Faith-Concealed ID Campaign Takes on Sectarianism
Cairo – Throughout the 2000s, several citizens challenged the Egyptian state with a court bid to issue national IDs. Back then, the new computerized IDs would only accept three answers to the religion question: Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. The plaintiffs were Bahai.
A number of Islamist lawyers were also present in court. They wanted to maintain this new formalized practice of only accepting one of the three Abrahamic faiths – the ones recognized by Islam as religions. A state campaign fortified this notion and many in Egypt at the time were talking about how they don’t want Bahais living amongst them. “If they don’t like it they can just leave the country” was a phrase I heard often at the time.
The Bahai weren’t the only ones to suffer from the ID religion field. Over the years, numerous lawsuits challenged the state for refusing to change the faith of converts, namely those who leave Islam.
This field, which appears on the back of IDs, along with the sex and marital status, has many ramifications in an age-old bureaucracy like Egypt – procedures such as registering deaths, marriages and offspring become impossible.
Its worse effect, however, is what it reveals about society. Debates associated with these cases have proven that once presented with the question, the majority would choose the sectarian path in a bid to preserve their rigid notion of a society. Those outside this limited definition are labeled as outsiders, traitors, or apostates.
In any sectarian flare-up in Egypt, the answer in the ID field becomes one’s sole defining feature, either saving or dooming the ID holder.
“Egyptian society is obsessed with religious identity. In fact, some citizens hate people from other religions, and the state plays a huge role in this,” journalist Sarah Carr wrote. “The clearest and crudest example is that the state bleats endlessly about citizenship and equality, while its bureaucracy categorizes citizens by religion on their identity cards.”
Carr was one of three who launched an online campaign asking people to hide the religion field on their IDs. The initial step was to cover it with a piece of paper with “none of your business” written on it. Responders took it an extra step, using phrases such as “human being” on that tiny piece of paper. Some covered the entire section (sex and marital status too). The Facebook page, which was set up last Friday following the attack on the Cathedral, features numerous ID cover-ups posted by enthusiastic users.
The religion field, Carr added, “serves no purpose other than giving prejudiced state officials (and anyone else who sees the ID card) the opportunity to give a hard time to citizens.” The practice has alienated citizens from each other and fed the sectarianism, the FB page explained.
A video made by Aalam Wassef mockingly compared religious and social labels to commercial ones. He derided the interference of the state, describing it as the “Sectarian Republic of Egypt” along with footage of army APCs running over Coptic protesters in October 2011.
“The sedition is in the ID card,” he said in the video.