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There is no ‘Nation of the Cross’

Message Signed Blood ‘To the nation of the cross, we are back again.’

So boasted the black-clad narrator of the latest ISIS video, this time chronicling their slaughter of 30 Ethiopian Christians captured in Libya. Two months earlier, the victims were Coptic Christians, whose beheadings came entitled: A message signed with blood to the nation of the cross.

But what is the ‘nation of the cross’?

Some have embraced the terminology. The Christ Church United Methodist of the Woodlands, Texas, posted a Je Suis Charlie inspired message of support: ‘Here am I, I too, am a member of the nation of the cross.’

But Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK thinks they are making a grave mistake.

‘This divisive terminology implies that we as a “nation” of Christians are at war with the “nation of Islam”,’ he wrote to the youth of his church.‘Of course this is not the case, and we must not be coerced into a state of enmity.’

ISIS labeled the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church an ‘enemy’, likely for the ongoing Ethiopian military response against the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia. Likewise, the Coptic Orthodox Church is targeted to a great degree for the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

But ISIS is not just after these churches. ‘Our battle is between faith and blasphemy,’ the narrator declared. ‘We swear to Allah: You will not have safety, even in your dreams, until you embrace Islam.’

In seeing itself as a caliphate, Angaelos told Lapido Media, ISIS wants to put itself at war with Christianity.

Alarmed

‘Because there is a Muslim ummah, there must be in their eyes a Christian ummah, the nation of the cross,’ he said, using the Arabic word that can be translated as ‘nation’.

‘This is why I am very alarmed when people use it naively, because they are buying into a rhetoric that is not ours.’

And according to Muslim scholars, ‘nation of the cross’ is not part of Islamic rhetoric either.

The word ummah is used 62 times in the Qur’an, sometimes referring to ‘peoples’ in general. But over time it becomes more specific to the Muslim community, according to Frederick Denny’s chapter, ‘The meaning of ‘ummah’ in the Qur’an’, in The History of Religions.

Christians and Jews are viewed as an ummah as recipients of divine revelation, but Christians are labeled ahl al-kitab, or ‘people of the book’.

‘This phrase [nation of the cross] is unknown, ISIS has invented it to divide people,’ Muhga Ghalib, dean of Islamic Studies at al-Azhar University told Lapido Media. ‘We have the three religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and we are brothers in humanity.’

The editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website agreed. ‘I cannot really make any reference of “nation of cross” to Islamic heritage, or history, and I’m not sure what the origin is,’ Hazem Malky told Lapido. ‘It looks like something they use in their own literature to serve their needs and ideology.’

But even where the rhetoric turns negative in Islamic history, terms like ahl al-dhimmah or kuffar are employed, to refer either to a protected community paying jizya tax, or to infidels.

ISIS’ video also highlights the fact that Syria’s Christians admit paying the tax, having been brought to the point of submission. Rejecting the nation-state system, ISIS sees the caliphate at war with distinct religious communities with the aim of subjugating them.

Obscure

Its extremist scholars have made a science out of reviving obscure concepts in Islamic history, like the selling of sex slaves and the burning of captives. These are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims today.

But even a group with traditional animosity against Christians finds the term ‘nation of the cross’ unfamiliar. Hany Nour Eddin, a member of Egypt’s dissolved parliament with the formerly militant al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, told Lapido Media ISIS tries to invoke the Crusades in its effort to pit East against West.

‘ISIS uses the logic of power and jihad in order to create conflict,’ he said. ‘They are trying specifically to recruit the Islamist current to their side, telling them the democratic experiment has failed.’

Bishop Angaelos, on the other hand, interprets it as the recruitment of an enemy.

He says ISIS wants a military response motivated by Christian sentiment. ‘The West must not give in. This ideology must fall, otherwise those killed will be replaced by others,’ he says.

Instead, those motivated by Christian sentiment have a responsibility to exhibit their faith.

After the beheading of the Copts by ISIS, Angelos tweeted #fatherforgive, and it quickly went viral. When BBC and CNN reported it, the popular discourse shifted.

Angaelos is calling for his own redefinition of terms to be taken up more broadly, to prevent the world being sucked into a false dichotomy.

‘When we disengage from this language, we move away from the simplicity of Christian West versus Muslim East, because it’s wrong,’ he said. ‘I find this concept of the Muslim world quite offensive. Do I not have a place? For millions of Christians, this is our world also, plus Baha’is and non-believers beside.’

He adds that ‘the nation of the cross’ does not fit the West in its religious diversity. Coining a phrase foreign to Islam, Christianity, and modern civilization, ISIS is threatening to set the terms.

‘They are killing Muslims not just Christians’ says Angaelos. ‘This ideology considers everything unlike itself an enemy.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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Middle East Middle East Institute Published Articles

A Conversation with al-Gama’a al-Islamiya’s Hani Nour Eddin – Part Two, Non-Violence

Hany Nour Eddin 1

For Part One of this conversation, discussing Hani Nour Eddin’s background, please click here. For the full interview on Middle East Institute, please click here. Part Two explores Nour Eddin’s views on violence, and here is an excerpt from the published interview:

Al-Gama`a al-Islamiya is committed to nonviolence and has apologized for its past. In fact, you organized a demonstration recently to condemn political violence. 

We saw that others had taken over the streets and were now using them to express their views. People might thinkthat they are the voice of Egypt. We wanted to say that the Egyptian street is not about violence and sexual harassment. Unfortunately, beautiful Tahrir Square has lost its symbolism. So we [demonstrated in] another place to avoid any contact with them. Our demonstration invited all to come and express their opinions, whether for or against the Islamist project, but with a commitment to nonviolence.

I noticed many of the speeches and chants were very Islamic, and quite severe. Instead of “no to violence,” the demonstration became about “yes to political Islam.” 

Our demonstrations often take the color of the people who attend. Maybe this is because of our weakness in usingthe media; we use a strident voice to make our point and show we are strong. We are Islamists, and we do not accept separating religion from anything else, and the street welcomes this. And so they chant, “Egypt will remain Islamic!”

The protest also honored Khaled al-Islambouli [Sadat’s assassin].

Islambouli is considered one of the symbols of al-Gama`a al-Islamiya when it was in a period of resistance to the regime. We all saw Sadat as a dictator, especially in his last years when he used oppression and closed mosques. Islambouli has an honored place among us.

Even if you now confess that what he did was wrong.

If we could go back in history and reevaluate, perhaps we would not have chosen the path of violence. But what happened was necessary due to the situation. Unfortunately, the circumstances demanded it.

But this is the test of your principles. If nonviolence is a principle—not a means, not a strategy—you must commit to it. 

Yes, this is right. It is a principle.

Unfortunately, for space issues Middle East Institute had to cut the conclusion, which seeks to test their commitment to non-violence through recent domestic and international examples. This part is posted here:

A few weeks earlier than your ‘No to Political Violence’ protest, Mohamed al-Zawahiri demonstrated at the French Embassy in Cairo against their military intervention in Mali. There, Ezzet al-Salamony, a leader in GI, spoke saying, “Why are they fighting us in our lands? It is we who should be fighting them in our lands!”

There are two issues here: One, Islamist support for the rebels in Mali, and two, the statement of Salamony itself. Do these violate your non-violent commitment?

I see what you’re saying. From what I know GI has abandoned violence and we will not return to it. We also agree we will not interfere in the politics of other nations. But as for that statement, he is the one responsible for it, and must justify himself.

Ok, but tell us about Mali, especially before the French intervention. Do you support the rebels from the north?

To a degree, but we do not have complete information about the nature of the Mali jihadists. Their primary slogan is the application of sharia law and building an Islamic state on the basis of it. Their situation is different; to what extent is there democracy or other means of change? We don’t know.

But we support the idea of an Islamic entity if it is true they are committed to Islam. At times some people will raise the banner of Islam but transgress it in how they behave. But yes, if they live as Muslims and seek to apply the sharia, yes, we support them.

But for the real situation between them and the Malian government, we don’t know.

But should you not condemn their jihad, as it is violent? Even if it is true the political system has not opened up the way it has in Egypt?

Again, we can’t evaluate their experience in jihad because we don’t know enough.

But you don’t know? It is clear to the world their rebellion is armed. They were marching on the Malian capital.

In the beginning it was not like this. They were a number of jihadi groups that gathered together and the government confronted them, but they began expanding their territory and announced themselves as a political entity.

But even this, expanding their territory in the north was at the expense of the legitimacy of the government. What gave them the right to seek autonomy or declare independence?

Yes, but their situation is different from that of Egypt.

But this is the point, we’re talking about a principle. In Egypt there is no necessity for violence – you have won by votes. But there the Islamist is in a position of weakness. Perhaps he is even suffering pressure. Is he allowed to resist violently?

(Laughing) I cannot condemn them before I know the circumstances which drove them to violence. Maybe it is violence in response to a greater violence upon them. What if my life or existence is threatened and there is no other way? But rebelling against a leader by forming militias? No, we must expend all peaceful and preaching means first, before resorting to violence.

Before? But your ‘Revisions’ were a complete condemnation.

The issue of jihad in Islam is legitimate, but it is not something to begin with. In our ‘Revisions’ we defined that jihad has stipulations that prevent it from resulting in even greater harm upon the people, the sharia, and the country. The jurisprudence in measuring jihad in Mali is different than the measure in Egypt.

But how can their situation be seen as worse than what you experienced here? There was a tyrant in Egypt, he oppressed you, he put you in prison, he killed you. He distorted the sharia and laughed about it. And even under all this pressure you condemned your own violent confrontation.

Because it did not result in any fruit.

So forgive me if this isn’t the right word, but does this show your condemnation of violence was opportunistic? You made a deduction violence is not working, so you give it up. You still believe in violence as a possible means of change.  

No, in the reality in which we live it is not a means of change.

But maybe it is in Mali?

It depends on their circumstances; we cannot judge them.

So your commitment to violence…

We commit ourselves. We cannot compel others to be so committed.

So it is not a general interpretation of Islam. It is just your situation?

Jihad is legitimate in Islam; no one can deny this. The question is if you are engaged in it legitimately according to its stipulations.

So what are the domestic stipulations for jihad? The one in Mali is against the ruler.

Will our scholars permit their action? I don’t know. It depends on the type of ruler; it depends on the struggle between him and the various Islamic groups. I don’t have enough information to say.

Ok. Sudan.

Our party sent a delegation to Sudan shortly after it was created, to establish relations. We consider Sudan to be deeply important to Egypt, economically, socially.

What about the status of President Bashir as an international criminal?

No, there are other factors at play in these accusations. We don’t believe the government is complicated in any criminality.

So in a sentence, how do you understand what is happening in Darfur?

It began as a local tribal conflict, and then the government intervened. After that it became somewhat of a separatist movement. It was necessary for the state to preserve its authority.

As in Mali?

(Laughing) For example.

Please click here to read the whole article at Middle East Institute.

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Middle East Middle East Institute Published Articles

A Conversation with al-Gama’a al-Islamiya’s Hani Nour Eddin – Part One, Background

Hani Nour Eddin

A few months ago, before President Morsi was deposed, I had the chance to interview Hani Nour el-Din, a member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya who was elected to the most recent parliament. His group is still considered a terrorist organization by the United States, but they formally gave up violence as a doctrinal strategy in the early 2000s.

This fact – indeed question – is very important now that Islamists find themselves outside the political spectrum. They gave up violence at a time when there was still no means to enter Egyptian politics. The revolution opened up political space, but now it appears closed. Will the group decide they made a mistake – that the only way to transform Egypt into a political state is through a violent seizing of power?

This is a very necessary question to put to al-Gama’a al-Islamiya now. But in the meanwhile, here is a window into the group’s thinking while they were on the winning side.

The interview was reduced and published by the Middle East Institute. Please click here to read the article.

But here on the blog I will post parts of the interview that had to be trimmed for space. Part One here will concern Nour Eddin’s personal history before his group gave up violence. Part Two, in a few days, will concern his views on violence, whether or not the party truly has abandoned the principle. Please enjoy.

Please introduce yourself to us:

My name is Hany Nour Eddin and I represent the Building and Development Party and serve on its high council, and was a member of parliament in 2011 before it was dissolved. I got to know IG in university, when I joined it and engaged in a number of student activities and preaching campaigns. After university I was arrested and spent many years in prison. This is where I became better acquainted with the group’s leadership.

I have read about this experience, and you maintain your innocence. What happened during this clash with police?

Here in Suez we were giving lectures in opposition to Hosni Mubarak and his remaining in the presidency. It was around 1993 and the GI organized a campaign called ‘No to Mubarak’. The state line was to forbid any opposition to the renewal of his presidency. We organized a large exhibition against him and spoke about the damage he was doing to the country, whether politically, economically, or otherwise. So he gave the order to security to stop the campaign, and to do so forcefully.

A large number of police arrived and we understood we needed to withdraw, but were surprised at the gunfire that began as we were doing so. One the bullets struck an officer accidentally, and a campaign was launched against us accusing us of killing him.

Who did kill him?

Someone from security, as the bullet hit him from behind. Part of their tactic was to disperse the crowd with gunfire, but he was hit from close range. Afterwards we all started getting arrested.

What was your role in GI at this time? Did you organize the exhibition?

Yes, I supervised it, collecting pictures and articles to help educate the people. The level of arrests practically stopped the work of GI in Suez, except for taking care of the families of those incarcerated.

So if you were imprisoned unjustly, why were you released later on?

When we were arrested they wanted to dissolve the Islamist movements, and especially our operations, targeting even our preachers. A violent clash took place between us and the police which became an armed struggle, targeting leaders on both sides, including Mubarak himself on many occasions.

By 1974 we realized the struggle was shedding the blood of the nation in general, and not just of the GI. We wanted to overthrow the state, but our violence was met by greater violence by the regime. We considered that we were defending ourselves, but it resulted in oppression and hostility, which reached even our families and relatives. It was not good.

So we undertook a campaign in the prisons, suggesting a unilateral cease-fire, stopping all violence against the regime, both inside and outside Egypt. It is important to note the whole time, even from outside, we targeted only Egypt and were working on its behalf alone. This is opposed to al-Qaeda, for example; we specified our conflict and goals were only against the regime. By 1979 we launched the non-violent initiative officially, opposing all violence against the regime, whether in the media or with weapons.

For a period of time we tried to send this message to GI members internationally, while we waited for a response from the government. Unfortunately the regime did many things to undermine our credibility, representing us falsely. But by 2000-01 they accepted the initiative. We published our ‘Revisions’, publicizing them first in the prisons and then internationally. They began releasing us from the prisons, and I got out in 2005.

So you found normal work to do?

Yes, after the necessary legal procedures, I returned to my job in the Suez Canal Company. I have a BA in Agriculture but my work with them is administrative.

But you have the time to take off work and talk to me today?

(Laughing) Yes, it’s normal, it’s ok.

So from 2005 until the revolution, what were you doing for GI?

We chose to work in preaching, rather than in organization. We would meet in mosques, talk to the people, and engage in social work – helping the poor, the orphans.

Were you a preacher in the mosque?

Sometimes, but not much. I served on the Shura Council of the GI in our governorate.

Served? But not any more?

Since we started the political party it has taken my priority and I left the Shura Council. Politics is different than preaching and social work. But we agreed to keep the party as the political arm of the GI for about two years until its administration is complete and mature. Then it will become independent, and when the appropriate laws are passed the GI will register legally also.

Please click here to continue reading the interview at Middle East Institute.