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The latest victims of “balances” in the Egyptian society

By Mounir Bishay- Los Angeles

Twenty five year old Mohammed Ahmed Higazi (L), and his pregnant wife Zeinab, 23, read from the bible August 2 in their home in a Cairo. Higazi who converted from Islam to Christianity has launched a bid to have the change recognized officially in what is believed to be the first such case, he told AFP today. In Egypt, identity cards say whether the bearer is Christian or Muslim, but those who convert to Christianity complain that administrative hurdles prevent them being able to change their official papers

Mohammed Higazy (25), an Egyptian young man who was born a Muslim but converted to Christianity at age 16 and changed his name to the Christian name Bishoy. Zeinab (23), an Egyptian young woman, was also born a Muslim, converted to Christianity and changed her name to Katerina. The couple are now married and expecting their first child. They made news when Mohammed decided to go to court in Egypt trying to get their conversion officially recognized so that their unborn baby would be born a Christian. The case attracted much attention internationally as well as it has in Egypt. It’s the first time in Egyptian history that a Muslim has dared to do so in Egypt. The Egyptian authorities usually welcome the Christians who seek to convert to Islam but deny the same rights to the Muslims who want to convert to Christianity. Since it is a test case of the Egyptian system, many await eagerly and cautiously the outcome of the case.

Due to the sensitivity of the case, I carefully followed the debates surrounding it in the Egyptian media. I was surprised to see that the general consensus in Egypt is to forbid this young man’s request to change religions. On a personal level, it was said that he is not truthful or genuine about the matter. The claim is he is only seeking media attention in an effort to become famous. From a religious standpoint, it raises the apostasy from Islam issue and the punishment that goes along with it. For the purpose of this article, I am not going to discuss the Islamic religious issue of apostasy. Likewise, I cannot speak of this man’s motives, as I don’t personally know him. Nevertheless, I don’t believe it is my business or anyone else’s to judge what is going on within this man’s conscience. We need to leave such judgment to the man and his creator.

However, there was a specific argument that attracted my attention. It was the assertion that it would somehow undermine the “balances” of society if he were allowed to convert. I was astounded to know that some people would sacrifice undisputable individual rights just because they believe they don’t agree with the changing trends of society. I could not help wondering if some people are making such a sacred cow out of societal values that none dare to touch.

My mind went back and pondered what I had discovered about Egyptian society after being away for almost three decades. It was a completely different society from the one that I had once known. Those who continually live in the Egyptian society may not notice the changes, but they are certainly a shock to those who have been away for any length of time. The contrasts are apparent in most everything. For example, one cannot miss the appearance of religiosity especially in regard to the way that people dress. Most of the women wear Islamic hijabs and many men are growing beards. There are religious overtones in the everyday language of the people. However, a deep look exposes that much of what one sees is only superficial. An astute observer will soon recognize that there are other religious values that could be lacking. Values like chastity, honesty, love, mercy and kindness are not equally demonstrated in the 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 for making money. And, it seems that no matter how much they accumulate, it’s 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 want. This creates various degrees of envy and competition, moral or immoral. The 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 want that these present and changing values of the Egyptian society to be the foundation that shape our lives and dictate what we accept and what we reject?

In cases such as the one in question, what are we to do? If the 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 those who call for democracy accusing them of being selective and hypocritical about applying it.

These people misunderstand the true meanings of democracy. Democracy doesn’t mean that one person over the 50%, can do whatever he/she wants in society 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; there are other important elements that are part of a democracy that must be considered. For instance, in the United States, the White majority cannot enact a law that would enable them to deport all of the 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 about the right to change religions, but also about a host of other injustices. It has been used in denials for churches to obtain building permits; 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 and 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 can accept the present situation and continue with business as usual. Or, they can pause and ask themselves; why have things in our nation sunk to such a shameful condition? 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, Mohammed and Zeinab. This is not Egypt that I am proud of. I pray that my Egypt will again become an oasis of hope and security for the weak and the oppressed that seek refuge against tyranny and injustice.

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Mounir Bishay is president of Christian Copts of California
mabishay@sbcglobal.net