The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Conversion Issues

A few days ago, Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights published a report entitled “Prohibited Identities� about the discrimination of the Egyptian governments against those who either wish to identify as something other than the three “revealed� religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) or those who wish to change their religion from Islam to something else. Although freedom of worship is clearly enshrined in Egyptian law, and conversion is nowhere forbidden, Bahai’s who have tried to register their religion, or Christians who converted to Islam and then decided they wanted to convert back to their original religion, have been flatly denied the right to do so by government officials (they’ve also been threatened and bribed). Some of these people have chosen to live without a national identity number and card, rather than file false information about their religious beliefs—but the lack of this national identity number means they are often barred form education, work, social services, etc. There are hundreds of cases in the Egyptian courts right now in which these people are trying to obtain the right to write whatever they want in their own records.  

I’ve been covering this issue for some time. You can see part of the results in a piece I filed recently for The World. Since that piece aired, there have been several new developments. Yesterday the case of Mohammed Hegazy—the first Muslim-born Egyptian citizen to go to court to try to officially change his religion to Christianity—was allowed to proceed. The next court session will be in January. Also, on November 17th a verdict will be handed down in the case of 12 former Christians sueing for the right to convert back officially to their religion. This case is expected to have wide repercussions on all similar cases (and the petitioners are optimistic about their chances of winning).

  I recommend reading the excellent HRW/EIPR report, but I just wanted to add a few remarks. One is that the discrimination against would-be converts and Bahai’s (and those who would just like to leave the religion line blank or saying “other�) may in part simply stem from the biases of Muslim government employees—but it is so widely and adamantly enforced that I can’t but assume it’s an actual policy, formulated and promulgated along internal channels, although I can’t quite understand to what ends. 

The other thing I’d like to get off my chest is my disappointment with Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa’s back-pedaling on this issue. In the summer, the Mufti had staked out a sensible position: conversion from Islam is a sin that will be punished in the afterlife, but not a crime that should be punished by the state. Apparently such subtlety is out the window these days. I saw the mufti on “Al Beit Beitak� recently, and he's back to saying that conversion from Islam cannot be countenanced (it also seemed to me that he was misrepresting Egyptian law and furiously spinning the meaning of personal freedom). Poor guy, he’s been issuing so many embarrassing fatwas lately he’s had to cry his way out of the mess. Unfortunately it doesn't look like there will be any helpful religious leadership on the conversion issue, which threatens to get ever more “sensitive.�