Egypt has suspended Salem Abdel Gelil, a deputy minister of its (Islamic) Endowments Ministry, and Egypt is charging Abel Gelil with “contempt of religion,” as reported by Mada Masr.
The reason? Abdel Gelil, a Muslim, said that Christianity is not true.
It is bizarre for the Egyptian government to suspend a Muslim leader for saying this because mainstream Islam, like most other religions, makes distinct truth claims, so by definition a Muslim would believe that some of Christianity’s core teachings are not true. This move by the Egyptian government is not only bizarre, it is also a threat to peaceful coexistence in Egypt.
In this case it is the government of Egypt, not Abdel Gelil, that is engaged in “contempt of religion.” Forbidding religious believers from discussing basic tenets of their belief belongs to the very definition of “contempt of religion.”
According to a variety of mainstream definitions of Christianity, Christians believe Jesus is God, their understanding of the one God is trinitarian, and they do not believe Muhammad is a prophet. According to any definition of Islam I have ever seen, Muslims would view these statements as untrue.
Therefore I would only expect a Muslim talking about about Christians, to say as Abdel Gelil did, “Yes, they believe in Jesus and Moses, but they disbelieve in Muhammad (كفروا بمحمد). Whenever we remind them of Muhammad, they say “No, no, no. We’re fine the way we are.”” Abdel Gelil further stated, “…what you believe is corrupt. Go back to God.” Granted, he could perhaps have chosen a gentler word than “corrupt,” but in looking at Christian beliefs from a Muslim perspective, some core Christian beliefs are in fact untenable.
The Endowments Ministry of Egypt issued a statement asserting that Abdel Gelil’s remarks “do not help the establishment of the foundations of citizenship, peaceful coexistence and societal peace that we work toward achieving in reality.”
In this the Endowments Ministry errs. Disagreement does not prevent peaceful coexistence. Quite to the contrary acknowledging difference is a foundational element of peaceful coexistence.
Abdel Gelil also said to Christians, “You are kind, and you are our brothers and sisters in humanity, not only inside our own country.” Indeed we can be “brothers and sisters in humanity” and disagree about deep matters at the very same time.
The legal framework of religious freedom contributes to peaceful coexistence by protecting space in which we can acknowledge and seek to understand our differences.
Forbidding those of different religions from being able to discuss their differences does great harm to the possibilities of “peaceful coexistence and societal peace” because it fosters a culture of ignorance.
A religiously diverse society in which the government forbids anyone from discussing, or even admitting, differences of belief is a society being forced to live in blindness and ignorance. Blindness and ignorance are foes, not friends, of “peaceful coexistence.”
We who are of different, and of no, religion need to understand each other better, not pretend instead that we are all the same. We are not.
I am a Christian working for a Muslim organization, the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom (CIRF). Because of the respect for religious freedom in our office, we talk openly about our religious disagreements. Sometimes when we talk about how to understand who God is, or who Jesus is, for example, I tell my Muslim colleagues, “You are wrong.” They smile back at me and tell me, “No Jennifer, you are wrong.” And then the conversations get really, really interesting as they listen to me explain my faith and I listen to them explain theirs.
We learn from each other and about each other. Significantly, when my colleagues admit that they think what I believe is wrong, I feel respected because they acknowledge that I take my faith seriously and they have taken time to learn what I believe.
Such open exchanges are not just abstract niceties. This openness about differences in turn bears concrete fruit. I believe that this mutual learning about each other is something that helps us work together even better as a team. I can be fully who I am as a Christian, they can be fully who they are as Muslims, and together we are partners working for the common good.
Moreover, the freedom to discuss differences is an essential component of truth-seeking. If someone thinks I am wrong, I want to know. Maybe I can learn something. Truth-seeking is the very point of religious freedom. As law professor Gerald Bradley has explained, “To detach religious liberty from truth is to decapitate it.”
I am thankful that due to religious freedom in the United States, I can explain my faith to those with whom I disagree and they are free to tell me what they believe. The best way to defend religious freedom for myself is it to defend religious freedom for others.
I defend the right of Salem Abdel Gelil to tell me he thinks I am wrong.
I ask that he defend my right to tell him he is wrong. And I hope he and I can enjoy a meal together sometime to learn more about these differences.