Arabs Without God: Chapter 8

Chapter 8: The privileges of religion

DURING the holy month of Ramadan, adult Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Fasting is supposed to encourage self-control but fasting under the threat of arrest is more about obedience than self-control. Using the law to ensure that people fast (as numerous Arab countries do) undermines the moral purpose of Ramadan –  just for the sake of keeping up appearances.

Gulf states tend to be the most strict in enforcing Ramadan. The typical penalty for offenders is a one-month jail sentence and/or a fine, and the law applies to everyone regardless of religion – on the grounds that seeing someone break their fast is offensive to Muslims even if the fast-breaker is not actually Muslim. In Kuwait, where most of the population are foreigners and non-Muslims account for more than 20% of the total,[i] restaurants and cafes must remain closed during daylight hours, though supermarkets can open. In Dubai, members of the public are officially encouraged to look out for anyone eating, drinking or smoking – even in the relative privacy of their own car – and report them to the police. According to Dubai police, 27 people were arrested for fast-breaking between 2005 and 2009, including a European non-Muslim.

In Egypt, which has a large Christian minority and no law requiring people to fast, the authorities nevertheless embarked on a crackdown in 2009, reportedly arresting more than 150 people in Aswan province and ordering the closure of cafes and restaurants in the Red Sea tourist resort of Hurghada. In the Delta area, seven youths were arrested for smoking in the street (smoking is considered to be fast-breaking) and fined LE 500 ($90) each. The wave of arrests seemed to be mainly the work of some especially religious-minded police officers but the authorities supported them on the grounds that public fast-breaking is a form of “incivility” covered by the Egyptian penal code. Clerics also backed the punishment of those who broke the fast in public. Sheikh Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a member of al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Centre, said: “People are free not to fast, but privately; doing so in public is not a matter of personal freedom … it reveals contempt for those who are fasting, for Ramadan and for the fasting as an obligatory religious duty.”[ii]

Arabs Without God is available in paperback from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK). It is also available in Arabic (online, free of charge) and in Italian under the title Arabi Senza Dio.

Arrests for Ramadan infringements are a regular occurrence in Algeria, too, though there has also been public debate about whether fasting should be a matter for the law or personal conscience. Six residents in the town of Biskra were arrested for eating and playing cards during the daylight hours of Ramadan in 2008. They were each fined 120,000 dinars ($1,770) though an appeals court judge later quashed the sentences, saying they violated constitutional provisions for freedom of belief. In a separate case, three men convicted of smoking during Ramadan in Algeria had their three-year jail sentences reduced to two months on appeal. In 2011, a group of men working on a construction site were imprisoned for eating during Ramadan even though they insisted they were not Muslims. Arrests usually occur when people break the fast in public but in a more unusual Algerian case police entered a house in Akbou following a tip-off and arrested young men who had been breaking the fast privately inside.

In Morocco in 2009, the Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles (known by its French acronym MALI) set out to challenge Article 222 of the penal code which says:

A person known as belonging to the Muslim religion who ostensibly breaks the fast in a public place during the time of Ramadan, without grounds permitted by this religion, is punished by imprisonment of one to six months and a fine of 12 to 120 dirhams [$1.50–$15].

The group, organised mainly through Facebook, decided to hold a picnic in a public place, citing the Moroccan constitution which guarantees religious freedom for all citizens, and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Morocco subscribes. The planned location for the picnic was a forest outside Mohammedia – chosen to minimise the risk of the action being seen as provocative. This was the first recorded protest against the country’s Ramadan law, and a Moroccan news website described what happened:

The meet-up was at the train station of Mohammedia, a few miles from Casablanca. Seventy people indicated their intention to attend but only a dozen made it through a cordon of security personnel … “We were surprised by the heavy police presence that we encountered” said Ms Zineb Elghzaoui, journalist and a founder of MALI along with Ibtissam Lachgar, a psychologist.

More than a hundred officers, including riot and mounted police and military personnel had besieged the station and its environs. “We had to show our backpacks and when they saw we had food, they [police] forced us to return to Casablanca on the next train,” explained Lachgar.

The security forces were also keeping back local youth groups who were attempting to confront the Ramadan fast-breaking protesters ... “Our aim was to show that we are Moroccans, but that we do not fast, and that we have a right to exist,” said Ms Elghzaoui. “And although the Moroccan Constitution guarantees freedom of worship, each year there are arrests” for public fast breaking, she added.

Ms Elghzaoui spoke about the case of a citizen who was attacked and denounced in the city of Fez and handed to the police by civilian vigilantes last year for drinking in the street. He was free hours later, after his family showed he was a diabetic.[iii]

A more successful protest took place in Algeria in 2013 after security forces questioned three young people for breaking the fast. Angry residents of Tizi-Ouzou, a largely Berber area with a relatively secular outlook and a history of tense relations with the central government, organised a public fast-breaking lunch which was attended by some 300 people. Bouaziz Ait Chebib, head of the local Kabylie Autonomy Movement, explained: “We called this gathering to denounce the inquisition and persecution of citizens who, because of their beliefs, refuse to observe the fast.”

Making criminals of people who eat in the daytime is just one rather mundane example of the special privileges granted by Arab governments to Islam – privileges that discriminate against those of other faiths and none. Public opinion also generally approves of such practices. Rather than giving a lead in combating discrimination, governments indulge popular prejudices and, in the process, help to legitimise private acts of discrimination by individual citizens.

Domestic workers who are not Muslim, Jewish or Christian are regarded as najis (impure) – which, in the eyes of some Muslims, means they cannot be allowed to cook meals for the family. “My mum would not hire a maid if she’s not from the Abrahamic religions,” Hasan, a Bahraini, said. “Some domestic workers claim to be Christian just to be hired,” he continued. “It’s quite obvious – they would be from Nepal, from India or Sri Lanka and their names would be clearly not Christian. We had a maid who I think was Buddhist, so my dad printed a picture [from the internet] of Jesus Christ and said ‘Just keep it in your room in case mum checks, to show you are definitely Christian’.”[iv]

That did not satisfy Hasan’s mother, however. She continued to voice her suspicions that the maid was Buddhist rather than Christian – eventually causing the maid to leave. The recruitment agency that provided the maid refused to take her back, on the grounds that no other household would employ her because she had left her job. “So dad bought her a ticket to Nepal along with a small sum for financial security to help her, out of kindness,” Hasan said. “My uncle’s house also returned their Indian maid since she is a Hindu.”

Religion and the state

AMONG the members of the Arab League, Islam is “the religion of the state” in Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the UAE and Yemen. In Algeria and Morocco, the official status of Islam is specified as an element of the constitution that can never be amended.

Sharia law, according to Yemen’s constitution, is “the source of all legislation” and in Oman it is “the basis of legislation”. Others are more ambiguous: sharia is “a main source of legislation” in Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, Qatar and the UAE, while in Egypt “the principles of Islamic sharia are the main source of legislation”. These alternative forms of words, though apparently less restrictive, bring uncertainty rather than clarity; they allow for laws to be shaped by religious teaching – mostly, but not always, and without specifying when sharia will apply.

Regardless of the actual wording, though, introducing “sharia” into constitutions opens the door for attempts to override legislative processes in the name of religion. It is also worth noting that sharia is not a codified body of law. There are multiple “schools” of Islamic jurisprudence with differing approaches, and individual scholars may also differ as to what the law should be.

The constitution of Iraq, approved by a referendum in 2005 following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, specifies Islam as “a fundamental source of legislation” and says “no law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established.” The talk here of “Islam” rather than “sharia” as a source of legislation may be a result of Iraq’s mixed population of Shia and Sunni Muslims, with differing versions of sharia.

Rather confusingly, the Iraqi constitution also says “No law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam” and “No law may be enacted that contradicts the principles of democracy”. These potentially opposing stipulations reflect conflicting political pressures at the time of drafting and it is unclear how, if at all, they might be reconciled in practice.[v]

Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution is similarly inconsistent, promising “liberty of conscience and of belief” while committing the state to “protection of the sacred and the prohibition of any offence thereto”. In Tunisia, the drafting of the new constitution generated much debate and, in the words of Amna Guellali of Human Rights Watch, attempted the impossible task of reconciling two radically different visions of society. “On the one hand, it caters to a hyper-religious audience that sees the government as a watchdog and protector of all things sacred. At the same time, [it] describes a society that leaves each person the freedom of religious choice, without intrusion or interference.”[vi]

Among Arab monarchies, the accession of a Muslim ruler to the throne might be assumed but, to make doubly sure, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar specify this in their constitutions too. Among Arab republics, the constitutions of Algeria, Mauritania, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen say the president must be a Muslim (a practising Muslim in the case of Yemen) – thus applying the principle of religious discrimination to the head of state. In Lebanon the picture is more complicated because of the mix of faiths and sects, but it is nevertheless discriminatory. Although Lebanon has no state religion the president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’a Muslim.

Disqualifying non-Muslims from presidential office might seem a fairly trivial matter since in any case it is almost certain that a Muslim will be chosen, but it violates the principle of equal rights for all citizens. This issue cropped up during debates about Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution and Nejib Gharbi, a spokesman for the Islamist Ennahda party, failed to see the point. “Islam is the religion of the majority of Tunisians, and the official religion of Tunisia is Islam. It is normal for the president of the country to be Muslim,” he said. While it’s true that the vast majority of Tunisians are Muslims (nominally, at least), there is a big difference between saying that on the balance of probabilities any Tunisian president is likely to be a Muslim and saying that the president must be a Muslim. An earlier statement from Ennahda had claimed that members of Tunisia’s (tiny) Jewish community “are citizens enjoying all their rights and duties” – but where the presidency is concerned that is clearly not the case.[vii]

To place this in a broader context, forty-nine countries worldwide have some kind of religious requirement for their head of state, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center. Nineteen of these (sixteen members of the British Commonwealth, plus Denmark, Norway and Sweden) have a ceremonial Christian monarch without political power. Among countries where the head of state has a more-than-ceremonial role, seventeen require the monarch or president to be Muslim – and these are mostly in the Middle East or North Africa. Meanwhile, Andorra and Lebanon specify a Christian head of state, Bhutan and Thailand specify a Buddhist head of state, and the Indonesian president is required to uphold Pancasila, a monotheistic political philosophy on which the state is based. In eight other countries, including Bolivia, Mexico and El Salvador, the religious requirement is of a secular kind, since it prohibits members of the clergy from becoming head of state.[viii]

Worldwide, the existence of official religions is not particularly unusual. A study in 2004 identified seventy-five out of 188 independent countries – 40% – as having a state religion.[ix] In some cases, as in most Arab countries, this is made explicit in the constitution but the picture is not always so clear-cut. Where it is not explicit, the government may still support a particular religion in various ways, such as financially or through the education system. Having a state religion also means different things in different countries. In some – Britain, for example – the effect on daily life is fairly small but the impact in the Arab countries puts them at the extreme end of the scale.

Although state religions do not conflict directly with international humanitarian law, in practice they almost inevitably lead to the abuse of rights. Examining this problem in 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief commented:

While the mere existence of a state religion may not in itself be incompatible with human rights, this concept must neither be exploited at the expense of the rights of minorities nor lead to discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief … Indeed, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of an application of the concept of an official “state religion” that in practice does not have adverse effects on religious minorities, thus discriminating against their members.[x]

Apart from the general atmosphere of religiosity there are political explanations for the prevalence of state religions in the Middle East and North Africa. One is that most of the governments are not freely elected and therefore need to seek other sources of legitimacy. Religious credentials, if available, can be a useful alternative. Thus the king of Saudi Arabia is known as the Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines (Mecca and Medina) – a title which according to Saudi protocol should always be mentioned first, before alluding to the fact that he is king. To a lesser extent, the kings of Morocco and Jordan also make use of religious credentials. Jordan’s monarch, Abdullah II, boasts of being a “forty-third generation direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad” and is official guardian of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, regarded as Islam’s third holiest site. The king of Morocco, meanwhile, is known as Amir al-Mu’minin – Commander of the Faithful.

Having a state religion also creates a legal pretext for the authorities to meddle in religious affairs and exercise some control over them – for example, by employing clerics who are amenable towards the regime and supervising the content of sermons. Where governments face serious challenges from Islamist opposition movements they sometimes try to claim the moral high ground for themselves as defenders of Islam. The intention, usually, is to appease or even undermine the Islamists but it does not always succeed and can easily lead to Islamists calling the shots where religion is concerned.

In 1991 the unsaintly Saddam Hussein changed Iraq’s flag by inserting the words Allahu akbar (“God is Greatest”), allegedly in his own handwriting. This was seen as an attempt to boost the regime’s Islamic credentials just a few days before the start of the war that ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Syria under the Assads provides an interesting example of a relatively secular regime that nevertheless shaped and promoted a specific view of religion. Although the Baathist regime was never particularly religious, the dominant position occupied by followers of the minority Alawi sect (which is generally regarded as an offshoot of Shia Islam) was potentially a weakness that could be exploited by the regime’s opponents. Put simply, the Alawites were at risk of being portrayed as heretics.

Hafez al-Assad responded to this in several ways. The first was to try to control the Sunni majority by channelling them into “acceptable” forms of Islam that posed no threat to his regime or the Alawis, as Torstein Worren explains:

He realised that in order to stabilise the country, he would have to make concessions to the Sunnis. Through his Corrective Movement, he sought to redo the most radical secular reforms of the earlier Baath regimes. In order to limit the clergy’s influence in the political sphere, he co-opted them by giving them increased power in the social realm. Therefore, instead of building a true secular society, the state was secular on the surface, but not in matters of family and personal law. Instead, this was governed by religious legislation for each religious community, meaning that Muslims are governed by Islamic sharia law and Christians by their churches’ religious rules.

The other side of the coin was to redefine the Alawis as ordinary, mainstream Muslims. Thus, for example, the Alawis were not allowed their own religious courts but were brought under the same sharia rules as the Sunnis.

This also helps to explain the official (but misleading) view of Islam that has been taught in Syrian schools. Worren continues:

The Islam presented in the schoolbooks is that of orthodox Sunni Islam, and there is no mention of the Islamic minorities living in Syria or of Shia Islam as a whole, or even of the different schools of thought within Sunni Islam. According to the schoolbooks, there is no diversity within Islam. This means that Alawism is never mentioned in schools in Syria – the epitome [of] the Official Discourse – and it falls implicitly under Islam. Syrians, therefore, learn nothing about each other’s beliefs and differences, and what they know or think they know is based on rumours and stories passed on from friends and relatives.[xi]

In the opinion of Syrian atheist Hashem al-Shamy, pursuing this policy has contributed to the sectarian rivalries that have since risen to the surface. “Basically, by not educating people about the other sects, the regime held everyone hostage to its version and deterred sects from learning about each other,” he said. “The less you know about someone the harder it is to accept them as peers. Increasing sectarianism is the product of such decades-long policies.”[xii]

Worldwide, the linkage between religion and states has a long history, not least in Europe. Although church attendance in Europe has declined steadily and society is now largely secular, the formal separation of church and state is not complete. In Britain, for example, the head of state is also head of the Anglican church. Britain, incidentally, retained a blasphemy law until 2008, but in the century before its abolition prosecutions had been extremely rare. In many parts of Europe churches enjoy privileges granted by the state, such as tax benefits or funding through taxes collected on their behalf, and religious schools exist in parallel with state education. In Europe, though, the continuing links between religion and the state are far less significant than in Arab countries today.

In contrast to much of Europe, the US has a formal separation of religion from the state but remains very religious socially (and even politically). The American example also seems to disprove the idea that religion automatically declines in a modern, technologically advanced society. If so, there must be some other explanation for the popularity of religion in the US and its relative unpopularity in Europe.

Various theories have been put forward to account for this difference. A number of factors seem to be involved but the “comfort factor” may be particularly relevant: there is plenty of evidence from around the world that feelings of insecurity draw people towards religion. Although the US is a prosperous country, social welfare services provided by the American government are far less extensive than they are in Europe. Thus it might be argued that while Europeans are more likely to look to the state for their welfare needs Americans are more likely to look to religion. Others have pointed to the large ethnic minorities in the United States where, again, a comfort factor may be important. The popularity of religion among black Americans has often been noted: black churches provide communal support and solidarity in what can often be a hostile environment.[xiii]

In terms of the religion providing a “comfort factor”, Arab countries are more similar to the US than to Europe. Religion clearly flourishes in the Middle East where there is turmoil, social insecurity or poverty, and Islamist movements have gained strength by providing welfare services that governments failed to provide. The exception to this may be the wealthy Gulf states which have more extensive welfare provision – implying, perhaps, that religion would decline there without strong government support.

Another theory which may be of some relevance to the Arab countries looks at religion in terms of a marketplace where state religions are granted a monopoly or protected from competition. One of the first to view religion in this light was Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century economist:

According to Smith, the key aspect of state religion is its promotion of the monopoly position of the favoured religion. This promotion works partly through limitations on entry of competitors and partly through subsidies. Smith’s analysis focuses on the adverse consequences from the monopoly positions of the Anglican Church in England and the Catholic Church in other countries. He argues that monopoly providers of religious services tend – as monopolies do generally – to become non-innovative and indolent. Consequently, service quality and religious participation decline.[xiv]

This has been explored further in recent times, notably by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke in their book, Acts of Faith.[xv] The other side of the argument is that while state-sponsored religions are ultimately doomed to lose followers, a “free market” in faith forces religions to become self-reliant and allows them to flourish, so long as they make the effort to satisfy their “customers”. A prime example of that is the United States. As far as Arab countries are concerned, the marketplace argument suggests that state support does not serve the long-term interests of Islam – though serving the interests of Islam is not necessarily the intention behind state support. In practice, governments rarely embrace religion out of the goodness of their hearts but because of the political benefits they hope to gain from doing so.

Religion in Arab schools

THE PRIVILEGES granted to religion by Arab governments raise specific issues in connection with education. States which are parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights have a duty to ensure that the religious and moral education of children is “in conformity” with their parents’ convictions. Among other things, this means there is a right to opt out if the type of religious education provided by the state conflicts with parents’ beliefs. All Arab countries are parties to the convention, with four notable exceptions: Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

There is an important distinction to be made here between religious education and religious instruction. Religious education teaches about religion(s) in general while religious instruction is the teaching of a specific religion or belief based on its tenets. There is often public demand for religious instruction, as a UN report acknowledged:

In the understanding of many parents, the development of knowledge and social skills of their children through school education would be incomplete unless it includes a sense of religious awareness and familiarity with their own religion or belief. Hence the provision of religious instruction in the public [state] school system may be based on the explicit or implicit wishes of considerable currents within the country’s population.[xvi]

However, the report went on to say that religious instruction in state school systems “must always go hand in hand with specific safeguards” for religious minorities and respect for the convictions of parents and guardians who do not believe in any religion. It added that the possibility of opting out should not be linked to “onerous bureaucratic procedures” or penalties.

While the purpose of religious instruction is to familiarise pupils with their own religious tradition, religious education aims to broaden their knowledge about different religions and beliefs: “In this sense, providing information about religions is not part of theological teaching, but instead comes closer to other disciplines, such as history or social sciences.” This kind of teaching, if delivered in a neutral way, has the positive effect of encouraging tolerance and combating prejudice, in the view of the UN report:

Information about religions and beliefs should always include the crucial insight that religions – as a social reality – are not monolithic; the same applies to non-religious belief systems. This message is particularly important, because it helps to deconstruct existing notions of a collective mentality that is stereotypically, and often negatively, ascribed to all followers of various religions or beliefs …

It is important that textbooks and other materials draw a sufficiently complex picture of the various religions or beliefs and their internal pluralism. Furthermore, existing alternative voices within religious traditions, including voices of women, should always have their appropriate and fair share of attention …

Only by overcoming monolithic perceptions can we become aware of the real diversity among human beings.[xvii]

There are fundamental – probably irreconcilable – differences between this idea of using religious education to broaden the minds of students and what actually happens in many Arab schools where teaching can have the opposite effect of promoting intolerance and monolithic perceptions. Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law, for instance, openly declares that the education system is to be used for “instilling the Islamic faith in the younger generation”, and in Libya, when school textbooks were revised following the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, Grand Mufti Sadeq al-Ghariani objected to a paragraph suggesting that people were free to choose their own religion.[xviii]

Kuwait, despite being a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, does not provide the opt-out required by the covenant (unless parents pay for private education). The government requires Islamic religious instruction for all students in state schools, largely based on the Sunni interpretation of Islam even though Kuwait has a substantial Shia minority unofficially estimated at 30%-40% of the population. Some textbooks “refer to certain Shia religious beliefs and practices as heretical”.[xix] Iraq, another party to the covenant, does not require non-Muslim students to take part in religious instruction in state schools – at least in theory. However, there have been reports of non-Muslim students feeling pressurised to do so by teachers and classmates: “There were also reports that some non-Muslim students were obligated to participate because they could not leave the classroom during religious instruction.”[xx]

Religion on identity cards

CITIZENS’ religious affiliation is recorded on national identity cards in a number of Arab countries. This is a controversial practice which, in the words of a UN special rapporteur, “appears to be somewhat at variance with the freedom of religion or belief that is internationally recognised and protected”. The justification usually given is that the authorities need to know people’s religion because different legal systems apply to different faiths in the area of personal status law – marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, etc – but recording it on ID cards also opens the door for discrimination by officials, police and others against religious minorities.

Apart from the question of whether anyone should be forced to disclose their religion, at a purely practical level serious difficulties can arise if people change their religion or choose not to be linked with any particular faith. In Egypt, by law, everyone must obtain an identity card on reaching the age of sixteen. Without a card, Egyptians effectively become non-citizens, unable to work legally, study beyond secondary school, vote, operate a bank account, obtain a driver’s licence, buy and sell property, collect a pension, or travel. This places officials in an extremely powerful position regarding the issuing of ID cards and the religion that is recorded on them.

It is not uncommon for Egyptians to change their religion – sometimes out of conviction but often because of marriage to someone from a different faith (since Egypt has a large Christian minority and, under sharia, a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man). Christians also sometimes convert to Islam for the purpose of divorce, since the Coptic Orthodox Church has restrictive rules about divorce.

In practice, registering a conversion to Islam is very straightforward in Egypt but conversion from Islam to another faith is much more problematic. Egypt’s Civil Status Law says citizens can change information on their identity documents, including their religious affiliation, simply by registering the details with the interior ministry. In theory the ministry cannot refuse but the courts and officials have sometimes argued that registering a conversion from Islam would amount to endorsing the “sin” of apostasy – which they claim would be unconstitutional because the constitution says Islam is the religion of the state.

Some have also argued that converting from Islam to Christianity breaks the law by showing “contempt” for a “divinely-revealed religion” or that it poses a threat to public order. Conversions do sometimes lead to violence if they become public knowledge but that is partly a result of the government’s failure to tackle sectarianism and promote tolerance of religious diversity. In a report examining state interference with religious freedom in Egypt, Human Rights Watch commented:

Egyptians who are born Muslim but convert to Christianity face considerable social opprobrium as well as official harassment. For these reasons, very few if any Muslim converts to Christianity have initiated the necessary formal steps to revise their identification documents to reflect their change in religion, as permitted by the Civil Status Law. An undetermined number have emigrated to other countries, or live anonymously and surreptitiously with forged documents ... Some who nonetheless have made their conversion public say that security officials have detained them on charges of violating public order and, in some cases, have subjected them to torture.[xxi]

Human Rights Watch also found Christians in Egypt who had been involuntarily converted to Islam by officialdom, sometimes without their knowledge. Officials might even assign them a new name if their original name indicated they were not Muslim.

One such case involved Fadi Naguib Girgis who had been born into a Christian family in Alexandria. When he was five years old his father converted to Islam, left home and adopted a Muslim surname (since Girgis, the Egyptian equivalent of George, is a name used by Christians). Fadi, however, continued to use Girgis as his surname – it was the name shown on his birth certificate – and he regarded himself as Christian. At the age of nineteen he moved to Cairo for work and applied for a new ID card:

My [paper] ID was falling apart, and I wanted the national identity card … They pulled up my name; it was listed not as Girgis but as Abd al-Hakim [his father’s new Muslim surname]. And the religion was wrong [listing Fadi as a Muslim]. They charged me with forging my ID, my birth certificate, my diplomas, said I was trying to convert from Islam to Christianity. They confiscated my documents and transferred me to the public prosecution office.[xxii]

He was detained for five days then released after intervention by the Coptic pope. The public prosecutor eventually dropped the forgery charges for lack of evidence and advised him to reapply for an identity card; he did so and the application was again refused.

In the days when government officials filled in identity cards manually it had often been possible to persuade them to enter a dash in the “religion” section or leave it blank. But in 1995 Egypt began introducing computerised ID cards and the computer system was set up to allow only three options in the “religion” section: Muslim, Christian or Jew (the three “heavenly” religions as they are referred to in Arabic). This meant that anyone who refused to accept one of the three options could not be issued with an identity card.

Apart from those who would prefer not to be associated with any religion, the people most affected by this were members of the Baha’i faith, thought to number around 2,000 in Egypt. In 2006, Hossam Ezzat Mahmoud and his wife went to court and initially won the right to register themselves and their two daughters as Baha’is. This upset conservatives and Islamists, so the government decided to appeal. The Supreme Administrative Court then overturned the lower court’s decision, on the grounds that Baha’ism is not a recognised religion and that Muslims who adopt it are apostates. The verdict was greeted with shouts of “Allahu Akbar! Islam is victorious!” from members of the public in court and a columnist for al-Gomhouriya newspaper declared: “If Baha’ism is officially recognised, worshippers of cows, the sun and fire will want to jump on the bandwagon.”

In addition to being regarded as a heretical offshoot of Islam, the Baha’i faith is unpopular in Egypt because of its accidental connections with Israel. In 1868, after being banished from his native Persia, the founder of the faith, Baha’u’llah, was exiled with his family and a small band of followers in the Turkish penal colony of Acre. As a result of this, the faith’s international headquarters was established in the Acre/Haifa area which later became part of Israel. In the 1960s, President Nasser withdrew state recognition from the Baha’i community and confiscated their property. Nasser’s decree was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 1975 in a ruling which said that only the three “revealed” religions were protected by the constitution: the Baha’is were entitled to their beliefs but practice of the Baha’i faith was a “threat to public order”.

Meanwhile, the Baha’is continued their legal battle over identity cards and in 2008 the Court of Administrative Justice ordered the interior ministry to place a dash in the religious affiliation section for Baha’i citizens on their ID cards and birth certificates. On that occasion the Egyptian government did not appeal.

Lebanon’s first secular marriage

MARRIAGE in Lebanon is regulated according to the customs of the country’s 18 officially-recognised sects. Some types of mixed-faith marriage are not allowed (the rules are very complicated) and there is no provision for marriages involving people of unrecognised faiths (Hindus and Baha’is, for example), people who have no religion or those who simply want a non-religious ceremony. Lebanon does, however, recognise marriages made abroad and this has resulted in an endless succession of couples trekking across the sea to get married in Cyprus.

In 2012, rather than taking the Cyprus option, Khouloud Sukkariyeh and Nidal Darwish, who had been born into different sects (Sunni and Shia), decided to challenge the system – and the result was the first officially-recognised civil marriage in Lebanon.[xxiii]

They began the process by having their sectarian affiliations removed from their identity documents – a step that has been permitted in Lebanon since 2009. According to an almost-forgotten decree issued in 1936 under the French Mandate, their newly-acquired lack of a religious affiliation made them “subject to civil law” but this placed them in uncharted territory as far as their proposed marriage was concerned since Lebanon had no secular version of its sectarian personal status laws and there were no existing rules for other aspects of civil marriage, such as inheritance and divorce.

A lawyer drew up what the couple hoped would be a legally-valid marriage contract citing various documents, including the Lebanese constitution and Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“the right to marry and to found a family”). They also had to obtain a form signed by the local mayor saying there were no objections to their marriage and post a public announcement 15 days before the wedding. There were still doubts, though, over whether the interior ministry would officially recognise it.

News of the civil marriage ignited fresh debate about Lebanon’s confessional system, with President Michel Sleiman declaring his support for it and prime minister Nijab Mikati opposing it. The Grand Mufti of Lebanon then joined the fray, threatening to excommunicate any Muslim member of parliament or government minister who supported the legalisation of civil marriage:

Every Muslim official, whether a deputy or a minister, who supports the legalisation of civil marriage, even if it is optional, is an apostate and outside the Islamic religion ...

[Such officials] would not be washed [for burial when they died], would not be wrapped in a shroud, would not have prayers for their soul in line with Islamic rules, and would not be buried in a Muslim cemetery. [xxiv]

In an apparent threat to resist any legislation allowing civil marriage, the mufti, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, warned that religious scholars would not hesitate to do their duty. “There are predators lurking among us, trying to sow the bacteria of civil marriage in Lebanon,” he said. A prominent Christian Maronite MP, Sami Gemayel, hit back denouncing the mufti’s comments as “a violation of the civil state and every Lebanese person’s right which is stipulated in the constitution”.[xxv]

Despite the prime minister’s insistence that “civil marriage is a sensitive issue and we cannot afford a new dispute in this country”, in April 2013 – almost six months after the wedding ceremony – the country’s caretaker interior minister, Marwan Charbel, finally approved the contract, making the marriage official.

The following September, Khouloud Sukkariyeh gave birth to a son, Ghadi, who reportedly became Lebanon’s first sect-free baby. President Sleiman welcomed the news with a message on Twitter: “Congratulations to Nidal and Kholoud and to all Lebanese on the birth of Ghadi, first newborn registered without a sect”.

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[ii]. “Furore as 155 arrested for not fasting.” The National, 10 September 2009.

[iii]. “Death Threats and Arrests for Facebook Ramadan Fast Break Protesters.” Morocco News Board, undated.

[iv]. Author’s interview, April 2014.

[v]. For further discussion see "Iraq's Permanent Constitution". US Commission on International Religious Freedom, March 2006.

[vi]. Guellali, Amna: “The Problem with Tunisia’s New Constitution.” Human Rights Watch, 3 February 2014.

[vii]. Whitaker, Brian: “Tunisia’s discriminatory new constitution.” Blog post, 12 December 2011.

[viii]. “In 30 countries, heads of state must belong to a certain religion.” Pew Research Center, 22 July 2014.

[ix]. Barro, Robert and McCleary, Rachel: “Which countries have state religions?” Working Paper 10438, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA. 2004.

[x]. Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt. A/HRC/19/60, 22 December 2011.

[xi]. Worren, Torstein: Fear and Resistance: The Construction of Alawi Identity in Syria. Master thesis in human geography. University of Oslo, Dept of Sociology and Human Geography, 2007. pp 49-52.

[xii]. Author’s interview, September 2014. Hashem al-Shamy is a pseudonym.

[xiii]. For further discussion, see: Zuckerman, Phil: “Secularization: Europe Yes, United States No.” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2004.

[xiv] . Barro and McCleary, op cit.

[xv]. Stark, Rodney and Finke, Roger: Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Oakland: University of California Press, 2000.

[xvi]. Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt A/HRC/16/53. 15 December 2010.

[xvii]. ibid.

[xviii]. “Grand Mufti calls for changes to school textbooks.” Libya Herald, 18 October, 2012.

[xix]. US State Department: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2012.”

[xx]. US State Department: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2012.”

[xxi]. “Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom.” Human Rights Watch/EIPR, November 2007.

[xxii]. Ibid.

[xxiii]. Whitaker, Brian: “Sects and marriage in Lebanon.” Blog post, 28 January 2013.

[xxiv]. Whitaker, Brian: “Mufti’s threats over civil marriage in Lebanon.” Blog post, 29 January 2013.

[xxv]. “Gemayel slams Lebanon mufti over civil marriage remarks.” Daily Star, 29 January 2013.