Religious Undertones in Egyptian Protests?
Over the past decade, Egyptian Copts have fallen victim to increasing discrimination and persecution, most recently with the January 1 suicide church bombing that killed at least 21 people and injured dozens more. Do the current anti-government demonstrations in Cairo have religious undertones?
The sudden displacement of an authoritarian government by pro-democracy forces raises two immediate concerns. First, such revolutions, even if they are largely non-violent in their character, are likely to be followed by a period of political instability and economic dislocation. Second, when an authoritarian regime is challenged for ignoring the interests of the majority, the focus of the opposition on majority rule and democratic decision making may result in too little attention being paid to legitimate reasons to curtail majoritarian prerogatives.
History has shown that where there are religious rights, all other rights thrive as well and that where they are denied, other rights are inevitably suppressed. Is this perhaps a golden opportunity for the Muslim majority to reclaim the traditional Muslim respect for all “People of the Book” (i.e., Christians and Jews)?
Apart from bewilderment, the talking heads on TV seem to be in a fog of shock. John McCain put it about as plaintively as anyone when he said on February 1 that the Egyptian crisis is “one of the most difficult times in our history.” His statement makes little sense unless A) he has confused us with Israel, or B) he is presuming this is the rapidly rising crest of an Islamic wave in the Middle East.
Whether Egypt’s change in government happens imminently or is delayed until the next election cycle, democracy is the watchword. As intoxicating as the vision of democracy may be, it does not necessarily bode well for minorities – including Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
It is not enough to recognize risks, to bemoan incidents of terrorism or persecution of a faith community. It is necessary for the morally sensitive to follow up sincere sentiment with action. It remains to be seen what specific actions Americans can take to make a difference, but those who care about religious freedom should cultivate a readiness to act, not just "sigh and cry."
The current situation appears to be driven by protesters’ concerns over economic insecurity even more so than a religious dispute, although the society that is forged in these fires will have elements of economics, culture, and faith shaped by centuries of Egyptian history.