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Monday, April 15, 2013

Anti-Sectarian Campaign in Egypt Urges Citizens to Remove Religion From ID Cards

An Egyptian citizen's national identity card with the field for religion covered up by the phrase via Facebook An Egyptian citizen’s national identity card with the field for religion covered up by the phrase “none of your business.”

Egyptian activists have launched an online campaign against sectarianism in the wake of a deadly attack on mourners at Egypt’s main Coptic Christian Cathedral this month.

The “None of Your Business” campaign, driven by a Facebook group and a YouTube video, urges Egyptian citizens to cover up the section of their national identity cards that states their religion, to begin the process of disentangling religion and citizenship. The group’s Facebook page describes the initiative as “a campaign against interference in citizens’ private lives by the state, and by other citizens. We are for the removal of religion from official documents - the most important of which is the personal I.D. card - as a small but important step towards ending discrimination on the basis of religion.”

“My Faith Is My Own Business,” a video by the activist filmmaker Aalam Wassef in support of an anti-sectarian campaign in Egypt aimed at removing religion from national identity cards.

In response, supporters of the campaign have uploaded photographs of their I.D. cards to social networks with messages along the lines of “my faith is my own business” obscuring their religions. One inventive blogger even used text copied from the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.

One of the organizers, the British-Egyptian journalist and blogger Sarah Carr, explained in an e-mail to The Lede on Monday:

I reported on the Cathedral clashes last week, and was at Maspero when nearly 30 Christian protesters were killed; shot or run down by armored personnel carriers. I felt angry and powerless after both incidents until the idea of covering up the religion field on my I.D. card came to me. I couldn’t think of a single use for the religion field; the Egyptian state has a well documented thirst for bureaucracy and collecting information about its citizens but there is absolutely no need for it to have this information, which serves no purpose other than giving prejudiced state officials (and anyone else who sees the I.D. card) the opportunity to give a hard time to citizens.

So initially it was a polite “up yours” to the state: you can continue to follow divisive policies by classifying your citizens according to their religion while simultaneously bleating about citizenship but I won’t be part of it. I wrote “none of your business” on a piece of paper and covered up both the religion field and the social status field (married, single) because there is also no need for the state to document that information in this way, nor for the rest of the world to know about the progress of my romantic life.

I put this picture on Facebook and got an amazing and unexpected response from people who felt the same way. So I started the inevitable Facebook page with a friend, Mohamad Adam, and it currently has nearly 700 likes. Serendipitously, Aalam Wassaf was thinking about the same thing at the same time and made a great video, so it all came together.

Ultimately I would like I.D. cards to be abolished altogether, because they are unnecessary and sinister, but this is still some way off I think. Removing the religion field from I.D. cards is a symbolic first step towards this. If it ever did happen it would be a message that the state need not and should not have a role in defining, controlling or exploiting religious identity.

The campaign’s video was produced by Aalam Wassef, an artist, musician and blogger who made subversive Web videos during the Mubarak era under the pseudonym Ahmad Sherif.

In response to questions about the campaign from The Lede on Monday, Mr. Wassef wrote:

The idea was simply to invite Egyptians to mask the mention of their religion on the back of their I.D. (where the “religion field” is compulsory), as a statement that faith is a personal issue, and that it should stay that way.

From where I stand, starting such a campaign was a way of sparking a necessary public debate around the equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, freedom of speech, governance and religion…. Masking your religion on your I.D. is also a strong message sent to society at large, and not only to Islamists. Social pressure and domination over anyone who is not a Muslim man is, truly, a suffocating reality.

Finally, under Muslim Brotherhood rule, stating that your religion is your own business is a radical form of re-appropriation at a time when Islamists are posing as the sole gatekeepers of what it is to be a “good Muslim,” “a good Christian,” etc. Taking the liberty of masking your religion is, de facto, a way of challenging this imposture and discarding the threat of being called an infidel.

This campaign comes after repeated religious violence, the most recent examples being the killings in the village of Khusus and the siege of the Abasseya Cathedral in Cairo (that escalated with state security forces firing numerous rounds of tear gas inside the Cathedral).

These past two years, we have witnessed even more religious violence and manifestations of hatred. You remember of course the Maspero massacre in Oct. 2011. One should also remember the bombing of the Qiddissin church in Alexandria, on Dec. 31, 2010, 25 days before the revolution. But none of these are isolated cases. Egypt has, alas, a very long history of religious violence and segregation.

Over the past 50 years, there were several attempts to expose these issues, but as soon as you would come anywhere close, you would swiftly be accused of “insulting religion.” The Bassem Youssef case is a recent illustration of that, but there have been many before.

Robert Mackey also remixes the news on Twitter @robertmackey.