"Balances" in the Egyptian society

Mounir Bishay

The Egyptian media has been heavily preoccupied of late with the issue of religious conversions, and authorities usually welcome Christians who seek to convert to Islam. The same cannot be said of the opposite, that is conversions from Islam to Christianity, with many Muslim scholars maintaining that ridda and the punishment that goes with it should apply.

One particular case attracted my attention. It is that of a 25-year-old Egyptian Muslim-born young man who converted to Christianity and married a 23-year-old Muslim-born Egyptian young woman who also converted to Christianity. The couple are now expecting their first child, and made news when they went to court trying to get their conversion officially recognised so their unborn baby would be born a Christian. The case is a first in Egyptian history and many await, eagerly and cautiously, the outcome.

Due to the sensitivity of the issue, I carefully followed the debates surrounding it in the Egyptian media. I was surprised that the general consensus was to forbid the young man’s request to change religion. On a personal level, it was said he was not sincere but was a mere seeker of fame. From a religious standpoint, the ridda issue was invoked. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss ridda, neither may I speak of this man’s motives, since I do not personally know him. Moreover, I do not believe it is my, or anyone else’s business to judge what is going on in the man’s conscience. Such judgment should be between him and his Creator.

A specific argument attracted my attention, though. It is the assertion that it would somehow undermine the "balances" of society if he—or others—were allowed to convert. I was astounded to know some people would sacrifice indisputable individual rights just because they believe they do not agree with the trends of society. I could not help wondering if some people are making a sacred cow out of societal values that none dare touch.

I pondered what I had discovered about Egyptian society after being away for almost three decades. It was a completely different society from the one I had once known. Those who live in Egypt may not notice the changes, but these are certainly shocking for anyone who has been away for any length of time. For example, one cannot miss the appearance of religiosity especially as regards the way people dress. Most women wear hijab and many men grow beards. There are religious overtones in the everyday language of the people. It does not take much time, however, for one to see this is only superficial, and that real religious values are lacking. Chastity, honesty, love, mercy and kindness are not equally demonstrated in dealings among people. I heard new mottos circulating that indicate that people would accept and do most anything if they feel it will get them ahead. People are racing to make money and, no matter how much they accumulate, it appears to be never enough. Everything is available in the marketplace, but the prices are so outrageous that many things are out of reach for most people. There is however a small wealthy minority who can afford to buy what they wish. This creates various degrees of envy and competition, moral or immoral. Egyptian society is going through drastic changes; religiously, economically, and socially. Such are causing people to rethink the traditional values and to replace them with values foreign to Egyptians.

Do we desire such current, changing values to be the foundation of our lives and to dictate what we accept and what we reject? If society rejects a perfectly legitimate issue that will help preserve individual rights, which side should we take? The side of legitimacy or the side of supporting the unreasonable and flawed dictates of society?

I understand that if security is the main consideration, it is easier to maintain peace when things go the way that the majority within society is most apt to accept. While this might be the easiest way to accomplish peace, is it the moral and right way? Should we sacrifice the rights of people to achieve peace in society? Where then are the security forces that are supposed to protect individuals from immoral and unjust masses?

At this point, some may object on the grounds that the views of society represent the opinion of the majority. They argue; in a democracy, the majority’s opinion rules. They sneer at those who call for democracy accusing them of being selective and hypocritical about applying it.
These people misunderstand the true meanings of democracy. Democracy does not mean that one person over the 50 per cent may do whatever he or she wishes regardless of the rights of others. If that were the case, the whole foundation of the society would be turned upside down. In addition to the concept that the majority rules, other important elements are part of a democracy and must be considered. For instance, in the United States, the White majority cannot enact a law that would enable them to deport all Blacks. Even if the majority did accept such a law, could it become the law of the land? Of course not, for one thing, it would be deemed unconstitutional and would certainly be rejected by America’s Federal court.

The word "balances" of society has been used as a cliché to deny the legitimate rights of many people in Egypt. We have seen it used not only concerning the right to change religions, but also about a host of other injustices. It has been used to deny building permits for churches; forbidding Christians to advance to high-ranking jobs; and in the lack of just punishments for Muslims who commit crimes against Christians.

In all these situations the victims are asked to accept injustice because of the "balances" of society. "Balances" of society has become an elastic word that can be applied to almost anything and everything. It is also a word that sounds nice, but has a nasty, wicked, objectionable meaning. It simply means that the majority of people in the Egyptian society no longer accept the minority that differs from them in religion.

The government has choices to make. It may accept the present situation and continue with business as usual. Or it may pause and ask why have things in our nation sunk to such a shameful level? They should be contemplating how to change the society and get it back on the right track.

Great leaders are the courageous ones who swim against the tide. They are able to challenge the status quo and change the direction of their nations for better. They deserve recognition and the honor of being numbered with those who changed history.

It is wrong when the balances of Egyptian society tilt against the legitimate rights of two of its citizens. This is not the Egypt I am proud of. I pray that my Egypt will again become an oasis of hope and security for the weak and oppressed who seek refuge against tyranny and injustice.

Mounir Bishay is president of Christian Copts of California
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