Copts are paying the price for the failure of liberalism in Egypt, says Robin Harris

Motherland Lost
by Samuel Tadros

Writing in the late 1960s, Aziz Atiya begins his magisterial account of the Coptic Church, in A History of Eastern Christianity with this reassuring assertion: “In our day, the Copts live everywhere side by side with their Muslim neighbours without discrimination, either political or racial; they enjoy their religious freedom, and their churches increase throughout Egypt. In sum, the Copts have survived as a religious entity, otherwise completely integrated within the body politic of the Egyptian nation, sharing the privileges and responsibilities of all citizens irrespective of faith or creed.”

Just to read these words is to blink with disbelief. The Coptic Church in Egypt today enjoys no such standing. Rather, it is the victim of sustained and systematic persecution. In August of this year, the Muslim Brotherhood, ousted from power by the Egyptian army, launched the most destructive attacks on Church property seen for centuries. In a matter of days, 40 churches and monasteries were destroyed. The attacks continue, albeit at lower intensity, especially in Upper Egypt.

How could it have happened? The author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, like Atiya, is a Copt. The glories of the Coptic Church are poorly appreciated in the West.

The critical importance of Alexandria as a centre of Christian thought and catechesis, the scale of Coptic missionary work especially in Africa, the bloody witness of the Coptic martyrs and the riches of Coptic culture still all too often pass us by. When Atiya wrote his optimistic assessment, the Coptic Church was already in the throes of a great revival. It was largely the fruit of the so-called Sunday School Movement and of a highly dynamic monasticism.

Despite its enduring problems, now magnified by the growing exodus of Coptic Christians to the West, the Coptic Church did, indeed, face up to the challenge of modernity with considerable success.

That cannot, however, be said of the Egyptian state, which is Samuel Tadros’s other focus. Indeed, the era of modern Coptic regeneration was also the era when Islamism tightened its grip.

The failure of socialism to deliver plenty and of Arab nationalism to deliver glory created a vacuum. President Anwar Sadat knowingly allowed Islam
to fill it, accepting a large degree of Islamisation, while resisting the political demands of the Muslim Brotherhood. The misjudgment killed him. The state of Egypt’s systemic failure is, Tadros argues, a failure of liberalism when confronted by Islam. The brand of liberalism predominant in Egypt was that associated with the French Enlightenment.

This “top-down” liberalism relied on control by the state, because only the state was thought capable of enforcing reform.

For many years the Copts, who provided educated, competent officials to run the state apparatus, were beneficiaries. But liberalism’s failure was doubly dangerous for them. First, and largely through opportunism, the liberals in Egypt encouraged Islamic resentment against westerners. This stoked up dislike of the Christian Copts. The root cause, however, of the failure of Egypt to engage successfully with modernity was the problem of the nation’s assumed Islamic identity. This, in turn, is connected to the evident difficulty of predominantly Muslim societies to uphold any clear division between the spheres of personal and collective action.

Motherland Lost appeared before the military take-over of July 3. The tone of despair that pervades the book’s last pages, and which is evoked by its title, shows why the overthrow of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to so many liberals, secularists, nationalists and, indeed, Copts, the only way out.

The Brotherhood was not, in truth, a government, and never behaved like one. It was an Islamic movement which had either to exercise total domination or be eliminated from power. Tadros, as a genuine liberal, deplores the coup (and coup it certainly is).

Sometimes, though, one has to choose between competing evils. Arguably, security, property and religious freedom are more important than democracy, if the latter leads to Islamist control. But whatever they conclude, western policymakers should absorb the analysis of this essential book.