Egypt plans new museum to promote religious tolerance
CAIRO - Egyptian Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani announced the ministry planned to create a museum dedicated to religious tolerance. The building is to be in the new administrative capital north-east of Cairo and a committee has been set up for that purpose. The announcement, however, spurred controversy.
Commentators questioned the value of the initiative when religious extremism has become the norm in Egypt and when the government has failed to come up with creative ideas of how to combat it. Others supported the idea, suggesting it emulate similar projects around the world.
There are several Islamic and Coptic museums in Egypt, with good collections of documents and artefacts from different eras and civilisations. Most of those museums, however, have a purely historical approach to the subject of religious and cultural diversity and unintentionally neglected to focus on the idea of tolerance in a wider sense.
Many countries suffer from deep societal cleavages and face the challenge of achieving social harmony. Religious and racial discord and tensions remain easy to ignite despite attempts to create models for societal harmony based on tolerance.
With the rise of terrorism in the Middle East and the explosion of civil strife in many Arab countries, it has become extremely urgent for governments to come up with appropriate measures to stop religious extremism. All governments realise that the radical cure for extremism and hatred is nurturing tolerance as a way of being and of living in their societies.
Many circles in Egypt stressed the importance of accepting others as they are. It is important to disseminate information about other religions and cultures. How could museums contribute to the debate and nurture religious tolerance?
Critics of the museum project said the idea of a tolerance museum was naive and stereotypical. They criticised it was a superficial imitation of the West where museums dedicated to religious and ethnic tolerance have mushroomed since the second world war.
Sayed Lashine, a professor of antiquities at Fayoum University, disagreed. He said tolerance museums “are not just warehouses for storing historical items; rather, they are full-fledged cultural programmes that include exhibitions, conferences and art festivals. The important thing is that they create an impact on the visitor that whatever is being shown has a great value.”
Lashine pointed out that the science of museums has evolved. Modern museums seek to impress visitors with exhibition techniques and technologies, like department stores that strive to please customers. There is science behind exhibiting artefacts and arranging them coherently. The point of the exhibit is to create an effect on the visitor and bring out different feelings, the most important of which is the feeling of pride and belonging.
Lashine said the idea of having Jewish, Christian and Islamic artefacts together in the same museum creates a feeling of brotherhood between adepts of the three religions. It shows the public that the monotheistic religions are connected in a complementary, rather than competitive, manner as demonstrated by the artefacts.
There is a long list of museums commemorating events spurred by ethnic or religious strife. They were set up as reminders of the dangers of ethnic violence and religious extremism. Many European cities have museums dedicated to religious tolerance and revolving around the suffering of the Jewish people in particular under the Nazi regime in Germany.
Perhaps the most famous example is the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Opened in 1993, the museum relies on multimedia exhibits to examine racism and discrimination.
The museum receives hundreds of thousands of visitors, most of them school children, each year. The most well-known section is the Holocaust exhibit where visitors are divided into small groups and guided through events of the second world war. Visitors are to discuss their reactions, an act that augments the interactive museum experience.
The Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance is one of the major facilities that the US Department of Education and human rights organisations in the United States use to introduce school children to issues of tolerance in an attractive pedagogical style. Children can learn about US history as well as different religions. They can also experience the effects of racism and discrimination in an interactive manner.
The museum includes a section focusing on everyday acts of discrimination through documents showing how incrusted such practices are. Another section is devoted to the civil rights movement in the United States through huge picture panels illustrating discrimination against blacks in sports, the arts and TV programming.
The museum makes excellent use of video clips and interactive displays to engage the visitor and create the desired effect.
The Tolerance Museum in Los Angeles is an excellent example for the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities to emulate. It will be a rare opportunity to take advantage of the many priceless artefacts in Egypt and put the country among nations giving priority to tolerance as a mode of thinking and living.