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Wed. December 02, 2020
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The Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic Question: Reconciling National Unity with the Islamic State

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INTRODUCTION

In August 2013, immediately following an aggressive clamp-down by the newly-resurgent Egyptian army on pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo, human rights groups reported attacks against at least 42 churches across Egypt, widely understood to be perpetrated by Muslim Brotherhood members[1].  This flagrant show of animosity between Egypt’s most popular Islamist party on the one hand, and its largest non-Muslim community, the Copts, on the other hand, has for long been a fact of the Egyptian political scene. Aside from highlighting a greatly exaggerated perception of complicity between the Egyptian deep-state and the Coptic Christian minority[2], this event, one of many over the years long before and after the Egyptian revolution, points to longstanding tensions between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic minority, as the former tries to reconcile its grand vision of an Islamic state with the existence of a significant portion of non-Muslim citizens within the country.

Coptic Christians are believed to account for anywhere between 5 and 20 percent of the total Egyptian population, depending on sources, with many Coptic organizations claiming widespread bias in Egyptian official records meant to undercount the community in order to conceal discrimination in public offices[3]. Nevertheless, in the absence of an official census, the agreed-on figure in the media is generally set at 10 percent. The Coptic community, in-so-far as it can be classified as a single community having several million adherents spread over different parts of the country with wide variability in socio-economic status, became a politically-recognizable group as sectarian tensions which emerged in the 1970s prompted a surge of ethnic consciousness among middle-class Egyptian Christians[4].

The stigmatization of Copts stems partly from accusations against the community which has had origins ranging from Muslim Brotherhood leaders to no less than President Sadat throughout recent history[5]. These include accusing the community of building more churches than necessary, stockpiling weapons, planning to “re-Christianize” the country, as well as planning to establish “Christian states” in certain regions of the country[6].  Such suspicions, in addition to obvious widespread discrimination and sectarianism which remains understudied within the literature, form the backbone of the aforementioned tensions. In many instances, the transgressions which trigger hateful denouncements and actions against the community are expressions of religious liberty taken for granted in democratic societies. These include for example religious parades and proselytizing, which have been dubbed by some Islamist groups as “Istikbar” [arrogance] against the wider Islamic society[7].

During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, many Copts believed the long shadow of past discrimination had finally been set aside, as they joined in mass protests for a revolution which promised them a lot. Indeed, the protests’ mutual protective formations for Christian and Muslim prayer were a great symbol of a new beginning for both Copts and Egypt’s conservative Muslims, and Islamist groups fervently referred to Copts as “national partners”[8]. Much to their dismay, Egypt’s Christians soon felt betrayed by the revolution, as Islamist parties resumed their rhetoric of intolerance following their victory in parliamentary elections. The December 2012 constitution would therefore symbolize a final blow which would confirm their second-class status as strangers in an Islamic state[9]. To add to that, Christians would eventually bear the blame for the 2013 coup which brought Sisi to power, and Muslim Brotherhood members would further radicalize their position against them[10].

In sum, throughout the rolling tides from the military state, through revolution and counter-revolution, Copts have maintained an acute sensitivity to being pointed out politically as exceptions amid the general citizenry. As Tadros (2013) points out, the community is wary of receiving “generous” rights under exceptional clauses, which could be just as gratuitously taken away; the goal of equal citizenship is seen as a sine qua non for their security. Moreover, Copts have a number of more specific demands of the Egyptian political system: limiting the influence of sharia on Coptic citizenship and personal affairs, the right to build churches, practice and preach their religion freely, the right to fair representation in government institutions and universities, the right to political participation and to run for all public offices, and security guarantees against hate crimes. This poses no easy challenge for Islamists, who are inclined to draw fundamental distinctions between believer and non-believer, both in their political agendas and their electoral strategies.

SQUARING THE CROSS: THE CHALLENGE TO ISLAMIC JURISPRUDENCE

At first glance, it must seem an inconsistency for Christians to exist within an aspired-to Islamic state, and if that contradiction is true at first glance, it would be worth acknowledging that this “popular inconsistency” is likely very real and felt by Islamists who may look on Copts as intruders who can at best be tolerated but not accepted as people of the same land. A Coptic academic, Sameh Fawzi, points out that Copts pose an uncomfortable living counter-proof to the Muslim Brotherhood’s idealized “Islamic homeland” in comparison with the wider national homeland[11].

Nevertheless, and surely, it must be said that the Copts are not the only Christian minority in a Muslim-majority country, and Islam does indeed have strong precedents for the treatment and status of resident non-believers of its two recognized revealed faiths: Christianity and Judaism. These people of the book, when resident under an Islamic state, could enjoy what Warren terms “minority citizenship” as ahl dhimma [people of the covenant][12], wherein they received protection from the state as citizens of a particular condition, in return for a jizya tax and exemption from military service. It is interesting to note however that this status has not in all circumstances been understood by Islamists to be unquestionable. For example, in the context of the 1980s, Zuhdi’s Jamaa Islamiyya considered that if Christians become armed, the mode of propagation of Islam would revert from daawa to jihad against infidels in their rebellion against Islamic rule[13].

The latter would place Christians in a precarious position regarding Islamism; were they to take up arms to defend themselves against attacks unsolicited by Islamist doctrine, that same Islamist doctrine could declare open jihad on them for having armed themselves in the first place. This, in addition to Copts’ perception that the Egyptian state has never offered them sufficient protection from acts of terrorism, highlights a dubious security dilemma.  

Qaradawi, a popular Islamist scholar highly reputed in Muslim Brotherhood circles, has expressed widely evolving opinions on the modern citizenship of Christians in theorized Islamic states[14]. His views are likely to be widely disseminated within the Brotherhood, as he was even offered the position of general guide in 2002[15]. On the whole, he has advocated a seemingly-generous interpretation on the matter, affirming that Christians should be treated as equals to Muslims in citizenship, with full rights to economic activity and freedom to exercise their religion among themselves, however noting exceptions in various domains. He considers for example that Christians should not be allowed access to the presidency or head of executive or armed forces, although he has recently reinterpreted this restriction to consider that they could be allowed access to the presidency since it is not a wilaya ‘uzma [grand rulership] due to checks and balances in most countries. Furthermore, he considered to varying degrees restrictions to Christians’ inclusion in the military and considers that they should be barred from judiciary institutions except those particular to their personal issues since they cannot be fit to judge based on sharia. Finally, he considers that Christians cannot be responsible for the direction of charity funds, since zakat [charity] is an Islamic institution that is to be conducted by Muslims[16] [17].

If the changing opinions of Qaradawi and scholars of similar rank such as Ghannushi are indicators of Islamism’s ideological evolution, as put forward by Saeed (1999)[18], then it would seem that the concept of non-Muslim “citizenship” has taken a much greater place in the discourse on minorities over the usually disliked term of “ahl dhimma”, which has been somewhat discredited by these prominent scholars as anachronistic for the current circumstances[19]. One can however argue that this shift in discourse is purely aesthetic, replacing familiar words with new terminology to repackage an unchanged Islamist position on minorities[20]. In addition, it is difficult to judge that the new Islamist model of equality of citizenship for non-Muslims expresses true equality under absolute standards, as religious minorities would be subjected to the religious rules of another group, even while having the same rights and duties as the greater population.

Still, one decisive departure that the Muslim Brotherhood has made from the dhimmi construct has been the general rejection of the concept of a jizya tax, for varying reasons, the most prominent of which is the fact that Christians serve in the national army and thus cannot be asked to pay for their protection[21]. This however has not prevented the concept from being pejoratively brought up by the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood’s general guide Mashhour, who in 1997, cited that Christians’ inclusion in the military is a threat to national security and that they should instead be made to pay the jizya[22]. Although, after inciting great outrage, Mashhour retracted his statement, loose comments reversing established party positions present a constant threat of derailing improvements to the brotherhood’s image in liberal circles of Egyptian society despite genuine ideological evolutions.

Finally, though contemporary Islamists have proven capable of making great leaps to reconcile Islam with a greater place for minorities in society, it remains elusive how even the most reformist Islamist interpretations could be positively perceived by Copts themselves. Given that Islamism bases itself on a religion foreign to Copts, the legitimacy of its plans for the state is likely to remain low among them. Given the difficulty of bridging this religious divide, one can hardly imagine the two groups not exhibiting a natural animosity towards each other. The two’s views seem to almost exist within different times and places: with the Brotherhood’s glare placed firmly on pre-colonial times of Islamic rule, and the Copt’s aspirations fixed on a still-to-be-achieved secular state. Were the Muslim Brotherhood a small force in society, it would be easy to see how its positions could be nuanced by a consideration of practicality, but its great weight almost thrusts it towards a temptation to adopt its most genuine positions, which can hardly avoid clashing with Coptic sentiments.

THE BROTHERHOOD DIVIDE ON THE COPTIC QUESTION

Having established that Islamist ideology can indeed evolve on the question of non-Muslims, that is not to say that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is always at the forefront of such reformist trends. If recent experience is any evidence, it would be reasonable to expect that the opposite is true, as conservative leadership has managed to accrue control of the organization since the death of its most reformist guide, Tilmisani in 1986 [23]. Rather, the organization has been dubbed by some of its internal dissidents as one that “frightens away thinkers, theorists, and reformists.”[24]

The Brotherhood is not however devoid of reformists, even as they may often remain in their positions as dissidents to conservative party leadership. Interestingly, Jayyar notes that reformists’ arguments against conservatives tend to be based on a marja’iyya [Islamic standard, reference] different than sharia, which is jama’a, or popular sovereignty of Muslims[25], allowing greater flexibility especially under the principle of maslaha [interest of Islam and Muslims]. The latter principle had been a fundamental tenet of the Brotherhood’s early insistence on practicality and advocating achievable reforms. One need only observe the discourse of Banna on the principles of adaptability and practicality to witness the depths of this intellectual tradition, with one of his circulated letters titled “Are we a practical people?” [26].

To examine the Brotherhood’s division on this question, it is first useful to examine the range of possible positions. Saeed (1999) considers that four such positions exist: 1) traditionalists who call for a literal interpretation of the dhimmi system, best exemplified by a jizya tax, 2) neo-revivalists who advocate granting more rights to non-Muslims, without full equality, 3) modernists who oppose any obvious discrimination, call for special protections but maintain that Muslims should enjoy certain privileges within an Islamic state, and 4) secularists who call for a secular state which does not treat citizens differently on any basis[27]. He considers that the Muslim Brotherhood falls within the second category of “neo-revivalists”, granting rights in addition to sharia, without adopting Western citizenship principles as a standard of treatment[28]. A useful rule of thumb to distinguish neo-revivalists from modernists is that whereas the former take sharia as a basis for their ideal state, the latter take the modern state as a basis and seek to infuse it with elements of sharia. It is thus possible to imagine that Brotherhood reformists such as Abu el-Futuh could easily fall within the modernist category, even edging towards the secular model, since they acknowledge the “acquis” of modern citizenship as they seek to add Islamic elements to it.

It therefore does not appear evident that a change of organizational doctrine on the subject could easily occur without a reshuffling of leadership figures. This is in part due to issues of ideological framing; neo-revivalists do not reform in the same way that modernists do, and reforms that seem immense to them symbolize givens of the modern state acknowledged by modernists.

A pertinent example here is the conservative guidance of Mahdi Akif, who sought to bridge the divide between reformists and conservatives through advancing party policies which he deemed conciliatory of the two’s positions. In 2007, to quell state and al-Azhar accusations of the movement’s being extremist, Akif decided to issue a draft party platform meant to exhibit the Brotherhood’s openness and compatibility with democratic practices. The platform however became the subject of further controversy as it held a consideration that neither women nor Copts should be eligible for the presidency. It also proposed that an independent council should be set up to advise the parliament on legislation’s Islamic validity[29]. Compared to a 2004 manifesto affirming national unity with Coptic Christians alongside the same Islamist policies, the party platform, advocated as an exhibition of openness had proven for many that outside of lip service, the movement could not deliver to Christians the equality it promised. They are thus accused of being wolves in sheep’s clothing: agreeing to the electoral process of democracy, without adopting the key democratic principles of plurality and equality that come with it[30].

Several reformist Muslim Brotherhood intellectuals, with Abu el-Futuh at the forefront, would publicly take issue with the platform and highlight the diversity of views within the organization, even criticizing the decision-making process, before finally having to succumb to the organizational line[31]. Amid this crisis, reformists had defended the principles of the modern state and considered them as givens[32]. Moreover, many noted the absurdity of such a crisis in a conservative country where it is obvious that neither woman nor Copt could be voted into the presidency, prompting the question of why the brotherhood considered including this policy in its platform in the first place[33]. A blindness to the “acquis” of modern citizenship in the deliberations of conservative party leaders may have been behind the ultimately-erroneous assumption that the platform would altogether be reassuring to the public eye.

As it is clear that the positions of the Brotherhood are the result of a process of deliberation, Anani cites three strategic considerations during that process which result in the position on Coptic Christians. These are 1) organizational cohesiveness, 2) satisfying other Islamist groups, and 3) expanding the party’s popular appeal[34].

On organizational cohesiveness, Anani refers to Tammam’s work discussing the “ruralization” of the movement in Egypt, with the majority of its members now being country-people with limited openness to reinterpretation of conservative understandings[35]. This is in addition to accounts that the Coptic-presidency question was somewhat democratized and became a subject of deep controversy within the Brotherhood’s regional branches, which repeatedly refused a compromise on the matter[36]. This yield to regional party pressures seems to call to question the accusations by party reformists that the decision-making process is too centralized, begging the question of whether the party’s policies are a mere barometer of their membership’s opinions, rather than being more likely a product of institutionalized decision-making. Anani does however note that these factors are in addition to the conservative nature of the current “balance of power” in the party leadership[37].

Secondly, given the “fiercely competitive religious market” of Egypt’s political landscape, the Islamic legitimacy of the movement is constantly at stake, as the party fears losing supporters to more ideologically rigid Salafis[38]. For example, the need to co-opt Salafists in the 2011 elections meant that the Muslim Brotherhood had to run on a coalition-approved platform, and the historical expressions of this dilemma have often taken their toll on minority and women’s rights questions.

Thirdly, citing an array of statistics by the Pew Research Center, Anani argues that were it to assume too liberal positions, the brotherhood would risk alienating a large portion of its supporters among the Egyptian populace, which represents one of the most conservative peoples in the Arab world[39]. He further considers that by adopting conservative positions, the movement would be able to expand its popular base.  An intriguing consideration in that regard is Nathan Brown’s argument in “When Victory is not an Option” that, barred from achieving real power within an existing political paradigm of “semi-authoritarianism”, Islamists benefit from adopting severe and shocking positions in defiance of the established norms of the current system to signal themselves as an anti-system force and thus expand their appeal[40], a phenomenon similar to populist parties and candidates which have swept the Western landscape over the last several years. In that regard, Brown’s cited “inclusion-moderation hypothesis”, the proposition that Islamists would moderate their positions in the occasion of free and fair elections seems to have remained untested given the nature of the post-authoritarian 2011 parliamentary elections which saw the movement allied with the Salafi Nour Party as the political center had seemed to shift squarely towards religious conservatism.

Finally, what we are left with is a movement which, even as it counts within it the necessary reformist intellectuals to spearhead a more moderate position on Copts and other divisive issues, remains deeply captive on the one hand of its conservative leadership, and on the other hand, of both its deeply conservative support base and the general conservative climate of Egyptian party politics.

Given that the Coptic question remains deeply politicized in Egyptian Islamist circles, it serves as an indicator of Islamist liberalism. Therefore, even as brotherhood liberalism remains at the same time scarce yet outspoken, the Coptic question represents a territory too costly for the conservative leadership to concede on. Even then, if conservatives were to reconcile their position with popular criticism, we have seen how that in itself is no easy task, as the framing of this position would remain itself unlikely to be met without criticism. To avoid this entire quandary, amid cycles of announcement and retraction, the Muslim Brotherhood has for the most part adopted a position of ambiguity on this, as on many other contentious matters. On the one hand, this ambiguity plays into not confirming the party’s fundamentalism to critics, while not ruling it out for its most conservative supporters[41]. This has, however, instead created a great ocean of what liberals and Copts see as dangerous uncertainty, leaving no place for trust between the two camps[42].

CONCLUSION

As we gather the issues discussed, it becomes clear that as an organization characterized by its wide conservative appeal and varied elite membership, yet shrouded by its illegal nature of operation, suspicion against the Brotherhood means that its most controversial statements will almost always be perceived as those expressing its genuine character. In other words, those statements which cast it as a band of conservative, backward-looking, and intolerant pundits will always have a much greater staying power in liberals’ public consciousness, in part thanks to state propaganda. However, far from being an expression of a cleverly-organized militant organization bent on sweeping the rug from beneath the modern state to impose the strictest imaginable form of sharia, the vacillating and ambiguous nature of the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on Coptic Christians reveals a much more disorganized and struggling movement.

Although Islamist jurisprudence may have gone to great lengths to allow Islamist parties to support near-total equality for Christians within an Islamic state, it remains to be proven how feasible such a position can be for a movement headed by a conservative leadership either unwilling to evolve its positions, unwilling to contradict popular animosity towards Copts, unwilling to risk its political stakes for the issue, or all three.

For all this matter, the fact remains that Coptic Christians continue to face great legal, administrative, and social restrictions within Egyptian society, along with the burden of an insurmountable security risk due to acts of terrorism against their communities. To add insult to injury, in addition to the continued discounting of Coptic concerns within Egypt’s military establishment[43], Coptic rights activists face the same pressures as other dissident groups under Sisi’s rulership[44].

To conclude, at a minimum, it suffices to say that the reasons behind the lack of a firm and credible commitment to equal citizenship between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Egyptian Brotherhood’s credo are far beyond the considerations of Islam itself and that the true factors which have precluded such an evolution have resided in the realm of organizational and electoral politics.

Elio Azar is an international affairs and conflict resolution specialist currently heading an EU-funded mediation programme in Burkina Faso. He serves as an expert on intercultural mediation at UNAOC’s informal working group and is a contributor on international cooperation at the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons. He also covered the 2019 sessions of the Peacebuilding Commission and C-34 for the Lebanese Mission to the UN. Before pursuing his masters degree, Elio was a prominent university activist, Red Cross member, and conflict-resolution trainer, and worked on security, governance and human rights at the Lebanese Parliament. Having graduated cum laude with a masters from Sciences Po and with experience across four continents, Elio is passionate about system logic and decision-making theories as they apply to the nature of the international system, peace processes, and Middle East conflicts.


[1] Human Rights Watch. Egypt: Mass Attacks on Churches Christians Say Pleas for Protection Fell Largely on Deaf Ears. (August 21, 2013). Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/08/21/egypt-mass-attacks-churches.

[2] See Tadros, Samuel. Pharaohs and Titans. In Motherland lost?: the Egyptian and coptic quest for modernity . Stanford, California : Hoover Institution Press. 2013.

[3] Pennington, J. D. (1982). The Copts in Modern Egypt. Middle Eastern Studies18(2), 158-179.

[4] Sedra, P. (1999). Class cleavages and ethnic conflict: Coptic Christian communities in modern Egyptian politics. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations10(2), 219-235.

[5] Tadros, Samuel. Pharaohs and Titans. In Motherland lost?: the Egyptian and coptic quest for modernity . Stanford, California : Hoover Institution Press. 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kepel, G. (2003). Muslim extremism in Egypt: the prophet and pharaoh. Univ of California Press. 204-210

[8] Etafanos, A. (2015). Egypt’s Copts in the Discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi Groups. In Christians of the Arab East. Al Mesbar Studies & Research Center, UAE.

[9] Ibid., and Tadros, Samuel. Pharaohs and Titans. In Motherland lost?: the Egyptian and coptic quest for modernity . Stanford, California : Hoover Institution Press. 2013.

[10] Etafanos, A. (2015). Egypt’s Copts in the Discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi Groups. In Christians of the Arab East. Al Mesbar Studies & Research Center, UAE.

[11] S. Fawzi, “Al-ikhwan wal aqbat: Qiraa fil masarat” [The Ikhwan and the Copts: A reading in their positions], in Ghewayat al-sulta wa wahm al-tamkeen, editor not given [The temptation of authority and the myth of enablement] (UAE: Al-Misbar, 2013), pp. 179–188.

[12] Warren, D. H., & Gilmore, C. (2014). One nation under God? Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s changing Fiqh of citizenship in the light of the Islamic legal tradition. Contemporary Islam8(3), 217-237.

[13] Kepel, G. (2003). Muslim extremism in Egypt: the prophet and pharaoh. Univ of California Press. 204-210

[14] Soage, A. B. (2010). Yusuf al-Qaradawi: the Muslim Brothers’ favorite ideological guide. In The Muslim Brotherhood (pp. 19-37). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Qaradawi, Ghayr al-Muslmein fi el-Mujtama` al-Islami [Non-Muslims in Islamic Society]; Wahbah Pub., Cairo, 1997.

[17] Warren, D. H., & Gilmore, C. (2014). One nation under God? Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s changing Fiqh of citizenship in the light of the Islamic legal tradition. Contemporary Islam8(3), 217-237.

[18] Saeed, A. (1999). Rethinking citizenship rights of non-Muslims in an Islamic state: Rashid al-Ghannushi's contribution to the evolving debate. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations10(3), 307-323.

[19] See also: Howeidi, F. (1999). Muwatinun la dhimmiyyun: Mawqi ‘Ghayr al-Muslimin fi Mujtama ‘al-Muslimin [Citizens not Non-Citizens: The Position of Non-Muslims in Muslim Society]. Cairo: Dar al-Shuruk.

[20] Warren, D. H., & Gilmore, C. (2012). Rethinking neo-Salafism through an Emerging Fiqh of Citizenship: The Changing Status of Minorities in the Discourse of Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the ‘School of the Middle Way’. New Middle Eastern Studies

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