All generalizations are suspect. But as such things go, this one is reasonably accurate. Concern about the suffering of Eastern Christians at the hands of Muslim extremists is more prevalent among the West’s political right, while concern about the less dangerous, but no less odious, bigotry toward Muslims in the West is taken up more vigorously by the political left. How this came to be is worthy of a book-long study, and mostly because to speak of the effect of “culture” is now taboo on the left. But the manifestations should be cause for alarm.
What used to be called “the Christian West”, a term now in disfavor, has not always been kind to its eastern coreligionists. But recently there has been a major change in these attitudes, in opposite and polarizing directions. The Russian Church, with its long and rather dangerous association with secular power, seems attractive to many white supremacists. Some are even converting from mainline and Evangelical Protestantism to Eastern rites. This blogger has warned about such Russification publicly, and privately even more vehemently. Putin’s cynical display of crocodile tears about the decline of “Western morality” serves as a magnet for such groups. On the opposite end of the spectrum, so-called intersectional warriors, are making hay with faux Muslim identities. A woman, of any skin complexion or ethnicity, who dons a Hijab is suddenly a “woman of color”, whatever that means. This is a dangerous polarization for all involved. Painting political polarization with a religious tint ends badly, especially for those in the numerical minority. It is silly, and wrong, to allocate blame equally on all sides. It is far more productive to urge change mostly where it is possible and realistic to expect it.
There is nothing to say to white supremacists. They are beyond the pale. One can only urge Eastern Christians to reject false friends and not join them outside the limits of tolerance and common humanity. More is expected from Western liberals. Their eagerness to end denigration of Islam and Muslims in their countries is commendable, although at times it finds them in uncomfortable embrace of suspect company, especially when coupled with superficial understanding of Muslim-Christian relations in majority-Muslim countries. The statement “America is a White nation” is hateful and inaccurate. Yet it is not uncommon to hear the even less statistically and historically accurate “Egypt is a Muslim country” without anyone batting an eye. Dog-whistle extensions of that statement are even more prevalent. Consider the now fashionable promotion of “illiberal democracy” by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings institute. In Egypt of the 1930s and 1940s Communists were disproportionately Jewish, while Christians were over-represented among liberals. The congenitally antisemitic and anti-Copt Muslim Brotherhood attacked “heathen Communists and dissolute Liberals” with vehemence, arguing that such views should be anathema to all Muslims. It is surprising to see such discourse repackaged for polite company as insisting that “illiberal democracy” is acceptable for Muslims. Panels on tolerance in the Middle East often include a combination of Islamists and Western or Muslim seculars with no representation of Eastern Christians who are most affected by intolerance. The liberal West is disappearing Eastern Christians, and is largely uncomfortable in the presence of their testimony, in many cases literally martyrdom, and their fervent devotions. They smell too much of incense, perhaps.
It was the privilege of this blogger, upon first arrival in America, to read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, urged on him by a kind teacher who was a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, at a time when the Church’s teachings about African-Americans were coming under scrutiny. As with all great works of literature, it has multiple readings. But the most obvious one is how invisibility facilitates oppression. It is understandable how hateful groups in the Middle East seek to render Christians invisible. It is puzzling why such discourse of supremacy hoodwinks Western liberals.
— Maged Atiya
Subway systems in most major cities have information Kiosks to guide the lost or confused travelers to their desired destinations. Egypt does things differently, as Herodotus noted some centuries ago. New Kiosks at the Cairo subway guide the travelers not to Sarayat Al Qoba or Demerdash, instead the way is pointed to a more pious life and perhaps a better afterlife. These “Fatwa” Kiosks are manned by nattily dressed Sheikhs experienced in such matter as how to divide inheritance, start a business or handle finances. The idea is to provide fast advice to the harried commuter by dispensing religion quickly on the trip home. Egypt does not lack for public expressions of religious fervor so the Kiosks fit in nicely in a country soaked in public piety. The entire idea is the brainchild of Al Azhar which is well-endowed with taxpayers’ money. And although the Kiosks are dedicated to Muslims, one suspects, nay is sure, that many Egyptian Christians would follow suit if they could. The Kiosks are meant to combat religious extremism; a sort of homeopathic cure where a lesser bit of the poison inoculates against the bigger danger, similia similibus curentur. We should not be quick to believe it. Al Azhar is an enterprise in the business of religion, and the Kiosks are its latest startup effort or growth fund. The government also sees them as a quick way to curry favor with the public, certainly easier than delivering services effectively. A state that has trouble keeping trains on tracks or ferries upright advertises itself as fit to guide souls to higher places.
The Fatwa Kiosks are not a harmless bit of nonsense. They are a manifestation of a deeper problem behind Egypt’s recent stagnation and social divisions. There is the widely held belief that religion, appropriately defined, is the solution to many, if not most, ills. The evidence for that belief is scant, and most of it points to the opposite. In his time in Parliament, former President Morsi, thundered against corruption and when running for president claimed that it can all be cured by appointing the pious to office. During his short term the men of his party came ready to grab with both fists in a time-honored, but hardly religious, attitude of “my turn now”. Preachers long urged women to cover up in order not to excite men’s passions. But a woman walking the hot streets of Cairo in the summer of 1967 in a flimsy sun dress could do so unmolested. Today her granddaughter, fully sealed in flowing garments, will all too often run a gauntlet of sexual harassment. There are even more serious consequences. Lower fertility is necessary for Egypt to improve the economic lot of the people and deal with scarce resources of land and water. But religious ideas, sotto voce, stand in the way of proper population control. And the mother of all problems is cultural stagnation and diminution. It is a chicken-and-egg question as whether cultural stagnation manifests as false piety or whether false piety causes cultural stagnation. We do know, regardless, that the current atmosphere has made it easy for a minority of moral busybodies, snoops and snitches, to operate freely in the country. Any man can drag a fellow citizen to court on account of perceived offense to their delicate religious sensibility. A professor who reads poetry and joyously belly dances in private celebration is immediately labeled a threat to religion. Few note the absurdity of the charge; and certainly the courts do not laugh off the suit. These cases represent the most obvious and egregious offenses, but lesser offenses pass unnoticed every day. Egypt has become a country of small daily coercions, and religion has played an unhappy role in that development. Culture matters; both in the lower and upper case. Public religious acts and the government implicit or explicit support of them is no laughing matter. The growth of religious fervor is not without cost. It displaces other forms of culture. It is no coincidence that the last 40 years of public whipping up of religious fervor saw a general decline in cultural output. Some causes are clear and direct, as artists, writers and poets are regularly accused of blasphemy on account of their work. Increased religiosity shifts the norms and allows for discordant and divisive voices to find homes on the fringes of the mainstream. These voices in turn pull the mainstream further towards them and suppress reasoned dissent. All of this is nasty feedback loop, and unless it is broken the race is to the very bottom.
No one has the right to ask Egyptians to forsake their God or deny their religious expressions. Herodotus also noted that Egyptians are inordinately fond of their religion. That may very well be true. But what we have witnessed in the last few decades is not the triumph of native spirit, nor the failure of “modernity”, but the result of a culture war waged by determined and disciplined ideologues (again of both religions), who wanted religious expressions to have primary, even exclusive, role in defining culture and even politics. When it comes to the latter there is discernable confusion. Politicians race around offering religious advice while Sheikhs and Popes comment knowingly on politics. It is a classic case of how mixing of religion and civic politics hurts both. An anecdote was related to this author some years ago by a man who witnessed it first hand. In 1950 the Egyptian Ministry of Education wanted to revise the school curriculum to a more native and nationalistic bent. It sought opinions from within its ranks. One man, highly regarded and armed with a recent graduate degree from America, offered his views. Religion must be weaved into all aspects of the curriculum, language, history, arts and even sciences. A skeptical member of the committee offered a rebuke “mish kulu el deen ya ustaz Sayyd” (It is not all religion Professor Sayyd). The comment earned a hearty chuckle from other members. More than sixty years later, Egypt needs to make sure that Sayyd Qutb does not have the last laugh.
— Maged Atiya
One of the most amusing scenes of the events of January 2011 in Egypt was the image of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper cowering in an apartment in Cairo, curtains drawn, whispering into the microphone from an “undisclosed location” for fear that Mubarak’s “thugs” would come and drag him away by the scruff of his t-shirt. The location was well-known, even if it was undisclosed. Those who knew Egypt also knew that life went on normally just a short distance from Cooper’s location. This was a hint of what was to come, when the world reported on the “Arab Revolutions” as nearly a TV serial without much examination of of what was truly happening. Steven Cook opens his new book “False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East ” with a nod to all that, listing the “characters”, “timeline” and “places”, as well as provide personal experiences of living through those days in January in Egypt as a historian and a sympathetic foreigner who studies Egypt’s convulsions. But that early start is a feint, for the book launches as a serious and occasionally gloomy examination of the events of the last 6 years in four countries, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey and Egypt. The author has clearly come to many important insights, and one central conclusion; that the “revolutions” of 2011 were no revolutions at all. If a Hollywood agent had read only the cinematic first few pages and tried to option the book he would be advised to choose the music of “The Who” as the film’s soundtrack. The credits would play to the searing strings of “We Won’t get Fooled Again”. Cook concludes that to meet the new boss(es) is to meet the old boss(es).
There is a lot to like in Cook’s book, and a few things to quibble with. The author weaves events in all four countries into one tapestry. Most of the events are well-documented in the public record, but those who do not know the four countries, or know only one or two of them will appreciate and benefit from the summary. We should also note and be thankful for what is absent. There is no discussion of the “Arab mind” or “Islam’s encounter with Modernity” or any of the other similar crutches. There is no hint that the author read the seminal works of Orientalism and postcolonial theory, although he undoubtedly did. Cook assumes that Arabs, Turks, Egyptians and the other motley occupants of the region want what all humans want, a secure, prosperous and dignified life. The early part of the book marshals many economic facts and figures noting that the countries made many advances, but not enough. The people were neither so miserable as to hope for nothing, nor so satisfied as to offer loyalty to their governing schemas. Three countries were run by authoritarian structures, while Libya was not run at all, but simply managed for the benefit of the boss. Cook’s indictment of the ruling elites is indirect, summarizing what they failed to do, and what opportunities they missed, rather than detailing a record of specific perfidies. This is also a welcome departure from the literature of outrage common to studies of the region.
The central point of the book will no doubt arose arguments. The author leans on the theories of Theda Skocpol and others to demonstrate that the “revolutions” were hardly revolutions at all since they did not result in the fundamental alteration of social and political power relations. But those who argue against it will be doing so under the influence of the romance of revolution rather than the sober analysis of what actually took place. Whoever coined the term “Arab Spring” made the cardinal error in Skocpol’s world of using the events of a previous convulsion (fall of the Soviet Union) to analyze a new one. To see this argument advanced by a well-regarded voice on the region is worth the price of the book. It is not surprising that the author in two chapters (“Unraveling” and “What Went Wrong?”) does not countenance the idea of a well-planned “counter-revolution”. Instead he sees a multitude of actors responding in random and mostly predictable ways to new events and conditions. The descent into despotism in Turkey, repression in Egypt and Tunisia, and chaos in Libya were all improvised events, according to Cook, who describes them in some detail. The powers-that-be are not evil Chess masters, but hapless tossers of dice in a wild game of Backgammon. They may be deaf, dumb and blind to the subtle charms of good governance, but they sure play a mean game of pinball.
Cook also takes up a point often ignored in discourses about the region, identity crisis. (The sound editor should cue in “Who are You?”) Recently, Egyptian-American historian Samuel Tadros noted that the ills of the region stem from a refusal to accept, let alone celebrate, diversity. Cook is in broad agreement with that. Many people in the region refuse to acknowledge that it is normal for individuals to assume different, and sometimes overlapping, identities. To refuse to acknowledge that reality is at the root of collapse. Arabism did not die at the hands of Israel, but at the urging of Sati’ Al Husri to tolerate no other identity for an “Arab”, who may foolishly not know that he is one and must be coerced into that acceptance. Similarly, Islamism’s insistence on the supremacy of a “Muslim” identity, something unfortunately is increasingly accepted even in the West, is at the root of its failure to deliver anything more than coercion in the social norms. This is a point on which a direct comparison between Egypt and Turkey (two countries that Cook studies regularly) would have been valuable. Kemalism in Turkey and Egyptianism in Egypt tracked each other closely, and Islamism was a counter-reaction to both. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt began to agitate for recreating the Caliphate as soon as Kemal dismissed it in post-Ottoman Turkey. A longer discussion of this would clarify to readers the reason for the ferocity of the suppression of the Brotherhood in Egypt, as the author points out how the Brotherhood is made non-Egyptian by its opponents. A longer discussion of the identity crisis in a place such as Egypt, which retains much of its pre-Islamic identity, would show that at the present moment any true revolution is likely to be Islamist and non-democratic and any liberal outcome is likely to come by evolutionary means. This subtle argument is understood by many Egyptians at a subliminal level, which explains why many supported the July 3 2013 removal of Morsi, while certain that the outcome in the short term will not be a freer politics. Cook hints at that when he points out that had the events become a true revolution, their outcome would not necessarily have been liberal or democratic. This is an accurate observation that runs counter to the conventional wisdom of 2011, which remains popular even if discredited by events.
Many studies of the region urge that considerable effort should go into “building institutions”. Cook finds no dearth of institutions in the countries he studies, excepting Libya. The trouble is less the lack of institutions than in their nature and function. Cook notes that these institutions were built long ago by founding figures (Nasser, Ataturk and Bourguiba). Younger generations have largely failed to supplant them. By day young “revolutionaries” risk their lives to oppose armed power, but at night they repair to the homes of their parents, where they fail to offer a modicum of rebellion against stifling tradition. Many surveys indicate that young Egyptians are as conservative in matters of gender and religion as their Mamas and Babas, and more so than their Tatas and Gidos. If true then this is an unhappy wasteland for social reform. Anecdotes abound. In the revolutionary year of 2011, many who manned the barricades tsked tsked a young woman, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, who displayed her bare breasts in a tasteful photograph. To hear their attacks on her one would think that Egypt is unraveling, not through senseless riots and the burning of important libraries, but through the display of nipples. In contrast to the unveiling revolution of 1919 and the rock and roll events of 1968 , the 2011 edition seemed to be characterized by sexual harassment rather than sexual revolution. While the outside world talked about a “youth” revolution in the region, there was little direct evidence that the youth were engaged in a major revamping of national institutions in either Egypt or Tunisia. When it came to running elections or offering platforms, old men stepped forward. The youth seemed more intent on street action and oblivious to its limitations. Cook takes the nihilistic riots in late 2011 in Egypt to task, but that nihilism was what filled the vacuum left by the lack of serious attempts at cultural and political transformation. This was not always the case. The region was once transformed radically by young men. Nasser made fundamental changes to Egypt before he was 40. King Hussein invented a new Jordan while short of 30. Ataturk invented and built a nation in his 40s. This is no longer the case. A recent meeting of the League of Arab States featured two dozen very old men dozing in their seats. The youngest and most dynamic of the men were Sisi, in his early 60s, and Abdullah in his mid 50s. “I hope I die before I get old”, is not their sound track.
One of the more amusing sections of the book is an insider report of how the US foreign policy Mandarins have been trying to understand the region and “get it right”. This “establishment” is a loose circuit of current, former and would be policy makers who commiserate on panels and in seminars powered by coffee, bagels and a firm belief in the power of the US. Like the Who’s “The Seeker”, they look under chairs and tables trying to vainly find the key to fifty million fables. The reality, asserts Cook, is that the US influence is limited at best, its actions are just as likely to hurt as help, and that detailed studies to divine the intentions of actors in the region and anticipate the course of future events are often about as accurate as a coin toss. He simply urges that the US should stand by its values and refuse to be drawn into foolish escapades. This is the right course for a liberal American republic, but not for a military empire. The Middle East, sometimes incorrectly regarded as the graveyard of empires, holds up an unhappy mirror to America. What is notable about America’s involvement in the region, compared to other areas around the world, is the lack of positive outcomes. America’s involvement in East Asia produced economic tigers (even including Vietnam). Its involvement in Europe produced two generations of peace and prosperity. By contrast, every American effort in the Middle East seems to be an attempt to rectify earlier mistakes and is usually fraught with new mistakes. Still, one suspects that Cook’s recommendation of upholding our values and restraining the impulse to re-engineer the region will fall on deaf ears.
Another good aspect of the book is that it does not end with a laundry list of recommended actions, as many studies of the region often do. Again, we have to be thankful for that absence. The author notes that the region is what it is because of a confluence of historical events and actors rather through any grand design that can be altered or improved. Cook avoids any discussion of what should have been, except in a few places where he notes how the failure to offer a vision has robbed the people of much needed leadership. To have done so would have had him wade into deep and perhaps contentious waters. This book on revolutions is notable for the author’s skeptical attitude toward the efficacy of revolutionary change. Without explicitly stating so, the book seems to favor evolutionary change, or mild Fabianism. The central point of the book is also a paradox. The countries it studies experience plenty of upheavals but no change. The revolutions in these places are literally that, a full turn of events 360 degrees back to where they started. It is as if change is preordained not to happen.
But the failure of the region was not preordained. A woman who went to sleep in 1917 and woke up in 2017 would be shocked by the turn of events. India has a better balance of payment and freer press than Egypt. Singapore, once the scene of another of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” episodes, now rivals Europe in wealth. The four countries Cook studies were in fact lucky by comparison, and yet they remain underachievers. Egypt and Tunisia were not colonized in the exploitative and deforming manner of India or Africa. Turkey was not colonized at all. Libya sits atop a pool of oil with a tiny population. None of the four countries have a history of long and troubled social relations, such as the caste system in India or the deadly friction between Hindus and Muslims, or between Chinese and Malay in Singapore. None of them experienced the natural disasters, rampant plagues and famines of India, for example. Nature endowed them with both mildness and favor. Egypt has a long history of native Christian and Islamic cultures, and has once sustained a polyglot population that remained firmly loyal to it, yet it turned nastily nativist to its disadvantage. Turkey’s Kurdish “problem” is no more intractable than India’s divisions, but is far more destabilizing to the state. So really what went wrong? Here we would do well to follow Cook’s method of looking not to systemic reasons but accidents of fate. Both India and Singapore were lucky to have two remarkable men lead them to independence. Jawaharlal Nehru and Lee Kuan Yew were not easy men to like. Neither was a true democrat. Both were deeply suspicious of the West, even if they spent formative years in England. Both displayed a healthy understanding of the shortcomings of their nascent nations and their people. They also shared some common characteristics. For all their resentment of Western colonial powers, they remained in a productive intellectual discourse with them (and in the case of Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, perhaps a carnal discourse as well). They displayed a veneer of authenticity without ever falling into the ugly nativism common to the Near East. Nehru, clad in signature suits, still had no truck with Gandhi’s daffy authenticity, and Lee only affected a certain Confucian hauteur. Both were sly men who realized that their nations needed to emulate Western success, and in doing so can not avoid some of the ills of the West, but the pill can be made sweeter with a bit of theatrical charades. Both men were also students, and to a great degree followers, of English Fabianism. It was not so much the manifestation of it in the early Labor party, but the belief in the efficacy of gradual change, of the necessity of immediate actions to treat the problems most troubling to the most people, and avoidance of single engagements meant to affect profound change. They were, in short, anti-revolutionaries. Their success has not convinced many in the Middle East to emulate them. Revolution still rings alluring and desirable to all too many. The region actually produced some Fabians, most notably the namesake of this blog, who alone among Egyptian national thinkers, opposed the 1919 revolution. Yet despite his wide influence during the interwar years, his personal limitations and that of his country consigned him to ineffectiveness. There is an apocryphal tale of how he was asked, toward the end of his life, of “what he got wrong?”. He answered with one word “religion”. We do not know if the tale is true, or even if it is, what he meant by his response. Religion is one subject that weaves through Cook’s book but is never confronted directly. This is a hint at both its centrality and volatility for the region and any potential transformation. Religion is meant to provide man with hope. It remains with man to make that true or false hope.
Buy the book.
— Maged Atiya
Pope Francis I is due to visit Egypt for two days this week. The visit is generally covered as yet another chapter in the anxious serial of the life of Christianity in the Middle East. These anxieties are heightened by the desire of the so-called Islamic State, and a few other Jihadi groups, to eradicate the Copts from Egypt. It would be a historical mistake if the sole purpose of the visit is to give another expression to such anxieties.
The first Francis to visit Egypt was the original one, St Francis of Assisi. He came to Egypt in 1219, during the waning days of violent religious wars generally branded as “Crusades”. He hoped that his strong faith and golden tongue would persuade the Muslim rulers of Egypt of the truth of Christian doctrine and thus “restore” Egypt to Christianity. Surprisingly enough, St Francis made little contact with Egyptian Christians. Had he done so he would have found out that the country was still substantially Christian. St Francis is not the first Westerner to confuse the rulers of the Egyptians for the natives of the land. He was but an interlude in a long history that runs from the Roman Emperors to French Generals to British Proconsuls to American Senators. Nor was he the first Westerner to attempt to introduce the Gospel of Christ to the Egyptians who had known of it and believed in it as early as any people. He was also not the first Westerner to feel that lecturing Egyptians is the way to guide them out of their troubles. In fact, had he made substantial contact with the Copts he would have found that his oratorical skills, which worked with birds and beasts, to have little efficacy beyond arousing the habitual suspicion of Egyptians about foreign motives. St Francis left Egypt with kind words from its rulers and nothing else.
Pope Francis shows an early promise to avoid such errors. He is genuine about the power of hope and faith to overcome fear and violence. But if the trip is to leave a lasting effect beyond a few days of headlines, it must recognize two centralities. The first is the centrality of Eastern Christianity to the Western and Global Christian culture. Western attitudes toward Eastern Christianity have sometimes been confused and confusing; whether viewed as heretics or souls lost behind enemy lines or as an opportunity to exercise missionary zeal. Pope Francis displays a more subtle and understanding attitude, seeing them as authentic brothers and their struggles as integral to the larger Christian world. The second centrality is one that Egyptians, rather than Pope Francis, must recognize. This is the centrality of Christianity to Egypt’s identity. Christianity is tattooed on Egypt’s soul as indelibly as the small Crosses many Copts tattoo on their wrists. Egypt’s establishment, including Pope Tawadros II, is keen to label attacks targeting Copts specifically as attacks on all Egyptians. If so, then any diminution of the rights of Copts, whether by Jihadis, frenzied mobs, or indolent policemen, is an attack on all of Egypt. If such claims are anything but an attempt to avoid dealing with a difficult issue, then Egypt’s political and spiritual leadership must preach a message of tolerance and acceptance of diversity. This can begin by viewing the visit of Pope Francis as that of a Christian to a land that is and will remain both Muslim and Christian.
— Maged Atiya
A French Jesuit by the name of Sicard remarked in 1723 that “the Copts in Egypt are a strange people far removed from the kingdom of God. Indeed many of them are so odd that outside their physical form scarcely anything human can be detected in them” and “in any event we should not omit to teach the ignorant Copts in the faith as incapable as they always are of learning its mysteries without incontestable effort”.
Less than two centuries later, in 1911, a British Assyriologist and Egyptologist, Archibald Sayce, remarked in an introduction to a pamphlet by a Copt, Kyriakos Mikhail, that “ They [Copts] alone trace an unadulterated descent from the race to whom the civilization and culture of the ancient world so largely due. Thanks to their religion, they have kept their blood pure from admixture with the semi-barbarous Arabs and savage Kurds, or other foreign elements whom the licentiousness of Mohammedan family life has introduced into the country.”
What is remarkable about these two accounts, different as they are, is how little they seem to focus on the Copts, except as a means of confirming preconceived notions, or as ancillary tools to support other endeavors. Little is said of individual men and women, or their joys and sufferings, of their triumphs and tribulations. They are simply “Copts”. Of course, the accounts contain kernels of truth wrapped in layers of cultural and racial prejudices. We would like to believe that we live in more enlightened times. Things have indeed changed, for both the West and the Copts. The West is far more open to diversity, and the Copts are acquiring new identities, beyond that of Egyptians, as many are born and raised in the West. Egypt, where 90% of the Copts reside, has changed too. Islamism has weakened the notion of an Egyptian national identity, to which Coptic thinkers contributed heavily. The Copts are targets of both extremists and political opportunists. At some point they may need to abandon the idea that they can love Egypt hard enough to stop the majority from kicking them in the teeth. One thing, oddly enough, has not changed, which is how Western eyes -or the majority of them- view Copts. They are still seen as “others”, victims and thus scarcely human. When atrocities occur, horror and grief are expressed in profusion. In between atrocities little thought is given to what really matters to Egyptian Copts. In fact, recommendations are made out with a healthy dose of confidence of what is good for them and for Egypt. Few pundits today would approve of Sicard or Sayce; yet many regularly provide cleaned up versions of their ideas. When Western eyes are cast on the Copts, they see what they wish to see and disregard the rest.
The majority of Western experts on Egypt treat the country as part of the “Middle East” (an invention of an American Admiral), the “Arab World” (an invention of wacky Englishmen) or the “Muslim World”. It is the rare few who see Egypt as unique, a diverse culture, a country as much Christian as Muslim, as much African as Arab, as much Mediterranean as Middle Eastern. Most do not know individual Copts, even if the majority of Westerners of Egyptian descent are Copts. In the rush to study the region, identify its problems and recommend solutions, the Western experts on the region have disappeared the Copts, except when inconveniently their dead bodies call their attention, and perhaps complicate their neat theories. In between massacres, many Western pundits lecture Copts about “support for dictators”, recommend free elections that will bring bigots to power, demur when asked about support for true liberalism that will actually protect those few in number or different in belief. They might even employ those who advertise love for “illiberal democracy”. Others find it easy to use the difficulty of being a Copt in Egypt to buttress simple bigotry toward Muslims. Their arguments float better on the blood of Copts. And so it goes, on every ideological side, the “Copts” remain a powerful tool to use or put away as need be.
Those of us who know Copts can not romanticize them. “The Coptic mind can have a sharp edge”, in the words of John Watson, an English clergyman who knows them. But at least he views them more than victims or tools for arguments. To have a mind, and occasionally express anger, justified or not, is to be human. Humanity is precisely what is often denied the Copts, by their killers and their self-identified defenders.
Instead of condolences, please get to know us.
— Maged Atiya
Several days after the terrorist explosion at the Boutrosiya Church Egypt is still dealing with its repercussions. A state funeral for the 25 victims, mostly women and children, was tightly organized. President Sisi attended and read out the name of the suspect. Later, Pope Tawadros II presided over the services for the victims, who were interned after scenes of heart-rending grief. Today the Egyptian government announced that the Army will undertake the repair of the Church in 15 days. While the alacrity is commendable, it is also unnecessary, and possibly counter-productive. Anything less than an exacting restoration will add to the grief of the community and further diminish Egypt’s dwindling cultural heritage. The Church represents a unique history and the preservation of its structure to the standards of its builders should be the primary goal of the effort, not speed.
The Boutrosiya was built to honor and serve as resting place for the only Coptic Prime Minister in Egypt’s history, Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated in 1910, in a crime tinged with sectarian feelings. His three sons undertook the construction effort; the learned Naguib, a one time government official and philanthropist; the worldly Wassif, the Foreign Minister who negotiated for Egypt’s independence from Britain, and the private Youssef, who bought and tended his brother’s lands, and was father to diplomat and UN Secretary General Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali and grandfather to the man responsible for Egypt’s economic turnaround in the late Mubarak years, Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali. The sons spared no effort to build the most magnificent structure they can afford. When Egyptian artisans could not do well enough, they imported Italians. It opened as a trumpet call announcing their faith to fellow Copts, their prominence to all Egyptians, and Egypt’s rising status to outsiders. If the Church was built to project power and status, it was also appropriated for an entirely different purpose by another of Boutros Ghali’s grandsons, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali. The grounds served as home for much of Merrit’s cultural interests and outreach. Merrit, a polymath who was fluent in several European and African tongues, established the Society of Coptic Archaeology and ran it from the Church (actually a misnomer since he undertook repair of Islamic antiquities as well). At one time, the Church contained over 13,000 volumes of books, some exceedingly rare. He made friends with many other scholars, who followed his template to establish other cultural centers and initiated a variety of efforts. Men such as Murqus Simaykah, who founded the Coptic Museum, Yassa ‘Abd El Messih, who cataloged the St Catherine Monastery rare collection, Sami Gabra, who co-founded the Society of Coptic Archeology, and with Aziz Atiya, the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies, Labib Habachi, who excavated Nubia for the University of Chicago, Ragheb Muftah who rescued ancient Coptic Church music from oblivion, and many others too numerous to name in a short post. All these men passed through the Church at one time or another because of Merrit. These were interstitial men, neither fully Eastern nor fully Western, yet better able to bridge the cultural divides. Most wanted to serve Egypt, but the confluence of Army men and Muslim Brothers made them focus more closely on Coptic culture. Even there, they struggled mightily to raise scholarship to eminence above hagiography, and sometimes suffered Clerical reproach for it. For these men, work was prayer and learning a higher piety. They elevated their fellow Copts, even if the majority is barely able to recall either their names or their accomplishments, much less so other Egyptians.
The notion that the Army can fully and faithfully repair, in 15 days, significant damage to the Church which was a background to these activities seems miraculous. It is more likely that the job will be hastily done to meet a political deadline. The Church hierarchy may feel compelled to accept this seemingly generous offer, but lay Copts, especially those abroad, should advise caution. This is a historic site, and excellent restoration can be done, but likely at a painstaking pace. It deserves no less. As does the memory of men who strove to elevate their peers. The work of nations is varied, but the building of a nation is primarily cultural. A meticulous effort, supported by a communally raised fund, and done under private supervision of qualified art historians and restorers may well be the single ray of light in this bleak episode.
— Maged Atiya
The year 1966 witnessed the death of two men in Egypt; Sayed Qutb and Ali Abdel Raziq. One is now famous, the other largely forgotten, except by scholars. Of the two, Qutb influenced Egypt and the world more, albeit negatively, while Abdel Raziq had the potential to transform his country, and perhaps others as well. The most critical events of Abdel Raziq’s life occurred 40 years before his death.
In August 1925 a committee of Azhari learned men convened to place one of their own on trial. The seven charges leveled against the man, Ali Abdel Raziq (1888-1966), were vague and amounted to nothing more specific than “insulting” Islam and the early Caliphs. The most serious was turning the Shari’a into a spiritual rather than a legal concept. As expected, he was found guilty. The penalty was to strip him of the honorific title of ‘Alim (learned), potentially leading to his loss of a government stipend to serve as Qadi, or Islamic judge. In today’s Egypt he would have faced prison. Yes, Egypt has gone backwards in the last century.
What prompted the trial of Ali Abdel Raziq was the publication of a short monograph titled “Islam wa Usul Al Hokum” (“Islam and the Foundation of Governance”).The scholar made a simple assertion; that nowhere in the Qu’ran or the Hadith was the Caliphate mandated or even recommended. He further stipulated that it is a human creation used mostly to bolster tyrannical rule and is of no particular use in the current world. Abdel Raziq was no secular radical. A pious and observant man, he strongly urged his fellow Muslims to follow the tenets of the faith and lead life according to its laws and strictures. Today, we accept the Azharis’ reaction as expected, an indication of how the discourse about religion and governance in Egypt and surrounding region has come to be set and dominated by Islamists. Although the trial has faded from the popular imagination, it remains a watershed mark in the history of Egypt and beyond, and a warning sign of subsequent problems.
Abdel Raziq stepped into a firestorm less because his book “attacked” Islam, but because it upset the Egyptian King Fu’ad and his supporters. After Mustapha Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate in 1923, Fu’ad thought to acquire added legitimacy by becoming a Caliph. He sat on a thorny throne (he was seen as a stooge of the British and attacked for his inability to speak Arabic) and he needed to stand up to the nascent nationalist Wafd party. He imagined the Caliphate as his ticket to a more comfortable reign. The dominant political ideology at that time was Egyptianism, which asserted a territorial definition of the nation and one that superseded religion, and also celebrated the uniqueness of the Egyptian stock and the need for national rulers. Fu’ad was in its ideological cross hairs. He gave tacit support for the push for a “Caliphate Conference” during which his supporters imagined he would be declared Caliph. Al Azhar, then as now, was always supine to the ruler. Most of the Muslim scholars outside Egypt did not wish to be entangled in what they saw as a purely Egyptian boondoggle. When the conference was finally held in 1926, it was a shabby affair, dominated by Egyptian sycophants of the monarch, and poorly organized to boot. The failure of the conference was a also a symptom of a new change in the region, the rise of the House of Ibn Saud and the resulting hostility between it and Egyptian rulers (Fu’ad would never fully recognize Saudi Arabia). Still, it marked a change, which continues till today, where a variety of men ranging from opportunistic political leaders to jail birds would seek to unify the Muslims and bring back greatness by subjecting them to their rule. The idea of the classical “Caliphate” died with the Mongol sacking of Baghdad. The modern version rose on the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. The treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (July 21 1774) between the Ottoman Empire and Russia was humiliating in a variety of ways. Not only did the Ottomans relinquish territory in the Crimea, populated mostly by Muslims, but it also allowed the Russians to intervene on behalf of the Eastern Christians in Ottoman provinces. The decent but hapless Sultan Abdel Hamid I came upon the idea that the Crimean Tartars ought to pledge allegiance to him because he was their “Khalifa”, thus doing an end-run around the Russians. Furthermore, other Ottoman provinces, such as Egypt, were restive and this notion gave him legitimacy against the local usurpers. For the next 150 years, the weaker the Ottomans got the stronger the claim to the Caliphate became. The Caliphate does not beat in every Muslim heart as some Western scholars claim, it was a cudgel used to coerce them, as Abdel Raziq insisted.
The reaction to Abdel Raziq’s trial was dispiriting. Some at the time defended Abdel Raziq, but on purely procedural grounds. No one advanced credible scholarly arguments based on the Qur’an and Hadith to debunk his claim. No prominent religious scholar undertook a systematic defense or refutation of his thesis. The civilian politicians were not much braver. Sa’ad Zaghloul, the lion of Egyptian nationalism and leader of the Wafd party, was ailing in the last few months of his life, and more or less acquiesced to the Azharis. Some of Abdel Raziq’s relatives were prominent in the Liberal party; yet the party was keen on keeping good relations with Fu’ad and offered hardly any defense.
None of the secular political leaders in Egypt, and no prominent religious leader, rose to his defense on principle. Few intellectuals took up his cause. More interestingly, no credible scholarly arguments based purely on the Qur’an and Hadith were ever advanced to debunk his claim. It is tempting then to argue that Abdel Raziq lacked popular appeal and therefore was “inauthentic”. This is certainly the charge brought against him by many Islamists today. But it is difficult to sort out cause and effect in his lack of popular appeal. The rise of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood was prompted in some part by his ideas and environment that gave rise to him. Their appeal was often populist, even demagogic, and socially reactionary. But the success of men such as Hasan Al Banna, who came to prominence only a few years after the trial, was due less to his ideas (he had few original ones) than to his political acumen and ability to elicit support from the rulers, even while simultaneously conspiring against them. Today’s Islamism is difficult to attack because it has retreated into a posture of group identification, viewing itself not merely as a current within Islam, but as the very essence of it.
A variety of Western scholars seem entranced by the idea that “Islam” is unique and special and Muslims require a different set of rules from the rest of humanity. These range from the immensely learned to the utterly romantic to the opportunistically careerist. But sensible people, especially decision makers, need not attune too closely to this stuff. As one of Sayed Qutb’s former bosses called his later work, this is mostly “Kalam Fadi”. Empty talk.
— Maged Atiya
As the Ottoman armies prepared to scale the walls of Constantinople, almost exactly 563 years ago, the Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari, looked west. He effectively severed Venice from Byzantium after a millennium of close relations. Further westward, the campaign for the capture of Grenada was already underway in Spain. It would come to a final conclusion before the century was over. Europe rid itself of any significant Muslim population, except for a sliver of the Balkans under Ottoman rule. The continent developed and rose to enormous power as a purely Christian culture and its narratives are those of competition between different Christian theologies and sects. The Ottoman Empire, however, retained a significant Christian population. But the fall of Byzantium signaled the end of Eastern Christian governance. It would continue further north in Kiev and Muscovy; both retaining Eastern rites in a Slavic culture. But in the Levant and Egypt Christians could only aspire to an inferior position, at best.
The decline of Eastern Christianity continued, although there was a false dawn during the late 19th and 20th centuries when the incursions of the West in the Middle East seemed to offer a promise of governance based on citizenship. But on the whole Western Christendom cared little for Eastern Christianity. The Christians of the Levant who looked west for support found mostly disappointment. The Christians of Egypt who never put much stock in Western help survived and grew proportionately to where they now constitute the bulk of Christianity in the region. The prospects for the future are somewhere between uncertain and dim.
The Syrian civil war will burn itself out eventually. Syria will likely be either partitioned or become highly federalized as to be effectively so. The interior will look like a less developed version of Saudi Arabia. The Mediterranean rim will have most of the heterodox Muslims and Christians clinging to its coast. Instead of Greater Syria we are likely to see the rise of a Greater Lebanon, with all its ills and uncertain and checkered divisions. The Copts will continue to be a presence in Egypt and their survival there will depend largely on the fortunes of the nation. In any case, the survival of Christianity in Egypt has always seemed so improbable as to be almost providential. In the meantime the West has acquired a significant Muslim minority that has yet to fully find its place in an alien culture. In an odd way Europe and the remnants of the Ottoman East exchanged roles.
The attitude of Western Christianity toward the Christian East is schizophrenic. One part of its psyche wishes for the survival of Eastern Christians, but another part adopts policies that lower the chances of such an outcome. America’s involvement with Iraq did not aid its Christians, but deepened their troubles through the collapse of whatever state power existed in place. The current US policy debate features supporters of closer engagement with Saudi Arabia versus those of closer engagement with the theocrats of Iran. Neither is favorable to religious tolerance. Eastern Christians who immigrated to the West have done well and prospered there; yet few are certain about urging Western involvement with their ancestral lands. Both the Christians of the Levant and of Egypt are deeply suspicious about Western motives and means.The most they want from the West is more immigration visas.
It is a dismal election season in America. The two likely candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, occasion no enthusiasm. Clinton supports tolerance for religious minorities at home while promoting policies that dim prospects for such minorities abroad. Trump proclaims support for religious diversity abroad while espousing despicable bigotry toward Muslims at home. The interval between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday reminds us of the Christian faith in ultimate triumph over death. The fortunes of Eastern Christianity rest in such hope, and not in any earthly power.
— Maged Atiya
Someone penned a satirical letter pretending to be Mexico’s President apologizing to Egypt for the accidental killing of Mexican tourists by the Egyptian Army. Many Egyptian media outlets reported it as genuine. This event is remarkable only for its quotidian nature. It is in line with the behavior of many in the country, including its officials. When explaining events as diverse as the recent tragedy or the crash of EgyptAir flight 990, Egyptian officialdom often displays Saramago-like fictive skills. One suspects that if Borges were alive today he would see in Egypt the greatest fiction he would have wished to write.
In the short story “The House of Asterion” Borges rewrote the myth of the Minotaur from the point of view of the monster. But Egypt today is that myth told from the point of view of the sacrificial victims. Ninety Million souls lost in a labyrinth of mirrors and reflections, tales and rumors, fiction and myth, with no prospect of a Theseus for the rescue. Unlike the Greek tale, Egypt’s labyrinth has no Minotaur, or at least no single Minotaur. The wanderers fall victim to their own fears. Those fears can assume any number of shapes. The labyrinth of mirrors features a multitude of Minotaurs. A heretical thought places a lost Daedalus, not King Mena, as the builder of Egypt.
This state of affairs is not new. The 1960s featured a Radio Ramadan serial called Scheherazade. It was an hour of tales that opened and closed with a musical theme from one of Nasser’s favorite composers, Rimsky-Korsakov. If one were young enough, and unschooled enough, the other 23 hours of programming seemed no different. Nasser, the consummate actor, held sway over an entire country by the sheer force of his tales. The Scheherazade serial was a sly comment on his tenure. The country eagerly awaited the next installment and held its occasionally murderous urges in check. All of Nasser’s successors were lesser actors. Sadat was a lesser talent and his performances were accordingly more contrived and theatrical; less natural. His remarkable September 5 1981 speech lost the tale, and presaged his end. Mubarak, a journeyman capable of one acting tic, lost his grip when he could no longer convincingly retell his tale of future woe.
Outsiders are not immune to this virus. Many fall for the tales of one or more of the various Egyptian personalities and factions and retell them in stentorian tones of high moral purpose. Fact-checking Egypt is sometimes akin to ploughing water, but it must be done. Still, one can hardly tell what is true or false in the tales of the “Zero Student”, or a Samira Ibrahim or a Mohamed Soltan. But the tales, like all tales, provide a moral, and one eagerly taken up by men and women of all stations in life. Journalists, policy makers, and intellectual tourists fall victim to even grander tales, much like the tourist who pays handsomely for a recently made ancient artifact. Try to convince the tourist of his error, which would destroy both his investment and his self-esteem, and you are likely to find defiance and anger. The most dangerous thing to possess in the Egypt-planet is a skeptical mind.
These observations admit no conclusion, offer no explanation, nor recommend any course of action. Egypt seems to muddle through with fictions laced with the occasional rude awakening. The country prays fervently to its God, and takes events, both positive and negative, interchangeably as omens and portents. We can hector it from the sideline, but to little effect. A friend asked “are you disillusioned with Egypt?”. The question has no answer; for how can there be disillusion with an affectionately held illusion.
— Maged Atiya
It is now certain that systematic destruction is regularly visited on the structures of Palmyra built by Romanized Arabs around the time of Christ. The immediate blame rests on the young men who haul in explosives and light the fuse. Some blame rests on Bashar Al Assad, who wished to rule Syria even if unable to protect its people and heritage. But many others should take a share of the blame as we are asked to shed tears for its destruction.
The young men who inflict the damage are mostly native sons, foot soldiers of the “Islamic State”, and fervent believers in its Wahabi ideology. They are the end product of two generations of proselytizing to redefine the face of Islam to be that of the narrower Wahabism. The proselytizing was generously bankrolled by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When a country is named after the patriarch of its Royal Family, it is natural to see the survival of the Nation and that of the Family as one and the same. The Family saw its survival as contingent on the support of the Wahabi clerics and spared no treasure to support their internal vision and external outreach. The United States was happy to support the Family’s ambitions for the better part of 80 years. These ambitions went beyond the Wahabi proselytizing to include opposition to all forms of republican, revolutionary and even liberal efforts. Thus the first modern revolutionary republic, and a bastion of liberalism, came to support the most absolute and retrograde of monarchies. The US sided with Saudi Arabia against the revolutionary republican Arab regimes, especially Egypt, in the 1960s. It aided Saudi ambitions to dominate the Afghan resistance and to wage war by proxy on the Shi’a republic of revolutionary Iran. The US sent its soldiers to shed blood for Saudi Arabia in 1990, and looked the other way when a dozen Saudi nationals participated in the murder of 3000 Americans on American soil. Today the Saudi military is fully engaged, not against ISIS on its northern borders, but against a ragtag group in Yemen for the sin of being Iran’s friends. For laugh lines we have former General David Petraeus suggesting the use of one Wahabi set of extremists, who applaud and support attacks on the US, to fight the Islamic Republic. This is the Saudi approach, now echoing in the halls of Washington. General Petraeus is a much decorated officer, hailed for the Iraqi “Surge”, sold as the answer to stem the destruction of Iraq. In effect, we are seeing the repackaging of the Surge as substitute for policy or acceptance of indifference.
But a share of the blame must also be awarded to those outside the policy circles. To journalists; who regularly described Wahabi clerics as “austere” and “puritanical”, a happy euphemism for men who celebrate the basest of passions, men’s outright ownership of women’s bodies, and criminalize the higher passions, the things we know as Art, Music, Dance and Literature. To academics; who declared a time of “Spring” when the “moderate” Islamists will lead democracies. Never mind that their Egyptian leader saw fit to kiss the hand of the Saudi King in 1936, at the same moment the country became sovereign for the first time in two millenniums. To Think Tanks; who promote democracy ahead of liberalism, and employ men who celebrate “illiberal democracy” as good enough for the natives. To all of us who saw the narrowing crudeness of public discourse in the region as something to blame on others, run away from, or tolerate as intrinsic to the locals.
Beyond Palmyra there are many ancient monuments that dot the Levant and North Africa. They are all in some form of danger. The safest are, ironically enough, under the direct or indirect control of the Iranian regime or the military-led government of Egypt. The destruction of the statues of Bamyan and the sacking of Iraqi antiquities in 2003 were the opening shot in a new cultural war, literally. The global powers are barely able to articulate arguments, let alone formulate actions, to protect such heritage. So unless we are willing to traffic in empirical facts about cultural artifacts, we should save the tears shed for Palmyra. They will be needed for future destructions.
— Maged Atiya
1 Courtesy of the Middle East Institute