Sectarian tensions are high in Egypt. Unless Cairo acts to promote tolerance and understanding of various religious identities, to truly build a democratic, pluralistic society, sectarian conflict will continue to plague Egyptian society.
A fundamental step in the right direction is the recent assertion of "basic freedoms" unveiled by Al Azhar, the highly respected religious authority among Sunni Muslims the world over.
This document is an effective initiative by moderate political forces, led by the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, to prevent newly elected conservative members of parliament from rewriting the constitution to fit their restrictive interpretation of Islam.
Supported by the Coptic church and most political parties, Al Azhar's "bill of rights" has chapters on freedom of belief, opinion and expression, research, and art and literary creativity.
Not only does this bill of rights endorse freedom of belief, but it also prohibits any attempts to exclude others or label them as infidel, rejecting orientations that "denounce the beliefs of others".
The Azhar document incriminates any manifestation of "compulsion in religion, persecution, or religious discrimination." Plurality, diversity, and equality of citizens are explicitly endorsed, and freedom of opinion is described as the "mother of all freedoms".
Undoubtedly Al Azhar's "basic freedoms" document will influence the process of constitutional change in Egypt, and contribute to legal changes that are necessary to protect the rights of minorities in Arab countries, especially those seeking to build democratic states. However, there is another component which is essential to this process but which has not received sufficient serious attention: working to change the social and political values of all citizens, especially young people.
The Coptic view of Muslims in Egypt and vice versa is not ruled by different laws or political institutions so much as it is by the system of values and attitudes that form the foundation of Egyptians' legislative, political, and social views.
These concepts have been planted in the minds and hearts of citizens by family members, schools, mosques, churches, and neighbourhoods. This system is rooted in and is reinforced by everyday interactions and behaviours.
School plays a major role in determining students' political, social, religious and ethical orientation, and in building the system of values that guides their behaviour as adults.
A glance at Egyptian schools, especially those run by the government, reveals the huge amount of work required in the field of education to build a democratic and stable society. Various aspects of school life need to be revised, including the school climate, classrooms, curricula, teaching methods and the school's relationship with civil society.
In social studies textbooks, the relationship between Muslims and Copts is viewed through a sentimental lens and always in relation to the homeland, which "takes care of all its children". That homeland is characterised by tolerance, respect for diverse beliefs, and brotherly love among its people; the nation is presented as blessed by "national unity".
Many Arabic language lessons in primary schools use verses from the Quran and the Hadith to teach social values such as charity and honesty, but there are also verses that contradict the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. History courses focus on aspects of Islamic civilisation and history, while Coptic history is limited to its economic and social aspects.
This approach to the Christian minority in Egypt does not take into account the religious identity of Muslims and Christians as reflected in their common as well as different beliefs and lifestyles. These differences will not go away if they are ignored; rather, they must be discussed objectively in the context of democratic rights.
Many Christian students just memorise the information about Islam to pass their tests, and then simply forget it. This, of course, does not encourage awareness of religious identity.
Forcing Christian students to study subjects that contradict their beliefs will not lead them to change their beliefs. The effective way to teach the beliefs of the "other" is based on research, dialogue, free discussion, and respect for and acceptance of others.
The question of identity is linked to a number of elements that are all strongly tied to citizenship.
The citizen is more than his national identity or sense of belonging to a certain land or civilisation; he also has a religious identity (Muslim, Christian, Jewish) which affects his values, culture, and behaviour. In fact, that religious identity prevails much of the time over other aspects of identity.
Thus, promoting respect for religious identity requires serious continuing effort, not only within a legal and political framework, including the Azhar's bill of rights, but also within a social and educational one. These components are more complex and slower to change, but in the long run, such changes are more effective in building a sustainable democracy.