Serving which master

14-10-2015 11:51 AM

Nader Shukry


Twenty-four Copts contest the upcoming parliamentary elections on the lists of the Salafi al-Nour Party

It looks like a replay of history. Not too long ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) group was a force to be reckoned with in Egypt, operating clandestinely before the 2011 Arab Spring and audaciously in the wake of the Arab Spring, until they were overthrown in July 2013 by massive public revolution.
In their heyday the MB included a few Copts among their ranks. Prominent among these Copts were Rafiq Samuel Habib, whose father was the head of the Evangelical Church in Egypt, and Gamal Assaad, a lawyer and writer. They were a godsend for the MB, who exploited their membership to obscure the group’s hatred and hostility towards Copts.
Today the MB is no longer a player on Egypt’s political arena; by court order, it is an outlaw terrorist group. But right on its heels and again riding the wave of political Islam is another group, the Salafi group, that has long marketed itself as fundamentalist but not violent. Post-Arab Spring legislation allowed the formation of Islamic-based religious parties which had until then been legally banned. Many Islamist groups or movements formed political parties; the Salafis’ most prominent was al-Nour (The Light) Party. Even though Egypt’s 2014 Constitution—approved after the Islamist MB were overthrown in 2013 and Egypt established itself as a secular State—bans religious-based political parties, al-Nour and others continue to operate under the pretext that they are not ‘religious-based’.




The end and the means
Al-Nour is now contesting the current elections and, given that the election law requires that every party list should include a minimum number of Copts as a measure of positive discrimination, the Nour Party lists include Copts—some 24 of them. The positive discrimination measure applies for only one parliament, the 2015 parliament, and also includes women and disabled persons.
That the fundamentalist al-Nour should field Coptic men and women, and that Copts should care to join, has raised eyebrows. For the majority of Egyptians, the allegation that the party is not religious-based is laughable; the legal loopholes al-Nour has used to claim that it is no religious party hold no credibility for the public. Yet these loopholes have had the effect of keeping al-Nour alive and kicking, and the fact that Copts have joined its ranks allows the party to claim it is indeed not Islamic-based.
Al-Nour makes no secret of basing its inclusion of Copts on the commonplace Islamic principle of “Necessities make the banned allowable”, meaning that anything that is banned or sinful may be allowed in case of necessity or need. The election law makes it imperative for party lists to include Copts, so include Copts the Nour does. Never mind that Copts have been denounced as kuffaar (infidels) by al-Nour more times than anyone would care to remember; now these kuffaar have the potential of catapulting the Nour into parliament and, basing on the famed Islamic principle, the Nour has no qualms about that. And the party found 24 Copts eager to join. Before going into the motives of these Copts or the justification they offer for having joined the Islamist party, it might be useful to explore the history of the Salafi movement and its al-Nour Party vis-à-vis Copts.



Going back on their word
The Salafis are no strangers to going back on their word. Again, they appear to find justification in the Islamic equivalent of ‘the end justifies the means’. During the regime of pre-Arab Spring President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in office for 30 years, the Salafi movement supported the regime and issued declarations that banned going against the ruler. Yet they joined the MB in demonstrating against him during the Arab Spring uprising in January/February 2011. Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011. The first post-Arab Spring public referendum in March 2011 required the people to cite their opinion on a number of constitutional amendments. The Salafi sheikhs Muhammad Hussein Yacoub, Yasser Burhami and Abdel-Moniem Shahaat led a campaign that Muslims should vote ‘yes’ for a potentially Islamic identity of the State; a ‘no’ vote would have possibly given the Copts a chance to change this identity. So much for not being religious-based.
Once the door was thrown open to the formation of Islamist parties, the Salafis formed 15 political parties and ran for the first post-Arab Spring parliament in 2012 in which Islamists gained a sweeping majority. These were the same Salafis who had repeatedly said that politics was a sinful activity; their Sheikh Abdel-Razeq al-Radwani said it went against Islamic sharia to join any political party or contest elections, since these were western ploys to drag Muslims into non-Islamic activity under the pretext of democracy. Democracy itself, Salafi sheikhs repeatedly confirmed, was un-Islamic, a Western political invasion of Muslim countries and minds; giving in to it was nothing short of an Islamic defeat in the face of the West.



Flagrant duality
It took Egyptians less than three years following the Arab Spring to realise that the Islamist rule it had brought went against all their Egyptian values. The majority of Egyptians are Muslim, and they had decided to give the Islamists a chance to run the country, but they realised soon enough that this meant a definite end to democracy and ‘Egyptianness’. Egypt was then being swiftly suppressed into part of what was hoped would become a pan-world Islamic caliphate. This drove Egyptians to rebel and, on 30 June 2013, a massive millions-strong revolution led the army to step in. After an ultimatum to the Islamist President Mursi to resolve the crisis, which he promptly and belligerently scorned, the army put an end to the MB ruling regime—and to the possibility of civil war.
Salafi leaders met Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, then Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and sat down with the representatives of all the other sectors of the Egyptian community to draw the Roadmap for a democratic future, which Egypt has since followed. The Salafis were included because the process of planning Egypt’s future excluded no Egyptian, even Islamists, as long as they participated peacefully. Yet during and even after the 30 June 2013 Revolution, the Salafis sided with the MB and took part in the violent attacks they waged, especially against Copts.
Ever since, the Salafis have displayed a flagrant duality by calling for and applying their fundamentalist, extremist code, while at the same time toeing the line when it comes to political practice. In the case of their current run for parliament, they claim they are striving to have the chance to apply the sharia of Allah.



Brutality against Copts
Nowhere is Salafi fundamentalism more obvious than in their hatred and hostility towards Copts, a fact Salafis never bothered to make secret.
During the first decade of the 2000s Salafis regularly organised in their bastion city of Alexandria demonstrations after Friday prayers that insulted the Copts, the Church, and the Pope in the most obscene language. They circulated rumours of what they claimed were Muslim women held captive by the Coptic Church for having converted to Islam. The preposterous rumours would later bear fruit in the post-Arab Spring burning of Coptic homes and churches, especially in the populous Giza district of Imbaba in May 2011, where it was claimed that one such woman was held captive. Nine Copts lost their lives. At the time, the Salafis were crying: “We’d be no men if we didn’t burn all Imbaba churches.” Only intervention by the military put an end to the attack. []
A few weeks before the Arab Spring uprising which began on 25 January 2011, one of the most tragic attacks against Copts took place. That was the bombing of the Two Saints church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve in an explosion right after Midnight Mass. Worshippers leaving the church were blown to pieces; 27 people lost their lives, and more than a hundred were injured. As the heart-wrenched Copts were busy rescuing those who were still alive and collecting the bloody body parts of loved ones, the Salafis in al-Qa’ed Ibrahim mosque across the street not only refused to help, but jeered at them in strident language, gloating at the scene. [Coptic wrath boils over, Watani International, 16 January 2011]



Applying Islamic hudoud to Copts
Once the Arab Spring took hold the Islamists saw their chance and instigated a string of Salafi attacks against Copts. In March 2011, Copts in the village of Sole in Etfeeh were attacked and their church destroyed under the pretext of punishing Copts for a romance between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman. The army later rebuilt the church in full.
Also in March 2011, Salafis in the southern town of Qena attacked and plundered a flat owned by a Copt, brutally beat him up and cut off his ear, claiming they were applying Islamic hudoud (penalty for a major sin) for his renting the flat to two single women who had by that time already left the flat following Salafi threats. []
Again, it was Salafis who in September 2011 led the attack against the Copts of the Aswan village of Merinab in Edfu because they were building a new fully licensed church in place of one that was falling apart. The Salafis burnt the church and terrorised the Copts. The incident led to the disastrous Maspero massacre in Cairo on 9 October 2011, in which some 24 peaceful Coptic demonstrators were brutally killed.
Other Salafi-led hostilities against Copts included countless incidents of forceful eviction of Copts from their homes, villages or towns. Among these were incidents that occurred in Dahshour in 2012 []; Sharbat; Amreya; in 2012 []; Basra in 2012 []; and many others. The most recent was the incident in al-Ula, Amreya, last month which has not yet been resolved but in which the lives of the Copts are threatened if they do not leave the village. []



Notorious fatwas
Salafi fatwas (Islamic legal opinion) against Copts have been publicised in the media, in printed material, and on their website Most notorious among them is that no Copt is allowed to hold any position where he may exercise authority or control over a Muslim, meaning that no Copt may become a judge, police or army chief, cabinet minister or president. They may not fight in the army since their loyalty to Muslims is in doubt; instead they should pay jizya (Islamic tax on non-Muslims).
According to scholars such as Ibn al-Qayyim and Ibn Taymiya, whose teachings they follow, Salafis believe there can be no equality among citizens, since this goes against the Qur’an and Sunna.
In Salafi tradition and fatwas, no church may be built, and existing ones should be left to fall apart. According to Sheikh Abu-Ishaq al-Huweini, the existence of churches in Muslim lands is “a sign of the end of days”. Another Salafi, Sheikh Fawzy Abdullah, says: “They [Christians] should not be allowed to build churches, publish their books, publicise their faith or celebrations of their feasts because this is an indignity to Muslims.”
Every Christian religious feast—Christmas, Easter, or any other—is preceded with a flood of fatwas that say it is a sin for a Muslim to wish a Christian a happy feast day.
As to the manner in which Salafis tackle the Christian faith, it is nothing short of disdainful. Copts in Egypt have been used to hearing insulting remarks on mosque microphones during Friday prayers; this practice has only recently subsided with an attempt by the Ministry of Religious Endowments to impose controls on mosques.
In view of all the above, how does al-Nour justify placing Copts on its candidate lists for the upcoming parliamentary elections?

The Salafi Copts
Sheikh Burhami, who had pronounced a fatwa that no Copt may run for parliament, posted on the Salafi website that by including Copts al-Nour was simply applying the law. The issue, he said, had not been fully resolved, and required balancing benefits and losses.
Salah Abdel-Maaboud, member of the political office of al-Nour, said the fatwa was not binding.
The Coptic candidates, for their part, have mostly kept silent on the matter; only two cared to publicise their opinions. One is Nader al-Serafi, who has an issue with the Coptic Orthodox Church regarding the Church’s strict stance on marriage and divorce; he has formed the movement Copts 38 which calls for more lenient divorce laws. The other is Suzanne Samir, a woman who also has a family problem that has no solution within the Catholic Church.
The two Coptic candidates have justified their being on al-Nour’s list by claiming that the party had Egypt’s interest at heart and would serve the country well. As for the Salafis’ many fatwas against Christians, the candidates say they only express the ‘opinion’ of those who issue them and are not binding to al-Nour. “The Salafi call is not politically binding,” Mr Serafi said, “and the fatwas should not be taken out of context.”
In reply to criticism about a Copt joining a religious [Islamic]-based party, Mr Serafi coolly said the criticism did not apply to him because al-Nour was not a religious-based party.
He promised he would recruit 1,000 Copts to join al-Nour, a promise scorned by Copts who say there is only one way to achieve this: by persuading uneducated Copts in remote villages to sign membership applications under the pretext that these papers were applications for monthly food rations.




Islamic sharia
Yet Mr Serafi appears conveniently to forget al-Nour’s only parliamentary experience, which was in the Islamist-majority parliament of 2012. The party refused to place the names or pictures of their women candidates on the election lists; instead they defined them by their husband’s names as Mrs So-and-So, and replaced their image with that of a rose. Interestingly, in the current elections no pictures of candidates have been placed at all, either of men or women. The Nour candidates who won in 2012 refused to stand in honour of the national anthem; refused to be sworn in by the national constitutional text and used their own Islamist wording; and insisted on being assigned the Education Committee. They exploited the committee to demand an end to the teaching of foreign languages in schools, that education should conform with sharia, and that separate education should be given to girls and boys. []
Mr Serafi has said he has no qualms against the application of Islamic sharia, claiming it is best for Copts.
Non-Islamist politicians and intellectuals are unanimous in that the Nour is opportunistic, and that the inclusion of Copts and women on its lists is a mere ploy to avoid being banned as a religious-based party, but imply no change in the party’s Salafi fundamentalist ideology. Which all the more, according to the vast majority of Copts, condemns those Copts who have consented to being used to endow the Islamist party with legitimacy as a non-Islamist party, legitimacy it could have otherwise never gained.


Which master?
When asked for his comment on the Copts in al-Nour, Pope Tawadros had two points to stress. First that the Church has no party preference and maintains her position as removed from politics. Second, that those Copts who now belong to an Islamist party are definitely free to do so, but they should do some self-searching to revise where their loyalties lie. After all, no man can serve two masters.

Watani International
14 October 2015




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