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December 9, 2016


Salama Moussa (1887 – 1958)

 Many err in their perception of Salama Moussa, the great Coptic writer from the twentieth century (1887 – 1958): they see him as the ultimate socialist, who showed no interest in Coptic affairs. Wrong! I have explained in a previous article, Salama Moussa on Coptic Exceptionalism, how Musa, though in the beginning of his writing career was a staunch Marxist, and like all Marxists showed no interest in the Copts, he later returned to his roots, and joined the Copts in thinking about their future and how to improve their situation and protect themselves.

Two books, written in Arabic, about Musa, one by a Copt, Ghali Shokri,[1] and the other by a Muslim, Mahmoud al-Shirqawi,[2] – both Socialists – are defective, and do not show the two phases of Musa as a thinker and activist. The best book to show that is not dedicated to him in particular but to Coptic political acts and reactions in the first half of the 20th century, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 1918 – 1952, by the American social scientist, Barbara Lynn Carter, and which was first published in 1986.

Carter uses Moussa’s career as a paradigm for the Coptic community. It could be said that he, with the Coptic community, experienced a change in views by the late 1938s and the 1940s, as their hopes, after the 1919 of a secular Egypt in which the Copts would live in peace and respect, were dashed by the rising tide of Political Islam since 1928.

Before his change, Moussa was considered to be the Father of Egyptian Socialism: he, like many Coptic politicians, showed no interest in the Coptic Church or Coptic communal affairs, but leant towards a wider national or even international perspective. He was a committed nationalist, secularist and a supporter of the Wafd Party.

But, by the mid-1940s, and instead of this, as Carter tells us, he retreated into communalism – and here he was reflecting what many other Copts did. What was the cause of that? How did the Copts who started off after WWI and around the 1919 Revolution as staunch Egyptian nationalists and secularists, full of hope of the possibility of a secular Egypt in which religion of the citizen was irrelevant, end up by withdrawing into their community, and solely seeking to defend it against attacks by Political Islam?

Carter tells us that the turning point for Moussa as it was for many Copts may have been the 1938 election, which was marred by the elevation of Islamic discourse and anti-Coptic propaganda. It was the election that resulted in the lowest Coptic representation in the parliament, down to 2.3% compared to 8.8% in 1936. “Like other Copts, Musa came to realise that the experiment had failed and that the Copts, as a community, required a special protection.”[3] Mousa talked about a few remedies:

  • The abolition of Islam as the religion of the state;
  • Proportional representation in the parliament;
  • Control of Muslim religious groups by the government, and prohibition of their political activities;
  • Provision of Christian religion instruction in government schools;
  • Air time for Christian religion broadcasts.

As Carter says, “If the Copts could not be genuinely equal, then they would have to work toward a position that would grant them safety through separation.”[4]

What does that teach us?

  1. The problems that the Copts face did not appear in the 1970s when Sadat allowed Islam to be reactivated in Egyptian political life – it predates the 1952; and started as early as the 1930s (ignoring the problems prior to the British occupation in 1882).
  2. The Copts lost faith in the possibility of a secular Egypt a long time ago as the Egyptian Muslims preferred Islam to secularism, equality and citizenship.
  3. That loss of faith was experienced by the profoundest Coptic thinkers, such as Salama Moussa.
  4. The falling back on communalism by the Copts was not a choice but a necessary defensive mechanism imposed by the Muslims’ refusal to accept them on equal terms within a modern, secular Egypt.

What Salama Moussa, a great Copt, came to realise in the second phase of his active life is what Coptic nationalists hold: the Copts must seek to strengthen their community and defensive lines in order to fight the aggression that Political Islam poses on us. Neither Moussa, nor us, propose that we withdraw from national life – we must fight on a national level for a modern, secular Egypt; but, at the same time, we must strengthen our community – our nation. Let’s not be fooled again.


[1] غالي شكري، سلامة موسى وأزمة الضمير العربي  (دار الطليعة، بيروت، ١٩٦٢).

[2] محمود الشرقاوي، سلامة موسى المفكر والإنسان (دار العلم للملايين، بيروت، ١٩٦٥).

[3] B. L. Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 1918 – 1952 (The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 1988); p. 297.

[4] Ibid; p. 298.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Saad permalink
    December 9, 2016 11:50 pm

    Very interesting. May God reward you.

    S. Michael Saad Sent from my iPhone 310.766.8393



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