The Egyptian Church is the only apostolic church to have originated among gentiles and not among Jews who followed the path of Jesus. While the Copts’ New Testament is identical to that of all mainstream Christian churches, the church still has a distinct non-Pauline feel to it. The African church gave rise to many seminal figures of early Christianity, including Anthony, Athanasious, Cyril and of course Augustine. After the Arab invasions the African church vanished except for the Copts, who survived in their traditional homeland of the Nile valley, from the shores of Alexandria to the highlands of Ethiopia. When Christianity was introduced to the rest of Africa centuries later, it was by European missionaries. The Coptic church has been sending missions to Africa only in the last few decades, and with increasing success.
Across the Atlantic on the American continent, the Coptic church is entirely an immigrant story. There has been little outreach to the American community at large, or to African-Americans. As with most immigrant groups, Egyptians sought economic success and integration into the wider American society, and the struggle of African-Americans was distant to them. This is an odd situation given that African-Americans are both intensely religious and in constant search for African roots, especially connections to ancient Egypt. Black American churches have a wide range, from standard mainline Catholic and Protestant churches, to exclusively Black mainline churches (mostly Baptist) to tiny storefronts with self-appointed preachers.
It is high time that American Copts attempt an outreach to the mainline Black churches, at least on cultural and educational lines. There are many advantages to such outreach, both for American Copts and African-Americans. American Copts have always tried to highlight the plight of their Egyptian brethren, but with little impact on policy. Their participation in American policy is limited by their recent arrival and their history of second class citizenship in Egypt, which left permanent scars on their collective psyche. The participation, as such, is limited to a few sparse demonstrations outside the gates of power armed with homemade signs. Alarmingly, a few have drifted into the loony right wing with its odious brand of Islam-baiting. It is time to up their game.
An effective policy platform must be built quickly, and therefore not from scratch. The platform must be hewed from existing timber. One strain must appeal to hard-headed American interest. This is the strain that sees political Islamism as a threat to peace and Western values, and is largely right-of-center. But another equally powerful strain would be the American left, where the Copts’ struggle for equal citizenship will evoke echoes of the American civil rights struggle. The Black community’s struggle for civil rights had two strains, an angry separatist strain that favored confrontation with the wider community, and an integrationist strain that favored working with forces within the society at large to accomplish a peaceful and principled achievement of equal rights. The appeal must be to the integrationist strain that can recognize in the Egyptian church an authentic mainline version of Christianity with orthodox doctrine and deep connections to ancient Egypt. These two foundations will give Copts access to the halls of power with existing and effective lobbying channels.
In the final analysis American Copts need to sort out their priorities and loyalties. The first loyalty is to their adopted homeland; to seek an American policy that serves American interests and reflects American values. Their second loyalty is to their coreligionist in Egypt to provide succor and protection. Their third priority is to the world at large, to expose political Islamism as a modern aberration, a danger to world peace and above all to Islam itself. The outreach to the African-American community serves all these purposes.
This is a post about Egypt. However, a real-life story from America will illustrate its moral well. Just before the winter holidays in 2012 a young man walked into an elementary school in a pleasant and peaceful small town and shot more than two dozen children and teachers dead in their classrooms. America has one of the most permissive gun regulations, and people generally agreed that the horror of the tragedy will give momentum to push through more gun control laws. Surely no one who has heard of this massacre would object, and almost all Americans have heard of it. Surely those opposing gun control will be silenced by this event. But it was not so. The proponents of easy access to guns simply blamed the violence on too few guns. If teachers had been armed to the teeth, they argued, maybe the gunman would have been shot earlier in the rampage. It is an argument that leaves anyone with an ounce of sense gasping for air. But it does illustrate that for true believers no evidence is sufficient to change their minds. In fact, any event can be altered and seen in the light of their deeply held beliefs.
This brings us back to Egypt in a round-about way. The calamitous failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to govern or advance Egypt is clear enough. Perhaps this will decrease their popularity, or even discredit the idea of religiously tinged governance. Perhaps the average man will conclude that sensible liberals with a secular bent should be given a chance. But that is unlikely. The immediate result of the MB failure will likely be the empowerment of even more narrowly religious groups. If the MB failed it was perhaps due to its insufficient ardor in religious matters. Or perhaps it was too easy on critics and allowed too much leeway for “destructive” opinions. Events in of themselves do not discredit a governing elite. It is the existence of a successful alternative that does so. If the capitalist West did not exist in freedom and prosperity next to the Communist East it is doubtful that Communism would have collapsed. There would have been nothing for people to compare their conditions to and no alternative to adopt. Failure can continue to fail in ever downward cycles. Success is not merely the failure of failure but the arduous process of building and persuading.
Islamist rule in Egypt will not truly and finally fail unless the people are shown a clear alternative and a proven success. The Islamists will not simply concede defeat and leave power. They will always insist that their program is valid and simply needs an ever stricter enforcement. This leaves us with the tantalizing thought of how to offer an alternative Egypt, what its shape and development should be and what relationship it will have to the failing Egypt.
The Egyptians will not develop a new Egypt without leaders not afraid to imagine it.
Bassem Youssef hosts a popular satirical program (El Bernameg or “The Program”) on Egyptian television. When the Egyptian Prosecutor hauled him into court to answer charges of insulting the President and Islam he started a media circus that quickly pulled in the American satirical program “Daily Show”, the Muslim Brotherhood, its political party, the Egyptian President, the American Embassy and the US State Department. A seemingly minor affair is likely to have a major impact on a critical policy.
The US policy toward Egypt since January 25 2011 has been a makeshift affair, improvised and circumscribed by a desire for “responsible” statesmanship. It left the US seeming to be in a position of support for the Islamists parties in Egypt, especially the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It is doubtful that this is the intention of the policy. As often the case in the complex world of power politics, a minor affair can shed light on complex issues, even at the risk of oversimplification. There are many reasons why the “Bassem Affair” will alter US policy toward Egypt.
1- The MB overreacted. The bizarre, slightly deranged, response of the MB toward the US asserting its belief in freedom of speech comes on the heels of an equally bizarre statement against the rights of Women, seeming, among other things, to condone wife-beating as necessary to the health of society. A movement at the threshold of political power is now speaking its mind, and it is not pretty. The MB statements are truthful in affirming its core mission as social, its deeply-held beliefs as anti-modern, and its methods as coercive. The truth may set a man free, but freedom has made the MB truthful.
2- Americans laughed. In a few minutes of sharp and merciless comedy, Jon Stewart, the host of the “Daily Show”, lampooned Morsi as an oppressive buffoon. Millions of Americans get their political news from this show and are not likely to forget this episode when it comes to Egypt. Whatever the Brotherhood invested in its charm offensive in the US is now lost, and nothing short of a miraculous transformation of the tedious and rotund Morsi into a tolerant and svelte Mandela will alter this view.
3- The MB-friendly pundits chocked. The US academic community has grown a variety of Middle East “experts” reared on the leftish rhetoric of anti-colonialism. These have formed a phalanx of apologists for “moderate” political Islam, often tilting the balance of US policy, especially among Democrats. Anyone disagreeing with them (especially Egyptian or Egyptian-American liberals) is shunned as “right wing” or “intolerant”, or even “felool” (A thoroughly unEgyptian word). With this affair they are left speechless, many re-evaluating their youthful dalliances and indiscretions, much as leftist did in the 1930’s after the horrors of Stalin became obvious.
In short, we have two comedians to thank for what is likely to be a beneficial effect. As always, a few minutes of humor can cut through decades of obfuscation. To laugh is human, and is often the best defense against intolerance and pomposity.