CAIRO—Ain Shams University administrators and others will no longer ask students about their religious affiliations on academic forms, a move that follows last year’s policy change by crosstown rival Cairo University.
The reforms at Egypt’s two largest public universities reflect a push toward non-sectarianism in higher education as Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cracks down on Islamists throughout Egyptian institutions. In addition, the country’s minority Christian community continues to complain of discrimination in academia, and Christians are on edge after 28 church members were killed in a suicide bombing at a church mass in December.
“There is no logical reason—no reason—to ask students about their religion,” said Ain Shams arts faculty dean Suzan Elkalliny. “The forms are very old, almost ancient. We have a recommendation from Dr. [Abdul Wahab] Ezzat, president of the university, to update them.”
Asking citizens to identify their religion on official papers is a widespread practice in Egypt. National identification cards, birth certificates, university diplomas and military service certificates include one’s religion, for example
But Egypt’s Coptic Christians have reported facing employment discrimination when applying for jobs in universities, the security sector and the higher echelons of the government.
In October, Ezzet’s counterpart, Cairo University president Gaber Nassar, made headlines in Egypt when he directed administrators to remove questions about religion on university documents.
“When we ask a student to list his religion, sect and denomination, even in the existence of objective evaluation criteria, he or she will feel that there is a level of discrimination,” Nasser told Wael al-Ebrashy, the host of private satellite channel Dream TV’s “Al-Ashera Masa’an.”
The Cairo University president’s order came on the heels of a social media uproar over alleged bias against Coptic Christian applicants to the graduate program at Cairo University’s Institute for African Studies and Research.
The scandal erupted when Mina Nader, 28, posted his admissions application form on Facebook–showing a question about his religion—after the institute rejected his application. He said he had passed the program’s entrance examination.
Nader and other prospective students alleged that institute administrators rejected nine Coptic candidates after a personal interview with a Muslim professor who had access to the applications that revealed their faiths.
“Islamic nationalism and fanatical tendencies still exist within the walls of the university,” said Nader, adding that he had little recourse but to share his dilemma on the Internet. “One of the reasons for the persistence of discrimination is the despair of the feasibility of making a complaint from its victims when it happens.”
Administrators launched an investigation that found that Christians comprised most of the rejected applicants. President Nassar determined that religious discrimination occurred at the Institute for African Studies and then sent out his order removing religious affiliations from university paperwork.
Nader was vindicated. He gained admittance to the graduate program after the university concluded its investigation.
A 19-year-old undergraduate student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Mohamed Labib, said he approved of removing religion from university documents but thought revising forms would not alter the inter-religious dynamic on campus.
“It’s a small step towards ending discrimination,” said Labib, who noted that Christians often didn’t receive teaching assistantships. “Anyone can know your religion even through your name, your identity card, your Facebook account and other social cues.”
Another economics and political science undergraduate, Moamen Khaled Sayed, 20, questioned whether Christians were victims of prejudice but nonetheless supported eliminating religious affiliation from university documents.
“I’m not sure that there is serious discrimination here,” said Sayed. “But it does make an assuring gesture for the minority and helps in presenting a better image of the university.”
At Cairo University’s School of Medicine, aspiring Coptic doctors shy away from obstetrics and gynecology, as Muslim men are averse to letting a Christian doctor examine their wives, said Mahmoud Sadiq, a 25-year-old medical student at Cairo University.
“The discrimination in OB/GYN is not subtle at all,” Sadiq said. “Coptic students in obstetrics have their thesis papers rejected so many times that they take the hint and just change their specialty.”
The changes also dovetail with Egyptian security forces cracking down on activist Islamists throughout Egyptian society, including among faculty and students at Cairo and Ain Shams Universities, to quell the prejudice that it is believed they promote.
Some faculty questioned if the crackdown was working, however.
“Taking religion off the forms does not by itself create a culture of accepting diversity,” said a lecturer at Cairo University’s pharmacy who asked to keep his name private. “It is a top-down, security-centered approach,”
Rather, freedom of expression has been suppressed, he said.
“Most of the Islamists have not been fired, but colleagues once associated with the Muslim Brotherhood have toned down their religious rhetoric and loyalists to President Abel Fatah al Sisi are trying to enforce a ‘no politics’ culture on the institution,” the pharmacy professor said.
Elkalliny acknowledged that a similar campaign was underway at Ain Shams.
“They [the Muslim Brotherhood] were spreading their ideas on campus,” she said, referring to the political affiliation of ex-President Muhammed Morsi, who was in office between 2012 and 2013.
Egyptian President Abel Fatah al Sisi overthrew Morsi after weeks of street protests against officials’ incompetence and Islamist influence in government, including public universities.
“Students should be only students,” said Elkalliny. “They attend their lectures, do their activities. Professors are required to stick to the curriculum as outlined in the course descriptions.”
Taking religion off university forms wouldn’t necessarily change people’s hearts and minds, said Elkalliny. But the university was working to promote pluralism and inter-religious dialogue, she said.
“This week for Orthodox Christmas we invited the Coptic pope [Tawadros II of Alexandria] to campus, and we host discussions between Muslim and Christian theologians here at the Faculty of Arts,” said Elkalliny. “This is not just about formal matters like application forms. It’s about the university modeling dialogue and co-existence.”