By William Fisher
On May 7, 15 people were killed or mortally wounded, more than 200 injured, and two Coptic churches were burned down in the Imbaba section of
The Guardian newspaper reports that Egyptian media describe the Imbaba attackers as Salafis – fundamentalist Muslims who want the imposition of sharia law. The Salafis, often with links to Saudi Arabia, are seen as having become more visible because internal security is less repressive now than before the revolution. It is also widely believed that elements of the Mubarak regime are encouraging them, the Guardian reports.
"It's the previous regime that is responsible for this," one distraught resident
tells reporters. "We demand that the higher military council punish all those
responsible for this crime," says George Ishaq, a pro-democracy activist. "This is a crime – not sectarian strife."
Egypt’s interim government conducts an investigation and finds that the basis for the attacks on the churches – that Copts were holding as a prisoner a woman who wanted to convert to Islam -- was without factual foundation.
The National Council for Human Rights (whose chairman, ironically, is Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a former UN Secretary General and a Coptic Christian) released the results of a fact-finding commission, pointing to the proliferation of illegal firearms, emerging religious extremism, the presence of a security vacuum, and the interference of former regime members as the main causes of the Imbaba violence.
The government says the attacks were carried out by extremist Islamist factions, aided by the armed goons that Mubarak so often employed. The government says it will pursue the culprits “with an iron hand” and will try the accused in military courts.
Fifteen of Egypt’s most prominent Egyptian human rights organizations say Muslim-Christian civil strife, and the interim government’s pledge to quell it using the iron fist left behind by Mr. Murarak as he exited, could plunge the newly-freed country into serious civil conflict.
But the shock and awe expressed by the military, Egypt’s interim rulers, has a familiar ring. There is little difference between their response now and their responses over more than a generation of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christians. The long-standing drill is that the government is appalled by the treatment of a faithful minority of its people. They vow to fix the problem. But they have no intention of doing so. They will try to simply paper over it. And one wonders whether today’s rulers are any more sincere.
Who are the Copts anyway? And why all the fuss? Well, 15 people were killed, hundreds wounded, and churches burned to the ground. That’s reason enough for the fuss, no?
Yes, except that these kinds of fusses have been going on for a very long time.
Coptic Christians are Egypt's largest religious minority -- at least 10 percent of the population, or about six million out of 64 million. There are Copts in all strata of Egyptian society. Many are in the middle and upper classes. Many have converted to Islam to avoid persecution.
The vast majority of those who are left follow the teachings of the Coptic Orthodox Church. According to generally accepted folklore, that church was established by Saint Mark the evangelist, who introduced Christianity to Egypt in the first century. So Copts were in Egypt before Muslims. They simply were those who chose not to convert to Islam when it appeared in 641 A.D.
And this endangered minority has been paying for it ever since. Millions have left Egypt, but those who have remained have found themselves discriminated against in a thousand ways that are subtle and not-so-subtle.
So why are they being discriminated against? Who is marginalizing them?
After the Arab invasion of 641, Copts were relegated to “dhimmi” status. That means they were a protected minority but without full rights. Thus, they were subjected to poiltical persecution and social ostracism.
Over the next many decades, the Copts’ fortunes were up and down. Eventually there was a kind of Coptic civil and religious renaissance, but despite this reawakening, there were periods of extreme hostility between Muslims and Copts in Egypt.
It was during one such hostile period (1907-11) that the British high commissioner, in an effort to placate the Muslims, introduced a system that effectively barred Copts from senior government positions.
Not until the 1919 Revolution did Copts and Muslims unite against the British occupation and worked together to build a new political order. That was their high point, and their road has been downhill ever since, largely because of the rise of Islamist movements in the 1930s, the appearance of Arab Nationalism during the Nasser regime, and President Sadat’s use of religion for his personal political purposes.
But the unkindest cut of all was the constitution of 1971, which proclaimed, "Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic its official language, and the principles of the Islamic Shari‘a a principal source of legislation." The 1980 constitution made things worse by designating Shari‘a a principal source of legislation.
The Coptic community rightly saw this as a move that would transform Egypt from a secular-style state into an Islamic theocracy, a la Iran.
And all of these pro-Islamic provisions are contained in the constitutional articles that were supposedly re-written following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime and voted on favorably by the people in the ‘new Egypt’s” first plebiscite.
This history of Muslim-Coptic relations in Egypt doesn’t justify the institutionalized discrimination I saw when I lived in Egypt; it merely explains it.
What one needs to understand is that the outrageous treatment of the Copts was and is essentially based on Muslim attitudes toward people who are "not like us." This attitude is reinforced by the extremist fundamentalist views of the Salafists, the tacit support of The Muslim Brotherhood, and further complicated by the fact that, in Islam, only Muslims are viewed as innocent. Non-Muslims have not accepted Islam; therefore they are seen as guilty of a crime against Allah.
But this biblical sophistry, cited mostly by uneducated Muslims, merely serves to obscure the simple one-dimensional nature of Islam’s problem with the Copts.
The heart of the problem is ‘not like us.’
This is little different from the self-appointed vigilantes like the Minutemen patrolling our Southwest border hunting illegal immigrants. Or the police in Arizona pulling someone over for a broken tail light and then asking for the driver’s “papers.” Or the golf course at Augusta, Georgia, refusing membership to females. Or the fearful morons who still doubt President Obama’s citizenship.
What is so incredibly disappointing about this particular exhibition of Muslim bigotry toward Coptic Christians is its timing. It comes less than three months after the Revolution of Tahrir Square, which proclaimed freedom and self-determination, not just for Muslims, but for everyone. Those who cling to their bigotries betray the meaning of that revolution.
But there is an unintended consequence of this bigotry that is equally serious.
It is the capacity of inter-religious strife to wreck the principles of Tahrir Square and, in so doing, to trigger violent confrontations that could destabilize the whole country. Democracy cannot grow amidst chaos. Chaos creates a security vacuum that provides an irresistible target for the next brutal demagogue.
That would be tragic enough. But Egypt, to Arabs, is not just a country. It is the motherland, the most influential of all the Arab states. What is does – or doesn’t do – will resonate and be mimicked throughout Arab societies.
That’s why Egypt has become the crucible for the hopes and dreams of would-be democrats everywhere. That’s why the world holds Egypt to a higher standard.