Report on Cairo Workshop

Politics of Religious Freedom Workshop:

“Contested Norms and Local Practices in the Middle East and North Africa”

Cairo, Egypt
Marriott Hotel
9-10 January 2013

Participants: Cassie Adcock (History and Religious Studies, Washington University in St. Louis), Hossam Bahgat (Executive Director, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights), Nehal Bhuta (Law, European University Institute), Peter Danchin (University of Maryland Law), Winnifred Fallers Sullivan (Religious Studies and Law, Indiana University Bloomington), Alessandro Ferrari (Law and Economics of Firms and Persons, Università Degli Studi dell’Insubria), Magdi Guirguis (Independent Researcher), Evan Haefeli (History, Columbia University), Ishak Ibrahim (Researcher, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights), Saba Mahmood (Anthropology, UC-Berkeley), Melani McAlister (American Studies, International Affairs, and Media & Public Affairs, George Washington University), Maya Mikdashi (Anthropology, Columbia University), Mona Oraby (Political Science, Northwestern University), Adel Ramadan (Legal Officer, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights), Noah Salomon (Religion, Carleton College), Paul Sedra (History, Simon Fraser University), Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (Political Science, Northwestern University), Amr Shalakany (American University in Cairo Law), Mariz Tadros (Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies), Jonathan VanAntwerpen (Social Science Research Council), Toby Volkman (Henry R. Luce Foundation).

This was the third of four workshops organized by the “Politics of Religious Freedom” Project (PRF), funded by the Henry R. Luce Foundation’s Initiative on Religion and International Affairs. The objective of the PRF joint research project is to interrogate the idea of religious freedom as a single, universal norm and to reconsider the assumptions and consequences of legal and political protections for religious freedom that currently animate a host of national and international advocacy projects.

Participants in this two-day workshop represented the fields of American studies, anthropology, history, international affairs, law, media and public affairs, political science, and religious studies. Primary areas of focus included Egypt, Europe, India, Lebanon, Sudan, and the United States.


Overview of the Project and Defining Concerns of the Workshop

The Cairo workshop was convened to address the ways in which the concept of religious freedom has been the focus of various legal and political struggles across the Middle East. The workshop also sought to account for how articulations of the right to religious freedom in Europe, the United States, and international law shape the debates and legal struggles in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa in the context of the “Arab Spring” and beyond.

Notwithstanding this workshop’s regional focus, participants also addressed key themes and debates that emerged in previous workshops held under the auspices of the PRF project, including an analysis of the politics of religious freedom in India in the 1920s; a discussion of how a privatized conception of freedom of conscience in European history informs judicial determinations in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights; a presentation of the ways in which evangelical communities in the United States have embraced ideas of religious freedom in their activism overseas, particularly but not exclusively in Africa; and a discussion of the processes of establishing religious “minority” and “majority” status in South Sudan and its impact on the practice of religion and the politics of religious difference.


Workshop Proceedings

The workshop began with introductory remarks from Saba Mahmood (UC-Berkeley) who noted that the right to religious liberty is often deployed as a technology of governance in the regulation of modern society. She spoke to models of religion and state accommodation that underlie different conceptions of religious freedom. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (Northwestern University) spoke about the various publications that have come out of the Politics of Religious Freedom project. Among these are special issues of South Atlantic Quarterly and the Journal of Law and Religion, pedagogical materials including the presentation of several legal cases and commentaries, as well as a volume of short essays based on an online series hosted by the SSRC’s Immanent Frame blog.


I. Egypt and Religious Freedom

The first panel considered the development of religious freedom discourse in contemporary Egypt in relation to the constitution approved in 2012.  Hossam Bahgat (Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights) noted that this constitution represents a considerable step back in the protection of civil and political rights. The constitutional clause that guarantees freedom of religion and belief is only applicable to Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Egyptians (as it was in the 1971 constitution previously in effect) who are identified as “people of the book.” The constitution of 2012 also designates the Coptic Church as the arbiter of personal status laws for the Coptic community, a designation enshrined in the constitution for the first time in Egypt’s history. The principle of equality before the law has been substantially revised to the extent that the constitution no longer protects against discrimination on the basis of sex or religious affiliation. Just as significant as these constitutional provisions are the political developments in Egypt, particularly the election of former president Muhammad Mursi from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in 2012. Since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, there has been a rise in sectarian incidents, including the Egyptian military’s massacre of unarmed Coptic youth protestors at the Maspero television center in Cairo in October 2011.  The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood has also raised concerns among human rights advocacy organizations and Copts about an increase in official sectarian discourse, the scope of which was debated among the participants. (Mursi’s government was overthrown through a wide mobilization of people and ultimately a military coup in July 2013.)

Pro-democracy campaigns in Egypt are seeking to put equality—specifically in terms of gender and religion—at the center of national debates. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) is leading other advocacy groups in this regard by taking account of how freedom of religion and belief have been litigated over the past several decades. In 1975, for example, the Supreme Constitutional Court determined that the principle of political equality only applies to members of religions accorded the status of “people of the book” rather than Egyptian nationals more generally; that is, a Muslim’s equality before the law is assessed in relation to the status of another Muslim. In this way, the principle of equality is essentially inflected according to each individual’s formal religious affiliation. Adel Ramadan, the leading lawyer for EIPR on the issue of religious freedom, explained that the application of this legal principle remains a highly contested issue given major discrepancies in how the state determines whether an individual does or does not belong to a particular religious community. Shi’i Muslims, for example, persistently face unequal treatment under the law in comparison to Sunni Muslims. The prohibition against building Shi’i houses of worship and the extended jail sentences that Shi’is face if convicted of “defaming Sunni Islam” are just two examples of legal discrimination in practice. The state justifies such inequitable behavior by arguing that it is to maintain public order. This principle of public order, as Nehal Bhuta pointed out later, is not only a part of the Egyptian jurisprudence on religious liberty but also of European courts.

Ishak Ibrahim (lead researcher for EIPR’s program on Religious Freedom and Belief) as well as Adel Ramadan both emphasized that the Egyptian state regulates religious conversion to the benefit of Muslims while strictly prohibiting in practice, if not by law, the legal conversion of Muslims to Christianity or Judaism. In the case of conversion from Judaism to Christianity, judicial discourse affirms that religious freedom is pivotal to social life and that churches and other religious institutions bear the responsibility for managing such conversions. In sharp contrast, conversions from Islam to Christianity are discussed in terms of apostasy whereby the Muslim convert is accused of disgracing Islam. And further still, one who converts from Christianity to Islam is seen as exceptionally good and consequently receives increased social benefits. Undergirding all of these legal determinations is Islamic sharia, which according to Article 2 of the constitution is the basis for all Egyptian laws, although it is widely interpreted and the civil and criminal laws of the country are based on the French legal tradition. In 1981, former President Anwar Sadat amended Article 2 of the constitution then in effect, designating sharia as the principal source of legislation. Other presidents since then frequently referred to this article as a source of protection for religious minorities. Ousted president Hosni Mubarak, for example, claimed it was this article that ensured Coptic Christians’ rights before the law. Egyptian advocacy groups have questioned whether those who favor an expanded definition of the equality principle should continue to refer to this article in the courts, and justify their reasoning in sharia terms.

Paul Sedra (Simon Fraser University) argued that the minority question in Egypt dates back several decades, and, despite arguments to the contrary, the history of the Copts is constitutive of Egyptian history more broadly. He explained that the current juncture in Egyptian history marks a shift in the balance of power within the Coptic community insofar as many lay Copts are acting in defiance of the Church, which opposed their participation in the demonstrations that toppled the Mubarak regime. To understand how and why the events at Maspero ignited such unprecedented protests among lay Coptic youth, Sedra argued that researchers need to more closely investigate inter-communal dynamics. In doing so, we can begin to discern why the Church sought to clamp down on this type of activism which Sedra links to what he called a “millet partnership” between the Coptic Church and the state. Since the 1960s, a close relationship between the Church hierarchy and executive powers has fostered an alliance that privileges the Church’s status as the chief representative of Copts. In agreement with Sedra’s assertion that the Church is but one voice in the conversation on citizenship, Mariz Tadros (Institute of Development Studies), Magdi Guirguis (independent researcher on Coptic communal relations), and Ishak Ibrahim commented on the ways that the 2012 Egyptian constitution both empowers and disables Coptic communities; the social and political consequences that individuals face when converting from Christianity to Islam; and the ongoing debates about whether religion in Egypt is perceived as personal or communal.


II. Comparative Perspectives

The workshop then moved to consider how the consequences of religious freedom discourse vary across national contexts, including in postcolonial societies outside the Middle East and North Africa. Scholars who presented on the second panel explored, among other issues, how religious freedom discourse transforms the management of religious difference in specific contexts. Cassie Adcock (Washington University) examined debates over religious freedom in early twentieth-century India, pointing to what she called the “politics of translation” whereby various social practices were not captured by the local language of religion in use at that time. What was understood prior to these debates as shuddhi, for example, consisted in a state of purity for the Arya Samaj: people born to Muslim, Untouchable, or other low castes. It was the discourse of tolerance introduced in the 1920s that prompted political elites to represent shuddhi as a religious practice of proselytization, thereafter solidifying the confluence of Hinduism and Indian national identity. Adcock argued that during the 1930s, the Untouchables had little choice but to identify with the Hindu majority whereas Muslims comprised a new minority. Prior to the 1930s, however, such divisions were hardly clear. This example illustrates a concern that also emerged during the Chiangmai 2011 workshop: how the application of religious freedom discourse (in the form of the tolerance ideal) imposes a category of analysis (proselytization) ill-equipped to capture local dynamics on the ground. The effect of such an imposition was to enact a convergence between religious affiliation and national identity, resulting in sharper social divisions, rather than greater social cohesion.

Noah Salomon (Carleton College) emphasized similar contradictions in his analysis of contemporary bureaucratic techniques that delineate boundaries between “minority” and “majority” religions in South Sudan’s fledgling state. After partition from the north on 9 July 2011, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement sought to assemble the Republic of South Sudan on the basis of a new institutional and cultural identity—one that would significantly disentangle Arab and Islamic affiliations from what it means to be South Sudanese. Salomon argued that southern Muslim identities have become politicized within official discourses that advocate state secularism, where secularism is understood as religious neutrality yet also aimed at de-Islamizing state institutions. His investigations into South Sudan’s management of religious diversity reveal that the parallel political goals of upholding religious freedom (allowing citizens to choose their own religious identity) and state religious neutrality (not favoring one religion over another)—while often conceived of as complimentary ideals—stand in sharp contrast when put into practice. Among the numerous paradoxes that emerge from this dual prerogative is the state’s recognition of African traditional religions (ATRs) as distinct from an individual’s other religious affiliations; that is, an individual cannot simultaneously identify as Christian and practice traditional rites and rituals. This type of hybridity, though arguably consistent with South Sudan’s aim to differentiate itself from the government from which it sought independence, is illegible under the new South Sudanese regime of “religious freedom.” As Salomon noted, the attempt to distinguish among Christianity, Islam, and ATRs renders hybridity among these three identities formally unsustainable.

The cases of early twentieth century India and contemporary South Sudan call attention to important disjunctures between the purported aims of religious freedom discourse and its actual, applied effects. In what ways do official state positions enforcing religious neutrality magnify existing social differences and/or create new ones? What are the anticipated long-term consequences of these social divisions, and how do non-local actors, including transnational activist networks, ameliorate or perpetuate them? In terms of both academic scholarship and policy recommendations, what are the options for addressing diverse practices of social and religious diversity without encoding them in a stratifying discourse?

These case studies also attest to the need for close attention to the ways in which political actors in nascent states mobilize transnational ideas to manage social and religious pluralism. Under what conditions do such actors employ and adhere to certain techniques of governance, including normative conceptions of religion and religious rights during the processes of nation building, constitution writing, and state formation? In what ways are such conceptions stabilized and encoded within legal frameworks?

Religious conversion in the context of Lebanon’s multilayered legal system offers a window into this final question. As Maya Mikdashi (New York University) explained, the network of laws that apply to each Lebanese citizen varies based on an individual’s affiliation with certain sex, gender, and sect categories. Lebanese citizenship is additionally complicated by a madhhab affiliation that denotes which personal status laws apply to each individual. The state reifies these sex, gender, sect, and madhhab categories whenever (in the event of marriage or divorce, for example) courts seek to determine if an individual’s membership in any one of the affiliations is legally sound. Such assessments are both regulatory and productive; they authorize seemingly impossible subject positions, making the Lebanese case an interesting counterpoint to South Sudan where some hybrid practices, like observing African traditional religions as a Christian, remain unintelligible to the state. What Mikdashi called “strategic conversion” demonstrates one way that Lebanese citizens strive to influence the laws that courts apply when managing citizens’ personal affairs. Individuals, through disciplined self-presentation, are able to affect judicial determinations about the various categories to which they belong. The practice of strategic conversion is additionally compelling given that Lebanese courts have decided that investigations into an individual’s faith are unlawful, instead making determinations about the cogency of each conversion based on the soundness of bureaucratic procedures like petitions for marriage and divorce. In other words, a proclamation of faith does not provide legal evidence of one’s membership in a particular religious tradition; an individual must primarily demonstrate his or her membership through formal written bureaucratic registers, as well as performances of belonging within his or her community.

Mikdashi draws our attention to a national context where the cogency of religious affiliation remains in flux and yet set in stone. The Lebanese case signals limitations in thinking about religion in static, non-contextual terms and suggests a need to instead consider how states define religion as a legal category. This point is related to one that Egyptian political activists highlighted regarding how some religious conversions are readily authorized by the state (as in Christianity to Islam) while others are not (such as Islam to Christianity or Judaism). Many of these determinations hinge on how religion is legally defined. Variations in legal definitions of religion pose significant challenges to non-governmental promotion of religious freedom that presumes stable and disparate religious identities. As the Politics of Religious Freedom project has repeatedly shown through comparative case studies, religious freedom discourses often elide the complex ways in which religious practices are shaped by legal frameworks and administrative procedures.


III. International Politics and Legal Debates

Melani McAlister (George Washington University) and Nehal Bhuta (European University Institute) drew the workshop’s attention to how American and European conceptions of religious freedom are universalized in the negotiation of transnational political agendas and reflect an understanding of certain religious symbols as threats to public order. As McAlister argued in the case of US Christian evangelical activism from the 1990s to 2010, the American discourse of international religious freedom provided a galvanizing framework to increase awareness and concern for the persecution of Christian communities outside the United States—particularly the Middle East. What McAlister called the “religious freedom movement” mobilized a politics of race to achieve a particular goal: US evangelicals identified the Sudanese civil war as a crucial battleground to “save” South Sudanese Christians who were believed to suffer innumerable harms at the hands of the Islamist government in Khartoum. Evoking a discourse of race and slavery united US evangelicals of different backgrounds, all of whom associated the logic of racial emancipation with religious freedom discourse. The religious freedom movement, as a subset of American evangelical activism, also helped reorient evangelicals’ relationship to US foreign policy. Specifically, religious freedom advocates in the United States openly embraced human rights interventionism at the end of the Cold War. McAlister argued that Christian activists “inhabited and adapted” the universal ideal of religious freedom to successfully lobby congress for the International Religious Freedom Act, which remains in effect. This legislation gave rise to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom that continues to be a forum through which evangelical Christians pursue transnational community building based on a particular logic of American exceptionalism.

US Christian evangelical activism in the field of religious freedom has two components: an immediate political project animated by anti-slavery propaganda and persecution discourse, and a longer more sustained effort to align US foreign policy with concern for the persecution of Christians worldwide. These raise questions such as: In what other contexts is religious freedom, though assumed to be a universal and stable construct, mobilized in ways that privilege certain religious groups over others? How does the selective application of religious freedom discourse predetermine certain subject positions, rendering some groups more agentive and others less so? To what effect do third-party actors, such as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, help determine the language of religious rights used around the world?

As these questions show, religious freedom advocacy depends on particular conception(s) of religion. Nehal Bhuta addressed this topic with an inquiry into the concepts of religion and religious freedom protected by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Bhuta suggested that decisions in the headscarf cases recently adjudicated by the ECHR understand certain religious symbols as threatening to public order and as representing an impulse toward anti-democratic sectarian conflict. The cases brought before the Court indicate major disputes over the meaning of freedom of religion, and point us toward the multiple iterations that this issue has taken at different historical moments. Bhuta argued that the legal histories reviewed in a court case always buttress a particular meaning of the concept. Unraveling the co-implication of secularism and religious freedom illustrates how religious freedom advocacy within the EHCR and other legal instruments occurs on an unequal basis. Along a similar vein, Saba Mahmood added that secularism is not a position of state neutrality toward religion but a mode of governing religion that produces all sorts of contradictions in its wake.

Alessandro Ferrari (Università Degli Studi dell’Insubria), commenting on McAlister and Bhuta’s papers, noted that the politicization of Christianity (to facilitate evolving forms of transnational religious solidarity and mitigate possible threats to civil peace) indicates that the constructs “religion” and “public order” share the same birth date. Their co-constitution has enabled a transition from purely state-centered approaches of regulating religious freedom (as in the headscarf cases) to a wider institutional approach (as in US evangelical Christian activism). Such a phenomenon, Ferrari suggested, sheds new light on the limitations of understanding religious freedom in purely individual human rights terms. Greater consideration is needed of the diverse social fields in which law operates and the nature of religious administration undertaken by a host of actors including states, international courts, NGOs, humanitarian groups, and religious communities. The demarcation of state versus non-state religion, as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd noted, takes shape in multiple and overlapping jurisdictions around the world. In the Egyptian context, the state’s determinations of what counts as religion in the 2012 constitution is manifest in the clear distinction between freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. Amr Shalakany (American University in Cairo) emphasized that this sort of intervention is consistent with the Egyptian legal system.


IV. Other Questions and Themes Emerging from the Workshop

Discussions among workshop participants raised additional questions about the intersections of constitutional debates and religious freedom discourse, especially in the context of emerging democracies in the Middle East. How will enshrining the authority of the Coptic Orthodox Church within the 2012 Egyptian constitution affect relations of power between the patriarch and lay Coptic youth? What challenges to social cohesion and harmony emerge from granting representative authority to a particular religious hierarchy? To what extent does such authority support norms of religious majoritarianism? What administrative and procedural dilemmas emerge when religious freedom is interpreted as an ideal social condition? What is to be gained from historicizing particular conceptions of religion and the right to religious freedom? How might greater attention to local histories enable better strategies for understanding religious pluralism? In what ways do such investigations hinge on a normative vision of religion?

The workshop also prompted discussion of the transnational dimensions and consequences of religious freedom advocacy. Under what conditions do local actors invoke the language of religious rights to forge a bond between national and religious identities? How does such language weaken or challenge previously flexible and interpenetrating religious communities? Moreover, at what junctures during modern nation building does transnational religious freedom advocacy help determine state identity, or the conceptions of religion endorsed by policy makers and other public figures?

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About the Cairo Workshop
Cairo Workshop Program
Cairo Participants and Paper Abstracts