Is Egyptian society a truly religious one?

A helicopter view of our society would certainly show that Egyptians are apparently strongly attached to their religions. Hundreds of visible mosques and churches, many of them built over 1,000 years ago, have earned Cairo the name of ‘the city of a thousand minarets’.

There is no doubt that the practice of religion in Egypt has increased significantly over the last few decades; both Muslims and Christians tend to pray considerably more often and attend religion classes more frequently, and general indications of religious worship and the practice of religious rites have escalated markedly. Nevertheless, does this mean that Egyptians are truly abiding by their religions?

Over the last decades, the apparent signs of increased piety described above have been paralleled by a substantial intensification of crime, corruption and sexual harassment. These sins are not only widespread among poor, illiterate Egyptians; they are also prevalent among members of the wealthy educated circles of our society. Egyptians are becoming intolerant, unjust and individualistic, and in the great majority of cases, the means we use for problem resolution are far removed from the application of the rule of law. While Egyptians in general recognise these deficiencies, individuals and groups do not perceive, or admit to, their own negative behaviour or misdeeds. Instead, they accuse one another of committing transgressions.

May we then conclude that Egyptians are divided into two parallel communities, a strongly religious one, and intensely immoral one? Unfortunately, this is not the case! We are a single, homogenised society constituted of a great deal of goodness and a good amount of sinful behaviour, opposite qualities that may even be expressed simultaneously and in equal magnitude. Egyptians have simply increased their consumption of both religious and immoral conduct at the same time, and they indulge in the two contradictory behaviours with the aim of balancing the score between them.

Egyptians practice their religion from a cultural perspective, wherein they feel that they should enjoy both virtue and sinfulness (halal and haram) to the maximum – somewhat like eating a sweet and sour dish, or exercising vigorously after consuming a high-calorie meal. The substantial increase in the consumption of goods has influenced the way Egyptians practice religion, as long as their expenses do not exceed their incomes, Egyptians enjoy practicing the two contradictory behaviours. To compensate for any excessive spending they may have done during a given period, they simply indulge in additional prayers and fasting. Obviously, each citizen measures virtue and sinfulness in her or his own way.

Quite apart from the question of whether this behaviour is condoned by religion, my concern here is that this behaviour creates a situation where society must endure a substantial increase in sinful acts committed by persons who (heavily involved in intense religious worship practices) are completely unaware of the impact of their sinful behaviour on society. In the old days, people known as religious figures enjoyed a status of trust in society, and played a significant role in resolving social conflicts. Nowadays, many citizens who claim to be ‘religious’ are actually burdening society with their unethical behaviour.

People generally claim that the vast majority of Egyptians love their religion. While I personally believe this to be true, I also believe that this love of religion is shaped by each person’s individual cultural traits. Parents love their children, but they can make plenty of mistakes while raising them. Likewise, people who judge that their need to pray on time is more important than other citizens’ need to commute and therefore let their parked cars block the roads in front of mosques are in reality using false religious claims to justify their own poor behaviour (late arrival at the mosque).

Unfortunately, the above examples are samples of the behaviour of relatively decently educated, moderate Muslims who misunderstand the essence of their religion. By stretching our minds further (and proportionally), we can understand how ignorant terrorists who kill innocent people provide their own justifications for their deeds, believing that assassins in action are ’martyrs’, headed immediately for Heaven.

The challenge that we face in Egypt cannot be defined as variations of religious opinions; the danger resides in a complete misunderstanding of the very essence of religion, which is intended to better mould society towards the realisation of goodness.  Virtue should lead to a significant and tangible reduction of sinfulness – not to creating a balance between sinful and righteous behaviour. By manipulating preachers and using them to praise (or criticise) the ruler’s polices, the state and its opponents are using religion to mislead society. This must end. The proper application of democracy and the complete separation of state and religion will serve the interests of both considerably better.

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