Safeguarding religion in Egypt for the wrong reasons

Abdallah Schleifer

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Last Sunday, Pope Francis canonized the 800 Christian martyrs executed by Muslim Ottoman forces raiding southern Italy in 1480.According to reports coming from Rome, the 800 were killed because they refused to convert to Islam. What both global media and modern sensitive Muslims here in Egypt have little or no understanding of, was the customary rules of warfare in medieval and Renaissance times, on both sides of the firing line. Basically those towns or villages under siege that did not sue for peace, when called upon to surrender, were quite customarily put to the sword when their walls or defense lines were finally stormed.

I can understand why to a believer there is something profoundly indecent when someone blasphemes against God or insults a religion

Abdallah Schleifer

There were variations in the application of this tradition. The difference between the Ottoman massacre of the 800 Christians at Otranto and, let us say, the Crusader massacre of thousands of Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem, is that women and children were enslaved at Otranto instead of being put to the sword, as was the case in Jerusalem. The men of Otranto were offered the customary opportunity - according to the Muslim rules of warfare - to save themselves by converting to Islam.

In other words, the 800 men of Otranto were not executed for refusing to convert to Islam, rather they declined the opportunity via conversion to be spared execution for refusing to surrender. This in no way diminishes their martyrdom but the clarification is useful, particularly since His Holiness Pope Francis has called for more Catholic-Muslim dialogue. And it is Pope Francis who washed the feet of a young Muslim woman, among others, at a juvenile detention center in Rome in one his first acts as Pope. It was the first time this pontifical re-enactment of Christ’s washing the feet of the disciples involved not just an individual who was not a Roman Catholic, but specifically was a Muslim.

To greet or not to greet

Earlier this month the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s equivalent of a mufti (the highest ranking religious scholar in any given city or town authorized to issue a fatwa or opinion) was quoted in the press saying that Muslims should not wish their Coptic friends a “happy Easter.” Whereas it was reportedly all right, according to the MB’s mufti, to wish Christians a merry Christmas, since Muslims honor Christ’s birth, but they do not believe in the main events of Easter Holy Week - the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Now aside from a very dubious theological analogy - for orthodox Christians, Jesus at the time of birth is already God Incarnate and Muslims do not share that belief, so in that sense Easter is no different than Christmas - this fatwa, if that is what it is, was absurd.

To wish someone well when they celebrate their religious holiday does not mean the well wisher embraces the doctrines of that religion .This was implied in the response by the actual Mufti, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, to the MB’s Mufti. Or is the MB’s Mufti suggesting that when Christians accept my invitation to take the iftaar meal during Ramadan, or when they simply wish me “Ramadan kareem” they are embracing the Muslim belief in the Prophethood of Muhammed?

The problem with blasphemy laws

Meanwhile, or at least as of late last week, a court in Upper Egypt renewed the detention of a Christian school teacher for an additional 15 days to investigate the charge of insulting Islam, in response to complaints filed by the parents of three students. According to the report, carried in the Daily News Egypt which in turn quoted a spokesman for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the school’s administration as well as ten other students have confirmed that there is no truth to these allegations. Aside from the issue of blasphemy laws, or equivalent constitutional provisions, it is somewhat melancholic ,to put it most politely, that imprisonment precedes investigation in a case like this. It is, after all, not the case of someone who has committed a criminal act – a robbery, a murder – but someone who is the subject of an allegation of a crime.

According to Egyptian law, an insult to any of the three Abrahamic religions (not just Islam) is a crime – but over the past year or so the only person I know to be imprisoned, or even brought up, on charges of insulting Christianity is a Salafist sheikh who was witnessed by hundreds of people and videotaped burning a copy of the Bible during a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy protesting a film insulting the Prophet. Whereas still another Coptic school teacher in Upper Egypt was arrested last year for “contempt of religion” (specifically Islam) on the basis of an allegation made by the parents of one student, the teacher was released when it was established that the student was not in class the day the alleged incident took place. Last September a blogger was sentenced to six years in jail for posting offensive images of the Prophet on Facebook. What is curious about these three arrests is two of the three are of Copts, who constitute at most ten percent of the population. And the rule of thumb, at least in the West (and I have no reason to doubt the same is true in Egypt), is that members of a minority religious community, precisely because they are a minority, are much more likely to be tactful or refrain completely from making negative comments about the majority religion in public. Much more so than the members of the majority community, who would feel less reluctant to make insulting remarks about a religious minority.

Nothing is sacred

Yet, I can understand why to a believer there is something profoundly indecent when someone blasphemes against God or insults a religion. But in the West, and in particular Western Europe where church attendance averages about 5 to 8 percent of the population, nothing is sacred anymore except the belief that nothing is sacred. And that is why it is so easy for Western media to denounce blasphemy laws.

Consider the widespread sympathy in Western media for the girl group “Pussy Riot” who were described as arrested for “singing” or “praying” in a Russian Orthodox church for God to punish Putin. But it was clear from the video tape, that the singing was obscene, that their very name, in Anglo-American slang is obscene, and that when they dropped to their knees in the church they were facing the congregants, not the altar; their “prayers” were a parody not piety, and in the eyes of those sitting in the church to mediate or really pray, the performance was sacrilegious. There was major coverage of demonstrations by hundreds of Russian liberals in Moscow denouncing the arrest and sentencing. Now, by and large the Russian people are probably the most religious of all Europeans, but very little media attention was given to polls taken which established that the majority of Russians thought the girls deserved to be arrested. Even Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses” and thus the object of Ayatollah Khomeini’s “death fatwa,” noted quite accurately that one has to be a believer in order to recognize blasphemy.

But with the exception of something visible - concrete evidence - like a posting on Facebook, or dancing to obscene lyrics before an altar – blasphemy or insulting religion is usually one person’s claim about another person’s speech and we know the sorry record of the blasphemy law in Pakistan, where this sort of legislation has provided an opportunities for bigots to persecute members of a religious minority.

Not too long ago a documentary film about the Jews of Egypt, directed by an Egyptian (and I presume, on the basis of his name, a Muslim), was briefly banned. Then the ban was lifted for one performance. Only a month or so before this incident remarks President Mursi had made several years ago about Jews in general (and not just Israelis ) and recorded on a video, were dug up and widely quoted in the global media. The President insisted at the time that these remarks were taken out of context. So a daring but wise move by the President would have been to have shown up at the screening. Or at least have sent a representative. He did not.

What the President did do, was criticize France for sending troops to Mali to stop salafist-jihadist rebel groups from advancing on the Mali capital. The troops were requested by the Mali government - which for better or worse - is internationally recognized as the legitimate government of Mali.

These salafist-jihadist forces (affiliated or sympathetic to al-Qaeda) had already occupied Mali’s historic city of Timbuktu and proceeded to destroy several centuries-old historic shrines of Sufi Saints. Aside from the fact that traditional Islam in Mali is heavily perfumed by Sufism, these buildings were a major part of Mali’s world-honored architectural heritage. The salafist-jihadists also managed to set on fire a library with a major collection of old Arab manuscripts (no doubt many of which were Sufi devotional works) before retreating. The desecrated shrines and burnt manuscripts are the artifacts of the time when Timbuktu was a great center of a vibrant Islamic culture. France did not intervene in Mali to save great Islamic architecture and rare Arabic manuscripts. Nor do I believe that the Egyptian government condemned the intervention out of sympathy with the brutal and ignorant salafist-jihadists of Mali. But what remains as a tragic fact is that Morocco is the only Arab country, to my knowledge, to have publically condemned the scandalous vandalism of the salifist-jihadists.


Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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