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Targeting Egypt’s Christians: Who? And Why?

It is not certain that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is responsible for the horrendous attack against a Cairo Cathedral during the Mess of Sunday December 11, which killed 23 and wounded 43 Egyptian Copts. However, many Egyptians, Muslims and Christians alike, believed that it was the radical wing of the MB, even before authorities announce the identities of the perpetrators. Security agencies accused Mahmoud Shafiq, supposedly the MB suicide bomber who carried the explosives into the Cathedral, and three others in the cell that committed the crime. All the four are members of the MB.  

The reason behind the immediate suspicion in the violent wing of the MB comes from following the heated debate between the two factions inside the organization after the tragic failure of the “political” wing to mobilize any considerable segment of the population on November 11, then the election of Donald Trump in the US on November 20. The group is divided into two parts: one calls for holding to political methods not to lose international sympathy, and the second believes that the organization has to adopt radical methods, including violence and assassinations.  

While there were mistakes by the police units responsible for the security of the Cathedral, it is understandable that the police and security forces cannot impose “water-proof” measures to totally prevent terrorism. Yet, according to police officials, the explosive device used in the crime weighed 26 pounds. It is obvious that security forces must have systematic shortcomings not to detect such a large device when the terrorists smuggled it into the women section of the Church.

But apart from the terrorist attack on the Cathedral, Egypt’s Copts are faced with a real problem in their own country: They are victims of persistent campaign aiming at terrorizing them, forcing them to leave or to convert to Islam. Not one single year passes without several attacks against Churches and properties of Coptic families particularly in upper Egypt.

For decades, and namely since the so-called Islamic revival of the 70’s, security forces tried to strike a delicate balance between the spreading new-born-Muslims and their organizations on the one hand and the need to preserve order, even if it is only in appearance, on the other hand. Leniency in punishing the perpetrators are always covered by the need to avoid stirring emotions further.

The Islamic revival of the 70’s was actually designed by the government itself. For reasons pertaining to the general shift in the country’s direction from a Soviet-allied state socialism to US allied free economy, late President Anwar Al Sadat sought the assistance of the MB to cement the popular support to the regime and confront the liberals, leftists and Nasserists in the country. The MB welcomed the opportunity to help in return for allowing them to rebuild their social and business networks which were previously destroyed by the former President Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 60’s.

This rise of the MB soon gained a life of its own and produced many other more radical groups like Jema’ah Islamiyah and Jihad Islami. Sadat’s “smart” tactic ended, as it usually does, with another sequel of the tragedy of Doctor Frankenstein. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by the very Islamists he allowed out of the bottle. However, at that point in time the MB main challenge was to show authorities that it is the main safety valve that is able to absorb the radicals, moderate their beliefs and get them to condemn violence. It was then allowed to continue expanding. In fact, some historians believe that the MB was behind the violent groups to make its services to authorities worthy.  

During Mubarak years, the MB grew to a point where its focus crossed the limits of the Egyptian government to the West in general. The organization was focused on convincing as many Western countries as possible that it is the safety valve against the rising tide of global terrorism.

All the while, during the three last decades of the last century, the MB performed an impressive brain wash operation in Egyptian villages and urban centers in a drive to “Islamize” the country, or, in other words, to push the population to adopt the views of the organization (This explains the leniency of punishment against those who attack Copts in Upper Egypt).

Fast forward to the present, two major failures took place and framed the moment of the attack on Cairo’s Cathedral and similar attacks: The violent end of the MB one year rule over Egypt with an unprecedented popular rejection, and the rise of anti-political-Islam forces in major Western capitals, particularly Washington.

Trump’s win last November ended any ability of the “political wing” of the MB which was calling for grabbing power through political means. The main argument of this wing is that without the support of major Western nations the organization will face more obstacle in reaching power or preserving its global presence. The one condition that came with any Western tolerance of the group is that it refrains from terrorism.

But when Trump won, with his known views on political Islam, the supporters of violence within the MB responded to the political traditional wing with a powerful counter argument: Waiting for the population to support us or for the West to help us will end in loss. Let us act!

Just after the election of Trump, another of the political wing’s argument collapsed tragically. The political wing made enormous effort to mobilize the population, tried to capitalize on economic hardship, pumped huge amount of propaganda and set the date of November 11 for a second revolution. No body revolted.

The political wing of the MB lost in one month, November, the two most important arguments which were directed at curbing the “hotheads” in the group.

Two main sub-organizations, both made of MB hotheads: “Hasm” (The Movement of the Arms of Egypt) and the “Revolutionary Division” (RD) are the main groups committing terrorism now in Egypt. A leading voice in the MB. Haitham Abu Khalil, commented in a TV program aired from Turkey just before the attack on the Cathedral. He said that violence will turn against the group. But the interesting part of Abu Khalil’s comment is that he openly admitted that both violent groups, Hasm and RD, are entirely made of MB members.

But Hasm and RD issued a communique condemning the attack on the Cathedral. Many still believe it is none of the two groups, that so far targeted only police and army officers, commited this crime, and put the responsibility on the shoulders of Salafi Jihadi groups or Ansar Bait Al Maqdes (affiliated with ISIL). Some Salafi groups, e.g. Al Fadhila Party, supports violence against both Christian and government targets.

And even if Hasm or the RD or Al Fadhila are the ones who attacked the Cathedral, who attack the Churches in upper Egypt and try to force Christians to convert or leave? This question shows that hatred and division inside the Egyptian society goes deeper than a specific group.

Attacks on Christians in Upper Egypt are usually sponsored by many MB and Salafi local groups. It is one of the bitter fruits of decades of the so-called Islamic Sahwa or revival of the 70’s.

Even if Egypt’s authorities succeeded in ending Hasm or RD or the Salafi Jihadi groups, this cancer dividing the nation of Egypt will remain due to the distorted common understanding of religion which was planted in Egypt’s soil with the rise of the new Islamist wave in the 70’s. Egypt’s President Sisi, just one day before the attack on the Cathedral, put his finger exactly on the source of all troubles: The version of Islam which is offered to the public opinion within a context of a specific interpretations of the religion encourages violence, terrorism, hatred and closes the minds almost completely.

As we said repeatedly, and we will not tire from repeating this because we simply see how crucial it is to save the Middle East from forces breaking it from within and spare the world the waves of black barbarism coming from the region from time to time: There is a long due need to reform the public interpretation of Islam by Muslims themselves. It is not an organization or security measures or a group. It is a general interpretation of Islam that were generalized among the population in a very systematic and persistent effort for almost five decades now.

It is wrong to assume that the essence of Islam is violent. Religions are understood by people in a given time. The ability to understand and twist interpretations to fit any random cause has always been available in all religions. If we look at the history of Christianity during the Dark Ages, we will find many Ben Ladens and many ISILs. This was not the essence of Christianity and what we see now is not the essence of Islam.

If we listen to the bigots, one question keeps coming to the minds: What should be done? Convert 1.5 billion Muslims to Christianity? Kill all Muslims on earth? Hatred of Muslims in the West looks almost identical to ISIL, MB and Al Qaeda hatred of Christians in the Muslim World. This stupidity has to end. There must be another way.

And there are indeed other ways. One of them is to gather enlightened Muslim scholars, and they are not scarce as commonly believed, and give them a platform somewhere in Europe to debate the theological interpretation of Islam Today and how to reform it.

In the Muslim countries, those scholars are silenced or killed, we can give many examples of prosecution against very respectable and avowed Muslim scholars because they dared to prove that the current popular version of the interpretation of Islam is false. As ISIL developed its own platform, media, think tanks and internal debate, such a reform forum should develop the same and defuse the views of participants to all youth in the Islamic World. This is how the damage of the 70’s “revival” could be undone, by a revival of the true ethics and spirituality of Islam. At that point, the suffering of Upper Egypt’s Copts may end, as burning Churches will disappear, to get Egypt back to the way it always was for thousands of years.

Those who burn Churches, terrorize innocent people, kill them while they pray, commit terrorism and force Christians to convert or leave must be shown for what they truly are: they are not followers of the word of God, they are tools in the hands of evil.

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