A Slow and Grudging Retreat in the Face of the Obvious

Writing in the Huffington Post, Georgetown Professor John Esposito and co-author Sheila B. Lalwani, address the issue of hostility toward Christians in Muslim majority countries. In a piece titled “Christians Under Seige: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism in the Muslim World,” Esposito and Lalwani are forced to confront an undeniable reality: Christians living in Muslim-majority countries are not safe and do not enjoy human rights.

Such an admission is probably difficult to make for both Esposito and Lalwani, both scholars at at the Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University (which Esposito heads). The center has been described by Martin Kramer as a Saudi effort to “change the subject” away from an honest discussion about the religious roots of Islamist terrorism. The Investigative Project reports that Esposito has a history of minimizing Islamic extremism, has praised Muslim Brotherhood leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi and has described Palestinian Islamic Jihad member Sami Al-Arian as “one of the most impressive people I have met under fire.” Esposito has also warned against seeing “Islam and Islamic activism through the prism of ayatollahs and Iran, of Bin Laden, and the Afghan Arabs.”
Clearly, in light of recent attacks against Christians in the Middle East, Espsito’s narrative is in need of revision.

The Piece

Esposito and Lalwani wrote their article, published in the Huffington Post on Jan. 27, 2011 in response to the New Year’s Day attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt. Here is the context they provide:
The Coptic Christian community in Egypt is an ancient faith group whose presence in Egypt predates the coming of Islam. Relations between Copts and Muslims in society had generally been good. However, in recent decades, extremists have targeted Copts and the government. While the government has addressed their status as a security issue, it has failed to respond to the desire of Egypt’s Christian Copts for full equality of citizenship: equal treatment with regard to building their churches; appointment into top positions, and non-discriminatory policies.
While Esposito and Lalwani do a reasonable job of describing the problems that Coptic Christians currently face in Egypt, their asssertion that Muslim-Coptic relations in Egypt have historically “generally been good” ignores how Coptic Christians have, in the words of Mordechai Nisan, become “veritable aliens in their own land” as a result of Muslim-imposed restrictions on their life. In his text Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression (McFarland, 1991), Nisan writes:
The Islamic conquest of Egypt from 640 to 641 inaugurated the decline of Christianity in the Nile Valley. There were one hundred bishoprics in the year 600, but only seventy by 700; in the year 1300 only forty remained. While some Copts joined the Arab governmental apparatus as accountants and translators, others engaged in revolt to secure Christian self-expression. Overtime, the burden of dhimmi taxation compelled thousands to accept Islam. The surge to revolt, like the insurrections from 725 to 773, persisted intermittently until 830 at least, but to no avail. Copts were dragged off to Baghdad as slaves. By the tenth century, the spoken Coptic language had all but died, replaced by Arabic. The caprice of changing rulers would arbitrarily affect the Copts’ condition. It is said that Saladin, supsecting Copt collusion with the crusaders, punished them sternly. The overall Chrsitian population, formerly some 90 percent of Egypt, dwindled incessantly to some 10 percent.
The extreme fragility of Copt existence was rooted in the superiority of Muslims exercised through the dhimma doctrine. Islamic supremacy often degenerated into brutal repression. A Maghrebian visitor to Cairo in 1301 witnessed the degradation of the Christians: None could ride a horse or hold public office; churches were closed; and Christians had to wear a distinguishable colored turban different from that of the Muslims. Violence against Copts and their ecclesiastical establsimnent was a central theme in the sectarian relationship. Muslim mobs, based on the rule of Islam, ransacked Copt neighborhoods and massacred their inhabitants, as in Cairo in 1343.
The situation led continually to mass conversions from the Cross to the Crescent. Islam legal opinion developed a harsh attitude toward churches, as both Ibn Taimiyya in the fourteenth century and Shaykh Ahmad al-Damanhuri in the eighteenth century condoned the destruction of churches. Sixty churches were destroyed in 1321. With the Copt religion victimized, the Copt language fading, and the Copt community straining under heavy jizya and kharaj tribute, Copt history was burned with minority-status bitterness under Islam for more than a thousand years. (Page 119)

If Esposito and Lalwani’s ancestors were on the receiving end of this type treatment over the past several centuries, they might offer a different assessment of Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt.

Despite downplaying the tragic history of Coptic-Muslim relations, Esposito and Lalwani do, howver, describe the recent acts of violence against Copts with appropriate alarm:

In the past year, extremists have again targeted Coptic Christians. In the town of Nag Hamadi in southern Egypt, seven people were killed when gunmen sprayed automatic fire into a crowd of churchgoers after a Coptic New Year’s eve midnight mass on Jan. 7, 2010. Officials believed the attack was in retaliation for the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man. But in December 2010, Egyptians were shocked when Muslim militants slaughtered 25 and injured another 100 Coptic Christian worshipers in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve. (Links in original.)

Interestingly enough, the authors do not mention the attack that killed several dozen Christians in Baghdad on Hallowee n 2010. Most people intent on addressing the mistreatment of Christians under Muslim rule would at least mention this attack to lend weight to their assertion that Christians in Muslim-majority societies are not safe. Why not mention it along with the many other acts of violence against Christians they describe in their piece?

In describing the Egyptian response to the New Year’s Day attack on Coptic Christians, Esposito and Lalwani report that

The magnitude of the atrocity triggered an unprecedented public outcry. Egyptian government officials, Muslim religious leaders, the media, and civil society moved quickly to condemn the attacks. Islamic leaders and groups from the Muslim Brotherhood to Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Sheik of al-Azhar (Egypt’s highest religious authority) and the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, along with the Coptic Pope Shenouda III, all came out with strong condemnatory statements and calls for Egyptian unity. Across the country Egyptians rallied to the defense of the Coptic community, its freedoms and its security. Thousands of Muslims turned out at Coptic Christmas eve mass services on Jan 6, 2011 around the country for candle light vigils and to serve as human shields and protect Coptic churches as they celebrated their Christmas.

Egyptian outrage over the attack was profound and indeed Egyptian Muslims did show up to serve as human shields during Christmas Eve services. What the authors fail to report is that Coptic Christians had been subject to a persistent campaign of defamation, incitement and acts of violence by Muslim extremists in the months before the attack, which was left unchallenged by religious and political leaders in Egypt. Writing in the Huffington Post, Kathryn Cameron Porter provides some detail:

Back in November, Al Qaeda in Iraq issued a statement threatening the Copts of Egypt after Al Qaeda’s massacre of a central Baghdad church. In response, the Egyptian government renounced such threats and vowed to protect Copts from Al Qaeda. Apparently that vow did not protect the Copts from their own government, from their fellow Egyptians, or from any external threats.
Egyptian state security forces were quick to act against their own citizens when Coptic Christians in Giza, Cairo, attempted to finish the construction of a church on November 24, 2010. On that day, the Copts, defending themselves with bricks and stones, were met with tear gas, “rubber” bullets, and possibly live ammunition. Two Copts were killed, dozens were injured and at least 156 arrested at the hands of state “security” forces.
So where was Egyptian state security on New Year’s Eve?
The Egyptian government has freely allowed country-wide protests over the last 4 months against the Copts, with protesters shouting false accusations and attacks against Pope Shenouda, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. These protests involved rock throwing, barricading roads leading to churches, and unsubstantiated accusations that churches and monasteries were storing weapons and kidnapping Muslim women to force their conversion. There were little if any security forces or policemen at these events.
Attackers of Coptic Christians in Egypt attack them with impunity. The shooter of six Copts and one Muslim guard on January 7, 2010 following the Christmas service at a Coptic Orthodox Church in Naga Hammadi was sentenced yesterday after a yearlong delay of the trial. No one has been punished for the burning down of 20 Christian homes and shops in the Qena Province of Egypt by an angry Muslim mob this past November.

In other words, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb and the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa – whom Esposito and Lalwani accurately report as having condemned the attack – offered little, if any response to the anti-Coptic polemic and violence rife in Egyptian society before the New Year’s Day attack – despite numerous indications that an attack was in the offing. Instead, they waited until after an attack aroused Western concern over the safety of Christians before offering their condemnations and making their calls for unity. The crucial factor that prompted condemnations from these religious is Western outrage over the attacks, not the mistreatment of Copts.

Further undermining confidence in Ahmed Al-Tayeb’s to the rights of Christians is his condemnation of Pope Benedict XVI for calling for the protection of Coptic rights in Egypt. In response to a modulated statement from the Pope, Al-Tayeb accused the Pontiff of meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs. (Interestingly enough, this went unreported in Esposito and Lalwani’s piece as well.)

False Equivalence

In one section of their article, Esposito and Lalwani offer a false equivalence between Muslim extremists and their Christian and Jewish counterparts. They write:

Majorities of Muslims and Christians embrace religious diversity. However, a significant minority of hard-line conservative, fundamentalist, and militant Muslims — like their counterparts in Christianity and Judaism — are not pluralistic, but rather strongly exclusivist in their attitudes toward other faiths and even fellow believers with whom they disagree. As recent events in Egypt and Pakistan illustrated, these myopic religious worldviews can turn ugly.

Yes, on an abstract or theoretical level, extremist Christians and Jews, do represent a threat to civil society and international peace, but on an empirical level, there is simply no comparison between Muslim extremists and their counterparts in Judaism and Christianity. In particular, there are no influential theologians in either modern Judaism and Christianity who have called on their coreligionists to wage war on behalf of their faiths and who have declared all non-believers to be in a state of ignorance and worthy targets of violence as a result. Such ideas however, are at the root of violent attacks perpetrated throughout the world by Muslim extremists.

The authors also fail to provide any specific data to demonstrate that majorities of Muslim embrace religious diverity. In fact, a recent survey of public opinion conducted by the Pew Research Center reports that “Majorities of Muslims in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Nigeria say they would favor [of making] the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion the law in their country.” The Pew survey indicates:
When asked about the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion, at least three-quarters of Muslims in Jordan (86%), Egypt (84%) and Pakistan (76%) say they would favor making it the law; in Nigeria, 51% of Muslims favor and 46% oppose it.

In sum, the problem of Muslim rejection of pluralism is bigger than Esposito and Lalwani are able to acknowledge and does not merely represent a threat to the fabric of Muslim societies. As the Pew data indicates, in some countries at least, it is part of the fabric itself.

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