6 September 2006
Out with the religion box
During the past two weeks, Watani has reported on the ongoing debate on whether to retain or delete data on religious denomination from formal identity papers. The matter has been the subject of heated public arguments, with advocates of the deletion of the religious box from ID cards arguing that this was an indispensable measure to uphold citizenship rights, and opponents stressing the necessity of citing religion in ID cards because of its being instrumental in marriage, divorce, and inheritance—issues on which religions basically differ.
Each party strongly defends its viewpoint. Advocates maintain that deleting the religion box from ID cards would boost personal freedoms—particularly freedom of belief—and prove the veracity of the famous saying: “Religion is for God and the homeland for all”. The move, they argue, would stress the state’s impartiality vis-à-vis religion, and emphasise that faith has nothing to do with a citizen’s rights or duties, nor should it entail any sort of discrimination or bias. As for the relevance of listing religion as regards personal status affairs, they suggest that computerising the data used by state institutions in general and the civil register in particular, and the existence of a central database on births, marriages, divorces, deaths and inheritance, would substitute for listing religion in ID cards.
It is thus obvious that retaining the religion box in identity papers is inconsistent with the electronic government Egypt is already establishing. In many governmental departments employees today store data electronically instead of on paper that is liable to rot or waste with the passage of time or through negligence. Databases are available on the levels of governorates and municipalities, and it is hoped that a central database for all Egypt would be at hand sometime in the near future, so that any data or official document would be accessible to people at any time or place.
The newly computerised ID cards are the first-fruits of the electronic government. The computerised ID card, dubbed the national number card, cites data on a person’s name, place of residence, date of birth, gender, marital status, education, work, and religion. But the number, when entered on the e-government’s computer, leads to the central database through which a host of information on one’s life and activities is available.
It thus made sense that the state should go ahead with its efforts to computerise its systems and compile a national database and, in this regard, it is comforting that the minister in charge has lately announced that the government is now studying the proper time to invalidate all sorts of manually-issued documents—birth certificates, IDs and suchlike—in favour of computerised ones. Along the same line, officials said that the computerised IDs would substitute voting cards, a measure that would certainly facilitate the process of voting and eliminate a good part of the agonising problems undergone by no small portion of voters due to the inaccuracy of the manually-compiled voter lists.
The government could have seized the opportunity of computerising the IDs to eliminate the reference to religion; suffice it that one’s religion is registered on the national database. But the government wasted this opportunity despite the fact that religion is not cited on Egyptians’ passports. In any case, the ongoing debate is in itself healthy, since it reflects a tendency towards openly discussing sensitive issues rather than sweeping them under the carpet. It is to be hoped that the call to delete the religion box from ID cards would gain ground with the public, since such a measure would relieve the tense climate resultant of tinting every aspect of our life with religion. Let us put this behind our backs and get on to the business of developing and modernising our society, so that religion would indeed be for God and the homeland for all.
* Youssef Sidhom is the editor of « Watani » daily, of Cairo.