Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Extremism, citizenship and Copts abroad

In a few hours President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi will set off for Washington for his first visit to the White House under the new administration and his second meeting with President Donald Trump. The first took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York last year shortly before the US presidential elections.

President Al-Sisi’s visits to Europe and the US are usually greeted by support rallies organised by Egyptians abroad and joined by portions of the delegations that travel with them for media and press coverage. Egyptian Christians and Muslims abroad usually coordinate campaigns to muster turnouts for these welcome rallies, which have the feeling of cheerful festivals, especially in contrast to the demonstrations staged by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters abroad to protest against Al-Sisi.

These demonstrations are aimed against the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people who marched in their unprecedented millions during the 30 June 2013 Revolution to oust the now officially banned Muslim Brotherhood from power and to remove its representative, Mohamed Morsi, from the presidency.

On the occasion of Al-Sisi’s upcoming visit to Washington, however, some Coptic associations and individuals have issued calls for demonstrations due to the backdrop of terrorist attacks targeting Egyptian Christians, such as the bombing of the St Peter’s Church in Abbasiya in Cairo in December and the displacement of a number of Christian families from Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Al-Arish in northern Sinai.

These calls are being promoted and funded by various groups in the US, including non-Christian ones, with the purpose of embarrassing Al-Sisi and undermining his visit. The latter is expected to be successful in the light of the apparent meeting-of-minds between Al-Sisi and Trump.

The US administration, along with the majority of Egyptian Christians, understand that a primary aim of the terrorist attacks against Copts is to cause difficulties for the presidency and the Egyptian government and to drive a wedge between Al-Sisi and the Copts. The latter are resented by the Muslim Brotherhood and other promoters of the campaign for being among the staunchest of Al-Sisi’s supporters and a major factor in the success of the grassroots uprising that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

The Brotherhood and its supporters believe that any display of protest against the Al-Sisi government counts as a point in their favour. Their opponents in Egypt and abroad are aware of this. More importantly, however, and contrary to the ideas circulated by the Muslim Brotherhood propaganda machine, this is not a phenomenon planned or “orchestrated” by the government or the regime. It is a fact that the vast majority of Egyptian Christians and Muslims are united together in the same cause, together with their government, against groups that sanction and engage in armed violence and that espouse the ideology and methods of the Muslim Brotherhood and its off-shoots that parade beneath different banners but that all indulge in murder, destruction and sectarian hate crimes.

However, it should also be acknowledged that there are some practices that run counter to the principles of equal citizenship and civil liberties and that in turn work to feed extremism. This is a subject that needs to be addressed frankly and in depth, which is why it may be useful to discuss the circumstances affecting Christians in Egypt within the broader regional context of the condition of Christians of all denominations throughout the Middle East region.

The murder and displacement of Copts in Sinai has served as a vivid reminder of what happened to Iraqi Christians forced to flee the cities of Basra, Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul in Iraq, especially after their occupations by the Islamic State (IS) group in 2014, many of them fleeing to other locations in Iraqi Kurdistan and from there abroad. A similar scenario unfolded and continues to unfold in Syria, just as it had during the Lebanese Civil War.

It is also important to recall the fate of Palestinian Christians. Whereas Christians in Palestine made up more than 20 per cent of the population before the Israeli occupation, their numbers have dwindled to less than 1.5 per cent today due to systematic displacement. In Jerusalem alone, where there were once more than 50,000 Palestinian Christians, there are now only 5,000 today.

Killings, expulsions and other crimes perpetuated due to sectarian or ethnic hatreds and the refusal to recognise the other bring two essential questions to the fore. The first concerns the lack or weakness of the bonds of citizenship. The weaker these bonds are, the greater is the likelihood that some groups or segments of society will attempt to dominate others and to deprive them of their rights. Wherever the foundations of citizenship are shaken or eroded, fanaticism and extremism stand ready to pounce and unleash their violence on society.

The second is the absence of dialogue. Dialogue by definition presumes the recognition and a degree of parity of the other, and by extension it implies the acceptance of diversity. The absence of dialogue engenders marginalisation and the exclusion of others and their deprivation of their rights as fellow citizens and human beings.

This throws into relief the inverse relationship between citizenship and extremism. When extremism prevails, it is because the foundations of citizenship were non-existent or had been undermined. Conversely, where citizenship is robust and vibrant, which is to say when civil liberties such as the freedom of belief and expression, the right to organise, and the right of assembly, inclusiveness and to participate in public life are at their fullest, the noblest values will prevail, these being enriched by the principles of equality, non-discrimination, justice and social justice.

Citizenship is deficient in conditions of poverty. It also requires recognition of the right to participate politically and to occupy senior positions without discrimination.

COMBATTING EXTREMISM: Over recent months, I have had the opportunity to take part in a number of conferences and other activities organised by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria.

The general theme has been how to combat fanaticism and extremism, and the activities addressed such questions as: What is the relationship between fanaticism and extremism and violence and terrorism? How do sectarianism and citizenship contradict each other? Do we need a new discourse to counter the culture of hatred, marginalisation and exclusion?

To the extent that these phenomena have socio-political roots, they are informed by religious, sectarian, cultural and educational backgrounds that are reflected in individual and group behaviours. This applies in particular to groups that claim to possess the absolute truth and that believe themselves to be superior to others for whatever reason.

If the prevailing discourse reflects this, or is somehow blinkered or provocative, does this not call for a process of revision and exploration of its cultural and ideological origins? Clearly, it is impossible to reform a discourse without reforming the thinking behind it. This is not just about religious thought and discourse. Rather, it entails the need to address all forms of extremist thought and to reinforce the prerequisites for open and critical dialogue.

It is a process that should engage the whole of public opinion and all political forces, civil society organisations and the media since it concerns the essential outlooks of society and the well-being of all its members.

Since fanaticism and extremism have grown particularly in the Arab region, so much so that they may threaten the existence of the nation-state, reviving the language and spirit of dialogue is no longer an option but is a vital necessity. The absence of dialogue renders the soil ripe for violence and strife, especially in times of sectarian friction.

Dialogue, or what is referred to in the press as the renovation of religious discourse, should seek first and foremost to produce a consensus on ways to strengthen the bonds of citizenship. This, after all, is the key to the fight against violence and terrorism, which are the manifestations of the extremism and fanaticism that are so rife from Baghdad and Damascus to Sanaa and Tripoli and that have found incubators that sometimes hatch similar phenomena in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

Extremism is particularly dangerous when violence-prone young men who are mentally and emotionally vulnerable to brainwashing are provoked into committing suicide attacks or other horrific acts of violence for whatever religious, ideological, political or socioeconomic reasons. This applies just as much to terrorists from the West who come to our shores to vent their pent-up anger and violence in our societies.

There remains the question of the efficacy of security measures alone in contending with extremism. This question is frequently raised in international and regional conferences, and it becomes more challenging when assessed from the perspective of the rights dimension. Although the answer is obvious, the prioritisation of the military/security approach even as the threat of terrorism persists has caused this question to resurface with ever increasing urgency, especially given the growing awareness of the need for a more holistic approach that engages diverse means to address the phenomenon in all its political, social, economic, religious, cultural and educational dimensions.

The military/security remedy should of course remain available, but as the Arabic proverb has it, “cauterisation is the last remedy.”

If citizenship is the antithesis of extremism, the latter also requires open-minded dialogue if it is to be effectively treated. Our country is now at a crossroads. Whenever the cause of citizenship advances, the danger of terrorism recedes, and when the cause of citizenship recedes, there are likely to be mounting religious and sectarian tensions, a rise in secessionist calls and proxies working for outside powers, and a resurgence of other residual pre-state phenomena.

In sum, the message that all Egyptians and Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, need to grasp is that the ideological, socio-political, economic and, also, security/military war against terrorism is the best means to entrench citizenship and eradicate extremism. Accordingly, when Egypt’s president visits Washington this week to meet the American president who has called for increased efforts to fight terrorism, there should be strong and evident support.

There should be no obfuscation of the issues or settling of scores with the government in line with campaigns that do not really seek to address the concerns of the Copts but instead seek to capitalise on these in order to serve other ends. In this case, those ends are to embarrass the government, generate an image of Egypt abroad that it is failing in the fight against terrorism, and undermine the international credit that Al-Sisi has earned in many Western capitals and in Washington as a bulwark against the forces of terrorism that use religion as a facade.

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