Introductory Remarks for Coptic Solidarity’s 8th Annual Conference
By Coptic Solidarity President, Dr. George Gurguis
June 15, 2017
I welcome you to Coptic Solidarity’s 8th Annual Conference and I would like to extend our warmest welcome to you and to our distinguished speakers who are participating with us for the contribution of our conference. The theme for this year’s conference is Egypt: Combatting Terrorism without Sacrificing Human Rights.
Copts at this time are facing and existential threat, caught between terrorist attacks, lack of protection by the government, and inattention by the international community to their plight. Copts have endured an unprecedented rise in the level of violence in the past three years, higher than that seen even during Mubarak or during the Muslim Brotherhood one- year rule. Contrary to the official version which the government would like us to believe, this violence is not perpetrated by foreign terrorist but perpetrated against Copts by the federal Muslim neighbors who live next door to them. Moreover, the violence has morphed into large scale attacks where we see scores of victims killed in each attack. We recall the attack on St. Peter’s church in December, the twin attack on Palm Sunday, and the recent attack on the bus with huge losses of life. The rise in violence comes at the intersection with a new US administration which vowed to combat Islamic terrorism and to make it one of its highest priorities.
At the same time, we find the Egyptian government is eager to gain US military and financial support. The question here becomes, will the United States forgo its moral values and stand for democracy and freedom in order to solicit Egypt’s support in its combat against terrorism, or will it nudge Egypt in a direction where it begins to support civil society and religious freedom and human rights.
In an attempt to answer this question, the following points should be taken in to consideration.
The modern wave of violence on the Copts is not a new phenomenon, one that developed with the recent phenomena of Islamic terrorism. It is one that has developed over the last four decades. These two have their own separate arguments.
The attacks on the Copts, their persons, property, and churches began with the Islamization process that started with President Sadat when he unleashed the Muslim Brothers and his attempt to solicit their support in his fight against remnants or factions from Nasser’s era. Sadat declared himself a Muslim president to a Muslim nation. In addition, Sadat’s cooperation with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia has helped import extremist Wahhabist ideologies to Egypt. At that time, we start seeing, in the 70s, for those of you who were there and I witnessed that, you start seeing Muslim sheikhs on the TV, the likes of Sharawi denigrating Christian beliefs and claiming their own right to the ultimate truth. You feel that the public space has been invaded by these extremist ideologies.
Forty years later, we now see the Muslim Brother ideology has become widespread. In addition to it, we see that the Salafis with their extremist ideologies of hatred have become so preponderant in Egypt. The prevalence of extremist teaching in Egypt coincides with the decline and the culture as a whole. If I go back to my own country, I can’t recognize it anymore. I think everyone, that’s a sentiment that might be shared by everyone. The decline in the culture, decline in education has coincided with an increase in religious fanaticism. We see a society that has become introverted on itself, lack of introspection, tendency to blame the other for their own deficiencies, and in that atmosphere, we see widespread conspiracy theory and paranoia, which serves dictators very well.
Extremist teachings are indicative of the closure of the Egyptian or Islamist mind, intolerable to debate, and we see that the use of Sharia and blasphemy laws is used to silence any dissent. This is the origin and evolution of the culture of hate that developed in Egypt over the last 40 years. Until the 1960s, the Egyptian society did not know extremist Islamist ideologies and that grew in that atmosphere at the time. At the time, Muslim Brothers were a minority, and now we see them, how they have taken over the whole culture.
This culture of hate has forced the Coptic community to withdraw into an ever-shrinking space, from the public space, into their families, churches, and their own small community. The extremist ideologies of the Salafis and the Muslim Brothers which invaded every aspect of the, also invaded every Islamic institution, including the Azhar.
We see Sisi’s call for the Azhar to moderate its teaching are falling on deaf ears. In this context, one wonders if this call is really sincere, and we have to call President Sisi on that. If his call for reforming Islamic teaching is really sincere, why is he allowing the Salafis, giving them a free reign to the public space, to spread their hateful ideology, extremist, Wahhabi, and Muslim ideologies.
Furthermore, if President Sisi is sincere in reforming Islamist ideologies to forego killing in the name of God, why is he not allowing other voices of moderate Muslims, seculars, people of other faiths into the public space to balance the debate, instead of the Salafis having an uncontested field? If he is sincere, one would think that they would be his best allies in combating such militant ideologies.
To the contrary, what we see is, in the area of civil society, it could be summed up in what can be called a scorched earth policy. Several societies and institutions, women’s rights organizations, Ibn Khaldun Center for Islamic Studies, the press, and other NGOs, both local and foreign, have been shut down. Journalists, thinkers, the centers have been silenced or imprisoned. The use, or rather, abuse of police forces, internal security, and state security, investigative apparatus to squelch any dissenting voice is unsurpassed in Egypt since its history as a republic in 1952.
The primary function of a state is to protect its citizens. That is for any state is to protect its citizens from foreign or domestic attacks. When it comes to the Copts, the current administration in Egypt would like us to believe that these are foreign terrorists that are attacking the Copts. In the summer of 2016, we see a significant rise in the attacks, to the extent that Bishop Makarios of Minya mentioned that hardly three or four days will pass without hearing about an attack on the Copts. The police are implicit and are complicit in the process, dismiss investigations, and shrug them away as incidents of sectarian violence.
Now, how could anyone reconcile the picture of the rise in the attacks with Sisi’s visit to the Coptic cathedral on Christmas? And how sincere are these visits? Or are they for public relations? Why are governors, security, or the police are not instructed to give highest priority to these hate crimes and also suppress hate speech? In the past seven months, the violence has morphed into large-scale attacks which include, in addition to the attacks on the churches and the recent bus to the monastery in Southern Egypt, includes evacuation of Coptic families from Northern Egypt. If the state is unable to conduct to protect its citizens or conduct the investigation, why are they not soliciting help from the international investigative bodies to look at these terrorist issues?
At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, one might think that the rise in the attacks may be permitted in order to show the Copts what they could be facing and if the situation was different and Sisi was not in place. One must admit that El-Sisi’s visit to the Coptic cathedral have split the Coptic community. We see now Copts who are rather naïve having wishful thinking, or politically gullible who believe that these visits are sincere, whereas others who are able to see through the facade of public relation, that this is just aimed at the West, to show that there is some level of moderation in the government in Egypt.
This perhaps might also explain why we find leaders of the Coptic churches, not only the Orthodox Church, several churches in Egypt, giving letters to foreign delegates stating that things have really improved, contrary to any objective measures that flies in the face of these attacks that we have been witnessing.
It is easy to realize that churches or religious institutions have been co-opted in the past. We only need to look at the history of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in Russia and Poland to see how churches and religious institutions can be co-opted for political purposes.
One would say that the Egyptian government, until now, has not shown any genuine intention to confront extremist ideologies in institutes, civil society, or protect human rights. What we are witnessing is a regime that needs military and financial support and is adept at using public relations to gain Western support.
Egypt’s stability is vital to the region and plays an essential role in combating terrorism. However, Egypt’s stability is not going to be attained through winning in the military campaign. Egypt’s stability will be attained through winning by changing, Egypt’s stability, I’m sorry, will be attained by changing the hate culture and achieving a decent civil society with religious freedom.
Minority status reflects the health of a society. Changing the public discourse, allowing moderate voices, changing education should be one of Egypt’s Egyptian regimes highest priority, in order to seek the prosperity and development of its citizens.
U.S. policy makers should be sober in forming the new policies toward Egypt. Egypt would have won if it obtained financial and military support without effecting genuine changes achieving democracy and civil society. U.S. policy advisors, the new administration, and the Congress should make civil society issues, religious freedom, and minority rights an essential topic in any negotiation with Egyptian representatives. Furthermore, U.S. military and financial aid to Egypt should be made conditional on Egypt showing genuine progress in the area of civil society and religious freedom.
With that, I would like to thank you again and thank our speakers. We look forward to a rich and productive program. Thank you.