Define pluralism: NYTs in Egypt

mbrotherhoologoAn encouraging headline got me started on this memo from Cairo in Saturday’s New York Times: “Hints of Pluralism in Egyptian Religious Debates.”

Why? Because that would be pretty big news. Egypt is, like many countries in the Muslim world being run by conservative religious tradition and an autocratic ruler, not known as a place of intense religious diversity. Egypt has about 12 million Coptic Christians and a few hundred thousand Protestants, a few thousand Baha’is and less than 200 Jews. The remaining 84 percent, or so, of Egyptians are Muslim — and conversion is not encouraged.

In fact, just last week the Los Angeles Times chronicled the trials of a Muslim convert to Christianity who has been forced to live like a fugitive:

“Islam is the only thing Egyptians are 150% sure of. If you reject Islam, you shake their belief and you are an apostate, an infidel,” he says. “I can see in the eyes of Muslims how much my conversion has really hurt them.”

Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who represent about 10% of the population, have veered from coexistence to violence with the Muslim majority. Bloody clashes recently erupted between Copts and Muslims over land disputes and restrictions on churches.

But converts, such as Gohary, are even more unsettling. Islamists believe that Muslims who forsake their religion should be punished by death.

Gohary wants to be called Peter and refuses to yield. He has filed a lawsuit asking an Egyptian court to officially recognize him as a Copt by changing the denomination on his national ID card from Muslim to Christian. The court ruled against him in June, finding that Gohary’s baptism documents from the Coptic Orthodox Church were “legally invalid.” The verdict is on appeal.

And that article didn’t even mention the Muslim Brotherhood. So, like I said, hints of pluralism would be news to me and good news for many, many Egyptians.

But after reading the NYT story, which seemed surprisingly anchored by the assertions of a few like-minded liberal thinkers, I had the feeling that the headline should have replaced “hints” with “hope” and “debates” with “reality.”

Reporter Michael Slackman had couched his story’s main claim within the framework of relativity:

It is a testament to how little public debate there has been over the value of pluralism, or more specifically of the role of religion in society, that so many see the mere chance to provoke as progress. But now, more than any time in many years, there are people willing to risk challenging conventional thinking, said writers, academics and religious thinkers

Slackman offered as evidence an encouraging development for the Baha’i, a persecuted minority in a nation that officially only recognizes Muslims, Christians and Jews:

Nine years ago the state stopped issuing identification records to Bahais unless they agreed to characterize themselves as members of one of the three recognized faiths. The documents are essential for access to all government services.

An independent group, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, won a court order on behalf of the Bahais that forced the government to issue records leaving the religious identification blank. The first cards were issued this month. While the decision was aimed specifically at solving the problem faced by the Bahai community, the case tapped into the evolving debate, said the group’s executive director, Hossam Bahgat.

“It is an unprecedented move to recognize that one can be Egyptian and not adhere to one of these three religions,” Mr. Bahgat said. Still, he remains less than optimistic; most of the public reaction to the Bahais’ legal victory was negative, Mr. Bahgat said.

OK, that’s a hint: But lets be clear about something. Pluralism, an incredibly complicated phenomena that isn’t unpacked here, involves a lot more than just being extended some of the same basic rights given to members of the majority religion. And it expects a lot of the members of a society at large.

It’s difficult to imagine Egyptian society adopting the liberal pluralism of the United States or the liberal secularism of Europe. I imagine, however, that Maher El Gohary would settle for a lot less.

That logo belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood

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  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who represent about 10% of the population, have veered from coexistence to violence with the Muslim majority. Bloody clashes recently erupted between Copts and Muslims over land disputes and restrictions on churches.

    This makes it sound as though the Christians instigated the violence as often as the Muslims did. Sort of like describing a nineteenth-century Russian pogrom as a clash erupting between Christians and Jews.

  • bob

    An item the stories about Egypt regularly miss is that the Copts are the *actual* Egyptians. The Muslims were, well, Crusaders. At the same time the Muslim Brotherhood link in the above article states one of their reasons for being around is to oppose “Western colonialism”. Colonialism invasion and conquest are just fine when they do it, though. If there’s no history mentioned the religious aspects of the story are usually confusing.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    An item the stories about Egypt regularly miss is that the Copts are the *actual* Egyptians. The Muslims were, well, Crusaders.

    I dunno, Bob. It’s been almost 1,400 years since the Arab invasion and subsequent Islamicization of Egypt. At this point I don’t think we can really consider the Arabs newcomers. It would be like drawing a distinction between the “real” British and the Saxon invaders. Technically accurate but pretty much irrelevant today unless we’re talking about separatist movements.

    However, that does bring up a question. The articles don’t mention that Copts and Arabs come from different ancestry. Is there an ethnic component to the conflict, or is it purely religious?

  • Jerry

    It would be like drawing a distinction between the “real” British and the Saxon invaders.

    A few years ago when I was visiting Wales, a friend showed us a number of castles where he said that the valiant Welsh sadly were not able to defeat the English invaders. The past can indeed be alive in the present.

    But I am heartened that there is a positive change under way albeit from what looks like a very small step to our eyes. I’m looking forward to more coverage of what hopefully will be more steps in the right direction.

  • Julia

    The Muslims were, well, Crusaders

    Odd comparison. Did the Muslims go to Egypt to rescue some Muslim Holy Land we’ve never heard about?

    By the way, 162,000 of those Copts are Catholics in communion with the Pope. I know a few of them in New York City. Wikipedia says there are about 40,000 Catholic Copts outside of Egyp.

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_Catholic_Church

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    A few years ago when I was visiting Wales, a friend showed us a number of castles where he said that the valiant Welsh sadly were not able to defeat the English invaders. The past can indeed be alive in the present.

    Jerry, as a Welsh speaker, I couldn’t agree with you more. :)

    Julia, I don’t know if the distinction between Coptic Rite Catholics and Monophysite Copts is really necessary in this case. The story has to do with Muslim/Christian relations in general. Bringing up sectarian differences might muddy the waters for readers who barely know that there are Christians in the Middle East. However, it would be interesting to see if the two Coptic churches are treated any differently because of one being part of a worldwide communion.

  • Dan Berger

    WRT the history, let’s not forget that after the Muslim invasion an unknown proportion of Egyptians converted to Islam, because social and legal pressures were brought to bear upon them to do so.

    While Copts may be of less mixed ancestry, Egyptian Muslims are likely to have have plenty of local blood that can be traced back to, well, the Greek invasion or before.

    It’s almost like trying to distinguish between Gaels and Vikings in Ireland. Good luck!

  • Salaam

    Since this web site is all about journalistic accuracy…

    The Copts, along of course with the other Oriental Orthodox Churches, are miaphysite, not monophysite.

    A couple of resources I recommend for more on Copt/Muslim relations:

    The videos of Father Zakaria Botros illustrate one type of Copt/Muslim interaction in Egypt.

    Father Mark Gruber’s book Journey to Eden is a nice introduction to Coptic Christianity written from a Western Catholic point of view.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Thanks, Salaam. The news articles didn’t use the word “monophysite;” I did to distinguish from Catholic Copts. I knew it wasn’t quite accurate but couldn’t recall the correct word.

    You sound like you know a good deal more than the rest of us on the subject; can you tell us if there is any ethnic component to the conflict or if it’s purely a religious one?

  • Kristine

    I dunno, Bob. It’s been almost 1,400 years since the Arab invasion and subsequent Islamicization of Egypt. At this point I don’t think we can really consider the Arabs newcomers.

    If you are a Copt, you do, indeed, consider the Arabs to be newcomers. Time moves much more slowly, and “from generation to generation” has a great deal more meaning in the Middle East than in the United States.

    It’s complicated, and I can see how journalists (even if THEY understand the situation) can’t pack all of the info into a standard news story and then have room to tell the actual story.

    I am in absolute awe of Peter in the story. He is breathtakingly brave for taking the stand that he does. I know of two women who converted to Christianity in Egypt. One was jailed for two weeks, and then turned over to her family. The other was whisked off somewhere by her family, so she couldn’t be near the influence of the Christians who were nurturing her.
    I lived in Egypt for three years, and noticed a tightening, rather than a loosening, of laws forbidding conversion from Islam to anything else.

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