Egypt’s president, who challenged senior Muslim clerics to reform their teachings rather than fuel extremist ideologies, now is being challenged by observers who say he lacks a formal plan for moving toward a moderated Islam.
Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s speech, though hailed by Westerners as courageous, will do little to help his nation’s persecuted Coptic Christians and others if strong action related to the rhetoric is not realized, said Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
“Neither Sisi nor the Egyptian state has a strategy to combat extremism,” Tadros wrote for The American Interest April 2. “Indeed the official religious establishment … quickly downplayed the call for religious reform, launching instead ‘a national campaign aiming at correcting the image of Islam through social media, foreign visits, and publications.’
“Such efforts are unlikely to result in anything meaningful – much less a religious revolution,” wrote Tadros, a graduate of the American University in Cairo and an expert on religious freedom in Egypt.
Mike Edens, professor of theology and Islamic studies and associate dean of graduate studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said Tadros “is reporting what is the status quo, which is intolerable for Egyptian Christians.”
Coptic Christians, the largest religious minority, are estimated at 6 percent or more of Egypt’s 82 million people.
“Their status in their own country as second-class citizens is longstanding, although the present situation is chaotic and probably degrading,” said Edens, who spent more than 20 years as a missionary among Muslims.
A thorough change in Islamic standards is needed in Egypt, Edens said, and Sisi’s call for the professors at Al Azhar to reform their message was an important step in that process.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood retaliated against Egyptian Christians for supporting the ouster of divisive Muslim President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Morsi was convicted April 21 of using excessive force against protesters and sentenced to 20 years in prison, as were 12 Brotherhood leaders and Islamist supporters, for attacks outside his palace in December 2012 that resulted in at least 10 deaths.
Edens recounted that when he last lived in Cairo in the 1990s, “no professor would have espoused interpretations of the Quran which aligned with Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood intellectual executed in 1968.”
“In recent visits this has radically changed, with several Al Azhar professors agreeing with his views,” Edens said. “The situation is dire.”
A good place to launch a religious revolution is in Egypt’s schools, Tadros said, describing Egypt’s current educational system as “an incubator for extremism and radicalization.”
“This radicalization includes increasing intolerance towards non-Muslims and hostility towards the outside world,” Tadros wrote. “Egypt is a breeding ground for local and international terrorism.”
To see meaningful change in Egyptian society, the government must bring the schools currently run by Al-Azhar – the influential university where Sisi delivered his speech – under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, Tadros said.
“While extremism and intolerance has grown in all segments of Egyptian society and Sisi’s call for confronting extremism requires a comprehensive counter initiative that involves civil society, the media, and religious institutions,” Tadros wrote, “any attempt to address extremism must begin with the educational system.”
In an opinion piece for Fox News March 31, Tadros challenged Sisi to back his calls for moderation by protecting Christians in Egypt.
After the beheadings of 20 Coptic Christian migrant workers on a Libyan beach, Sisi ordered the construction of a church bearing their name in the hometown of 13 of the victims, Tadros noted.
Instead, the proposed church in Al Our “has become a symbol of the Egypt Sisi claims is no more – an Egypt in which Christians suffer violence for their religion and are treated as second-class citizens,” wrote Tadros, author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity.
At the end of March, an angry mob threw Molotov cocktails and stones at the church and homes of one of the beheading victims and other Christians.
Members of the mobs persecuting Copts “are not necessarily members of the Muslim Brotherhood or of other Islamist groups, or even personally all that religious,” Tadros wrote. “Permitting Christians to build a church simply is now widely perceived by Muslim villagers in Egypt as an insult to them and to Islam.”
That local authorities have created a climate of impunity for such violence to breed is most disturbing, Tadros said. Instead of punishing the mob, the governor ordered a reconciliation session between the Muslims and the Christians – and then banished the proposed church to the village outskirts, Tadros reported.
“President Sisi has courageously spoken of a need for a religious revolution and of the need to change the religious discourse fueling hatred,” Tadros wrote. “He has similarly spoken of saving the Egyptian state from collapsing like others in the region.
“If Sisi is serious about both, then he must turn his words into actions by upholding the rule of law, prosecuting those attacking Christians, and offering police protection for the Christians of Al Our,” Tadros wrote.
A week after the Copts of Al Our were attacked, Tadros wrote for National Review April 6 that Copts in El Galaa were similarly persecuted. Christians there had asked the government for permission to build a new structure to replace their crumbling old church building, and for years they were denied, he wrote.
“Religious fanatics in the village prevented its construction by building a mosque next to the new church’s designated location,” Tadros wrote. “Egyptian law prohibits houses of worship from being built next to each other. Building a mosque next to the location of a proposed church has been a common method used to prevent churches from being built.”
The government also demanded that if the Christians were to proceed with a new building on their old location, it was to bear no outer symbols of Christianity, Tadros said. This included no dome, no cross, no tower and no bell, and the church’s entrance was required to be on a side street.
After local security forces refused to prosecute mobs attacking the group of Christians, the attacks escalated, Tadros wrote. “Rocks were thrown at Christian homes, and some shops owned by Christians were looted. Seven Copts were wounded in the [most recent] attack.”
Again, Tadros emphasized the need for Egypt’s top official to intervene.
“If Sisi is serious with his talk of protecting the Egyptian state from falling into the same chaos that has overtaken much of the region, he needs to start by implementing the rule of law and protecting Copts.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erin Roach is a writer in Nashville.)