Transcendent causes are often born of startlingly clear moral options. Yes or no to equality for African-Americans was the heart of the civil rights movement in the United States, for instance, just as yes or no to self-determination was the basis of decolonization across the developing world.
As those causes develop, however, the choices have a way of becoming complicated. Believing in equality doesn’t dictate whether quotas are the best way to achieve it, and a passion for independence doesn’t suggest what kind of economic or political relationship developing countries should carve out with their former colonial masters.
Today, one transcendent movement in the making is the fight against religious extremism and, in particular, anti-Christian hatred. Egypt neatly illustrates how embracing that cause doesn’t always provide a clear basis for making foreign policy choices.
Egypt is a lynchpin in the Islamic world, home to the Al-Azhar University and Mosque that’s sometimes dubbed the Muslim Vatican. It also has a sizable Coptic Christian minority, one of the largest and most tenacious Christian communities in the region, and today one of the most embattled.
Two recent twists illustrate the “best of times, worst of times” dynamic facing the Copts.
Several years ago, Egypt adopted a law against “contempt of religion,” heretofore enforced exclusively against Christians. On March 22, however, a sentence was upheld for the first time against a radical Islamic firebrand.
The Court of Cassation confirmed a five-year jail term for Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Mahmoud, also known as “Abu Islam,” for burning a bible in 2013 to protest the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, who had been supported by the Muslim Brotherhood.
During the trial, Abu Islam made no secret of his contempt, referring to Pope Tawadros of Alexandria, head of the Copts, as a “polytheist, pagan, and one who encourages sectarian strife.”
One can question criminalizing “religious contempt” from a free speech standpoint, but the sentence was at least an important signal of equity under President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who came to power vowing to protect Egypt’s minorities.
Such a step, combined with the perception of Egypt as a partner in the struggle against Islamic terrorism, might suggest that Western nations ought to step up their support for El-Sisi. Earlier this month, a number of Gulf States announced a $12 billion aid package for Egypt, but the Obama administration balked at providing any new economic or military assistance.
There’s also realpolitik involved, since if the United States and other Western powers continue to hold Egypt at bay, it may drift more closely into Russia’s orbit.
Yet there are serious question marks about Egypt’s human rights record under El-Sisi, and in particular whether his vows to keep Christians safe have much traction on the ground.
In recent weeks, several Coptic Christians who lost their homes to attacks by Muslim radicals have been informed by what are known as “Customary Reconciliation Meetings” that they will not be allowed to return. Under Egyptian law, based on Bedouin tradition, these sessions with tribal leaders substitute for criminal prosecutions or civil lawsuits as a means of resolving disputes.
In the parts of the country most controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, what these meetings usually amount to is collusion between militants and police and security forces to deny Christians justice.
In mid-March, one such assembly took up the case of a Christian family that had been assaulted by its Muslim neighbors. According to Mideast Christian News, the result was to levy a sizable fine on the Christian family, and, when they couldn’t pay, 100 of their camels and five calves were slaughtered and their 1,000-meter property was seized.
All this reportedly took place with the blessing of the deputy director of Cairo security, Maj. Gen. Yehia Al-Iraqy.
To be fair, the fact that the courts, the military, and the police tolerate such blatant inequities may say more about their fear of Muslim backlash than any genuine anti-Christian bias. Yet the failure to act buttresses the concerns of those who argue that Western countries shouldn’t just write Egypt a blank check.
El-Sisi enjoys strong support from most Copts, who see a military-backed central government as their only firebreak against Islamic theocracy. On the other hand, it’s tough to argue that his regime is a genuine model for religious tolerance.
None of this provides a clear answer to what Western policy should be, but it does illustrate that advocates for today’s new Christian martyrs, up to and including Pope Francis and his Vatican team, need to do more than issue emotional appeals.
There’s also some heavy lifting required in terms of figuring out what keeping Christians safe means when faced with a set of flawed foreign policy options, and in that regard, Egypt is a great test case.