Define pluralism: NYTs in Egypt

mbrotherhoologoAn encouraging headline got me started on this memo from Cairo in Saturday's New York Times: "Hints of Pluralism in Egyptian Religious Debates." Why? Because that would be pretty big news. Egypt is, like many countries in the Muslim world being run by conservative religious tradition and an autocratic ruler, not known as a place of intense religious diversity. Egypt has about 12 million Coptic Christians and a few hundred thousand Protestants, a few thousand Baha'is and less than 200 Jews. The remaining 84 percent, or so, of Egyptians are Muslim -- and conversion is not encouraged.

In fact, just last week the Los Angeles Times chronicled the trials of a Muslim convert to Christianity who has been forced to live like a fugitive:

"Islam is the only thing Egyptians are 150% sure of. If you reject Islam, you shake their belief and you are an apostate, an infidel," he says. "I can see in the eyes of Muslims how much my conversion has really hurt them."

Egypt's Coptic Christians, who represent about 10% of the population, have veered from coexistence to violence with the Muslim majority. Bloody clashes recently erupted between Copts and Muslims over land disputes and restrictions on churches.

But converts, such as Gohary, are even more unsettling. Islamists believe that Muslims who forsake their religion should be punished by death.

Gohary wants to be called Peter and refuses to yield. He has filed a lawsuit asking an Egyptian court to officially recognize him as a Copt by changing the denomination on his national ID card from Muslim to Christian. The court ruled against him in June, finding that Gohary's baptism documents from the Coptic Orthodox Church were "legally invalid." The verdict is on appeal.

And that article didn't even mention the Muslim Brotherhood. So, like I said, hints of pluralism would be news to me and good news for many, many Egyptians.

But after reading the NYT story, which seemed surprisingly anchored by the assertions of a few like-minded liberal thinkers, I had the feeling that the headline should have replaced "hints" with "hope" and "debates" with "reality."

Reporter Michael Slackman had couched his story's main claim within the framework of relativity:

It is a testament to how little public debate there has been over the value of pluralism, or more specifically of the role of religion in society, that so many see the mere chance to provoke as progress. But now, more than any time in many years, there are people willing to risk challenging conventional thinking, said writers, academics and religious thinkers

Slackman offered as evidence an encouraging development for the Baha'i, a persecuted minority in a nation that officially only recognizes Muslims, Christians and Jews:

Nine years ago the state stopped issuing identification records to Bahais unless they agreed to characterize themselves as members of one of the three recognized faiths. The documents are essential for access to all government services.

An independent group, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, won a court order on behalf of the Bahais that forced the government to issue records leaving the religious identification blank. The first cards were issued this month. While the decision was aimed specifically at solving the problem faced by the Bahai community, the case tapped into the evolving debate, said the group's executive director, Hossam Bahgat.

"It is an unprecedented move to recognize that one can be Egyptian and not adhere to one of these three religions," Mr. Bahgat said. Still, he remains less than optimistic; most of the public reaction to the Bahais' legal victory was negative, Mr. Bahgat said.

OK, that's a hint: But lets be clear about something. Pluralism, an incredibly complicated phenomena that isn't unpacked here, involves a lot more than just being extended some of the same basic rights given to members of the majority religion. And it expects a lot of the members of a society at large.

It's difficult to imagine Egyptian society adopting the liberal pluralism of the United States or the liberal secularism of Europe. I imagine, however, that Maher El Gohary would settle for a lot less.

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