Problems on hold

State-sponsored fanaticism

Youssef Sidhom

It appears that ridiculing other religions has become a lucrative business in Egypt these days. Those who make it a calling to disdain other faiths find a handy venue in the media to promote their ideas.

Sadly, this exploitation of religious sentiment to delude simple believers is adopted by followers of different faiths. Someone would begin by deriding the other religion, the followers of which would rush to defend their faith. The outcome is a hideous exchange of offences; and religions’ sublime objectives of carrying people to lofty standards of compassion and tolerance are lost. Instead, individuals lose sympathy as well as God’s grace.

It is not infrequent that I receive a message from a reader complaining of or replying to some article, book or tape cassette that carries material offensive to the Christian faith, with a request from the sender that Watani should print the message. I usually refrain from doing so when the source of the offensive material is some private entity. On one hand, I am confident that Christianity is strong enough to withstand any human offence.

On the other, I am aware that the motives behind disdaining Christianity have nothing to do with a desire for fuller knowledge or a pursuit of truth. If this were the case, individuals who publish such material might have first consulted relevant books or references. But I am sorry to say that such an attitude is the product of hatred and fanaticism, and an obsession with sorting people on religious lines—as though some will be blessed with an eternal life in heaven while others are doomed to hell.

Such material used to appear on newsstands and in bookshops. But, in recent years, even the Cairo Book Fair did not escape unscathed, with so-called Islamic publishing houses selling books and tapes that ridicule Christianity with all means at their disposal. They even hung huge banners provoking and humiliating Christians’ feelings. Nobody whosoever acted to put an end to such absurdity. Some may argue that there should be no limit to freedom of thought and expression, but I believe that such vulgar sectarian practice in a public book fair is a grave transgression. It sends a strong signal to the public that the State approves—even blesses—sectarianism.

Publishing houses affiliated to the State have been lately infiltrated by fanatics and fundamentalists. Every now and then, therefore, these houses publish products that stoop to deriding Christianity. One wonders at such degradation since the offender is not a private institution, but a public one financed by Egyptian taxpayers, Muslims and Christians alike. Responsibility, impartiality, and caution should have prevented the promotion of subversive fundamentalist thought which in this case takes the side of one group of taxpayers against the other.

Last January, Watani raised the question of the book ++The sedition of takfeer, or apostasy between Shias, Wahabis, and Sufis, by Dr Mohammed Emara, which was published by Ministry of Religious Endowments. The book included sections that dubbed Copts as apostates who deserve to be killed. The ministry hastened to apologise, withdrew the book off the market, and released a new edition void of ridiculing Christians and their faith.

Today Watani is tackling a similar case. The General Egyptian Book Organisation—a State-owned publishing house—this month released a book entitled Evidence of the Greatness of Mohammed's Message and Prophesies of it in the Books of the People of the Book written by Mohammed al-Sadat. Scattered sections of the book contain a disgraceful disdain of Christianity and the Bible, as well as baseless claims which seem to be the brainchild of the author’s imagination.

The ironic aspect, however, is that the author attacks the Bible—its Old and New Testaments—describing it as inconsistent and brimming with deviant ideas, then traces evidence that the Bible predicts the appearance of Prophet Mohammed as the last of the prophets. The self-evident question is how two such contradictory hypotheses could be juxtaposed side by side. How could one undermine the Bible’s credibility then use it as a reference at the same time?

The problem lies elsewhere. The Holy Bible is not captive to anybody’s acknowledgement and Christians are not waiting to have their faith approved by any party. But the issue is that a state-affiliated publishing house financed by taxpayers has descended into printing a book that deals a fatal blow to national unity and citizenship principles

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