Is there a place for Christians in the new Middle East?
BY JAMES TRAUB | OCTOBER 21, 2011
The sickening violence inflicted on Coptic Christian demonstrators in Cairo on Oct. 9 shocked Egyptians, and may have ended for good whatever remaining faith democracy activists had in the country’s interim military government, which appears to have orchestrated the violence. But Copts have been suffering attacks with growing regularity over the last several years, and this latest outburst only increased the fears among them that their status in Egypt, and possibly even their survival as a community, is now in jeopardy.
This is not only an Egyptian story. Just as rising intolerance drove vast numbers of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East in the 1950s and ’60s, so Christians, the one large remaining minority in the region, are now feeling the heat. In the wake of a campaign of murder and forced displacement, at least 400,000 Christians have fled Iraq since the fall of Saddam. Christians in neighboring Syria have clung to the increasingly precarious regime of Bashar al-Assad out of fear that the same fate could befall them should Syria’s Sunni majority take control. (Druze, Kurds, and other minorities seem to be making the same calculation.)
We tend to forget that it was the Middle East that taught the world how the three Abrahamic faiths could get along with one another. In his masterful new book, The Great Sea, historian David Abulafia recounts how a polyglot Mediterranean culture of Jews, Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Catholics arose in the coastal cities of Constantinople, Salonika, Tunis, Jaffa, and Alexandria. This last, in the 1920s, had 25,000 Jews in a population of about 500,000, as well as Greeks, Italians, Maltese, and others. Abulafia writes that Omar Toussoon, a leading member of the Egyptian royal family, patronized all these groups equally while working hard to improve the economic fortunes of the city’s Muslim masses.
Virtually the entire region now experiencing the convulsion of the Arab Spring lived inside the very large tent of the Ottoman Empire until World War I. Ottoman rulers welcomed the Jews who fled the Inquisition. In great Ottoman capitals like Aleppo, in modern Syria, Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Sunni Muslims lived in the same neighborhoods. “Inter-communal residential mixing” was the norm across the Ottoman empire, according to Donald Quataert, a scholar of the Ottoman period. If it all unraveled in the 20th century, Quataert writes, it is not because of “inherent animosities of an alleged racial or ethnic nature.”
Quataert argues that the collapse of pluralism was not an inevitable consequence of seething inter-group resentment, but rather the work of nationalists who agitated for the creation of states, whether in Turkey, Bulgaria, or the Maghreb, and who then exploited and encouraged nationalist sentiment in order to consolidate power. Political choices, in other words, poisoned the atmosphere of pluralism — as they later would in the Balkans, the Ottoman heartland, as well. Populist rulers can accommodate diversity, as they have largely done in today’s Turkey, or they can unleash the forces of sectarianism, as they have in Iraq, where Shiites and Sunnis kill one another and both kill Christians. Older Iraqis will tell you that no one ever spoke of “Sunni” and “Shiite” when they were young; but whether in Bosnia or Iraq, sectarianism, once provoked, has a very long half life. There is no more volatile substance in the modern nation-state.
Violence against Copts in Egypt is not remotely of the magnitude of the anti-Christian pogroms of Iraq. But it has been steadily growing in recent years. The most spectacular attack took place this past New Year’s Day, when 21 Copts were killed walking out of a Mass at Saints Church in Alexandria, the once-louche Ottoman capital that is now a center of Salafism, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Egypt had begun 2010 with the killing of nine congregants emerging from a midnight Mass in the city of Nag Hammadi, and there had been many incidents thereafter. But the revolution in the streets erupted only a few weeks after the Alexandria bombing, and the spectacle of Muslims and Christians praying together in Tahrir Square had offered a thrilling counterpoint to the communal tensions. Indeed, Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French diplomat and author of The Arab Revolution, argues that the popular protests have forged an unprecedented solidarity between Muslims and Copts.
But acts of violence continued — an arson attack against a church in March, then a violent clash between groups of demonstrators that left 12 dead, then another outburst at a church in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood, with another 12 dead. The Oct. 9 demonstration was meant to protest the military government’s failure to act in the face of these earlier incidents. The violence itself was probably not sectarian: Though all 24 of the dead were Copts, and many died a hideous death, run over by armored vehicles, the hired thugs and security forces who attacked the crowd were engaged in a brutal crackdown on dissent, not a targeted communal murder. But state television urged “honorable Egyptians” to defend soldiers from Christian mobs, thus seeking to convert the event into a Christian attack on the state and playing into the stereotype of Copts as outsiders. “The SCAF,” says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, using the acronym for the military government, “benefits from a sectarian narrative.”
Egyptian activists were not fooled. Political reformers like Ayman Nour blamed the military for shedding “the blood of our brothers.” Even the SCAF understood that it had gone too far, apologizing for the appeal to “honorable Egyptians.” But the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political party is very likely to gain a plurality of seats in upcoming parliamentary elections, came very close to blaming the victim, issuing a statement saying that “All the Egyptian have grievances and legitimate demands, not only our Christian brothers. Certainly this is not the right time to claim them.” Hamid points out that this “uppity Christian” narrative played very well with ordinary Egyptians — which is probably why the Brotherhood, with its fine instinct for the vox populi, chose to offer it. Hamid also notes that in their beleaguerment Copts have increasingly turned inward, producing a spiral of mutual mistrust.
There’s no wishing away the anti-Coptic attitudes, or prejudices, of ordinary Egyptians. But Copts have lived with that for a long time. The big question is whether it will get worse — and how much worse. And that will be a matter of political choices and political leadership. The Brotherhood, to its credit, has rarely catered to religious chauvinism, and, despite its Islamist appeal, has positioned itself as a spokesman for all Egyptians. Even the Salafists have not openly played the communal card. Copts continue to play a leading role in Tahrir Square; Mina Daniel, one of the Oct. 9 victims, has been celebrated as a martyr of the campaign against the SCAF. Nevertheless, Egypt feels to Copts, as well as to secular Egyptians, like an increasingly Islamist country.
It could go either way. One thing the incident proves is the danger of leaving the SCAF in power during the very long projected period of transition: Egypt’s new military rulers, like the military ruler they replaced, have proved all too willing to exploit street-level resentment. Power-sharing cannot wait until a new president is elected in mid-2013 or so. Egypt’s democratic forces say that they are determined not to allow themselves to be divided against one another. Let’s hope so. In Egypt, and all across the former Ottoman outposts of the southern Mediterranean — Tunisia, Libya, Syria — it is not just democracy but also pluralism that is at stake. It would be a terrible thing, and a deeply unnecessary one, if the rise of the former meant the end of the latter.
James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation. “Terms of Engagement,” his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly.