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THE M-QUESTION: THE COPTIC NATIONALISTS AND THE MUSLIMS OF EGYPT السؤال الميمي: القوميين الأقباط ومسلمي مصر

March 16, 2011

@WomenPixels, a tweeter who represents the modern, moderate, Egyptian Muslim


How should Coptic nationalists
look at the Muslims of Egypt, regard them, and deal with them in our modern age? There is no doubt that this question constitutes a problem for us: it is a fact of history that we have been mistreated, to say the least, by Muslims for the last 14 centuries, and our history books, updated to include recent events, are full of evidence of the persecution, oppression, and suppression our nation has suffered at their hands. So the question is: should we treat all the Muslims of Egypt as one group, and brush them all with the same brush of condemnation? Or should we discern certain differences in Muslim attitudes towards us? The answer to the M-Question is not easy, but an intelligent narrative is desperately needed if the Copts would like to be clear about their relationship with their fellow countrymen and women.

But we cannot write about this issue without speaking first about Islam itself: Islam is a great religion of over a billion people across the world; and in Egypt around 65 million, out of the 85 million Egyptians, profess it. Coptic nationalists must show respect to the religion of Islam, because in paying respect to it, we are actually paying respect to the human beings who are professing it. Islam is, however, divided into political Islam and non-political Islam. With non-political Islam Coptic nationalists have no argument. Muslims, like all other believers, follow sets of doctrines, rituals, regulations, and behaviour that they hope will uplift their souls towards the world of spirits, and bring them closer to divinity. We must recognise that there are many good things in Islam, and it is a fact that there are many noble Muslims with whom Copts have had encounters in all places and ages. Coptic nationalists are sensitive and respectful of the non-political beliefs of the Muslims.

Some Copts see Islam as the genesis of all the evil that has befallen them since the Arabs invaded Egypt in the 7th Century. They, therefore, in their anger, attempt to pull down the foundations of Islam, as they say, by launching an unrelenting campaign of criticism of Islam, directed against its history, doctrine, rituals and rules. Their objective is to make Muslims reject Islam by pulling the rag from underneath its feet; but they do not attempt to convert them to Christianity. In their opinion, if Islam disappears from Egypt, not necessarily to be replaced by Christianity, all Egypt’s problems will disappear. Coptic nationalists, though they can understand the reasons that motivate such Copts to do that, have nothing to do with this sort of activity, and do not commend it. They are not interested in the marital or sexual life of Muhammad; the stories of Aisha and Safwan or Zainab and Zaid; the verse of stoning of the adulterer and adulteress, and the beast that, reportedly, ate the parchment on which the verse was written; the different versions and readings of Quran; the abrogating and abrogated verses of Quran; the satanic verses; etc. – all of which are frequently discussed in satellite channels and paltalk rooms. Coptic nationalists see in such issues no relevance to their political mission. They know that they are issues related to purely religious matters – issues that affect the Muslim community only; and they believe that if Muslims are happy with them, Coptic nationalists have no right to meddle into their internal affairs. Such attempts to destroy Islam, which display neither sensitivity nor courtesy, are unhelpful, unrealistic, and, in fact, may be counterproductive, as quite often they are reduced to exchanging insults, rather than being a constructive debate. The Copts must grow mature, and politically astute, on such matters.

Other Copts are gentler, and pursue a different path marked with mutual respect, and driven by love rather than hate. They conduct a real dialogue with Muslims, hoping to convince them of the “correctness” of Christianity and the “defects” of Islam; and Muslims, on the other end, try to do the opposite. Their object, unlike that of the first group, is to convert the Muslim to the Christian message of faith, love, and hope. Such efforts are not new to the history of the relationship between Islam and Christianity – indeed religious discourses (monazarat) are known to have taken place between Muslims and non-Muslims from early days, and at the behest of the enlightened Abbasid caliphs. Monazarat, in this way, do enrich cultures, and must be seen as an important component of religious freedom. But, even though the Coptic nationalists view these efforts in a different light from that they use with the former group, they do not get involved in such activity. Coptic nationalists are politicians, and politics is the sphere of their action – they leave religious discussions to religious leaders.

What Coptic nationalists are interested in is POLITICAL ISLAM, and they devote their time studying, criticising and resisting it. Not all Muslims believe in political Islam, and they don’t think they are, for that matter, any less Muslims than any. It must be seen, therefore, that criticism of political Islam should not be seen as criticism of Islam as a whole or of Muslims in general. A word of caution though – when political Islam is criticised there is no way that one can avoid talking about matters that are considered by some Muslims as sacred. The Islamists, who want to impose political Islam on all, use Quran, Sunna, and Fikh to support their ideology, and when Coptic nationalists respond to the Islamists’ argument it will be unimaginable that they don’t touch on the references Islamists use. Moderate Muslims should make an effort to understand our position, and why we criticise political Islam.

So why do we criticise, and resist, political Islam? There can, should, be only one answer: Coptic nationalists criticise and resist the ideology and history of Political Islam because the Islamists want to rule not only themselves but also the Copts by their political Islam.  Had it not been for their despotic tendency, we would have not had a quarrel with them at all. We are not interested, as I have already said, in the doctrines, rituals and rules of Islam, such as their prayer, fasting, marriage, zakat, etc., and which Muslims follow in their own lives, and within their own community, without wanting to impose them on us. But the Islamists want to extend a Muslim hegemony over us, and seriously encroach on our human rights and fundamental freedoms. Political Islam, unfortunately, as the Islamists introduce it to the world, is an aggressive and imperialist ideology. It does not want to rule its followers only – it wants to rule, by force, and a rod of iron, the entire world. This is the fundamental flaw of political Islam as Coptic nationalists see it. Abraham Lincoln famously said: “When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government – that is despotism.”[i] We find ourselves obliged to repeat Lincoln’s message here, applied to our local situation: When the Muslim man rules himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs the Copts, that is more than self-government – that is despotism. For this, and this alone, Coptic nationalists resist political Islam.

What is, then, this Political Islam’s very dangerous ideology? The answer to this is as follows:[ii]

1.       Its political theory divides the whole world into two sections, the part which is ruled by political Islam, which they call Dar al-Islam (The House of Islam) and the part which is not ruled by Islam, and which is inhabited by non-Muslims, which they call Dar al-Harb (The House of War). They envisage no lasting peace or truce with Dar al-Harb, and they call for jihad (holy war) against it – their jihad is a legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims. In other words, it is perpetual war, interrupted by truce, not peace, with non-Muslims only when Dar al-Islam is in a relatively weak position. This is the foundation of all jihadist thinking that has, in the last two decades, infested our world, and threatened its peace, inflicting unimaginable suffering to thousands of innocent civilians through a cruel campaign of terrorism that has killed more Muslims than followers of any of the other religions.

2.       It believes in one sort of nationalism – Islamic nationalism, and aim at uniting all Muslim nations under one banner of a Caliphate. Islamism, this political ideology of Islam, believes in no Egyptian nationalism, or even Arab nationalism. The Indonesian Muslim is closer to Egyptian Islamists than their Coptic next-door neighbour. In the words of their ex-leader, Mohamed Mahdy Akef, “Toz fi Misr” (To hell with Egypt) – what matters is Islam, not Egypt, less so the Copts.

3.       In it the sovereignty in the state belongs to Allah, and not to the nation. We all know that Allah does not actually reside in a political community, and what stand in for Allah in their ideology are actually them – those Islamists, who will tell us what Allah says and what he doesn’t say. The Islamic state is theocratic, and does not believe in democracy, let alone liberal democracy. There is no notion of a real parliament, or a precept of the will of the people. Anyone who opposes “Allah’s” wish is dealt with the utmost cruelty. There is only despotism in such a state, a state whose basic creed is the antithesis to natural rights and the fundamental freedoms of man that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related documents.[iii]

4.       It unashamedly discriminates between its Muslim subjects and those non-Muslim rayah,[iv] who are called by it “dhimma”.  Those non-Muslims are governed by what is called Dhimmittude Pact, which is explained by the Pact of Umar – a pact imposed on non-Muslims by their Muslim conquerors.  In the Islamic state there is no notion of citizenship, and no possibility for a social contract, either between the citizens and their rulers or between citizens and citizens. The non-Muslims are not free or equal before the law, and the often quoted statement that in Islam “Non-Muslims enjoy with the Muslims the same rights and bear with them the same burden/duties”,[v] is in fact an empty statement that, in fact, is contradicted by a large battery of evidence.

5. It looks at non-Muslim religions as kuffr (unbelief), and at the non-Muslims as kuffar (unbelievers) for which only one penalty is deserved – death. This definitely applies to non-bookish religions, except, for historical reasons, Zoroastrianism. For bookish-religions (Ahl al-Kitab), i.e., Christianity and Judaism, the penalty of death has been substituted by jizia, for their financial value, as golden geese of the state, was early recognised by the Islamic state. Jizia is not just a hefty monetary levy on heads, it is a penalty that must be accompanied by humiliation of the dhimmi – humiliation that includes not only the humiliation rituals at the time of paying jizia, of which Muslim scholars showed an unsurpassed genius of drafting, but also a comprehensive set of humiliating rules and conditions that are imposed on the non-Muslim and his community throughout his life, at the time of paying  the jizia and outside it, and that degrade the humanity and dignity of the non-Muslim in the Islamic state.[vi] The claims by modern Islamists that jizia is a substitute for military service is not supported in fact by any of the major Muslim schools of fikh, including the Shafi’i and Maliki schools that are followed by Egyptian Muslims. It was proposed only by a tiny group of clerics from Transoxiana, and cannot represent, or replace, the ijma’a (consensus) of the major schools of fikh. Other deceivers claim that jizia is the equivalent of the Muslim zakat, or a tax collected for the undertaking of public works – the absurdity of all that, a claim that is not supported by any scripture or fikh, generates only contempt.

These are then the main tenets of political Islam, and why we resist it. We are not anti-Islam, but we cannot submit to a sinister movement that attempts to enslave us, and has, as part of its agenda, the business of oppressing and humiliating us.

How do we classify Muslims then? Coptic nationalists meet two broad groups of Muslims: the Islamists and the non-Islamists. Let us take them one at a time.

First, the Islamist Muslims: These are the ones who want to impose Islamic theocracy in Egypt through deception, violence, or the abuse of democracy. They endanger not only the legal position of the Copts in the state, but also that of women, secularists, democrats, liberals, socialists, and other moderate Muslims who do not subscribe to their vision of Islam, or submit to their will. These Islamists can be divided into two main groups:

1.       The Muslim Brotherhood is the larger of the two groups. They subscribe to all the precepts and ideology of political Islam, which are documented in their profuse literature, and which I have summarised above, but they have learned from their repeated defeats by secular Egyptian rulers, that deception is the only hope for them to seize political power. Recently, they have been talking of their belief in democracy. But they are easily exposed when one discusses with them the depth of their beliefs. It is clear that the democracy they want is one that allows them through universal suffrage, and exploitation of Egypt’s 18 million illiterate adults, to achieve a tyranny of the majority, just as the Nazis got into power in 1933 through the ballot box and ended up by dismantling the very foundation of democracy. Their version of democracy is illiberal, intolerant, and admits of no opposition. In their propaganda they often resort to denials, cosmetic application, adulteration of facts, and concealment of embarrassing resources. Their deception best qualifies them to the Biblical description of “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.

2.       The second group, are not less dangerous, but they are more honourable, because they have been honest with their beliefs, and do not resort to deception. Such group includes Jama’a Islamiyya, and many other splinter groups, which have all been born from the womb of the Muslim Brotherhood. This most dangerous group uses violence in trying to seize power, and has no taste for any niceties, or resort to democracy as a Trojan horse to achieve their objectives, as the Muslim Brotherhood do. They take their sacred sources literally, and do not try to hide the text, or the meaning, of Muslim literature. If Allah commanded them to slay, maim, and rob, then all is good. They do not use their reason, or consult their conscience. The Biblical description “sons of vipers” catches their sinister nature best.

Second, the Non-Islamists: These are the so many moderate Muslims, the ordinary Muslims, whom we find day in, day out, all around us. They, like most other humanity, want to lead a normal life, work hard to secure a decent life style, support families and raise children; and would like to see their country democratic, secular, peaceful, and developed. In their mind Egypt is for all, and that fellow countrymen, whether Muslims or Copts, should all live equal and free. They reject the claims of the Islamists for a theocratic state, and believe in Egyptian nationality, and would not like any religious nationality to compete with it. These are the sons and daughters of the liberalists[vii] at the dawn of the 20th Century, and those of the Egyptian nationalists of the 1919 Revolution, who defined what Egyptian nationalism meant, and what path it should take. We can most rightly describe them as Zaghlulian Egyptians – the greatest of all Egyptian Muslims, Saad Zaghlul[viii] being their prototype.

Some of the moderate Muslims deny that political Islam is really Islamic; and reassure us that Islam, unlike the assertions of the Islamists, is religion only, not a state too.[ix] They believe that political Islam is based on misinterpretation of the true teachings of Islam. Yet some of them believe that political Islam is based rather on strict interpretation, not misinterpretation; that the modern man and woman need to move forward from what was acceptable, and finds its origin, in the first two or three centuries of Islam; that Muslims ought to ignore what does not agree in Islam with the professed universal values of humanity.

Whether of this opinion of or that, these are the Muslims who we regard as brothers and sisters, and with whom Egypt’s future depends. We must form coalitions with them, and work as one hand to build the New Egypt we all aspire to. Amongst this non-Islamist group we can find all the progressive forces that Egypt’s hopes are pinned on: women, secularists, democrats, liberals, socialists, etc. They are the ones who filled Tahrir Square from the early days of the popular uprising, and they are still there filling our physical and cyber- space, some tweeting, some blogging and some face-booking.

There has been much speculation on the numerical power of the Islamists versus the moderate Muslims. The truth is that no one knows which is majority and which is minority. The next years will tell. Coptic nationalists expect moderate Muslims to join forces with them, to understand their plight, and be receptive to their demands. The slogans that have been raised during the popular uprising of 25 January 2011 – slogans such as democracy, secularism, dignity, and human rights – will have no meaningful content if the Coptic Question finds no favourable solution. Right now, we can see no better question that can be used as a litmus test to the progress of the cause of democracy and liberalism in Egypt.

A caution to Copts: In our struggle against the Islamists it is of paramount importance to understand that moderate Muslims are our potential, and natural, allies. But these moderate Muslims cannot be taken for granted – we must actively seek their support, and try to win them over to our cause. The last thing we want is to alienate the moderate Muslims, many of them, despite the fact that they don’t subscribe to the Islamists agenda, believe in Islam as a religion, and would like to follow the non-political tenets of their religion, and, understandably, would like us to respect them.

Copts often revert back to the 640 A.D. historical and demographic position whenever they are confronted with the question of Islam. They believe that they are the native and original Egyptians, the direct descendant of the race of the Pharaohs; that Egypt originally belonged to them; that Arabs invaded and occupied their sacred land – all that is correct. But to surmise from this that the present day Muslims are not true Egyptians or that they don’t love Egypt with the same fervour we display is incorrect and misguided. Present day Muslims have plenty of ancient Egyptian blood; many of them descended from Copts who converted to Islam. It has always been a happy discovery that the majority of Fellaheen share with us the same blood. These Fellaheen are the strongest nexus between us and the rest of the Muslims in Egypt.

These Muslims are here to stay with us – we share this country with them, and with them we must work to salvage it, and build a liberal democratic Egypt. The consequences of failing to do so, and this one is a caution to all, moderate Muslims and Copts, can be disastrous to everyone.


[i] Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, October, 1854.

[ii] This is not the place to go through these in detail. One can find the ideology of the Islamists scattered in the books of Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, Abu al-A’ala al-Mawdoudi, Yousof al-Qaradawi, etc. Many good books have been written about the Muslim Brotherhood, including  The Society of the Muslim Brothers by Richard P. Mitchell (Oxford, 1969; Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimoun bain Abdel Nassir wal Sadat by Zakariya S. Bayoumi (Cairo, 1987); Hassan al-Banna by Rifaat al-Saeed (Cairo, 1990); Islamic Fundamentalism by Youssef M. Choueiri (Boston, 1990); The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement by Barry Rubin (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Muslim Brotherhood: History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Islamic Movement in Israel, War in Darfur, Second Sudanese Civil War, Human Rights in Sudan by Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, John McBrewste (Alphascript Publishing, 2009).

[iii] Not only non-Muslims suffer under Islamism, but also women. Women are not treated equal by Islamists, and they are exposed to many limitations on their human rights, as ascribed to them by modern and civilised societies. Islamists advocated slavery in the past, but since the 19th Century, and under much pressure from the West, slavery largely disappeared, though it is still practised in certain areas in the Middle East on a smaller scale.

[iv] The rayah (literally ‘members of the flock’), were the non-Muslims in Islamic states, particularly the Ottoman Empire, who were ‘shorn’ (i.e. taxed) to support the state.

[v] لهممالنا وعليهم ماعلينا

[vi] One can find many large books on such comprehensive rules of humiliation. One of the most influential of which, which is widely distributed amongst Islamists, is Ahkam Ahl Al Zhimma (The Regulations of the Dhimmis) by the Muslim scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Joziya, 1292-1349 AD, one of the most haters of non-Muslims, who writes, without shame,“Allah, in fact, hates non-Muslims.”

[vii] Headed by Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed (1872-1963), who made it possible for many Copts, including the Coptic thinker Salama Musa (1887-1958), to subscribe to Egyptian nationality.

[viii] Saad Zaghlul (1859-1927) was the leader of the 1919 Egyptian Revolution.

[ix] Ali Abdel Raziq (1888-1966), a Muslim scholar, wrote in 1925 Al-Islam Wa Usul Al-Hukm (Islam and the Foundations of Governance), in which he called for separation of Islam and state. He was bitterly attacked by the Islamists, who claimed that Islam is both religion and state. Abdel Raziq is the prototype of all those who call for the separation of mosque and state.

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