Michael J. Totten

The Real Issues Facing Egypt’s Christians: A Religious Leader Speaks Out

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Egypt’s Christians are second-class citizens. They were second-class citizens during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, and they aren’t remotely likely to acquire new rights after his fall. Sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims are rising. The problem is nowhere near as bad as it was in Iraq between Sunnis and Shias after the removal of Saddam Hussein, but it is getting worse. The army is doing only a half-assed job protecting Egypt’s largest minority, and it even participated in the violence itself and killed dozens when the driver of an army truck rammed himself into a crowd of Coptic Christian demonstrators last month.

When I spent part of the summer in Cairo I hoped to speak with at least one Coptic leader, but I wasn’t able to land an interview. I even hired a fixer to help me, and she couldn’t secure an interview for me, either. I was however, thanks to a reader tip via email, able to meet with a Protestant Christian, Ramez Atallah, who is the head of the Bible Society of Egypt.

Most Westerners — Christian or otherwise and myself included — are bound to be uncomfortable with at least some of what he has to say, but he lives in a different world and doesn’t see things the same way Western Christians might expect.

My colleague Armin Rosen joined me in Ramez’s office.

MJT: Can you tell us a bit about Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt and what it’s like to live as a Christian here?

Ramez Atallah: The issue in Egypt isn’t Christians, it’s Muslims. Christians are incidental to the issue. There is too much focus in the West on the Christians here.

MJT: Really? You think so? Most people think there’s hardly any focus in the West on the Christians of Egypt.

Ramez Atallah: Those are selfish people who think they should be the center of the world. The real limitations on human rights in Egypt’s future will be focused on Muslims. The people here who are most afraid are the Muslims, not the Christians. If we get an Islamically-biased government — and I’m being optimistic by describing it that way — Christians won’t be persecuted. The Muslim Brotherhood is moderate at least compared with the Salafists. They won’t persecute Christians. They will limit Christians, but they won’t persecute Christians. The people who will be persecuted are Muslims.

MJT: You mean secular Muslims.

Ramez Atallah: Not just secular Muslims. Not all religious Muslims are with the Brotherhood. I just heard a speech from a religious Muslim woman — she’s veiled — and she said, “please don’t take my country away from me. Don’t take my freedom away from me.”

MJT: She was saying this to the Muslim Brotherhood?

Ramez Atallah: Yeah, yeah. She was saying this very strongly. A large number of Muslims are intellectual, educated, and liberal-minded. You have to understand that for a religious Muslim, Islam is as closely entwined with his identity and his being as your gender identity. If you had total freedom to do whatever you wanted, you would not think of changing your gender. Right?

MJT: Right. I wouldn’t.

Ramez Atallah: It wouldn’t even be on your radar screen. Westerners think religious freedom in Egypt means Muslims can opt out of being Muslims. But it’s a completely false supposition. No Muslim doesn’t want to be a Muslim. It’s part of their being. So when Egyptians talk about freedom and revolution, it has nothing to do with Islam. No Egyptian wants to be free of Islam. This is the most religious country in the entire world. According to a Gallup poll, between 99 and 100 percent of Egyptians say religion is very important to them.

So Islam is not the issue. What is the issue is the interpretation of Islam. Over the years, a large group of Muslims in Egypt have contextualized Islam in the modern world. They can practice their Islam and live as 21st century citizens. Women can dress modestly, yet also fashionably. They can go the beach in swimsuits. Maybe not bikinis, but swimsuits. They can drink alcohol from time to time. They are modern people.

Muslim society here as a whole has become more religious, but that does not mean they have all limited their lifestyle. So if and when the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, they’ll say “Muslims are not allowed to show their body, so the beaches are only for Christians and foreigners.” So if Muslim women want to swim, they will have to swim fully dressed. These women will be horrified to have these sorts of restrictions put on them.

Then the Muslim Brotherhood will say, “women will have to do such and such, and men will have to do such and such.” Islam is a way of life as well as a belief, so if you don’t interpret it in an open-minded way, your life will be very hard.

The Salafist movement is violent. Imagine if the Amish ruled America and used force to make everyone else live just like them. They wouldn’t, of course, they are peaceful people, but imagine the Amish using force to rule America and require everyone in the United States to adopt their lifestyle. That’s the Salafist movement. They’re the extremists. They adopt old-school Islam and also the old-school Islamic style. The Muslim Brotherhood is less extreme. They will let men wear a tie. But when it comes to women, the Muslim Brotherhood are much more conservative than the average educated Muslim would like. They also impose a lot of restrictions on men.

Because the United States is negotiating with the Muslim Brotherhood, there’s a conspiracy theory in Egypt that says the Brotherhood, the Egyptian army, and the State Department came to an agreement a long time ago and that everything that’s happening now is just play acting.

MJT: How many people actually believe that?

Ramez Atallah: Lots of people believe that.

MJT: Because the three groups are talking to each other? Is that the only reason?

Ramez Atallah: Because they’re the three most powerful groups in Egypt, not because they’re talking to each other.

The Egyptian army is trained by the United States. During the revolution I saw Barack Obama on CNN talking about how American military officers are meeting with their counterparts in the Egyptian army. These military people are like American employees. They’re trained by America, they use American weapons, and they get financial support from America. They’re just as corrupt as Mubarak’s people.

I’d like for the Western press to fight for the rights of Muslims and forget the Christians.

MJT: Really? Why?

Ramez Atallah: Because the minute moderate Muslims are okay in Egypt, Christians can breathe. Christians can live. If there are no more moderates in power in Egypt, Christians will be very limited. But they won’t be as badly off as the Muslims. We are a sort of protected species in Egypt. We will suffer less than the Muslims.

MJT: But you currently have restrictions that they don’t have.

Ramez Atallah: We always have. And we live with them. The restrictions don’t stop us from living and building. For 125 years the Bible Society has been here. I can do anything I want. If I can’t do something, it’s only because I don’t have the resources. I can put ads on the highway, in the newspapers, and on television. I can sell the Bible. If a Muslim wants to buy a Bible, he is welcome to come into my bookshop and buy a Bible. No one will harass him. But that’s because I work carefully within the restrictions of the system. I can’t proselytize by giving out Bibles free of charge, but if someone wants to come in here and buy one, he can. We can do enough as Christians within the limitations.

The problem is that the Muslim Brotherhood will make more restrictions, but they will be tolerable. If the Salafists take over, they will start butchering us.

MJT: They’re the Taliban, basically.

Ramez Atallah: Yes, they’re like the Taliban. But that’s not really a possible scenario. The possible scenario, the likely scenario, is a Muslim Brotherhood government with a Muslim Brotherhood prime minister. The other possible scenario is having another president from the army.

The American government is not concerned about the rights of Muslims to become Christians or atheists. It’s not on the radar screen. They’re just concerned about this minority of Christians. That is seen, so transparently, as Western disdain for human rights. They’re not really human rights, they’re Christian rights. The whole big furor in the West about Christian rights ignores the average Muslim and his rights, except for political rights. The average American is not very concerned about the restrictions of freedom on Muslims as Muslims. They’re concerned about the rights of Muslims to become Christians or atheists.

They have this belief that democracy will make people happier, but in this culture a benevolent dictatorship may make us happier. Look at Iraq. Look at Afghanistan. Are they better off? I’d say no. Millions of Christians have left Iraq since the war. The average Christian has not been protected, and neither has the average Muslim. The situation is chaos. The Americans can’t put in a benevolent dictator because that doesn’t fit their world view, but if Iraq had a benevolent dictator a lot of Iraq’s problems would be solved. Americans support dictators in Saudi Arabia, but they don’t want to deliberately install a dictator in Iraq or Afghanistan. But that’s what they need. It’s the only way to stop the Taliban. Though a dictator would kill people, torture people, and put people in prison, eventually you’d get law and order. But America won’t support this. Americans want people to vote and make their own decisions, but then you get chaos.

MJT: Okay, so what do you think about removing Hosni Mubarak?

Ramez Atallah: As they say, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the last decade, Mubarak and his honchos forgot that they were accountable. Since the Nasser era, the security apparatus was built on the KGB model. We were in the Russian orbit. We accepted socialism from Russia but rejected communism because we’re a Muslim nation. Communists in Egypt were tortured to death. One of my relatives was a doctor and a communist and he was tortured to death during the Nasser era. Egypt was against communism, but espoused socialism. The package that came with socialism included the KGB model of intelligence.

Sadat and Mubarak gave us more freedom and a capitalistic system, but they didn’t respond to the man-in-the-street situation. Nasser was a populist. He was a charismatic leader. People like me, when we were young, were all for him. He was like Fidel Castro in Cuba. There was a sense that he was going to liberate us from occupation, from the French and the others, and give us our dignity back. We followed the man.

Sadat brought in a regime change. The world was mesmerized by his peace with Israel, but he led such a sophisticated and high-class life that he didn’t care for the poor and the destitute. The capital he brought in was helpful on the one hand, but it didn’t help the poor people. Mubarak continued with Sadat’s philosophy, but not enough of the common people shared the wealth. Mubarak lost touch and forgot that he needed the approval of the masses to rule. He found himself way out of sync with the street. Nasser wasn’t.

Today the big challenge we have is the aspiration of the revolution for freedom and democracy in a country where people are not trained to have inner control. It’s nearly impossible.

When Egyptians go to the West, they tend to go haywire. Divorce rates are very high. Why do they go haywire? Because in Egypt, everything that is permitted is okay. Restrictions are put upon you by the society, not by religion. So if I go to a hotel today and want to register a room with a woman who is not my wife, they won’t let me.

The government here does not just protect my physical state like it does in the United States. There the government infringes on your human rights by insisting you wear a seat belt. You don’t have a choice to not wear that seat belt. Why? Because the government says it has the right to force you to do what’s best for you physically. So you wear that seat belt whether you like it or not or you will get in trouble. Maybe it saves your life.

In Muslim countries, including Egypt, the government says it’s interested in our physical well-being, but it’s more interested in our spiritual well-being. The government will not allow us to do anything that goes against God. The government wants to help you go to Heaven, so I cannot check into a hotel with a woman who is not my wife. The government restricts that. Some Westerners get up in arms and say it’s a restriction of human rights, but it’s no different than forcing you to wear a seat belt. It’s part of a government worldview that says, “we want to protect you.” So if a couple is making out in a car they’ll spend a few nights in jail to repent for their awful sin. If a homosexual declares that he’s homosexual, he’ll get put in jail until he repents. I’m not saying this is good. I’m just explaining how it works.

So the average Egyptian, when it comes to right and wrong, will push up to the limit of what is allowed. During the revolution, when people had no inner control, they went haywire. They stole property, they tore down things, they abused people. It was completely haywire. People no longer feared the police. They could spit on a policeman and nothing would happen to them. Today if you get put in jail, all your friends and family — which could be 200 people — come to the police station where there are only ten policemen, beat them all up, and they get you out. Nobody can do anything. Police aren’t allowed to shoot people anymore, especially not women and children who come and storm the prison.

When we lose the fear of authority in a country where since the time of the Pharaohs authority came from outside, we cannot have a Western-style democracy. People here don’t have the kind of inner controls that Westerners have. In the West, sin is available. Adultery is available. Here, it’s not. We have no dirty magazines. Playboy has never been sold in Egypt. The society protects my morals. Once these restrictions are gone, people go haywire.

Armin Rosen: But the social order hasn’t broken down in Egypt as badly as it could have. Most people seem pretty well-behaved. I don’t feel unsafe walking around at night.

MJT: I don’t either.

Armin Rosen: So things went haywire in what sense?

Ramez Atallah: You’re fortunate. There are some places in the city where you would not be safe.

MJT: Where, exactly?

Ramez Atallah: The places where they’ve burned churches. But a while back you would have been safe in those places. Cairo is still one of the safest cities in the world. It’s still safer than American cities, but it’s more dangerous than it was.

I don’t idolize the West. Raising my kids in a Muslim society has been healthier for them than if I would have raised them in the West. Mainstream Islamic values are close to Christian values. It’s the extreme Islamic values that aren’t. An advantage of Mubarak was that he kept the extremists at bay.

Westerners don’t understand that the Muslim government of Egypt requires my children to have a Christian education or they can’t graduate. Your Western government doesn’t even allow Christian children to study Christianity in public schools. In Egypt, it’s obligatory for Christians to study Christianity just like it’s obligatory for Muslim to study Islam. The people forcing my children to study Christianity are Muslims.

There are many things in a Muslim culture that are good even though there are also many things that are bad. I’m not an idealist about it, but we have very little rape here. Women are not afraid of being raped on the streets. You’re more likely to get raped on a college campus in the United States than in Cairo.

When I was living in Montreal a woman down the street from me was murdered for her purse which had only ten dollars in it. Here she might be robbed, but she wouldn’t be murdered. There are advantages to living in a Muslim country as long as the extremists are kept at bay. Before, women wearing swimsuits on the beach would not be harassed or accosted or spat on. Now they are harassed and spat on by young men who say they shouldn’t be dressed that way.

MJT: Where do they get this attitude? From the mosque? From the Muslim Brotherhood? From the Salafists? From all of them?

Ramez Atallah: A man was recently talking to two American ladies at the beach. They were there in their swimsuits. One was wearing a bikini. He told them he felt really sorry for Christian men. The ladies asked why. He said, “because men like me see your body. My woman would never been seen in public that way. She is only for me. I can see you half-naked, but no other man gets to see my wife half-naked.”

One of the women said, “but you can have four wives.” And he said, “yes, and this way I can be faithful. I can fool around within the four while your husband will be tempted by others.” This was an educated Muslim man. He really believes Muslim men and women are better off.

Armin Rosen: Do you think Egypt will eventually become a democracy, despite what you said about how hard it is when people lose their fear of authority? And would you think that’s a good thing?

Ramez Atallah: I think we’re going to have something like a civil war followed by a very strong hand for a while. It may loosen afterward, but we’ll get it.

MJT: What do you mean by “like a civil war?”

Ramez Atallah: National consensus is very hard to achieve. When Mohammad ElBaradei, who is a candidate for the presidency, went to vote for the constitutional referendum earlier this year, he was beat up at the polling station. When a candidate for the presidency isn’t allowed to vote in an election that had nothing to do with the presidency, how many people in his campaign do you think will be beaten up in an election that does have something to do with the presidency? It’s going to be terrible.

Now imagine an election for 500 different seats in the parliament. If three people run for each seat, that’s 1500 candidates. A lot of people are going to get beaten up.

Armin Rosen: So you have no faith in the Egyptian people’s ability to run a democratic system?

Ramez Atallah: If there was consensus, if there weren’t so many different vested interests that have been suppressed before the lid was taken off all of a sudden, then maybe. We have two or three million Salafists all of a sudden. Where did they come from? Before, a Salafist trying to speak in a mosque would have been arrested at once.

I used to tell Westerners that the only reason they’re safe on the streets is because Muslims are being tortured and jailed. They didn’t believe me. But the people being tortured and jailed were the people who wanted an Islamic regime in Egypt and to overthrow Mubarak. They were the ones in jail. Not the Christians.

The Salafists are acting like the Taliban. We need a strongman to keep the Salafists down.

If the Muslim Brotherhood gets in charge, they will torture and jail the Salafists.

MJT: You think so?

Ramez Atallah: They have to. Of course! When the Muslim Brotherhood is in power, the big opposition is not going to come from Christians or Muslims, but from the Salafists who believe the Brothers are not Muslims. The Salafists believe the Muslim Brotherhood people have sold out.

MJT: Sold out to whom?

Ramez Atallah: Sold out to materialism, modernity, and the West.

MJT: The Muslim Brotherhood is extremely anti-Western.

Ramez Atallah: Sure, but the Salafists are ten times worse. And they’re also anti-Brotherhood. The Salafists aren’t like the Sufis.

MJT: Oh, I know.

Ramez Atallah: Sufis are into peaceful mysticism. The Salafists are violent people who believe they can use the sword to accomplish God’s will. And they actually use swords. They don’t use guns. They use swords and knives when they attack people because Islam had no guns. The Salafists do not believe that the Muslim Brotherhood people are real Muslims. They will cooperate in order to get a Muslim government in.

MJT: They’re cooperating right now.

Ramez Atallah: They are cooperating. But the Muslim Brotherhood also cooperates with the remnants of the Mubarak regime. They will cooperate pragmatically. But it’s very unlikely that the Salafists won’t cause a lot of grief to the Muslim Brotherhood if the Brothers take over. The Muslim Brotherhood will have to control them. And how will it control them? The same way they were controlled. They will oppress the same way they were oppressed.

I’m pessimistic about an easy or a quick solution. We’re going to have many many years of grief in this country.

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