As Ross Douthat warned last week in the New York Times, this is a grave hour for the Copts of Egypt, as it is for Christians all across the Middle East. Their numbers have been diminishing for decades, as they have been squeezed between the malignant policies of foreign powers and a resurgent, exclusivist Islamism.
Indeed, these latter two forces have more often than not found themselves on the same side, as in the U.S.-Saudi alliance, which is one of the region’s oldest and most solid. Apart from their common economic interests, the alliance between Uncle Sam and the most backward, totalitarian regime this side of the Taliban can be explained by the presence of a perceived common enemy: secular Arab nationalism, of which the Egyptian uprising is simply the latest example.
Contrary to what Douthat suggests, Arab nationalist uprisings are by no means a principal threat to Middle Eastern Christians, and the Egyptian spring is far from responsible for the worsening of the Copts’ plight. He rightly points out that modern mass movements of popular, national self-determination have often come at the price of ethnic exclusivity and purification. But what he fails to mention is that, in the case of the Arabs, this process has typically not excluded Christians; on the contrary, it was, throughout the twentieth century, practically a Christian idea.
Indeed, Arab nationalism has always been just that: Arab, rather than Muslim. The shared element that has bound the people together in their national sentiment has been their shared culture, history, and language, rather than religion, and it was more often than not Arab Christians who theorized and lead it. It was a multi-faith “Arabness” (or, in its local variants, “Syrianness”, “Palestinianness”, etc.) that came to form the cultural common ground on which “the people” defined themselves, over and against non-Arab outsiders (Turkish, British, French, Israeli, etc.) or insiders (Kabyle, or often Kurdish).
In every Arab country where there is a major, historical Christian presence, these Christians have played a major and often decisive role in the building of a national consciousness. The same can be said for the popular uprisings and governments which were the historical result of this new yearning for national sovereignty.
Egypt has been no exception. One of the early sparks of the Egyptian Spring was the outrage following a string of murderous attacks on Coptic churches. The Mubarak government was widely held responsible in Egypt for these attacks, and true or not, the Copts certainly believed it to be so. The resulting Christian riots, directed at the regime, took place in December and January, just before the entire nation caught fire.
This brings us back to the double threat posed by radical Islam and foreign domination to Christian Arab survival. Since the cold war, there have been roughly two camps in the region: the “pro-Western” regimes that are usually governed by Sharia law, in which Christians are persecuted alongside Arab nationalists, and the secular nationalist regimes, where Christians have been better off, by far. Between Saudi Arabia, where it is illegal to be a Christian, and Ba’athist Iraq or Syria, where Christians occupy the highest positions, and Easter is a national holiday, there is no contest.
In Egypt, after the 1970 death of Nasser (who suppressed the U.S.-backed Muslim Brotherhood) Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak turned to the U.S. and made peace with Israel, and simultaneously moved to Islamize Egyptian society with a cynical fervor. Having forfeited their nationalist credentials by partnering with the U.S. and Israel, they resourcefully used Islam as way to repurchase their lost legitimacy at home. Mubarak was one of the many pro-Western Arab dictators who openly played with Islamist fire.
When the pressure cooker finally burst in January, Coptic-Muslim unity was one of the main themes of the uprising, after years of anti-Copt discrimination under Mubarak. It was an uprising whose vanguard consistently presented itself as not only democratic, but also nationalist: pictures of Nasser were a mainstay of the protests, as were demands for the revision of what is seen as treasonous complicity with the U.S. and Israel. These were just as prominent as calls for democracy and human rights. The animating idea was that the people of Egypt are one, and are determined to take their own destiny in hand and secure their national interests.
But no sooner had the revolutionaries toppled Mubarak than the Gulf-sponsored media began stoking sectarian tensions in an attempt to undermine this newly achieved unity. Saudi Arabia seems determined that Egypt not fall back into the other camp. The stakes are high, and both sides know this. The revolutionaries not only stormed the Israeli embassy last month, they also—a fact underreported in the West—attempted to do the same to the Saudi embassy around the same time, but they were stopped by the army. This is Mubarak’s army, the army of the ancien régime (for which no new order has been set up), the same army which massacred unarmed Copt protesters three weeks ago.
So before we go throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and throwing the Egyptian revolution out in the name of the Copts, let’s take a closer look at the forces at play in the region and in the uprisings. There was nothing “democratic” in what happened to the Copts; on the contrary, if their suffering is now increasing, we should put the blame where it belongs, namely on the same “counter-revolutionary” forces which have fostered intolerant Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region, and fear nothing more than the sight of Egypt’s people united, across sectarian lines, in defense of their rights and their country.
John Rogove teaches philosophy at Boston College and at the Sorbonne, where he is a PhD candidate.