Sectarian clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians highlight the recurring question about what role Copts will play in the new Egyptian political system. Can the new generation that waves signs with both cross and crescent in Tahrir Square help reduce the violence?
One of the concerns discussed in the western press is the issue of what it will mean for the country’s new democracy if the trans-national Muslim Brotherhood, the country's oldest Islamic movement, gains the majority vote. For the moment there are few organized political groups in Egypt capable of creating new governmental structures. In the 2005 elections Brotherhood members earned twenty percent of the seats in parliament, and over fourteen hundred charitable foundations make the organization immensely popular among Egypt’s poor and lower classes.
Mr. Subhi Saleh, the Brothers’ representative in the transition committee creating a new government, maintains that he advocates democracy. Yet, many Egyptians perceive the entire committee to be Islamist oriented. It has proposed amending the laws concerning presidential elections, but not the second article of Egypt’s soon-to-be-revised Constitution: “Islam is the Religion of the State. Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Shar`iah).” This article coincides with the Brotherhood’s 2007 Charter and does not guarantee equal citizenship for all Egyptians - one of the main demands of many groups involved in the January 25th Revolution.
Commentators put much trust in the Brotherhood’s youth wing whose members seem more moderate and congenial towards political compromises than the older generation. Young Brothers in Tahrir Square downplayed their agenda and refused to carry Islamist banners. French Islam scholar Olivier Roy believes that younger Islamists have lost their hold on Islamic societies since Muslims have become more individualist and pluralist-minded.
So the Brotherhood has many members who are not of one mind about how they envision a new democratic Egypt. However, they do see Islam as a political ideology able to solve society’s ailments. Brotherhood writings convey profoundly ambiguous opinions about non-Muslims: they are full citizens but never quite equal; tolerance towards them remains conditional. This mode of thinking is so engrained in large parts of Egyptian society that arguing against it is a novelty.
The ideology stems from classical applications of the Shari’ah which places citizens in a religious hierarchy. It translates into excluding non-Muslim leadership from vital parts of modern-day society such as government, the army, diplomatic services, and the educational system. It has also created mindsets that are quick to find excuses when Christians are being attacked. When a church in Helwan Province was burned to the ground in March 2010 the cause was an alleged love affair between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman. A dozen died and over 140 were wounded in the ensuing clashes.
Regular attacks on Copts have occurred since the 1970s, when during Sadat’s reign radical Muslim groups – many inspired by the Brotherhood –became active in Egypt. They continued throughout the Mubarak period. His regime was good at window dressing, and public meetings with the Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III cemented the President’s image as protector of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Although it remained difficult for Copts to obtain permits to build or repair churches, he allowed several grand projects, and declared January 7th, Coptic Christmas, a national holiday.
Yet, whenever Copts were being attacked the government remained passive and refrained from intervention or action. Police seldom arrived at the scene on time, and few perpetrators were ever prosecuted or punished. Justifications for the attacks abounded: a village feud, two merchants fighting, Copts had raped a Muslim girl. Attacking Christians became the new normal; somehow they deserved what happened. This mode of thinking chillingly resembles pervasive views on abused women: they asked for it. Journalist Rosen had to be corrected before he realized that making fun of the brutal attack on Lara Logan on Tahrir Square was unforgivable.
During the past three decades polarization between Muslims and Christians has grown. Both groups have become religiously more conservative. The regime allowed generations of young Muslims to study biased text books in schools and hear radicalized rhetoric about Coptic “others.” Mubarak allowed inter-religious tensions to escalate; by the year 2000, random acts of violence against the Copts had become normative. In the analysis of Coptic intellectual Samir Morqos, their “safety level” had passed.
On popular levels a new genre of writings emerged pitting theological and moral virtues of one religion against the other. Most recently, in 2008, Copts felt slighted by best-selling author Youssef Zeidan’s intellectual potboiler Azazeel (Beelzebub) which earned the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It imagines Cyril of Alexandria, one of the most venerated Coptic church fathers, in debate with Nestorius who considered Christ a mere human. Nestorius’ – read Islamic – interpretation of the nature of Christ is celebrated while Cyril is portrayed as a dead-wrong, bloodthirsty tyrant.
Members of the Brotherhood seldom condemned physical or verbal abuse of the Copts. After all, the perpetrators belonged to more radical groups spun off during its long history; its own members had sworn off violence. In fact they prided themselves on new-found tolerant attitudes.
In 1998, I asked Adil Hussein, then chief editor of the Al-Shaab newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Islamist Labor Party, what the future of Copts would hold if his party came to power. He stressed the fact that some Copts had joined his party, and insisted on their protection and full rights as equal citizens in an Islamic state. But, he added, their freedom of expression would need to remain limited and no Copt could run for president.
The New Year’s bombing of the Qiddisin Church in Alexandria was a turning point of sorts. It not only killed 21 worshippers, but made many Muslims realize how unaware they were of the real and symbolic violence against their compatriots. To address the many forms of prejudice condoned by the State, the educational system, the media, and several prominent Egyptians including Brotherhood members, met on January 11th. They concluded that the most urgent issue facing Egypt was “Protection of Citizenship and National Unity.” Showing solidarity with this conclusion, on March 11, Egyptians organized a “National Unity Movement” at Tahrir Square.
Since the political tide has changed, the Brotherhood has been quick to condemn the “barbaric” Alexandria bombing. It declared the sectarian clashes in March to be a plot by groups out to thwart the revolution. But it may be too late. Radical groups or Salafis diligently continue their divisive actions, and changing mindsets about the Coptic others requires great effort.
Can the new generation that was waving signs with both cross and crescent in Tahrir Square help? Will the sermon of venerable Islamist cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi addressing Muslims and Christians alike be transformative? Throughout the twentieth century crowd euphoria of unity prevailed; cross and crescent were held high and lofty speeches praised solidarity in times of crisis. These uniting sentiments tended to be short-lived.
By not standing up for the rights of others, the Brothers silently encourage the actions of radical groups. If they truly wish for change they need to reformulate their ideas about citizenship to agree with the modern, democratic nation state. This is a Herculean task that requires promoting civic dialogues and the re-education of the large segment of Egypt’s society. Non-violence against the Copts should become the new normal.
This article was first published in March 2011