Who Killed the Egyptians on their Feast Day?
In 1923 a committee was formed to draw up the first Egyptian constitution, but the Wafd (the majority party at the time) announced it would boycott the committee because it was set up by appointment rather than through free elections. The committee nonetheless included some of the best minds in Egypt and witnessed an elevated political and intellectual debate about the articles proposed for the Egyptian constitution. Some voices vociferously demanded proportional representation for the Copts, in the sense that Copts would always have a certain percentage of the seats in parliament and on local councils. The proposal soon become a major national issue. Those who favoured proportional representation wanted fair treatment for the Copts and hoped to avert the possibility of British intervention in Egypt on the pretext of protecting the minorities. Those who opposed it refused to view the Copts as a religious minority rather than as Egyptian citizens who should be judged solely on merit. The surprising thing is that most of those who opposed proportional representation were Copts. Besides Dr Taha Hussein, a Muslim, the opponents included the thinker Salama Mousa, Professor Aziz Merhom, who collected the signatures of 5,000 Copts opposed to the proposal, Father Boutrus Abdel Malik, the chairman of the church’s General Congregational Council, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church and many other Copts.
In the end the proposal was defeated and the Copts decisively left their mark on the modern history of Egypt by refusing to accept sectarian privileges under any guise. I recalled that battle when I was reading about the horrific Naga Hammadi massacre in which six Copts were shot dead as they were coming out of church at Coptic Christmas. The question is: why, 90 years ago, did the Copts refuse to accept any sectarian privileges and why are they now being massacred on Christmas Day at church doors? In my opinion these are some of the reasons for the crisis:
Firstly, Egyptian history shows that sectarian strife spreads during times of national frustration. At the beginning of the 20th century Egyptians went through a phase of despair because of the British occupation and this soon turned into a shameful bout of sectarian conflict (British fingers meddled, as usual), which reached its peak between 1908 and 1911. But as soon as the 1919 uprising happened, everyone united behind it. In fact some Copts, such as Father Sergius, had been advocates of conflict and at the time of the uprising they converted to become the fiercest defenders of national unity. There is plenty of frustration, repression, poverty and injustice in Egypt now, and all these factors push Egyptians towards sectarian hostility, just as they push them towards violence, crime and sexual harassment.
Secondly, in 1923, when the Copts rejected sectarian privileges, in spite of the British occupation, Egypt was fighting to set up a democratic state based on citizenship. There was a tolerant Egyptian reading of Islam, the foundations of which were laid by the reformist imam Mohamed Abduh (1849-1905), who was able to liberate the minds of Egyptians from superstition and extremism. Egypt witnessed a true renaissance in all spheres of activity, such as education for women, theatre, cinema, and literature. But since the end of the 1970s, Egypt has come to know another understanding of Islam – the extreme Wahabi salafist ideology which Egyptian jurists have termed ‘the law of the Bedouin’. Several factors contributed to the spread of the Wahabi ideology, primarily the rise in oil prices after the 1973 war, which gave salafist organizations unprecedented financial resources which they used to propagate their ideas in Egypt and the rest of the world. Then millions of Egyptians moved to work in the Gulf states and came back years later steeped in Wahabi ideas. This ideology also spread under the proven sponsorship of Egyptian political security agencies, which always treated the salafist sheikhs with great tolerance — the opposite of the severe repression they apply against the Muslim Brotherhood. The reason for this is that Wahabi salafism helps to underpin despotic government because it urges Muslim to obey the ruler and forbids rebellion against him as long as he remains Muslim. The problem is that Wahabi ideas convey a vision that is clearly hostile to civilization, because if they prevailed art would be haram, along with music, singing, cinema, theatre and literature too. The Wahabi ideology imposes on women seclusion behind the face-veil or the Turkish burka, which Egyptian women threw off 100 years ago. It states clearly that democracy is haram because it means government by the people while the Wahabis want to apply God’s law (in the way they want, of course). The gravest aspect of the Wahabi salafist ideology is that it completely undermines the concept of citizenship. In their eyes the Copts are not citizens but dhimmis (protected non-Muslims) – a defeated and subordinate minority in a country conquered by Muslims. They are also seen as infidels and polytheists prone to hate Islam and to conspire against it. It is forbidden to celebrate their religious holidays or help them build churches because these are not places of worship but places where polytheism is practiced. In the view of the Wahabis, Christians cannot govern or lead armies – which implies that they have no loyalty to the nation. Anyone who follows the portrayal of Copts on dozens of satellite channels and salafist websites is bound to be saddened. These forums, followed by millions of Egyptians daily, openly declare their hatred of Copts and contempt for them. Often they call on Muslims to boycott them. There are countless examples but I will cite here what I read on the well-known salafist website “Guardians of the Faith”, which devoted a whole article to the subject “Why Muslims are superior to Copts”. “Being a Muslim girl whose role models are the wives of the Prophet, who were required to wear the hijab, is better than being a Christian girl, whose role models are whores,” it says. “Being a Muslim who fights to defend his honour and his faith is better than being a Christian who steals, rapes and kills children,” it adds. “Being a Muslim whose role models are Muhammad and his companions is better than being a Christian whose role models are Paul the Liar and the whoremongering prophets.” As this enmity towards Copts spreads, is it not natural, even inevitable, that it should end in attacks on them?
Thirdly, the virus of extremism has spread from Muslims to Copts, generations of whom have grown up in isolation from society, and some Copts are implicated in the same discourse of extremism and hatred. The most famous example is Father Zakaria Boutros, who is dedicated to contesting Islam and insulting Muslims (I have no doubt the church could silence him immediately if it wanted to). The church has undertaken to protect the Copts but it has made them more isolated and has changed from being a spiritual authority into being a political party which negotiates in the name of the Coptic people (think what that expression means). Out of fear at the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood the church has announced, though its senior officials, that it fully accepts the idea of President Mubarak passing on the presidency to his son Gamal. This attitude, besides being incompatible with the great patriotic record of the church, does the greatest damage to the Copts because it implies that they are working on behalf of the tyranny of the Egyptian regime against the rest of Egyptians. Similarly, some diaspora Copts have apparently learned none of the lessons of history and have decided to throw all their weight behind foreign powers which have never wanted good for Egypt and which have always raised the slogan of protecting minorities as a pretext for their colonial ambitions. The diaspora Copts have demands, most of which are just, but unfortunately they are completely sectarian, in the sense that they want to solve the Copts’ problems in isolation from the problems of the nation. The diaspora Copts today are doing the opposite of what their illustrious ancestors did when they rejected proportional representation in 1923. They are not demanding justice and freedom for all Egyptians but insist on obtaining sectarian privileges for themselves alone, as though they were telling the Egyptian regime: “Give us Copts the privileges we demand, then do what you want with other Egyptians. We don’t care.”
There’s only one way to see the horrific massacre at Naga Hammadi: Egyptian citizens were killed on a religious holiday as they were coming out from prayers. The innocents who were killed as they exchanged holiday greetings were Egyptians like me and you. They lived with us, fought alongside us and defended the country with their blood. They were Egyptians who speak, think and dream just like us. They are us, and those who killed them were not those who pulled the triggers. What killed them was a corrupt and despotic regime which subjugates Egyptians, plunders their wealth and drives them to despair, extremism and violence.