Freedom of Belief Restrained in the Religion Field: Part 1

alexandria-protester-with-blacked-out-id-570(Photo by Ahmed Atteya for Al-Monitor, used by permission)

On August 8, 2006, the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) held a forum to discuss a proposal to abolish the religion field from national identity cards. In the introduction to a book issued after the forum, which included different contributions from the forum, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the president of the NCHR, pointed out that “One of the most interesting things that made many participants raise questions was the consensus of the stances and views among a trend led by the representative of Sawaseya (all are equals) Center, founded by Muslim Brotherhood lawyers, and the decisive refusal of the proposal by the representatives of the Ministry of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. Some participants even found the justifications and phrases used by both parties were corresponding, if not identical.”[1]

This observation reflects a typical scene that has played out for decades, where the views of the authorities and state legal institutions correspond with those of the Islamists, particularly with respect to the issues of freedom of religion and beliefs, including the demand to remove the religion field.

Is the State-Islamists Consensus on the Religion Field Over?

Thus, it came as a surprise when, in June 2016, the spokesperson of parliament’s majority pro-government “Coalition in Support of Egypt,” Representative Alaa Abdel Moneim, proposed a bill against discrimination. Article 3 of the proposed bill states, “The religion field be abolished from all national identification and all official documents. No citizen may be obliged to disclose his/her religion, unless such disclosure is necessary for a legal arrangement such as heritage or marriage.”

The bill is one of several bills proposed by members of parliament to meet the constitutional requirement of establishing an anti-discrimination commission. Apart from the renewed calls for the controversial proposal, the bill features other items furthering the crisis surrounding freedom of religion and belief. Examples include the “prohibition of the establishment of societies, associations or any other gatherings on a religious basis,” which would threaten the freedom of assembly for religious sects and groups. The bill “criminalizes propaganda and activities affecting national unity,” which has usually been enforced against attempts to disclose religious discrimination or sectarian problems. The bill also “criminalizes the contempt of religions and creeds,” another legal ground to undermine religious freedom of expression. The latter provision is an addition to Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, often invoked in “religious contempt” (i.e., blasphemy) trials, which are gravely on the rise in recent years.

Regardless of other details of the problematic bill, the Coalition in Support of Egypt in parliament does not seem unified on the project. Coalition member and head of the Religious Committee Osama al-Abd announced his opposition to the project, especially the abolition of the religion field. In response to such criticisms, Abdel Moneim proposed deferring the discussion of this article pending the discussion of the other articles. However, the Legislative Committee decided to defer the discussion of all anti-discrimination bills pending the opinion of the state and “relevant authorities.”

Awaiting the opinion of the “relevant authorities” reaffirms the consensus among the state and Islamists on the issue. This recurrent demand is a symbolic achievement that diminishes the severity of religious discrimination, in some instances. Alone, it is not sufficient nor a deep demand, yet if met, it would pave the way for deeper debates toward substantive changes in the religious policies of the Egyptian state.

The religion field with its dimensions formulates the relationship between the state and citizens based on their creeds. It raises multiple questions on the various aspects of the status of freedom of religion and belief in Egypt.

Religion Field: Violation of the Right to Privacy

The demand to abolish the religion field from national identification is recurrent in media and political debates. However, these debates do not show whether this demand concerns abolishing the religion field in national identification applications, or to merely not show the religion on the identification card itself.

Decree No. 1121 of 1995, a regulation issued by the Ministry of Interior which established the Executive Bylaws of the Personal Status Law, includes a template of the application form to acquire or amend an identification card; the form requires the applicant to list his or her religion.[2] Moreover, Article 33 of the bylaws identifies the data printed on IDs, stipulating:

Identification cards contain the following information for each citizen:

  • Place of issuance,
  • National number,
  • Full name,
  • Residence,
  • Gender,
  • Religion,
  • Profession,
  • Name of husband (for married females), and
  • Expiration date.[3]

Other data documented by the state not shown on identification cards include the name of the bearer’s mother, the wife’s name for males, and whether the applicant has been divorced.

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1966 and ratified by Egypt in 1982, requires that “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Even if it were necessary for the state to document the religions and creeds of citizens, the legal obligation to show religion or creed on identification documents violates the above article without justification. State agencies have access to all identification data, both printed and unpublished, which might show in private documents. Accordingly, such data is used by citizens in personal status matters, wills, or religious issues. This forced disclosure results in extreme official and social restrictions against Bahá’ís and makes Christians prone to discrimination in places of work and study and access to jobs opportunities.

The legal obligation to disclose religion to the state for documentation purposes, even if it is not shown on identification documents, can be overcome. In numerous countries, states suffice by the documentation of religious bodies and sects of their members, whereby religious interactions occur or in the dealings where citizens choose to be dealt with based on their religions and sects.

However, Egypt’s legal choices threaten the religious policies of the state, as it adopts Islam as the official religion. The state is legally the sole administrator of religion through official religious institutions, namely al-Azhar, which fills a variety of roles; the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which oversees mosques; and Dar al-Ifta, the government body which issues religious legal opinions. As such, all Muslims in Egypt are forcibly followers of the state and its religious institutions in practicing their religion and for personal status matters. People are not even allowed to adopt any Muslim school of thought outside the officially adopted Sunni school, as illustrated in legislation or decisions of al-Azhar, the endowments ministry, and Dar Al-Ifta.

Contrary to the perception that liberating state policies with respect to documenting religion pertains to non-Muslims only, opening the door to documenting religion in religious institutions selected by citizens directly hits the Egyptian religious policies and the principle of an official religion. It would allow some Muslim groups the freedom to adopt religious schools different from the state’s official school in their personal status and worship. This would allow for a diversity within Islam—which is firmly rejected by the state as it fully controls Muslim affairs through the official religious institutions. The state also benefits from such hegemony politically and warns against the gravity of Muslim diversity on the state and society.

[1] Boutros Boutros-Ghali, The Fourth Discussion for the NCHR and NGOs on the Proposal to Remove the Religion Field from National Identification Cards, Cairo: NCHR, 2006, 6.

[2] The Egyptian Official Gazette (al-Jareeda al-Rasmia), February 27, 1995, 73

[3] Ibid., 39