Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 July 2005
Issue No. 752
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Without kid gloves

al-Jama'a al-wataniyya: al-'uzla wa al-indimaj (The National Group: Isolation and Integration), Tariq al-Bishri, Cairo: Kitab al-hilal, April 2005. pp286

Click to view caption
Tariq al-Bishri (illustration: Nabil Tag)

A popular topos among historians of Egypt correlates the power of the church with the power of the state: in periods with a strong (read authoritarian) central government, the Egyptian Church is usually characterised by a strong, "patriarchal" administration. Conversely, periods of political decentralisation often witness plurality within the Church administration, allowing a broader role for Coptic notables in managing the affairs of their community. Church administration thus doubles that of the state. This maxim comes strongly to mind as one reads through Tariq al-Bishri's latest publication.

Al-Bishri is a renowned jurist, scholar and historian associated with Islamic reform. He has written extensively on Muslim-Coptic relations, and his 1982 volume al-Muslimun wa al-aqbat fi itar al-jama'a al-wataniyya (Muslims and Copts within the Framework of the National Group) remains a classic in the field. The book under review combines a series of commentaries on the state of Muslim- Coptic relations with aspects of the "Coptic Question," if one may use such a term.

Al-Bishri does not mince his words, and his intellectual credibility assures him the leverage to tackle what others shy away from. The common thread running through the various articles is a warning against the growing trend of isolation among Egypt's Christians; a closing in of the community upon itself that distorts its sense of identity and its politics. For al-Bishri, if there is any serious threat of sectarian rift, it is in such growing isolation. However, he places the onus of integration squarely on the shoulders of the Copts, ignoring the fact that any relationship involves two parties at least and bypassing the role that Muslims might be playing in such integration.

While al-Bishri refers to and criticises the sense of insecurity bordering on paranoia that characterises some aspects of Coptic discourse, he does not -- here at least -- analyse the sources of such insecurity. Since Copts are Egyptian citizens they are assured equality under the law. He does not read such insecurity and isolation in the context of the increasing religiosity in society in general, or the growing influence of Islamism as a potential source of pressure on Christians, perhaps leading to their anxious adherence to an exclusive identity. Indeed, the Islamic nature of the national society is a given for al-Bishri, being a historical and cultural reality of the nation that does not hamper sectarian freedom or curtail minority rights.

In his survey al-Bishri tackles several recent debates that have revolved around Coptic rights, including population figures. He reviews successive modern censuses arguing that the percentage of Christians in Egypt's population has remained almost constant and within the range of six per cent. Yet, he does not push the argument further to discuss why numbers should matter in the first place, or why the Christian community should feel itself under pressure and the threat of extinction if in fact, in numerical terms, it is not.

The case of Wafaa Constantine is the subject of several articles in the volume. Constantine, wife of a provincial priest and a civil servant, inspired sectarian tensions in late 2004 after she reportedly converted to Islam and moved out of her home. After much deliberation and riots by Coptic youth within the Coptic Patriarchate in Abbassiya, Constantine was handed over to the Church authorities, and she has reportedly been secluded under Church control since then. In meetings with state prosecutors in the presence of Church lawyers she has reportedly denied her conversion to Islam.

In his analysis of the case and the debates surrounding it, al-Bishri is critical of the roles played by both the Church and the state's security apparatus. He concentrates on the possible infringement of Constantine's rights under the law as an Egyptian citizen. While he in fact considers Constantine's conversion to be sound from the point of view of Muslim jurisprudence, he argues that her religion is irrelevant here. Instead, he emphasises that her rights as an Egyptian citizen were infringed when she was handed over to the ecclesiastical authorities, which have no legal authority over her, or indeed over any citizen irrespective of his or her religion. Thus, for al-Bishri, the Church headed by Pope Shenouda III usurped extra-legal powers with the acquiescence of the state authorities in this case. He takes issue with that and with the Church's monopolising Coptic discourse in general.

In another case al-Bishri discusses the local authorities in Upper Egypt issued a medical certificate stating that a young woman was below the age of consent to prevent her from converting to Islam and marrying a Muslim, thereby possibly fuelling sectarian strife in her town. While the local authorities, including a representative of the ruling party, proudly announced their role in this case as part of their defence against charges of persecution and forced conversion, al-Bishri strongly condemns what he sees as a blatant manipulation of the law and the curtailing of citizens' rights in this case.

Furthermore, the role of the Church in such high-profile cases is a decidedly political one, al-Bishri argues, contrary to notions of the separation of church and state and the Church's denial of a political role. By publicly and repeatedly rejecting any call for the formation of Coptic political parties, he says, the Church has guaranteed its monopoly over Christian politics and prevented the rise of any opposition to its policies in lay Christian circles. In this, though al-Bishri does not make the connection explicit, the Church has obviously only echoed the state's policies in opposing the formation of political parties with a religious frame of reference, especially any political party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

His analysis of the Constantine case best summarises al-Bishri's views. Since Egyptian law confirms the equal rights of all citizens regardless of their religion, sensitivities of the politically-correct variety that give the Coptic Church special status should not be allowed to hold sway: citizens are either equal or they are not. Integrating the various sectors of society is the road to assuring its integrity as a whole, rather than promoting the kind of token gestures of sectarian contentment parodied in the proverbial Coptic neighbours who have become the staple of television drama.

Al-Bishri also reviews the first two editions of the annual Report on the Religious Situation in Egypt issued by Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He criticises the first volume for, among other things, adopting a critical, secular attitude when dealing with Muslim institutions as opposed to a sympathetic, politically-correct attitude in dealing with the Church. While the author points out the prevalent nature of religious culture in Egypt, manifestations of which are ignored by the reports' editors who tend to focus instead on the politics of religion, the reader gets the impression that what Al-Bishri is in fact criticising are the double standards used when dealing with the different religious communities and when approaching Christian affairs. These double standards can lead liberal academics to treat them with kid gloves, he says.

This duality is also apparent, al-Bishri argues, in the way the state authorities deal with religiously instigated popular protests, where toleration and compromise are more likely with Christian protesters than with their Muslim counterparts. While the author recognises that numerical differences partly account for the differences in attitude on the part of the state, he takes issue with what he says is a more fundamental difference in treatment.

In his book, al-Bishri also reviews a volume entitled Wataniyyat al-kanisa al-qibtiyya wa tarikhha (The Patriotism of the Coptic Church and its History) by a monk, Antunyus al-Antuni, which appears to be popular in certain Coptic circles. Al-Bishri is highly critical of this book for what he sees as its attempts to construct a separate history for the Copts in isolation from the larger narrative of Egyptian history, and for twisting and fabricating historical facts in order to argue for a history of continuing persecution. In his comments, al-Bishri is also critical of the increasing development of a parallel Coptic culture that is not simply a distinct sub- culture of a larger Egyptian identity but, more dangerously, is separate and apart from the larger culture of the nation. This is an attitude that he traces to the pages of the Coptic newspaper Watani in later years as well, and which he says is not adequately discussed when affairs related to Christians on a national public level are debated, something he says that is encouraged by the Church authorities.

However, again al-Bishri does not question whether the national culture makes enough room for a Coptic sub-culture. For example, the author comments that while Christians are aware of what Muslims study at school through the national curricula, Muslims are not aware of what Copts study at Sunday schools, which are very influential in the intellectual formation of most Egyptian Christians and yet are an exclusively Christian domain without national regulation. Yet even in this context al-Bishri does not suggest that perhaps the national curriculum should also make greater room for aspects of Coptic culture, if we are really seeking better integration.

Al-Bishri writes from a decidedly Islamist stance. The larger community, or national group, that he refers to is an Islamic one, but non-Muslims have equal rights within it. Throughout the history of this part of the world the state has been based on one religion, Islam, rather than on one nation. This is the fundamental building block from which al-Bishri starts. He then traces the history of the formation of this national group in the modern period and differentiates it from the European nation-state, distorted imitations of which were established in the Arab world with the advent of Westernisation and European imperialism.

The national group al-Bishri thus constructs is one based on one religion, Islam, but it is one flexible enough to take into consideration changing historical realities. Islamic Shari'a law, for example, can and does allow equal rights for non-Muslims, according to al-Bishri. He also tackles the issue of al-wilaya al- 'amma (governance) to argue that non-Muslims can play public roles in a modern state, since the various wilayaat, such as the judiciary, are now embodied in institutions and not in individuals, unlike during earlier periods. While the frame of reference is Islamic, and the institutions are Muslim and work to uphold Muslim interests, there is no reason why non-Muslims cannot work within it. In this he has gone far beyond many traditionalists. For the author, the real struggle in modern Egypt is not one between Muslims and Copts but rather between secular and religious frames of reference.

Though he does not question the validity of a national group defined in this way, rather taking it as a given, al-Bishri argues that such a construct does not negate equal rights for Egyptian Christians. And while he does not directly analyse Coptic grievances, if one reads between the lines one senses that for al-Bishri many of these grievances are exaggerated, being influenced either by misguided ecclesiastical leadership and/or by foreign interference. There are also passing references to the influence of expatriate Copts, though the political roles these have played are not given separate attention here.

Al-Bishri lauds the achievements of Christian public figures from various generations, including men like William Sulayman Qilada, an obituary of whom he includes, or Samir Murqus, whom he mentions several times. Indeed, in decrying the recently decreasing influence of lay Christian figures in public life, the reader is left wondering about the influence and role of Christians in civil society in general. While al-Bishri correctly notes that in the Constantine case public discourse was almost entirely monopolised by ecclesiastics, one is left wondering why that should be the case. Is it because a domineering Church does not allow for rivals, or is it because a now more generally authoritarian climate does not allow for a plurality of opinion to develop, much less to express itself?

Indeed, this comparative silence is in stark contrast with the state of affairs during the early decades of the 20th century, when Christian laymen had considerable power over the affairs of their community, and this was embodied in the al-majlis al-milli, established in 1873, which comprises 24 Coptic laymen and still officially represents the Coptic community. Al-Bishri produces several examples from this period in his book to demonstrate the active role Coptic laymen once played in the internal politics of their community, at times superseding the authority of the Pope. Since the mid 1980s, however, the majlis has been marginalised and brought under the authority of the Pope, who chairs it. Unfortunately, while the author refers to the past history of the majlis he does not study its role in recent years.

Through his argument for greater integration al-Bishri clearly promotes an increasing public role for lay Christians, emphasising their role against that played by the ecclesiastical authorities. One is reminded of the historians' topos once more: periods of plurality and national relaxation witness an increased role for Coptic notables and public figures, and hence increased integration among the various sectors of society, whereas periods of authoritarianism and centralisation on a state level encourage an authoritarian ecclesiastical hierarchy that monopolises community affairs and politics.

Rather than adopting the apologetic tone that many commentators have adopted in discussing Christian grievances, al-Bishri undoes the debate by denying that there is a fundamental issue to begin with. While this makes his book a thought-provoking, even polemical, read, it also means that the author does not give due weight to members of the Coptic community who insist they have grievances. This brings us back to square one: instead of lamenting or criticising the fact that secular values that reject religious discrimination are not sufficiently upheld, al-Bishri questions whether these are the nation's values in the first place.

Instead, an underlining argument here is that secular values are not upheld because they are not part of the nation's values: these values are religious, and there is nothing wrong in this. While it is tempting and perhaps even comforting for some to adopt such a view, it leaves others without a clear strategy for dealing with the kind of tensions that only the naïve can deny exist below the surface. Al-Bishri's recipe for healthy community relations consists of more integration and greater cooperation within a reformed and modernised Islamic framework. Unapologetic about Muslim supremacy, he places the responsibility for integration squarely on the shoulders of Christians. But one cannot help reiterating that it takes two for any real relationship to work.

By Amina Elbendary

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 752 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Focus | Economy | International | Opinion | Reader's corner | Press review | Culture | Features | Special | Living | Sports | Chronicles | Cartoons | Encounter | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map