Egyptian Copts’ problems should not be swept under the rug

A community that exists in the midst of substantial antipathy against them will never be easy to write about critically

H.A. Hellyer
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A community that exists in the midst of substantial antipathy against them will never be easy to write about critically – at least not without empowering bigoted narratives that permeate throughout society. Nevertheless, one wonders if at the beginning of 2015, as Coptic Christmas Eve approaches this evening, if it may be time to consider that impetus.

Writing about demographically minority communities is not always easy, given the milieu they sometimes exist in. After the bombings in London in 2005, anti-Muslim sentiment in the media changed from being a marginal, radical fringe position, to slowly becoming accepted in society at large. A former minister in the present British government described it as “passing the dinner-table test,” meaning that anti-Muslim bigotry was no longer something that went far beyond it. That sort of atmosphere continues today – only last week, mosques were attacked in Sweden. Against the backdrop of such a vitriolic atmosphere, it can sometimes be difficult to make public critiques of prominent members of such communities for fear they might be abused for unintended purposes. Indeed, even without that narrative being directly inspired, even if inadvertently through such public criticisms, one can often find that such minority communities are held to much higher standards, at least in the realm of the media, than the majority. Such criticisms are necessary – but care is often prudent, in order to avoid empowering the strengthening of a radical xenophobic narrative.

Delicate balance

Such a delicate balance is not only difficult to keep in mind when discussing Muslim European communities – but also with regards to Christian Arab communities, for example. To take one such community – the Egyptian Christian community over the past few years has often been in the limelight for rather unflattering and problematic political positions taken by its leadership. Shortly after the January 25 revolutionary uprising in 2011, the Coptic Church came out rather strongly in support of a “no” vote on the constitutional amendments that were being discussed at the time. The validity or invalidity of its arguments notwithstanding, it was unwise for a religious institution to take a partisan view on what became a highly charged political issue. Indeed, it was followed by the eruption of a rather ultra-conservative Salafist and Islamist response, which was deeply sectarian and damaging.

A demographic minority that is not fully accepted by all sectors of the society in which it is a part of is always going to be difficult to write about

H.A. Hellyer

Should the Church have been criticized for taking such a partisan stance at the time? It’s an academic point now – but the issue of the Coptic clerical establishment directly engaging in such partisan political topics remains. Yet, the discussion of those same issues come at a time when the Coptic Christians of Egypt, the flock which the Church’s leadership is meant to represent, albeit in a clerical fashion, remain subjected to all sorts of challenges. Sectarianism against Coptic Egyptians exists as a very real threat, and the discourse of various, rather insidious anti-Christian and pro-Mursi preachers and figures is incredibly damaging to Egypt’s social cohesion. Indeed, that sort of discourse has merely intensified over the past three years, and continues in a massive fashion – it exists as a main bone of contention between revolutionary critics of the current Egyptian political establishment, and the pro-Mursi Islamist camp.

Falling into a trap

Can criticism of the Church take place, thus, without falling into the trap of empowering and encouraging further sectarian incitement against Christians? When, for example, the Coptic Pope claims it is “not the time” to discuss the Maspero massacre, when dozens of peaceful, mainly Coptic Christians were killed in clashes with military forces, should criticism be averted, in order to avoid giving promoters of sectarianism ammunition? Certainly, many Coptic activists deny such a conclusion and are often the most vocal about critiquing their clergy for engaging in political matters in what they see as negative interventions.

Like so many Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian, these Coptic critics complain when they view their religious leaders as, at least from their perspectives, as simply enabling the narrative of the powerful. When the pope himself claims the events at Maspero were the result of the ‘Muslim Brotherhood luring’ Copts, for example, critics, and many others, will justifiably pause and wonder – why would such a peculiar claim be expressed without appropriate evidence provided? Particularly as, at the time at least, the Brotherhood publicly backed the military on the issue of the clashes? Where is the outrage at the deaths that took place, such critics ask, and the calls for accountability? Why are there no demands for an investigation into, for example, the state media, whom media experts accused of coverage that unfairly targeted Copts, portrayed Coptic protesters in a deeply negative fashion and raised the overall temperature against them?

A demographic minority that is not fully accepted by all sectors of the society in which it is a part of is always going to be difficult to write about. There will be always be a context that is important to keep in mind, whether when it comes to Muslims of the West, or Christians of the East. But while keeping in mind that context is vital, and the criticism made with such background must be noted with full awareness, critical assessments of institutions and individuals within those communities remain necessary, according to the same standards that all sectors ought to be held up to.

There is a way – there must be a way – to criticize and critique, without providing fodder for bigotry. Otherwise, we run the risk of just sweeping problems under the rug, where they will fester and eventually be used and abused probably even worse by bigots. More than that, we may even begin to infantilize such communities, denying them full agency. In either eventuality, it is only the members of those communities that will suffer the most.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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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