Tag Archives: Egypt

Tadros, “Islamist vs. Islamist”

Western observers often group all Islamist parties together. But the groups often compete with one another there are subtle differences among them; it’s important to keep those differences in mind in analyzing Islamist politics. We’re a little late getting to this, but it December, the Hudson Institute published a monograph by Samuel Tadros, Islamist vs. Islamist:The Theologico-Political Questions, that analyzes the situation in Egypt. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This monograph is the second part of a two-year study on Egyptian Islamism funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation. The study is divided into two parts. The first maps the various currents, groups, and individuals that form the complex Egyptian Islamist scene. The second examines the internal dynamics of Islamism in terms of the interrelationship between its various constituent currents and their disagreements on key theological political questions. The study aims to fill two significant gaps in our knowledge of the Egyptian Islamist scene.

Egypt’s President Visits Coptic Cathedral on Christmas Eve

On Monday, I posted about a speech Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, recently gave at Al Azhar University, the leading center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world. In his speech, Sisi called for a “religious revolution,” a rethinking of classical Islamic law in order to address the concerns of non-Muslims. I wrote that Sisi’s speech was a hopeful gesture, even a brave one – but that only time will tell how serious Sisi is about honoring religious pluralism.

That’s still what I think – only time will tell. But Sisi deserves credit for another remarkable gesture this week. Yesterday, he paid a surprise Christmas Eve visit to the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. (The Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on January 7). According to the government-owned Ahram Online, it was the first such visit by an Egyptian president in history. Past presidents have visited the cathedral, but none has actually attended a Christmas liturgy.

You can see a video of the president’s speech — the liturgy was being covered in full by state TV – here. I can’t speak Arabic, so I don’t know what’s being said, but the scene looks electric. The congregation cheers wildly for Sisi, who himself seems moved. Here’s a report of the visit by an independent website, Mada Masr:

The president made a brief speech while standing next to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the highest Coptic authority in Egypt.

“It was necessary for me to come here to wish you a merry Christmas, and I hope I haven’t disturbed your prayers. Throughout the years, Egypt taught the world civilization and humanity, and the world expects a lot from Egypt during the current circumstances,” Sisi said.

“It’s important for the world to see this scene, which reflects true Egyptian unity, and to confirm that we’re all Egyptians, first and foremost. We truly love each other without discrimination, because this is the Egyptian truth,” the president declared.

The Coptic Pope thanked Sisi, and called his visit “a pleasant surprise and a humanitarian gesture.”

The Coptic Church very publicly backed Sisi during the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013, and Copts have been suffering serious reprisals from the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. In fact, some commentators think Copts are going through the worst persecution in hundreds of years. Christmas liturgies, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast, have become very dangerous for Christians, and some Muslim leaders in Egypt tell followers not even to wish Christians a Merry Christmas. The sense of being under siege no doubt explains the emotion evident in the video. (Some commentators have complained that Sisi interrupted a liturgy, and that the congregation really shouldn’t have gotten so carried away in church, but in the circumstances these things can be excused). What would elsewhere be a routine event – a politician wishing a community well on its holiday – is, in this context, a crucial show of support.

Again, it’s easy for an outsider to miss things, and I wouldn’t be suggesting Sisi for the Nobel Prize just yet. Maybe this is all a show. But, together with his speech at Al Azhar last week, his visit to the cathedral suggests something serious is happening in Egypt. Which leads to a question: why has the US been so cool to Sisi?

President Sisi’s Speech

Abdel_Fattah_el-SisiThe Internet is buzzing with news of a speech last week by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt (left) on the need for a “religious revolution” in Islam. Speaking at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, the most important center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world, Sisi admonished the assembled scholars to revisit Islamic law, or fiqh, in order to calm the fears of the non-Muslim world. According to a translation at Raymond Ibrahim’s site, Sisi said:

I am referring here to the religious clerics.  We have to think hard about what we are facing—and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before.  It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.  Impossible!

That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.  It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.

All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.

Some are praising Sisi for his bravery. That’s certainly one way to look at it. When Sisi calls for rethinking “the corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years,” he may be advocating something quite dramatic, indeed. For centuries, most Islamic law scholars – though not all – have held that “the gate of ijtihad,” or independent legal reasoning, has closed, that fiqh has reached perfection and cannot be developed further. If Sisi is calling for the gate to open, and if fiqh scholars at a place like Al Azhar heed the call, that would be a truly radical step, one that would send shock waves throughout the Islamic world.

We’ll have to wait and see. Early reports are sometimes misleading; there are subtexts, religious and political, that outsiders can miss. Which texts and ideas does Sisi mean, exactly? Fiqh rules about Christians and other non-Muslims, which often insist on subordination? Some argue that, notwithstanding the speech at Al Azhar, Sisi has done relatively little to improve the situation of Coptic Christians. And calling for the opening of the gate is not necessarily progressive. Although progressive Muslim scholars endorse the opening of the gate in order to adapt fiqh to modernity, Salafist groups wish to open the gate in order to discard centuries of what they see as un-Islamic traditions. Opening the gate may be a signal for fundamentalism, for a return to the pure Islam of the Prophet and his companions. I don’t imply Sisi is a fundamentalist, of course. I’m just saying one needs to be alert to the nuances.

Still, Sisi’s remarks do suggest he means a rethinking of Islamic law to adapt to contemporary pluralism. This is definitely worth watching.

Elsasser, “The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era”

This week, Oxford University Press releases The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era, by Sebastian Elsässer (Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel, Germany). The publisher’s description follows:

Egypt’s Christians, the Copts, are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. While they have always been considered an integral component of the Egyptian nation, their precise status within Egyptian politics and society has been subject to ongoing debates from the twentieth century to present day. Part of the legacy of the Mubarak era in Egypt is the unsettled state of Muslim-Christian relations and the increasing volatility of sectarian tensions, which have continued in the post-Mubarak period.

The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era delves into the discourses that dominated public debates and the political agenda-setting during the Mubarak era, explaining why politicians and the public in Egypt have had such enormous difficulties in recognizing the real roots of sectarian strife. This “Coptic question” is a complex set of issues, ranging from the petty struggles of daily Egyptian life in a bi-religious society to intricate legal and constitutional questions (family law, conversion, and church-building), to the issue of the political participation of the Coptic minority. Through these subjects, the book explores a larger debate around Egyptian national identity.

Paying special attention to the neglected diversity of voices within the Coptic community, Sebastian Elsässer peels back the historical layers to provide a comprehensive analysis of the historic, political, and social dynamics of Egypt’s Coptic Christians during Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

Samuel Tadros to Discuss “Motherland Lost” at Georgetown (Jan 30)

The Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros will be discussing his important book, Motherland Lost:The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, at Georgetown University on January 30. Details are here. I interviewed Sam about this book at CLR Forum last fall.

Hoover Institution Reprints Interview with Samuel Tadros

The Hoover Institution at Stanford has reprinted my interview with Samuel Tadros, author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. In the interview, Tadros answers questions about the history of the Coptic Church, its important contributions to Christian thought and life, and its conduct during the Arab conquest and under Muslim rule. He describes how the liberalism of the twentieth century actually injured the Church and why Anwar Sadat, whom the West lionized, was a problem for Egypt’s Christians. Moving to the present day, he explains why the Arab Spring has been such a disaster for Copts and speaks about the Church’s prospects in Egypt and abroad.

Assmann, “Religio Duplex”

0745668429This February, Polity Press will publish Religio Duplex: How the Enlightenment Reinvented Egyptian Religion by Jan Assmann (University of Konstanz). The publisher’s description follows.

In this important new book, the distinguished Egyptologist Jan Assmann provides a masterful overview of a crucial theme in the religious history of the West – that of ‘religio duplex’, or dual religion. He begins by returning to the theology of the Ancient Egyptians, who set out to present their culture as divided between the popular and the elite. By examining their beliefs, he argues, we can distinguish the two faces of ancient religions more generally: the outer face (that of the official religion) and the inner face (encompassing the mysterious nature of religious experience).

Assmann explains that the Early Modern period witnessed the birth of the idea of dual religion with, on the one hand, the religion of reason and, on the other, that of revelation. This concept gained new significance in the Enlightenment when the dual structure of religion was transposed onto the individual. This meant that man now owed his allegiance not only to his native religion, but also to a universal ‘religion of mankind’.

In fact, argues Assmann, religion can now only hold a place in our globalized world in this way, as a religion that understands itself as one among many and has learned to see itself through the eyes of the other. This bold and wide-ranging book will be essential reading for historians, theologians and anyone interested in the nature of religion and its role in the shaping of the modern world.

Meshal, “Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo”

Next month, the American University in Cairo Press will publish Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo by Reem Meshal (Louisiana State University). The publisher’s description follows. 

In this new study, the author examines sijills, the official documents of the Ottoman Islamic courts, to understand how sharia law, society, and the early-modern economy of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman Cairo related to the practice of custom in determining rulings. In the sixteenth century, a new legal and cultural orthodoxy fostered the development of an early-modern Islam that broke new ground, giving rise to a new concept of the citizen and his role. Contrary to the prevailing scholarly view, this work adopts the position that local custom began to diminish and decline as a source of authority. These issues resonate today, several centuries later, in the continuing discussions of individual rights in relation to Islamic law.

Shakman Hurd on Religious Freedom in International Law

Religion News Service has an interesting interview with Northwestern’s Elizabeth Shakman Hurd on the promotion of religious freedom in international human rights law. A number of states and regional organizations–including Canada, the EU, and the US–now have special diplomatic offices devoted to promoting religious freedom across the glove. Shakman Hurd thinks this is a mistake:

When the United States promotes religious freedom and pursues religious engagement, groups that favor American political, economic and strategic interests are likely to be engaged and promoted, while those that the U.S. disfavors are likely to be classified as cults or extremists and cast aside. In this scenario, it’s surprisingly easy for the particular version of a religion that the U.S. supports to carry more weight politically than others.

A second concern involves the social effects of emphasizing and privileging religion as a fixed, stable, and politically and legally meaningful category. Protecting religious freedom pressures states and courts to eliminate the gray areas surrounding identities, and incentivizes them to classify and govern citizens as “religious” subjects. Not only does this exclude the “non-religious,” however defined, it also risks contributing to the very tensions that these projects are designed to eliminate by hardening what were once more fluid lines of difference between groups and inserting international dimensions into what were once local matters.

To illustrate, she discusses outsiders’ attempts to promote the rights of Coptic Christians in Egypt:

Take the example of Copts in Egypt. One concern is that outside lobbying on behalf of local groups identified as “religious minorities” arguably underscores the very lines of division between Copts and other Egyptians that one  hopes would become politically irrelevant in a democratic society and polity. A second concern is that defending the rights of Egyptians as Copts not only obscures the internal diversity of the Coptic community but also erases those who might not choose to identify as Copts but as Egyptians, humans, environmentalists or something else.

I worry that these campaigns may actually inflame existing tensions by making it more likely that social difference is conceived through the prism of religion. Pro-Coptic intervention by U.S. and other governmental and non-governmental actors may fan the flames of intercommunal violence. Individuals and groups that face persecution and discrimination deserve outside support, but not on the basis of religious affiliation.

Shakman Hurd is very thoughtful, and she has a point about inflaming existing tensions. Muslim cultures historically view Christian minorities as fifth columnists, only too eager to work with outsiders to destroy the state. If Western powers intervene in a clumsy way, they will likely expose Christians to a vicious backlash–as happened in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century and Iraq in the twenty-first. So, to the extent Shakman Hurd cautions against clumsy interventions, I completely agree with her.

On her larger points, though, I disagree. (That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read my posts on Mideast Christians!).  For example, I don’t think it’s all that difficult to identify religion as a category, at least not for diplomatic purposes. True, there are interesting academic debates. And, in the US, the rise of the Nones is putting pressure on our understanding of religion. But most people have a pretty good idea of what religion is, for most purposes, even if they can’t define religion exactly. And these commonsense understandings are good enough for diplomacy.

With respect to her other main point, that by advocating for religious freedom in a foreign country, the US will inevitably pick a side in an internal debate–well, picking a side is really unavoidable. If the US doesn’t stick up for Copts, for example, Egyptians will perceive the US as backing the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. In fact, that is the perception in Egypt and throughout the Middle East today. Neutrality in these matters is impossible. Which side do you choose?

But this isn’t the place for a long debate. The interview is very much worth reading for a different perspective on things. You can read the whole thing here.

Osman, “Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to The Muslim Brotherhood”

This month, Yale University press publishes a new edition of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to The Muslim Brotherhood, by Tarek Osman.  The publisher’s description follows.Brink

In this immensely readable and thoroughly researched book, Tarek Osman explores what has happened to the biggest Arab nation since President Nasser took control of the country in 1954. This new edition takes events up to summer 2013, looking at how Egypt has become increasingly divided under its new Islamist government.