August 16, 2008
The Coptic Conundrum
Why are Egypt's Coptic Christians so apathetic about their persecution?
The other night flipping through Arabic satellite stations, I came across a Coptic man who was lividly discussing the "Coptic question." His name was George Sa'ad, and he was speaking on the famous Arabic show, Al-Bayt Baytak, which airs on Al-Masriya ("The Egyptian"). It quickly became apparent, however, that his objections were not directed at Egypt's radicals or even the government; no, he was upset with the "trouble-making" Copts of the diaspora, particularly those living in the West. Sa'ad, a member of the Itihad al-Misriyin in Canada, (the "Egyptian Union") was claiming that there is no real problem in Egypt, and that it is the Western Copts who are creating all this "propaganda."
When the (Muslim) host asked him point blank what he would like to see changed in Egypt, all Sa'ad could muster saying was, "Certainly, there are things that need to be fixed!" He kept repeating this without once explaining what those "things" could be. When further pushed to explain, he said he'd like to see Copts have more influence on the Egyptian media -- just a bit more.
No talk however of the recent attacks Copts in Egypt have been exposed to -- such as the Abu Fana monastery raid, where Muslims attacked and abducted monks, tortured them and tried forcing them to spit on the cross and embrace Islam; or the repeated phenomenon of Muslims abducting young Coptic girls, raping and forcing them into conversion; or the recent slayings of Coptic store clerks; or the day-in-day-out discrimination Copts encounter in all walks of life.
Sa'ad went on to explain an interesting dichotomy: that Copts living in Egypt or only recently moved to the West hardly ever complained of the situation; instead, most of the noise is being made by those Copts who've been away from Egypt for thirty years or more.
This, of course, is a natural phenomenon. All humans tend to get used to their circumstances and learn to accept them as "normal." Anything out of the ordinary from what they have come to expect becomes "abnormal." Consider for instance a black child born into plantation slavery. He grows working the fields all day, perhaps being whipped and in general being treated harshly. Since he has no other real experiences of the world to counterbalance, he comes to view his own existence as "normal" -- not great nor horrible -- perhaps even envying the "house-negro" for the "great life" he has.
Same with Copts in Egypt. As Sa'ad maintained, the opinion of any given Copt over the "Coptic issue" in Egypt is totally predicated on how far away from Egypt-in both time and space-they happen to be now. In other words, there is a continuum of opinions, the most critical often belonging to those Copts who have been away from Egypt the longest (and permanently residing in faraway countries such as the US) and the least critical from those Copts still living in Egypt in the midst of Muslims and minarets.
How does one explain such a conundrum? If Coptic persecution or discrimination is a fact -- and it is -- one would naturally expect the Copts living in Egypt and surrounded by Muslims to be the most vociferous about it. By and large, they are not; only when wholesale massacres or rampant rapes occur do they, for a time and out of great despair, make some noise (which often goes unheard by the international community). Similarly, one would expect those Copts who have been away from Egypt for decades -- or were born here and never even been there -- to be more apathetic to the situation.
The reason, of course, why Copts in Egypt do not make too much noise over their situation and instead remain subdued to their Islamist overlords is fear of even worse retaliation.
Still, what does one make of the fact that many Copts in Egypt do not think their "house-negro" situation is all that bad? Coptic stoicism is, of course, a thing of legend. Over the course of fourteen centuries of Islamic rule, a particular "survivalist" mentality that happily accepts second-class status in order to remain Christian, as well as "occasional" persecutions, has become integral to the Coptic mindset and worldview. What an American would consider outrageous oppression is to the Copt just another day in Egypt -- which is precisely why the "American-Copt" who has been away from Egypt for decades sees and resents the oppression, while his Egyptian counterpart may not.
In recent years, an all-encompassing term has come to best describe the Coptic mentality: dhimmitude, a term first made popular by the writings of Bat Yoer, a Jewess who, born and raised in "multi-cultural" Alexandria, Egypt, in the forties and fifties, later experienced firsthand what it means to be a non-Muslim living in Islamic territory. The word "dhimmitude" has come to describe a host of psychological factors present in the non-Muslim who resides in Muslim countries, such as Egypt.
The word is based on the Arabic "dhimmi," which has been in use since the dawn of Islam, and denotes the non-Muslim who continues living in the lands conquered by Islam. Whole treatises and books have been written by Muslim scholars on the status of the dhimmi throughout the centuries; suffice to say, the dhimmi is a "tolerated" minority, who is allowed to practice his religion freely, as long as he follows the laws of sharia (which do not afford him equal rights vis-à-vis his Muslim counterpart) and as long as he lives in humble submission to his Islamic overlords (according to the all-pivotal Koranic injunction 9:29).
Historically, the dhimmi often had to follow many other restrictions and guidelines-such as paying the "jizya," dress-codes to distinguish them from Muslims, including wearing an extremely heavy wooden cross, refraining from riding horses or bearing arms. Today, few are the Islamic governments who still openly enshrine "dhimmi" codes in their constitutions. Living under submission to Islam for 1400 years has nonetheless led today's dhimmi descendents to develop a permanent mentality that exhibits "dhimmitude" in the face f Islam: depending on context, this dhimmitude can manifest itself variously -- from "irrational" fear of Islam to self-debasing gratitude towards it.
I was reminded of this all watching Mr. Sa'ad: not only would he censure Copts for "making a lot of noise," but, in pure "dhimmi" fashion, he made it a point to wish the Muslims on the show, a "very happy Ramadan," asking, indeed, imploring, the host to visit him in the future so they can break the Muslim holiday's fast together.
However, while Sa'ad continues praising Islam and its "toleration" towards the Christians of Egypt, the rest of the free world, should understand this sort of "psychology," and, far from emulating it -- by kowtowing to Islam -- learn to see the Coptic situation for what it is.