On late Saturday, Pope Tawadros II led his first Easter Mass as head of the ancient Coptic Christian Church in Egypt by praying for security and prosperity in the country. It was the most important event of the year for Egypt’s Christian minority. Many Muslims attended the service, including various figures from the opposition parties. However, President Mohamed Morsi and Prime Minister Hesham Qandil were conspicuously absent; their Muslim Brotherhood government effectively snubbed the mass by sending sent a low-level token representative – the country’s housing minister.
Many voices in Egypt had pressured the President to attend the mass as a gesture of support to the Copts, particularly after the recent violent attack on the main Coptic Cathedral , the first such atrocity in the history of Egypt. Sadly he decided to snub Egypt’ s Coptic Christians, who make up 10 per cent of the country’s 90 million people.
To greet or not to greet Copts – that is the current debate among Islamists in Egypt. It may seem a trivial issue, a courteous gesture that should not be sullied by theology. But in Egypt, the rise of political Islam into power has pushed theology onto the fault line of politics and inflamed the already growing sectarianism in a society that was once known for its harmony and tolerance.
Although Islam reveres Jesus, it does not acknowledge his divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection. So even though a feast in celebration of Easter contradicts Islamic beliefs, for most Muslims (including the Egyptian Mufti), greeting Christians and sharing in their joy and festivities is a customary and welcome gestures of brotherhood and partnership. This view is vehemently disputed by many Islamists.
Political Islam is more about dominance than sharing and about relative rights rather than equal rights. Theologically, the Islamists’ dogma considers greeting Christians for Easter as an indirect acknowledgment that their beliefs could possibly be right – a slippery slope, in their opinion. Politically, Islamists’ distorted majoritarian view of democracy considers minorities as having less than equal rights. In other words, it is the minority who should show respect to the majority and avoid offending them. Such an absurd mix of theological and political dogma has led Egypt to be ranked as one of the most egregious violators of religious freedom in the world, even worse than Afghanistan.
For decades, sectarianism was slowly brewing in Egypt, yet very few efforts were made to tackle the root of the problem. President Hosni Mubarak viewed sectarianism as a migraine he could not treat, but one he could contain and even abuse. His containment strategy was a mixture of appeasement and periodic suppression, a kind of carrot-and-stick policy that was applied to both sides, the Islamists and the Copts.
To avoid the fate of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat (who was assassinated by radical Islamists), Mr. Mubarak opted to avoid any confrontation with political Islam and its ideology, and he ignored the growing social networks of Islamists and their dominance of unions and syndicates. Instead, he ruthlessly cracked down on Islamist insurgency, outlawed many Islamist groups, and denied their members access to sensitive government, military, and police positions.
Mr. Mubarak also applied this dual approach to the Copts: he re-instated the Coptic Pope, played the patron of the Copts, and allowed the church to assert the Coptic identity among the Coptic public, again by expanding the supportive church’s social networks, and allowed it to maintain its special, often strict religious laws. On the other hand, he did not amend any of the laws that prohibit building new churches, he turned a blind eye to the discrimination of Copts in public services, and failed – often deliberately – to stop the hate campaign unleashed by Islamists against Copts. In fact, Mr. Mubarak used the rise of Islamism as a tool to earn the loyalty of the Coptic Pope.
Despite the discrimination against the Copts, Islamists viewed them as a devious, privileged group, a state within the state, citing (often with exaggeration) the direct channel between Mr. Mubarak and Pope Shenouda, the relative success of Copts in business, and their links and contacts with groups of influence in Europe and the United States via the vast Coptic diaspora. Furthermore, Islamists view Copts as a competitor faith, one that rejects the “right path.”
The debate about greeting the Copts is not new; Islamists have held these views for a long time. What’s new is the Egyptian revolution that finally removed the carpet of suppression and allowed these regressive views to be aired in public. Also new is the rise of Islamists into power; Islamist scholars who banned Easter greetings before the revolution now find it difficult to swallow their pride and sanction them.
President Morsi has a lot to learn about the art of political gymnastics. Perhaps he should learn from his “enemy,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who relished the opportunity of the Druze feast of Nabi Shueib to score few political points with the Druze community in Israel.
Thus far, President Morsi seems to be stuck between a rock and hard place: any compromise with the Copts would be viewed negatively by his supporters and could be exploited by rival Islamists, particularly the Salafis. A successful Egyptian leader is one who demonstrates shrewdness and the ability to navigate between rivals to secure harmony in society.The Egyptian president has a historic opportunity to amend the religious discourse in Egypt, fight extremism, ensure equality, and celebrate diversity. Thus far, however, he has consistently failed to grasp the opportunity.