that racism is a problem that exists also, which needs to be worked on.

Lastly, I personally believe that a community that oppresses and marginalizes women will always be an unhealthy community in many ways. I believe in this matter though that the role men and women will be playing is equal, and again it's very easy to use religion as a means to justify the oppression of women if women aren't vocal in this community.

Hope that answered some of your questions.

Greengirl's picture

Applause for you Mirette

The revolution in Egypt has been on the news and your piece sure sheds a lot of light on the hydra headed problem of religious intolerance and extremism. It also reminds me of the efforts of Dr. Yehuda Stolov, the Executive Director of the Interfaith Encounter Association, based in Israel. Not so sure if you've heard about him. If not, you can look up www.interfaith-encounter.org. You may also wish to connect with him (yehuda@interfaith-encounter.org), as I am sure he will welcome that. Much as I liked the issues raised by Madube, I also found your responses very impressive. It is quite evident that you have deep insight into the prevailing ethno-religious and political differences in your country. Hopefully, the new Egypt will embrace equity, justice and fairness.
I sure enjoyed reading to the very last word.

Best Wishes,

Olanike.

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