The recent Nag Hammadi murders are yet another sad indication of the deterioration in relations between Egyptian Christians and Muslims.
While this is not the place for a detailed analysis of Egyptian history, a brief sketch of recent Coptic-Muslim relations may help to bring the recent events into perspective. In the first half of the twentieth century, these relations were perhaps as good as they ever had been. It was a time when Botros Ghali Pasha, a Copt, could rise to the position of Prime Minister of Egypt under Abbas II, the last of the Khedives, from 1908 to 1910. Many Egyptians who lived through this period describe a time when religion was not seen as a barrier to decency and cooperation. Copts and Muslims went to school together, worked together and played together. If religion ever came up, both sides treated the other with respect, respecting each other’s right to worship in their own way without criticism or hindrance.
Perhaps it was the need to unite as Egyptians against a common enemy, the occupying British, which brought Christians and Muslims closer than has been usual in the long and chequered history of Egyptian religious relations. The famous Egyptian Independence movement lead by Zaghlul Pasha early in the twentieth century counted amongst its chief leaders a number of prominent Copts. But with the revolution of 1952 that brought President Nasser to power (after a short transition under General Naguib), certain trends began that have eventually lead to the sorry state of affairs we see today. Some of these trends are widespread across the Muslim world, while some are specifically Egyptian.
The new regime sought to shore up its support and protect itself against counter-revolution by making many friends in the Egyptian community. Among these were groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has since developed more and more fanatical Muslim leanings and has built a growing base in Egyptian politics, much to the consternation of many. President Sadat learned the hard way how carefully one must choose one’s friends when he cracked down on the Brotherhood, resulting in his assassination by them in 1983.
While there have been some rays of hope, the story since 1952 has been one of growing oppression for the Copts of Egypt. For example, while Botros Ghali Pasha’s grandson, Botros Botros Ghali, was seen worthy by the world of being the UN Secretary General, in his own country he could only rise to be a Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and that for only a few months in 1991on the way to going to the UN. Throughout this period, the number of Copts in the Egyptian Parliament has remained woefully low, and nowhere near reflecting the 10-15% of the population that is Christian. In fairness, President Mubarak did make a significant statement by appointing 4 Copts out of 10 Presidential nominees to the lower house in 2005, but given that there are a total of 454 seats in that house, the gesture could not be more than symbolic.
A glass ceiling exists in almost every area of life in Egypt, a situation that has contributed strongly to the exodus of Egyptian Copts from Egypt since the late 1960’s. Educated middle class Copts quickly realised that their children would face constant stigmatisation in Egypt because of their faith, and made the great sacrifice of leaving the land that had been their home for over 5,000 years to seek a better life, mostly in the West.
Then again, the troubles in Egypt are not unique, but are a reflection of the growing trend towards religious extremism in the Muslim world at large today. It is well known that widespread economic problems can lead to a growth in religious extremism. Samuel Huntington, in his prescient 1996 book, “The Clash of Civilisations” put forward the prediction that future global conflicts will not be based on national or ideological differences (like Communism versus Capitalism), but on religious-cultural ones. The lack of understanding between the West and the Muslim world climaxed in the horror of the September 11 attacks in 2001. The reprisals against Afghanistan and Iraq that followed have resulted, not surprisingly, in a closing of ranks among Muslims everywhere against all non-Muslims. Egypt has not been immune from this influence.
And yet, the toxic atmosphere now prevalent in Egypt is frustratingly unnecessary. Consider for example, what might happen if the tables were turned. Imagine for a moment that we wake up tomorrow to read about a small group of young Coptic men who hop into their cars and fire indiscriminately at worshippers emerging from their prayers at a mosque. What would the reaction of the Coptic community be? How would the Church react?
I would hope and I believe that the reaction would be one of pretty uniform disgust and denunciation. Copts would talk about those Coptic assassins as if they were heretics or betrayers of the Christian faith. Their friends and relatives would ostracise them and denounce them publicly and privately. The Church would very quickly proclaim that such crimes are the total opposite of what Christ taught us and that by committing such crimes the criminals put themselves in danger of eternal damnation, for their actions can never be acceptable before God. There would be no talk of excusing them on account of the persecution they had endured; no excuses on the basis that they were only sticking up for their fellow Christians and defending their faith; no silence from Church authorities that could be mistaken as tacit approval of what they had done.
Compare that to what we see in the wake of Nag Hammadi, and what we have seen in other recent spates of violence both in Egypt and in other parts of the world. The September 11 attacks were disturbing indeed, but what I found far more disturbing was the silence that followed from the Muslim world, and from Muslim leaders especially. As I recall, it was months before the first unequivocal official statement emerged from a Muslim cleric anywhere that terrorist attacks are not acceptable to the Muslim faith. Instead, Muslim leaders were appearing on TV with the message: “Yes, of course this is sad, but you must ask yourself what has the West done to Muslims that lead to such an attack?” No doubt, there are many valid grievances that Muslim world has against the West, particularly in the horrible treatment of the Palestinians over the past six decades. But that can never be an excuse for atrocities. If the persecuted turns around and becomes a persecutor, then they are no better than their enemies.
This stark contrast in responses highlights a basic difference between the two worldviews today. It need not be so. We need only go back fifty or a hundred years to see that Egypt can be a place where Muslims and Copts live together peacefully and harmoniously. The kind of hypothetical reaction from the Coptic community I have described above is what we would have seen from the Muslim community back then. What was present then, but is missing now, is a sense of decency, fairness and justice in the Muslim community of Egypt.
There is always the danger in situations like these that outcries by Copts will make little impact on the rest of the world. Of course the Copts will protest; what else would you expect? Tribalism means that people who share a common heritage will always stick together, doesn’t it? And why make such a fuss over 8 people who were killed when in places like Darfur and Indonesia literally thousands are being killed? In the non-Coptic mind, this can subconsciously devalue the voice of Coptic protesters.
But I believe there is more at stake here.
In essence, the Nag Hammadi murders and the deeper unrest that they represent in Egypt are an issue not of tribalism, but of justice and equality. The Egyptian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and equality of all citizens regardless of religious faith, but that is not the reality in the Egypt of today. The American founding fathers were willing to fight and to die for a society of genuine democracy, justice, equality and individual freedom.
Coptic protests against what has happened in Nag Hammadi are not just about 8 individuals. They are about what is happening to the whole country. They are an attempt to arrest the descent of Egypt back into the medieval distinction of Muslim believers and non-Muslim ‘dhimmis’; second class citizens who are constantly downtrodden and persecuted. All that Copts ask for is to be treated like normal Egyptian citizens. Just as the Muslim Egyptian has the right to pray in peace, to build a place of worship, to be educated and to have a career, to exercise their talents and to partake fully in the civil life of Egypt, so also should the Christian Egyptian.
The world is rapidly shrinking. Copts in Egypt see a black man become President of the United States: a nation where only a few decades ago in some states, black men were not allowed to use the same toilets or go to the same schools as white men. They ask, why is Egypt still in the dark ages? Why is Egypt still allowing tribalism to dominate her civil agenda? In 2010, when the rest of the world is opening its mind to democracy, tolerance, understanding, cooperation and peaceful coexistence, why is Egypt heading backwards towards a kind of medieval theocracy where the majority constantly put down the minority? Why is the Christian treated so differently to the Muslim today in Egypt?
While there can be no doubt that the Egyptian government must bear the responsibility for the tone of Egyptian society, one cannot lay all the blame at their feet. To some extent, Egyptians will get the country they deserve. Extremists only emerge in communities where good people turn a blind eye, firstly to small injustices, and eventually to big ones. It is up to the common man in the street in Egypt to take a stand for justice and equality. The Muslim employer, manager and teacher can change his society by treating Christians and Muslims equally and by working to make that the formal accepted policy. And it is up to those who have a public voice, the media, the politicians, the leaders of industry and sport and entertainment, to speak up for decency and justice. The many decent Muslims of Egypt must realise that they can make a difference, and it is time that the silent majority make themselves heard and start to change their society for the better rather than leaving fanatics to set the agenda.
Most advanced countries today have understood that whatever harms one member of a society harms the whole society. Enlightened societies, both today and in the past, both Western and Muslim, have seen that pluralism is a positive thing, and where the philosophy of “live and let live” predominates, life is best for everyone, including the majority. Muslims revere Christ as a great prophet; perhaps they need to remember one of His key teachings: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
The Nag Hammadi murders thrust Egypt firmly into the family of unenlightened nations. A Muslim majority that allows such atrocities to go unpunished against a minority may feel big and strong, but they will also lose the respect of the rest of the world, and eventually, their own self-respect. There is simply no place for a society that accepts such internal persecution in the family of modern nations in 2010.
We can only pray that Egyptian authorities will make an example of this disaster by properly and justly enforcing the rule of law against the perpetrators and sending a clear message to the whole nation that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated. We must also pray that good and decent Muslims in Egypt, and especially their religious leaders, will find the courage to say openly, “No! This is not the society we want for our children”, and reach out to their Christian neighbours with courage and compassion. Not just because of Nag Hammadi, but because they believe in justice, tolerance and equality for all.
In the meantime, if you are able, please do attend the peaceful rally to be held this coming Tuesday 19th January.