The Coptic ghost in those potential flights from Egypt

Let’s start with a few journalistic questions.

Am I surprised that The New York Times has published a story on the possibility that freethinking Egyptians are beginning to flee their troubled nation or, at the very least, to debate whether it is time to do?

No. That’s a perfectly valid news story.

Am I surprised that the team at the world’s most influential newspaper elected to focus this story on political activists, intellectuals, urbanites and artists who fit into the progressive and rather secular mold so popular with journalists from the international press who are based in Cairo?

No. While this is a small percentage of the Egyptian population, this is an essential element in a story on this topic — in large part because of the leadership roles these people played in the secular wing of the Arab spring.

All that said, am I surprised that this timely Times story contains absolutely zero references to a large and imperiled minority in Egypt — 10 percent of the population — that, in the face of deadly violence, is facing a rising tide of questions about its survival after centuries of persecution?

(Cue: Audible sigh.)

Yes, I was surprised that they story does not contain a single reference to the plight of the Coptic Orthodox Christians, along with other members of abused religious minorities in Egypt. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, but I was. (A potential follow-up story: Are Coptic leaders in North America preparing to help their sisters and brothers flee the old country?)

Here is a key chunk of this Times report, which includes a reference to dissident publisher Mohamed Hashem. Try to imagine taking on this topic and, after months of mob violence, not thinking about including the Copts.

Egypt has surrendered citizens to more prosperous countries for generations, unable to provide much hope or opportunity at home. But like Mr. Hashem, many Egyptians who say they are joining a new exodus had been loath to give up on their country; some had postponed the urge to leave, hoping the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 would pave the way to a better life.

Their change of heart signals a dark moment. Many people said they saw no end to the conflict between the military and its Islamist opponents, and no place for those who did not profess loyalty to either one.

Others lamented Egypt’s narrowing political horizons and what seemed like the growing likelihood that a military officer will become Egypt’s next leader. Some people said they were shocked at how cavalier their friends and neighbors had become about the rising level of bloodshed. And for everyone, there was still no relief from the grinding frustrations of daily life, the traffic, the rising prices, the multiplying mounds of trash in the streets.

There is no statistical evidence that more people are emigrating, and the notion remains far from the reach of most Egyptians, reserved for those with the qualifications or connections to find opportunities abroad. In interviews over several days, though, people said their conversations had turned more frequently, and urgently, to leaving; those who considered travel possible were just deciding when.

Please understand. The potential exiles included in this report are interesting and their stories are poignant. They are valid sources.

But is there more to this story than a potential “brain drain” of poets, graphic artists and Internet-economy pioneers?

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Watching for ghosts in the news flashes from Egypt

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A few journalistic thoughts while I continue to watch the waves of news coverage rolling in from Egypt:

* Over the past decade or two, I have attended a number of conferences and seminars with scholars and mainstream journalists — Christians and Muslims — who work in Islamic cultures. Most of our conversations have centered on freedom of the press, but it’s hard to talk about freedom of expression in one part of life without getting into others, such as the protection of religious minorities.

Here is how I would sum up the main point I have heard from these journalists over the years: In the end, it doesn’t matter what your constitution says about your rights if the police will not step in and stop rioters from killing people and burning either newsrooms or religious sanctuaries. Take your pick.

* Until the Pew pollsters come up with new data, I will continue to point GetReligion readers toward those 2011 Pew Research Center numbers indicating, among other things (care of one of my Scripps Howard columns):

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion. … About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran.

* Why do those numbers matter so much? When you look at what Egyptians say in polls and at the ballot box, it’s pretty clear that — when it comes to desires for an Islamic state of some kind — the military leaders (religious views never stated) just acted against the will of a majority of Egyptians. However, they may have acted in the economic interests of the nation by favoring the more tolerant views of the more secular and moderate urban elites. Think tourism. Think international ties.

We are back to an old, old question: Is it possible, in a land in which the majority of voters hunger for Islamic law, to defend the rights of religious minorities and secular liberals without the help of a military that is willing to oppress and jail Islamists? Think about that as you watch the unfolding campaign against President Mohamed Morsi and his followers.

* This leads me to note that, in the early coverage of the coup, The Los Angeles Times — a newspaper I have lashed on a regular basis lately for weak coverage in the Middle East — had the best short summary of key religious elements of the unfolding events. Want to see that?

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Attention liberals: Blasphemy cases on the rise in Egypt

As I have said numerous times, I cannot imagine how hard it must be to cover the aftermath of the Arab Spring in a land as complex as Egypt, especially in news articles of a thousand words or less.

For example, some of the key terms used by people at the heart of the events — “Islamist” is the best example — are being used in vague ways that make them almost impossible for outsiders to understand. What is the difference, in practical terms, between a “moderate” Islamist, an Islamist and a Salafi Islamist?

A recent New York Times report took on one of the most dangerous trends in Egypt today, which the rising number of blasphemy cases being filed against Christians, liberals and other religious minorities. This story does not mention that, as a rule, blasphemy charges are used against Islamic minorities and dissenters even more than against Christians, Jews and other non-Muslim believers. One must assume, I guess, that the actual trend in Egypt at the moment is a rising number of cases filed against Coptic Orthodox believers and other Christians.

This story impressed me for one simple reason: It provided human, understandable details about the cases. The story disappointed me, however, in that it never offered examples of what people were saying or doing that led to the blasphemy charges.

That’s a rather basic fact to omit. Was the Times afraid of printing so-called blasphemy?

Here’s a crucial chunk of the background:

Blasphemy cases were once rare in Egypt, and their frequency has increased sharply since the revolution. More than two dozen cases have gone to trial, and nearly all defendants have been found guilty. At least 13 have received prison sentences.

The campaign is driven at the local level, where religious activists have also forced officials to suspend teachers and professors. In at least 10 cases, Christian families have been expelled from their homes after perceived insults, according to Ishaq Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Blasphemy complaints have been lodged across the society, against poor teachers in villages, a deputy prime minister, Egypt’s richest man, and some of its most prominent writers and journalists. A firebrand Muslim preacher who tore up a Bible at a protest was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His son received eight years on similar charges.

“Contempt of religion, any religion, is a crime, not a form of expression,” said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has not been instrumental in filing the cases but does not oppose them. “Is setting fire to the Bible freedom of expression? Is insulting religion freedom of expression?” …

None of this should have surprised anyone who watched the polls in Egypt during the overthrow of the previous government. In a 2011 Scripps Howard column, I noted some numbers from the Pew Forum:

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Bloodshed in Saudi Arabia, for some non-religious reasons

Some of the world’s most important religion-news stories are also the hardest for your GetReligionistas to write about because they happen over and over and over. Are we supposed to do a post a week on some of these topics? Criticize the same holes in mainstream stories again and again?

It’s hard. Trust me.

Take, for example, coverage of human-rights stories linked to life in majority Muslim lands — especially stories linked to the persecution of religious minorities. The key issue is whether the press buys and sells the familiar argument that these conflicts are actually about politics and economics, not religion. No matter what the mobs are yelling about God and Sharia, these stories are, supposedly, sparked by class conflict, ethnic concerns, etc. Truth be told, these tragedies are driven by multiple factors — including religion.

One of the news subjects that, over the past decade, has frustrated me the most is the bloody split between Shia and Sunni Islam. How is the American public supposed to understand the recent history of Iraq without understanding that deep and bitter divide? Yet, day after day, week after week, year after year, American newsrooms produce floods of ink on these conflicts without giving readers any information about why this divide exists in the first place. There have been a few exceptions — such as this Time cover story.

I used to write posts on this subject all of the time.

I quit, after GetReligion readers responded with waves of apathy — which is often the case with posts about international stories, especially those centering on coverage of human rights. We need more liberal readers, I guess, in the old meaning of the word “liberal.”

Anyway, The Washington Post recently served up another long news story of this kind that ran under this simple headline: “Shiite protests pose major challenge for Saudi Arabia.” The top of this report tells a familiar story:

AWAMIYA, Saudi Arabia – This much is beyond dispute: Khalid al-Labad is dead.

Labad, 26, and two teenage relatives were fatally shot by police Sept. 26 as they sat in plastic chairs on the narrow sidewalk in front of their house in this broken-down little town in the far east of Saudi Arabia. To police, Labad was a violent “menace” wanted for shooting two police officers, killing another man and attacking a police station. To human rights advocates, he was a peaceful protester silenced by the government for demanding equal rights for the country’s oppressed Shiite Muslim minority.

The killing of Labad and the two teens marks an escalation in Saudi Arabia’s worst civil unrest in years. The sectarian uprising in the kingdom’s oil heartland has been an often-overlooked front in the wave of revolts remaking the Middle East.

Yes, there are major political and economic components to this story, starting with the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But this is also a story about the treatment of a minority form of Islam in the context of a majority Sunni culture. It’s a story about a religious minority, in other words, even though Islam is — inaccurately and simplistically — often portrayed as a monolithic religion.

So why do the Shia and Sunni clash? What are the historical and, thus, doctrinal roots of this conflict?

As usual, Post readers learn nothing about that. Nothing at all. There is no room, in this long report, for even a paragraph or two on the “why” in this who, what, when, where, why and how equation. The following is interesting, but it’s simply not deep enough:

Shiites, who form a majority in Iran, have long been treated as second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni elite in Saudi Arabia. They account for about 10 percent of the country’s 28 million people and are concentrated here in the Eastern Province’s industrial center, sandwiched between the vast Arabian desert and the glistening Persian Gulf.

The death toll here — 14 civilians and two police officers since the beginning of last year — is small compared with those in recent rebellions in other Arab countries, especially the civil war in Syria. And, unlike elsewhere, protesters here are not demanding the overthrow of their government. They want long-denied basic rights: equal access to jobs, religious freedom, the release of political prisoners. But in a nation where even peaceful protests have long been banned, the clashes between police and demonstrators have become a big concern for King Abdullah and his ruling family.

So what are the differences between these two communities and how do they affect daily life? How do they affect the content of Islam and Islamic law? What is the difference between a Sunni mosque, of which there are many in Saudi Arabia, and Shia mosques, of which there are few? What happens if a Shia Muslim tries to pray in a Sunni mosque? Etc., etc.

Are there economic elements in this conflict? Of course there are and this story covers them well. Ditto for the ties into larger Middle East conflicts. The story covers a wide variety of important themes — pretty much everything except, of course, religion.

Sorry, but I felt the urgent need to point this out. Again.


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