In retaliation for the government crackdown on the protest camps ten days ago in Cairo, supporters of ousted president Muhammad Mursi attacked government buildings and over a dozen churches (one source says as many as 80) belonging to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. This leads to the question, why were Coptic religious sites targeted by certain members of the Muslim Brotherhood?
This question is intermittently raised by the Anglophone news media I have read, but the answers provided seem to me unsatisfactory. It is usually explained as irrational violence toward a vulnerable minority, end of story. But I think this question is a very important one to answer for Egypt today. In attempting to understand the reasons for these attacks, I am not in any way legitimizing violence. I am merely rejecting the comforting fiction that mob violence is irrational and incomprehensible, which we repeat in order to reassure ourselves that “we” are superior to “them” and perhaps there’s nothing we can really do about “that” anyway. Instead, as Natalie Zemon Davis demonstrated long ago with regard to religious violence in 16th century France, violent mobs have a logic of their own.
But let’s be clear on what the question is first. Who is doing the arson? Certainly not all Egyptians, nor all Egyptian Muslims, as some photos on Twitter showed lines of Muslims defending Coptic churches. Not even all Mursi supporters or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who number at least tens of thousands, went about torching churches. It’s more than a handful, but fewer than the majority. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the attacks in two news posts to its English-language website (here and here).
On the other hand, these condemnations were first issued very late at night on Thursday 15 August, while the attacks happened on Wednesday 14 August, so the Brotherhood took its own sweet time to condemn the arson. In the meantime, a Facebook page which claims to belong to the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party) in the Cairo suburb of Helwan posted on Wednesday evening an inflammatory justification for attacks on churches (translated from Arabic in the second screenshot on this Coptic webpage, but reported sufficiently elsewhere to confirm that this is not made up):
The Pope of the [Coptic] Church participates in deposing the first Islamic president elected. The Pope of the Church accuses the Islamic shari’a law of backwardness, inflexibility, and reactionism. The Pope of the Church uses Black Block groups to stir up chaos, to block roads, to besiege mosques and to take them by storm. The Pope of the Church mobilizes the Copts in the 6/30 demonstrations to bring down the Islamic president. The Pope of the Church objects to the articles of Islamic identity [in the Constitution] and withdraws from the Constituent Assembly for the Constitution. The Pope of the Church is the first to respond to al-Sisi’s call to authorize him with the killing of Muslims, and the result of that mandate was the slaughter today of more than 500 killed. The Pope of the Church sends a memo to the present Assembly to abolish the articles of shari’a.
After all this, people, you ask, “Why are they burning the churches?” A hint: burning places of worship is a crime, but that the Church should wage war against Islam and against Muslims is a greater crime. For every action there is a reaction.
The second condemnation on the MB’s English site refers to this and alleges that these sentiments have nothing to do with the party itself:
Currently, there are false Twitter and Facebook accounts in the name of the Freedom and Justice Party publishing justifications for the burning of churches.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood is widely accused by its critics of talking out of both sides of its mouth, it is plausible to many that the English condemnations are intended for an international audience, while the Arabic list of grievances on Facebook were intended for an Egyptian rank and file. While every mention of Copts on the English website is positive, referring to Mursi’s alleged attempts to include Copts in the Egyptian government and a Coptic presence in the pro-Mursi sit-ins recently broken up in Cairo, the Arabic page tells a different story.
It is striking to me that the English condemnations are very different in Arabic on the Brotherhood’s Arabic page (starting with a different MB representative condemning the attacks in the different languages). The later article is closer to the English condemnations: “Based on our Hanafi law and by application of our principles which cannot be divided, we condemn with all our might any assault, even in speech, against the churches and properties of the Copts.” The earlier Arabic article condemns “violence against mosques, churches, or state institutions.” While the article then reiterates that “all citizens” condemn “violence against churches and state institutions,” it goes into greater length regarding the specific source of outrage: “Likewise [the MB spokesman] condemned emphatically and with all his might the burning of any of the houses of Allah, such as happened in the Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya mosque, adding, ‘Those who commit wrong will know what fate they will meet'” [Qur’an 26:227].
So what do these reveal? The later Arabic condemnation of the attacks on churches asserts MB’s integrity (“our principles which cannot be divided”), but it is indisputable that Hanafis (a variety of Sunni Islam) have in fact participated at various times in history in riots against Coptic Christians, so it is not clear what appeal to Hanafi integrity accomplishes. The earlier Arabic condemnation of the violence barely refers to the attacks on Coptic Christians, instead raising anger at the state’s crackdown on the main pro-Mursi sit-in. The second English condemnation by the Brotherhood would have us believe that the Facebook message condoning burning churches has nothing to do with them, but “are attempts to ignite sectarian divisions to distract everyone from the real issue,” which is presumably the military coup which deposed Mursi.
Whether the incendiary Facebook message was part of a central Muslim Brotherhood plan to have their cake and eat it too, or whether it represents the views only of certain more violent or perhaps less savvy members of the MB, it was most likely posted by a disgruntled Mursi sympathizer. It seems to present an argument that burning churches is okay because all churches belong to the Coptic Pope, who is somehow responsible for the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The final line seems to imply both an inevitability of the attacks on Coptic churches and the accusation that the Copts started it. The take-away message seems to be that the Copts brought this violence upon themselves.
The particular complaints primarily revolve around the ouster of President Muhammad Mursi. Copts were certainly not the majority of those who protested against Mursi on 30 June, nor was Pope Tawadros II the only religious leader depicted in al-Sisi’s televised announcement of Mursi’s ouster (Ahmad Muhammad Ahmad al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Sunni religious leader, also supported the ouster). Pope Tawadros II was also not the only member of the Constituent Assembly to boycott the deliberations over allegations that the Islamists were pushing through an Islamist constitution – liberals and secular Muslims also protested and withdrew from the Assembly. Whether Pope Tawadros II was the first to respond positively to al-Sisi’s request for a popular mandate to respond forcefully to the Muslim Brotherhood seems irrelevant to me, since his support was hardly the most significant, and the allegation of the Coptic Pope employing the army (“black-block groups”) to besiege mosques also seems to presume a far greater level of Coptic influence in Egypt than seems remotely plausible to non-Islamists.
On the other hand, perhaps the very identifiability of Copts as a subgroup with public institutions in the form of churches makes them more vulnerable. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot very well attack the Grand Imam of al-Azhar without losing its credibility as the voice of Sunni Islam. While Muslim Brotherhood preachers can fulminate against liberals and secularists among Muslims, those groups do not have publicly-known headquarters or separate mosques which could be targeted. Coptic Christians, however, are a small portion of the population and do have public buildings which can be destroyed.
Of course, the particular conflict over the ouster of Muhammad Mursi should not obscure the fact that many of these attacks may be simultaneously motivated by more local concerns. A rivalry between two neighboring businesses means one thing if both are owned by members of the same group, but when one is owned by a Muslim and another by a Copt, then the rivalry is a potential site for religious strife as well. Or a neighbor who does something which inconveniences other neighbors can take on a religious dimension if there is an identified religious difference.
One aspect of the recent violence against Coptic Christians cannot be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, however, and that is the lack of protection of minorities by state institutions such as the army and the police. Attacks against Coptic Christians increased towards the end of Hosni Mubarak‘s presidency, and have progressively increased with each successive twist and turn of Egypt’s revolution, under the army generals who replaced Mubarak, under Mursi who replaced them, and now under the army-appointed civilian government which has replaced Mursi. In each case, complaints arose that the police did not take steps to prevent or repel the attacks, often only arriving at the site hours after being called. This official non-protection of the Coptic minority cannot be blamed on Mursi or the Muslim Brotherhood, since the police were one of the government sectors which resisted Mursi’s control. Instead, as pointed out by an article on al-Jazeera, the lack of public protection for Copts is a “decades-old problem.”
In the slug-fight between the Egyptian army under al-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no question that the army can win the physical battles. This is already appearing in the muted response to calls for public protests in support of the Muslim Brotherhood last Friday. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood survived under decades of repression before being legalized in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Whether the army can ultimately defeat the Muslim Brotherhood will depend on who does a better job at the war of words and public opinion. But if one side is actively targeting Coptic institutions and the other is unwilling to defend them, life will only grow more difficult for the minority.