Tag Archives: Egypt

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.

House Subcommittee Hearing on Human Rights Abuses in Egypt (Oct. 1)

As readers of this site know, the situation for Copts and other Christians in Egypt is truly dire. On October 1, the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations will hold a hearing on the situation. Speakers include Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church, author Samuel Tadros, and Rutgers Professor Morad Abou-Sabe. The hearing will be webcast live. Details are here.

The Spectator on the Possible Extinction of Mideast Christianity

From The Spectator, a post about a recent panel at the National Liberal Club in London on the under-reporting of violence against Christians in the Middle East:

Some of this has been reported, but the focus has been on the violence committed against the Brotherhood. Judging by the accounts given by one of the other speakers, Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom, the American press is even more blind, and their government not much better; when Mubarak was overthrown one US agency assessed the Muslim Brotherhood as being ‘essentially secular’. . . .

Without a state (and army) of their own, minorities are merely leaseholders. The question is whether we can do anything to prevent extinction, and whether British foreign policy can be directed towards helping Christian interests rather than, as currently seems to be the case, the Saudis.

Read the whole thing.

Conversations: Samuel Tadros

Last week, I reviewed a new book by the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. The book, a compelling read, explores the profound challenges that face the Coptic Church today. This week, Tadros (left) kindly answers some questions. He discusses 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 talks about the church’s prospects in Egypt and abroad.

CLR Forum: Sam, let’s begin with some background. Although the Coptic Church has millions of faithful in Egypt—10% of the population, according to most estimates–and an increasing worldwide presence, most people in the West know very little about it. Who are the Copts? What are the salient features of Coptic Christianity?

Tadros: The lack of knowledge about the Coptic Church is regrettable yet quite understandable. The Coptic Church has been isolated from the rest of Christendom since 451 A.D. The word “Copt” is derived from the Greek word for “Egypt,” itself derived from the Pharaohnic word for it, so in a sense the word “Copt” means Egypt. The word, however, is specifically used to refer to Egyptians who refused to embrace Islam throughout the centuries and remained Christian, maintaining their ancient faith and rituals. Theologically, the Coptic Church belongs to a group of churches called Oriental Orthodox, which includes the Armenian, Ethiopian, Indian Orthodox and Syrian churches. Those churches rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon regarding the nature of Christ.

CLR Forum: You discuss the important role the Coptic Church played in Christian history, especially in the early centuries. What do you think qualifies as the church’s most important contribution, historically? Would it be its defense of Trinitarian theology? Monasticism? 

Tadros: The three most important contributions of the Coptic Church can be summed up in the names of three men: Origen, Athanasius and Anthony. Origen, more than anyone else, attempted to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christian theology. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was instrumental in giving Christianity a ground to stand on intellectually against pagan attacks. Athanasius, as he himself declared, stood against the world. The contributions of other Church fathers, such as the Cappadocian Fathers, are important in the defense of Nicene Creed, but Athanasius carried the greatest burden. Cyril the Great follows in the same path with his anathema against Nestorius.  Finally, Anthony the Great, as the founder of monasticism, made an invaluable contribution to Christianity. Many of the early Western fathers such as Jerome traveled to Egypt to drink from the wisdom fountain of the desert fathers.

CLR Forum: Describe the Coptic Church in the world today—its relations with other Christians, for example. 

Tadros: 1954 is the year when the Coptic Church came out from its historical isolation by attending the World Council of Churches in Illinois. The late Bishop Samuel championed ecumenical relations and his efforts eventually led to the Coptic Church opening up to the rest of Christendom. The Joint Theological Declarations with Rome in 1973, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches in 1989-1990, have opened the doors to the dream of a true unity in Christ.

CLR Forum: You discuss the debate among historians about whether Copts initially welcomed the Arab Conquest of Egypt in the seventh century. The Copts would have had reasons, of course, as they were being persecuted by Byzantine Christians and might have seen the Arabs as deliverers. Could you describe this debate? Do you have a view?

Tadros: More than just among historians. The question is being contested in the public sphere, as a tool in shaping a current identity and narrative. For Egyptian nationalists, this claim would form the foundation of the national unity discourse–the eternal harmony of the two elements of the Egyptian nation, Muslims and Copts. Islamists would portray the story as Continue reading

The Persecution of Egypt’s Christians

The Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea has an excellent post on the campaign of violence currently underway in Egypt against the country’s Christians, especially Copts. Frustrated at the overthrow of the Morsi government and enraged by the military’s campaign to eliminate them, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are taking out their anger on Christian targets. Here’s Shea:

“The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has been inciting the anti-Christian pogroms on its web and Facebook pages. One such page, posted on August 14, lists a bill of particulars against the Christian Coptic minority, blaming it, and only it, for the military’s crackdown against the Brotherhood, alleging that the Church has declared a “war against Islam and Muslims.” It concludes with the threat, “For every action there is a reaction.” This builds on statements in the article “The Military Republic of [Coptic Pope] Tawadros,” carried on the MB website in July, about the Coptic Church wanting to “humiliate” Muslims and eradicate Islam….

As of Sunday night, some 58 churches, as well as several convents, monasteries, and schools, dozens of Christian homes and businesses, even the YMCA, have been documented as looted and burned or subject to other destruction by Islamist rioters. The Coptic Pope remains in hiding and many Sunday services did not take place as Christian worshipers stayed home, fearing for their lives. A dozen or so Christians have been attacked and killed for being Christian so far.”

Not all Muslims condone the persecution, of course. There are reports of Muslim crowds surrounding churches to protect them from attack. But the Brotherhood has clearly decided to take the fight to Christians in a serious way. Knowledgeable observers say it is the worst persecution Copts have suffered in 700 years.

Outside observers may wonder why the Islamists are doing this. From a practical point of view, isn’t burning churches a waste of time and energy? Why spend resources attacking Christians when the military is hunting you down?

There are three answers. First, Islamists attack Christians because they can. Christian churches, monasteries, and schools are soft targets, especially when the security forces are occupied elsewhere. If you take on soldiers who have live ammunition, you might get hurt. If you attack nuns and march them through the street like POWs, by contrast, you’re likely to emerge unscathed.

Second, the Coptic Church has taken an uncharacteristically strong stand in support of the military. Coptic Pope Tawadros appeared in the video announcing the overthrow of the Morsi regime in July–as did the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, it should be noted–and last week, he endorsed the military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The Coptic Church, he said, is on “the side of Egyptian law, the armed forces and all the Egyptian civil institutions when it comes to confronting violent armed organizations and terrorizing forces, either within the country or from abroad.” He criticized Western media for sentimentalizing Islamists–those “blood-thirsty radical organizations”–and called for more objective coverage of events in Egypt. Islamists are furious at these statements and seek to punish Copts and other Christians, to intimidate and silence them.

That Pope Tawadros would come out so strongly on one side of a political conflict suggests the stakes for Christians. Traditionally, Copts and other Christians in Egypt, who make up 10% of the population, keep a low profile. As a vulnerable minority, they try to avoid antagonizing anyone. Attacks on Christian sites increased dramatically under the Muslim Brotherhood, however, and Tawados must figure he has no choice but to side with the military. The generals, at least, offer Copts a chance at safety; with the Muslim Brotherhood, there can be none.

Third, one must recognize the perception Islamists have of Christians. Although not all Islamists advocate a return to dhimma restrictions, most have a nostalgia for classical Islamic law, which tolerates Christians as long as they accept a subservient status in society. Equality is out of the question. For Christians to assert equality with Muslims, or cooperate with Muslims’ enemies, is, in classical thought, a grave affront to the community which must be punished–a declaration of war, in the words of the Muslim Brotherhood statement to which Shea refers. In the Islamist mind, Copts and other Egyptian Christians have declared war on Islam. They have asserted their rights and criticized Muslims before the outside world. As a result, they have betrayed the pact that guarantees them protection, and they must pay the price. It is a high price, indeed.