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Current Events

Interview: Pilgrim Radio and Coptic Forgiveness

Pilgrim Radio Copts

I knew Hamilton existed, but very little beyond this. My editor’s linking to ‘unimaginable‘ may have helped the article go viral.

It was already a compelling story. Forgiveness offered by the widow of the Coptic doorman who save the lives of dozens, intervening against a suicide bomber.

It was a morbid type of fun to watch the article circulate online. I was very glad to tell the story. But so very sad there is a story to tell.

So it is a similar feeling being interviewed about it. Pilgrim Radio is a Christian network in the northwest United States, and they asked me to share with their listeners. If you like, here is the 27 minute program.

And here is the original article at Christianity Today, if you’d like to refresh your memory before listening.

I was interviewed by Pilgrim Radio once before, on the churches and Christians of the Arabian Peninsula.

Thanks for following along. Just remember to aim for more than appreciating the Coptic example. To the best of your ability, with God’s help, imitate. It can now be imagined.

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Current Events

Copts Pick Up the Pieces: An Interview with Bishop Thomas

A condensed version of this interview was first published at The Media Project on May 4, 2017.

Bishop Thomas
Bishop Thomas

Coptic Christians, the Middle East’s largest Christian community, account for roughly ten percent of Egypt’s population and have endured generations of exclusion and restrictions. Their struggles for equality have been aggravated by a series of gruesome and deadly attacks carried out by ISIS criminals. The latest act was a pair of bombings on Palm Sunday targeting packed churches in Alexandria and Tanta, which took the lives of 45 Christians and wounded more than 100 others, according to Human Rights Watch. ISIS previously targeted Copts in Cairo in a December, 2016, bombing that killed 30 and in a January, 2017, attack in the Sinai peninsula that killed eight. ISIS has stated its intention to extirpate Christianity from the Middle East.

TMP Egypt contributor Jayson Casper spoke to Bishop Thomas, head of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Qusia and Meir, 170 miles south of Cairo, to find out how Copts are reacting to the latest attacks and what they expect for the future. Born in 1957, Thomas became a monk in 1985 and bishop in 1988. In 1999 he founded Anafora, a retreat center along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, which became a community dedicated to ecumenical welcome and human development. Fluent in English alongside his native Arabic, he is a key source of insight on the situation of Christians in Egypt.

The Easter holiday is a joyous occasion but Egypt and her Christians are going through a difficult time after the Palm Sunday bombings. How are Copts doing these days?

There was a blend of grief, shock, anger, and question marks about what’s happening. People recall similar incidents from the past – the December bombing at St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo, the 2010 Alexandria bombing, and further back in history. There has been a development in the attacks against Christians, and people are comparing it to what is happening in Syria and wondering if this will come to Egypt.

But the church holds to Christian principles, giving the people a Christian message. Love, and conquer evil through good. If we believe in the forgiveness Christ gave to us, we have to give it to others. Think positively, and do not be afraid. Don’t generalize but be fair. We cannot put the work of Islamic extremists on normal Muslims who haven’t done anything.

And normal people from the families of the victims have made statements that are very powerful. The widow of the doorman at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria said she forgives them. There is the question: How can Copts forgive like this? We are trying to nurture a holistic faith in society. Believing our life is not limited to this world makes it becomes stronger.

It will be good to come back to the teachings of the church, but first I want to ask about what is seen in the media. Coptic reactions are portrayed as fear, anger, and disillusionment. Things aren’t getting better and the government isn’t taking care of us. Is this an accurate picture? How strong and widespread are these feelings?

The Copts have a clearer understanding because we know the growth of Islamic fundamentalism has to be dealt with in a deeper way than just police or military forces. Security measures are only a part. The foundation is the ideology, needing the reformation of education. Copts are angrier at the education system than the security situation.

We look at things realistically, even though we were hoping for a calmer, more peaceful situation with the new government after the Muslim Brotherhood regime. We hoped it would be more active in reform. Some Copts are disappointed, but we are aware it is a long-term change, needing the support of the private sector, NGOs, and the religious sector. The curriculum of al-Azhar has to be looked at, in how they portray Christians, as does the public school curriculum.

We see also two kinds of media. One is trying to understand the situation and sympathize in the tragedy. The other is condemning Christians and encouraging more of the same. This must be dealt with firmly. If someone encourages attacks on others this is a crime against humanity, and it must be declared as such.

These things are being discussed among the youth and on the Coptic street. Even still, we are saying we love and we forgive—Jesus told us to love our enemies and do good to them—so his love encompasses the whole world and our fight is not against flesh and blood. It is against evil principles and thoughts; it is a struggle of ideology. Humanity must be linked with religion, and not to a particular religious group. As Christians we view everyone within the circle of God’s love, so we must love everyone, even those who persecute and attack us. We are against evil, but not against human beings. Instead we pity them.

There are some voices in Egypt who are promote this idea, but will it always be within the elite? It has to be implemented at the grassroots through the educational system.

You mentioned the importance of ideology. The president has spoken many times about the importance of reforming religious rhetoric, it seems he is aware of the comprehensive nature of this issue, beyond a military solution. But we see crimes against Copts go unpunished and a failure to pursue educational reform. Do the Copts still have optimism the government will move in this direction so that it will reach the grassroots, over time? Or is their frustration it is either only talk and politics, or that the state is unable to address ideological reform?

There is a group of people who hope it will change, who say we should encourage the process of reformation. There is another who says it will not happen, it is too long-term and the ideology is fixed among too many scholars. Personally, I think those who are disappointed are thinking about emigration, and I think another wave will come very soon, which is very bad. Christians have to stay in Egypt and be empowered here.

The process of reformation goes beyond just a president. He is trying to do his best but the society has many layers, and the undercurrent is stronger than what the official government says. What we need is to focus more on the undercurrent, which requires lots of work.

This gives Christians the responsibility to build up society. We have to be more active in peacemaking. This is an art that needs training, and helps build trust in the community. But we must also address the power balance, which aids the stability of society. Christians abroad and the international community can help Copts achieve this. We must work on projects and fill professions that the society needs.

Such as?

In my area of Qusia we created a school that provides education in languages and an open, creative atmosphere, not dictation. Many Christians and Muslims started to come. It is run by the church, but society needs it, and it is unique in the area.

People meet and interact, but not in a religious framework. They come for the sake of their children, and discuss ethics and childrearing. We create many educational programs through this platform, and this gives us hope that these meeting points help give us status in society.

Similar things like hospitals and social events help society unite, and the church should take the lead. It presents us to society in a new way and counters disinformation against us.

But this problem is bigger than Egypt, and we have to look at it from a global perspective. Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam must be addressed. We have seen the results over several decades, in addition to the recent developments in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine. The Middle East has been almost depopulated of its Christians, and in Egypt we are the largest community left. Will these conservative forces succeed in pushing our Christians to the West, or not?

Let’s return shortly to immigration, but first address some of the spiritual teachings you mentioned earlier. The wife of the doorman in Alexandria gave a phenomenal testimony of forgiveness, that came from her faith. But as we judge the Coptic mentality between anger and frustration and the church teachings to resist fear and hold on to joy, to what degree does the Christian message of hope truly permeate them as people?

One of the spontaneous reactions has been the full attendance of Sunday evening prayers, right after the Palm Sunday morning bombings. All during Holy Week our churches have been packed. People are praying with enthusiasm and demonstrating persistence that we are here, we’re staying here, and this is our faith. Through their actions they are demonstrating their hope.

No doubt there have been tears, but still they come. There is sadness in their hearts, but they still hold to the responsibility that God has given: We are not afraid, we love, and we ask for justice. These are the three folds the church has been teaching, and the people’s reaction has been a beautiful portrayal.

Many people see only the church teaching suffering and martyrdom, but within this there is justice, a very important aspect that balances with love. Love and forgiveness create peace and positive attitudes, but at the same time love is not weak, it is strong, that is why there is no fear. Love and justice must be intertwined. I love, but I ask for my rights. I’m a human being, and I must be dealt with in my home country like a citizen, with security and equal rights.

The heritage of martyrdom in the Coptic Church promotes acceptance and forgiveness. But what is its connection with justice?

There have been many saints who were martyred because they asked for their rights. St. George, St. Mina, St. Mercorious – they stood up for their faith, defending other people. This is why it was their fate to become martyrs. Martyrdom is not just someone putting a bomb in a church. It is mainly people declaring their faith, hold to their rights, asking for justice, but ending in death.

So I don’t see a contraction, and many in the Coptic community are asking what we must do to achieve justice. I don’t know how it will be implemented. Communication with scholars, writers, and journalists from the Muslim side, to empower the cause?

If I take an American example, in achieving justice for the black community there were three main aspects. The first is Rosa Parks, and how she was made able to ask for her rights. Our teachings can help prepare the individual and create many more.

The second is Martin Luther King, who was a man of faith, but also of truth. He was able to communicate love and Christian principles in a context of injustice. The church has to give the message.

The third, which is very much needed, is Elanor Roosevelt. She represents the political arena and media, which were not of the black community. If the Christians in Egypt make a better effort to reach out to the Muslim community, its intellectuals and scholars, and discuss with them in more openness to empower them to join in the faithful fight for justice, it will be a great help.

But it is also needs an international effort, for the ideology is global. If conservatism is strong in the world there must be collaboration in the reformation of thought and the interpretation of texts in light of citizenship and humanity. There is much work ahead of us, and if it is not undertaken we may end up in a worse situation.

Is there something that makes the Copts of Egypt different from the Christians of the rest of the region, something that has enabled them to survive and resist the temptation to violence?

We don’t want to blame the victims, which is important to state clearly. We stand in sympathy and solidarity with the people of Syria, Iraq, and the region. We have seen what happened in Sinai, when the Christians evacuated from the area. We don’t know if this will continue.

A faithful attitude of ‘love your enemies’ and forgiveness gives a positive message to the other side, but we don’t know what will happen. It is a big question mark. Allow me to be spiritual and say it is the hand of God that is protecting this people here for a reason. I don’t know why, but keeping the Christian community in stability in Egypt may give a message of stability to the whole Middle East.

Yet over the past few decades, as you mentioned, Coptic immigration to the West has increased dramatically.

And it will continue to increase, no one can say it will stop. This makes us weaker, because who emigrates? Those who are able – the rich, the educated, those able to make a living outside. But they leave behind the weaker ones. If someone wants to care for their family we cannot tell them stop, to stay. We can encourage them it will get better, but if they have decided to go, they will.

But we recognize the negative impact. Still, Copts in the diaspora help with financial support, educational programs, and are a voice in the international community. This is very much appreciated. The presence of Christians in the Middle East remains a big question mark these days. If things continue, I don’t know how long we can last.

Yet in Egypt we have a very strong belief in the promise found in Isaiah 19, that there will be an altar in the land of Egypt. This gives the Christians a very strong hope that we will always be here and nothing can break us. This belief gives us power and helps explain why the church is flourishing despite difficulties, attacks, and persecutions. The church is strong, and people are determined to stay and stand firm in their faith.

Thank you, Bishop Thomas.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Judges, Tribes

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Two feuds escalated this week. One reached a preliminary conclusion, the other a concerning jolt. It may not be proper to pray mend the fences, but rather in wisdom to put all things right.

After months of debate and clear judicial opposition, the president signed a parliament-ratified bill to select the chief judge of major courts from three nominations. Viewed as anti-constitutional interference and a blow to seniority, it is nonetheless law, pending further developments.

After months of tense but nonmilitant local opposition, the Islamic State struck against a major tribe in Sinai. Recriminations followed, and the fight is threatening to move beyond the licensed violence of army and police and involve the well-armed Bedouins.

God, politics is often contentious. Ensure efficiency in policy. Define limitations of power. Where there is manipulation, cause it to cease. Where there is exaggeration, cause it to settle.

In the effort to strengthen both state and society, give wisdom. Give humility.

God, violence is often compounding. Empty the Sinai of terrorism. Rebuild the region in hope. Where there is insult, curb retribution. Where there is injury, increase resolve.

In the effort to defeat the Islamic State, give wisdom. Give clarity.

All men are brothers, God, and it is not right to feud. But perhaps a fight is sometimes necessary. Settle scores quickly, and justly. Limit escalation, mend fences.

Put all things right, God. Put Egypt right.

Amen.

 

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Blind Threat

Flag Cross Quran

God,

As one era passes, another begins. One died, and then two others. There is no connection, save a pernicious idea.

Defeat it, God, and save the people – target and targetter alike.

Far away in America, the Blind Sheikh passed away after many years of incarceration. Linked to terrorism in the first World Trade Center bombing, the Sadat assassination, and the plundering of Copts, he was the beloved spiritual guide of the Islamic Group.

Egypt received his body and permitted a gathering at his funeral.

Far away in Sinai, two Copts were murdered by the Islamic State. A father shot, his son burned alive. A video was issued calling for many more.

Egypt continues its assault against them.

Many years ago she subdued the Blind Sheikh’s disciples; God, as the idea morphs further grant success again.

But the cost is so high. Win their hearts and dry their ground.

Perhaps the funeral helped?

Some chafed, God, that people would celebrate one deemed a criminal. Others nodded at respect for the dead.

Egypt offered dignity to his family, God. Preserve her dignity in turn.

But strengthen her also in the dignity of her citizens, especially the threatened, neglected, and disadvantaged among them.

God, may this new era be short. May the old era be remembered. Long forgotten let be the idea.

Amen.

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Current Events

Did the Bombing of Cairo’s Copts Also Hold a Message for Muslims?

isis-sufi-mosque
ISIS destroys a Sufi shrine in Mosul, Iraq.

This article was first published at The Media Project.

When a bomb ripped through the women and children praying together at the St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo on Dec. 11, the nation’s grief was expressed through a Muslim doll.

The suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State – Sinai Province took place on the national holiday of moulid al-nabi, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The larger Islamic State has since called for bombings of Christian churches in the USA, with the aim of creating “bloody celebrations” there, as well.

Egyptians have begun trying to make sense of this latest wave of violence in Cairo, and the arousa doll has propelled expressions of grief. A popular cartoon depicted the arousa, traditionally given to Muslim girls, weeping in the black clothes of mourning. Behind her stood a somber crucifix.

Twenty-seven people died in the bombing, and their families have been changed forever. The Coptic community is approaching the Christmas season with fear wondering if another church will be targeted.

But does the timing of the attack suggest Muslims also have reason to be afraid?

The moulid, popular with most Egyptians and in particular the mystical Sufi trend, is rejected by many Salafi interpretations of Islam to which the Islamic State belongs.

It is a day for sweets, visiting family, and giving gifts. It is also a day Christian religious leaders congratulate their Muslim counterparts, reciprocated on Christmas.

But celebration of the moulid is condemned by Salafis as a religious innovation.

Coincidence or not, their extremists chose this day to escalate their insurrection and signal their willingness to inflict mass casualties.

“The message could be, ‘You love the moulid, and you like the Christians?’” said Sheikh Alaa al-Din Abul Azayim, head of the Azamiya Sufi order. “’Then on this day we’ll kill your friends – and you are next.’”

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project.

moulid-al-nabi-arousa

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Redraw the Map: A Christian Call for Middle East Peace

Map of New Middle East

This article was published at Providence, on March 4, 2016.

The carnage is so severe, the atrocities so barbaric, and the impasse so intractable. Even when violence targets fellow Christians and their ancient communities, the morass of the Middle East can silence any moral response. Believers are tempted to throw up their hands in despair, for any proposed solution creates further uncomfortable complications.

If America stands with Assad in Syria we back his barrel bombs. If we side with the rebels we empower Islamism. If we stay neutral the killing continues, as friend and foe alike meddle on behalf of their favorite proxy. If we bomb only the Islamic State the core political issues remain. If we commit ground troops the specter of Saddam looms over all. Propaganda shrouds analysis in conspiracy, and regardless of action refugees pour out of a tinderbox ready to spark further war.

It is no wonder Christians are paralyzed to suggest anything.

Into the morass wades Terry Ascott, desperately seeking a way forward. And his solution tramples over one of the region’s most sacred cows, one only the Islamic State has dared address: Redraw the map.

Terry Ascott is the founder and CEO of the Arabic Christian satellite network SAT-7, though he is clear these remarks are personal in nature, unrelated to the work of the SAT-7, which I have written about in the past such as here and here.

I have also previously summarized an article from the London Review of Books that suggests the United States has conspired to create exactly the situation Ascott is calling for.

The article in Providence touches on the fact that a few others have suggested a solution in political division, but in purpose reflects Ascott’s Christian heart and rationale to stop the bloodshed. It also reflects his pessimism that the region can do this on its own.

Please click here to read the full article, and brainstorm with him.

 

 

 

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The Russian Airline Disaster and Islamic State in Egypt

Abu Osama al-Masry
Abu Osama al-Masry, blurred in a Wilayat Sinai propaganda video; from SITE Intel Group

Who downed Russian airline flight 9286 as it left tourist resort Sharm el-Sheikh in October, killing all 224 on board?

Russian officials have confirmed a bomb brought down the plane, while Whitehall has labelled shadowy leader of the new ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sinai – Abu Osama al-Masry – ‘a person of interest’ in on-going investigations.  Egypt has yet to release details from their investigation.

‘Foreign tourists, workers, and troops in Egypt are at greater risk than ever’, wrote Zach Gold in Egypt Source.

‘Whether [WS] was responsible or made an opportunistic claim, the group’s willingness to even rhetorically target foreign interests in Egypt is another dangerous marker in a pattern of threats’, he added.

A former Azhar student and clothing importer Abu Osama al-Masry claimed responsibility on behalf of Wilayat Sinai. ‘They were shocked by a people who sought the hereafter, loved death, and had a thirst for blood’, he said.

‘We will inherit your soil, homes, wealth, and capture your women! This is Allah’s promise’.

Jurisprudence

‘Eloquent in quoting the Qur’an’: Abu Osama al-Masry, blurred in propaganda video. Photo: SITE Intel Group

Al-Masry, a nom-de-guerre indicating he is Egyptian, is said to have been born in northern Sinai but grew up in Sharqiya in the eastern Nile Delta.

The 42-year-old former student at the Muslim world’s most prestigious seat of learning, al-Azhar in Cairo, al-Masry is said to be ‘well versed in Islamic jurisprudence’ and ‘eloquent in quoting the Quran’.

Wilayat Sinai, meaning ‘the province of Sinai’, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on 10 November, 2014.

It was previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM), translated roughly as ‘Supporters of Jerusalem’ – implying the same apocalyptic zeal as IS.

Lapido Media nailed this affiliation a year ago – and the fact of the reluctance of the West to believe it amid the complexity of Egyptian culture and the prevalence of ‘conspiracy theories’.

On 5 November 2014, we wrote:  ‘Ali expects the “Supporters of Jerusalem” – a home-grown terrorist outfit operating out of Sinai – to soon announce their allegiance to ISIS. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, he said, was an associate of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi in the Islamic State of Iraq and believed to be killed by US forces in 2010.

‘But some evidence suggests he is still alive and operating out of the Sinai with the Supporters of Jerusalem,’ Ali said.

Shifting

If the Russian airline attack is confirmed, it will not have been the first time Wilayat Sinai has targeted foreigners.

Strategy, however, is shifting from attacking tourism in Egypt as part of an economic war, to attacking tourists in retaliation for their nation’s policies.

In February 2014 the group killed two South Koreans and an Egyptian driver in a bus traveling from St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai.

They also claimed responsibility for the hideous executions of American oil worker William Henderson in August 2014, and the Croatian Tomislav Salopek in August 2015.

Wilayat Sinai’s fighting force is estimated between a low of one to two thousand militants, and as high as five to twelve thousand.

The sparse population of North Sinai is approximately 435,000, or forty per square mile.

Unlike the Islamic State, WS’s composition is mostly local, consisting of veteran jihadists, disaffected Bedouin, and disillusioned youth. Some foreign fighters come from Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and WS have issued a call for more.

Egypt has accused Turkey of providing support for Wilayat Sinai, posting names and pictures of alleged operatives they have captured.

Wilayat Sinai also benefits from members who previously served in the Egyptian military, before defecting or being expelled.

Walid Badr, a former major in the army, was the suicide bomber in the September 2013 assassination attempt on the interior minister. One month later former officers Emad Abdel Halim and Hisham Ashmawi led an assault on a checkpoint in Sinai killing 31 people.

History

WS, under its original guise of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was formed sometime in 2011 in response to the Egyptian revolution of 25 January.

Egyptian security says ABM breathed new life into existing bands of militants such as al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, which had conducted operations against tourism hotels in Sinai in 2004, 2005, and 2006.

After formally merging, ABM originally targeted Israel, launching a few cross-border attacks and several acts of sabotage against the Egypt-Israeli gas pipeline.

President Mohamed Morsi authorised military action against ABM after it killed 16 border guards in August 2012. But he is also understood to have preferred negotiation and tried to limit their influence through dialogue with other Sinai parties.

After Morsi’s removal from office on 3 July, 2013, ABM shifted focus and deliberately targeted Egyptian security forces.

Abu Osama al-Masry deemed Morsi an apostate and equated democracy with atheism – a typical militant Islamist trope.

But ABM sought to take advantage of the military-versus-Muslim Brotherhood conflict to paint itself as the defender of Muslims.

Al-Qa’eda

A leaked Egyptian security document from February 2015 accused the Muslim Brotherhood of working with Al-Qa’eda to send three thousand fighters to the Sinai.

Morsi, like the transitional military council before him, released jihadis from prison.

But an Egyptian researcher says that while he permitted militants a degree of operation, he did not nurture them as a ‘last resort’ to protect his office.

In addition to the acts of terrorism listed above, ABM has been a leading force in a long list of attacks in Sinai and the Egyptian mainland.

The small Christian population of roughly 650 families in the Sinai have also suffered at their hands. Many have relocated, though local Muslims have promised to protect them.

Wilayat Sinai
Logo of Wilayat Sinai

Imitating

Four hundred attacks killing seven hundred soldiers: Wilayat Sinai. Photo: SITE Intel Group

Targeting Christians is only one of the ways Wilayat Sinai is imitating the Islamic State.

Mixing terror and piety, they have beheaded opponents and moved against drug trafficking. They have appealed to the sympathy of Bedouin tribes and distributed money to those whose homes have been destroyed in the conflict.

But Wilayat Sinai has so far failed to reproduce the primary marker of the Islamic State – territorial acquisition. They hide out in the desert, mix with the people, plant roadside bombs, and adopt guerilla tactics, but have failed to claim and hold land.

It has not been for want of trying.

Wilayat Sinai has led over four hundred attacks on security forces between 2012 and 2015, killing an estimated seven hundred soldiers.

On 1 July, 2015 militants led a full-day assault on the city of Sheikh Zuweid, following multiple coordinated attacks on surrounding checkpoints. The effort failed when the military employed F-16s in the city’s defense.

Reporting on Sinai is difficult as the government has criminalised publication of information that contradicts official statements.

One month ago on 22 October, an army spokesman declared ‘full control’ over the Sinai, but terror attacks continue.

An anonymous officer said failings stemmed from unfamiliar terrain and a scorched-earth policy that alienated the population. There are also conflicting reports as to whether local tribes are joining the fight or just watching idly by.

But an anonymous militant admitted the military have severely restricted their operations, and the closing of tunnels on the Gaza border has dried up the weapon supply.

Europe

Human Rights Watch has criticised the government over the creation of a buffer zone meant to destroy the network of tunnels long exploited by traffickers and terrorists alike. Between July 2013 and August 2015 HRW reported the destruction of at least 3,255 homes and properties.

Israel claims that Hamas is aiding Wilayat Sinai, though leaders deny any connection to this ‘black extremism’.

But on Egypt’s Western border the Islamic State has been more successful in setting up a franchise. They call Libya ‘the strategic gateway’, noting its proximity to Egypt, Tunisia, African nations of the Sahel, and Europe.

In spring 2014 Libyans in Syria returned to Derna near Benghazi and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Fledgling states have been created for each of Libya’s three traditional regions: Cyrenaica, Tripoli, and the Fezzan.

This has sparked terrorist activity in Egypt’s Western Desert as well. In July 2014 ABM claimed responsibility for an attack in Farafra that killed 22 soldiers. Last month in pursuit of terrorist targets, the military accidentally killed eight Mexican tourists in the Bahariya oasis.

Splits

The terrorism network in Egypt is fluid. Abu Osama al-Masry indicated his support for the Islamic State as early as 30 June, 2014, praying for them to conquer Baghdad. By September reports of co-operation and training emerged.

But by November the eventual pledge of allegiance was disputed, with veterans said to support Al-Qa’eda, yet with the youth vote winning out.

Since then splinter groups have formed, though there is no evidence of direct conflict. Jihadi Ribat was created in December 2014, eschewing support for Islamic State claims to the caliphate. The aforementioned former military officer Ashmawi split with others in July 2015 to formal-Murabitoon.

Ajnad Misr declared its intention to focus on attacks against security personnel in Cairo, in January 2014. It has been implicated in over 25 attacks, but focuses on Egypt rather than a global cause.

There even appears to be diversity within the Islamic State network. Recent attacks on the Italian Consulate in Cairo and on a security directorate in Shubra el-Kheima were claimed by Islamic State in Egypt, not Wilayat Sinai.

The Egyptian government claims progress in the fight against terrorism, and last week killed Ashraf el-Gharably, reportedly a top commander in Wilayat Sinai. The UK has offered the support of special forces to help kill or capture Abu Osama al-Masry.

The British government declared Wilayat Sinai, then ABM, a terrorist entity in April 2014.

‘Egypt deserves support, not punishment,’ Anglican Bishop of Egypt Mouneer Hanna Anis told Lapido Media, critical of Russian and British decisions to restrict air travel to Egypt estimated to cost the nation nearly £185 million per month.

‘My prayer is to see the international community working together to fight terrorism.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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Current Events

US Behind ISIS?

Map of New Middle East

Here in Egypt the conspiracy thinking is strong that the United States, or at least her allies in the region, are a force behind the emergence of the so-called Islamic State.

From the London Review of Books, here is some of the evidence. Fortunately, the author also deals with it along the conspiracy spectrum:

His book went to press before he could take account of the extraordinary revelation that US intelligence had anticipated the rise of Islamic State nearly two years before it happened.

On 18 May, a document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency dated 12 August 2012 was published by a conservative watchdog organisation called Judicial Watch, which had managed to obtain this and other formerly classified documents through a federal lawsuit.

The document not only anticipates the rise of IS but seems to suggest it would be a desirable development from the point of view of the international ‘coalition’ seeking regime change in Damascus. Here are the key passages:

7b. Development of the current events into proxy war … Opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar), in addition to neighbouring Turkish borders. Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts. This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command centre of the temporary government …

8c. If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.

So American intelligence saw IS coming and was not only relaxed about the prospect but, it appears, positively interested in it. The precise formula used in paragraph 8c is intriguing. It doesn’t talk of ‘the possibility that Isis might establish a Salafist principality’ but of ‘the possibility of establishing’ a Salafist principality. So who was to be the prime mover in this process? Did IS have a state backing it after all?

The second piece of evidence is less direct, but comes from a 2006 map of the ‘New Middle East’ published in the Armed Forces Journal. It draws boundaries for an Arab Shia state, an Arab Sunni state, Syria, and Kurdistan.

Here is the author’s interpretation:

What we can make of this is, of course, unclear. At one extreme, conspiracy theorists will argue that it supports their claim that the Western powers have been deliberately creating chaos for unavowable reasons of their own.

At the other end of the spectrum, one could hypothesise that the DIA document may have been read by four unimportant people in Washington and ignored by everyone else.

In the middle, showing more respect for the DIA, we could imagine something else: the possibility that, in 2012, American and other Western intelligence services saw Isis much as they saw Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups, as useful auxiliaries in the anti-Assad drive, and could envisage its takeover of north-eastern Syria as a helpful development with no worrying implications.

If Islamic State escaped whatever influence Western intelligence services may initially have sought to have on it and went its own way, this means that people have been playing with fire.

I don’t pretend to know what the truth is. But there is no need to prove malign intent on the part of the Western powers. The most charitable theory available, ‘the eternally recurring colossal cock-up’ theory of history, will do well enough.

It is a very long but thorough article, stretching from the Mamluke era to Sykes-Picot through last century’s cycle of Arab revolutions and coup d’etats, up to the current day. His conclusion is that if the Western world wants to defeat the Islamic State, it must do so through the Syrian army, at least temporarily with Assad at the helm.

It makes for a good read, and also drives you crazy. Just realize that Arab conspiracy theorists are right there with you, and have suffered far more than we who can read the London Review of Books.

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Remember the Captive Assyrian Christians

Elderly Syrian ChristiansThere is so much bad news, often repeated, that five months later it is easy to forget. On February 23, 253 Assyrian Christians from the Hassaka area of Syria were taken captive by the so-called Islamic State.

Unlike others, they were not executed for propaganda. It appears the jihadis desire ransom instead.

On March 1, a group of mostly elderly captives were released. Al-Monitor was able to secure an interview with one of them, describing their conditions. She is presently in Lebanon with her daughter’s family.

Al-Monitor:  Where did they take you afterward, and how were you treated?

Assyrian:  The first thing they did was to separate the men from the women. Children under 11 years old would stay with the women. From that moment on, we never saw the men and boys again. We were allowed, however, to send letters over to the men and receive theirs. They crammed all of us into a room with a single window. There was so little room we would take turns lying down to sleep. We would take turns by the window to breathe better.

Al-Monitor:  You spent over four months in these conditions. How did you and the other women survive? Did you suffer physical abuse by IS while in captivity?

Assyrian:  I am an elderly woman. What I feared, what we all feared, was abuse to the girls. Fortunately, that did not happen. We lived in the constant fear of it but while I was there we were not beaten, nor were there other forms of physical abuse. The psychological fear was tremendous. We were all held together in the same room: all women and children up to age 11. We slept very little and were constantly trying to cover our faces from the captors. We prayed six times a day. This gave us hope.

She describes most of her captors as local Syrians, though there were foreigners among them. She described a particularly poignant ritual:

An IS jihadist would come to the room where we were kept hostage every Saturday and tell us that if we agreed to convert, we would be set free. It became a ritual, every week on Saturday. One day a jihadist directed this offer to me and, debilitated and exhausted, I answered, “Look at me, I could be your mother. You stay with your religion and I stay with mine.”

In our group no one accepted the IS “offer” to convert to be freed. But we knew that those who put up physical resistance from other villages were killed.

When released, she was driven by truck to a nearby church. The priest offered money to pay for her transport, which was first refused, then accepted.

This seems like an odd detail, but it fits with the Arab culture as we know it. One must first refuse an offer of payment, after which it is received when insisted upon. It speaks to the deep patterns of behavior that persist, even under great stress and upheaval.

I wonder if it might also speak to the dignity of the Christians, insisting on behaving as equals, according to cultural norms, even when receiving back a captive.

Whether or not this is true, the article concludes with a priest in Lebanon joining the elderly Assyrian woman in lamenting how the world neglects them:

Georgio:  We receive no support. We feel completely abandoned. I try to support the Assyrian refugees with my church but there were a total of 1,400 families at a time, between those who fled from Mosul in Iraq and from Syria. It was impossible to provide the needed support to everyone. Europe is silent, not hearing our pleas for help.

Al-Monitor:  How are you able to live here in Lebanon? Do you have family here, or do you have the help of the Assyrian community here?

Assyrian:  I am lucky to have one of my daughters here. She moved to Lebanon years ago and lives here with her family. I live with her at her house. We receive some help from the Assyrian community. Father Georgio helps us. We do not receive any help from the government or from other institutions dealing with refugees.

Ah, but what can be done? At the least, remember.

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Why Christians are Fleeing One of Africa’s Oldest and Largest Christian Homelands

Ethiopian Christians at prayer at a rock-cut church, via NBC news photo blog.
Ethiopian Christians at prayer at a rock-cut church, via NBC news photo blog.

From my new article at Christianity Today:

April was a terrible month for Ethiopian migrants. Tescma Marcus and his brother Alex were burned alive during xenophobic attacks in South Africa. One week later, Eyasu Yekuno-Amlak and his brother Balcha were dramatically executed in Libya by ISIS, along with 26 others.

One reason Ethiopians were involved in high-profile tragedies at opposite ends of the continent: Their nation is the second-most populous in Africa as well as the second-poorest in the world (87 percent of Ethiopia’s 94 million people are impoverished).

Roughly two-thirds of Ethiopians are Christians. The majority of these belong to the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church; the rest primarily to Protestant denominations such as the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Makane Yesus (which recently broke ties with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over theological concerns).

The Orthodox and Protestants have long had in common the search for a better life. Increasingly, they share even more.

Veteran SIM missionary Howard Brant celebrates that “the two groups are coming closer and closer together” in Ethiopia, which he calls “one of the great success stories of evangelical Christianity.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Exploiting Saudi Arabia’s Tension of Identity

Damage in a Shia Mosque in Saudi Arabia after a terrorist attack by the Islamic State
Damage in a Shia Mosque in Saudi Arabia after a terrorist attack by the Islamic State

The Washington Institute interprets the targeting of Shiites in Saudi Arabia as hitting at a vulnerable point in their religio-political ideology:

Over the past two weeks, the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) has claimed two attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-majority Eastern Province, one in Dammam and the other in Qatif. While the incidents might not have an immediate impact on the kingdom’s overall security, they are relevant to long-term IS strategy of weakening the Saudi government by exposing its alleged hypocrisy.

A nation-state is home to all its citizens. But …

By attacking the Eastern Province, IS seeks to place Riyadh in the position of defending or appeasing Shiites, at the expense of a Saudi Wahhabist state ideology that does not tread too far from that of IS (e.g., Saudi schools teach students that Shiites are unbelievers and not Muslims).

The article describes how official government response has been to condemn the attack and offer condolences to its victims. By international standards this is the absolute minimum requirement. Not mentioned is the bounty Saudi Arabia offered for information leading to the criminals.

But The Islamic State is not interested in the international standards:

From the Islamic State’s perspective, such actions highlight Riyadh’s rank hypocrisy, showing “true” believers in the “land of the two holy places” how the Saudi state is contravening both God and its own founding standards. By casting themselves as the true bearers of Islam, IS leaders hope to draw more recruits and supporters.

The Saudi government is in a tricky spot. A long time ago they made a deal with you know who. Is it now coming due?

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Escaping ISIS in Libya

From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Osama Mansour (L), from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Consider the horrible ordeal of Coptic Christians in Libya, as the Islamic State stormed their compound. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tells how one escaped, helped by his Muslim friend:

Hani Mahrouf awakened at 2:30 in the morning when fists pounded on the door of his housing compound in Sirte, Libya.

It was Islamic State gunmen, searching for Egyptian Christians.

“They had a lot of weapons,” said Mahrouf, 33, a Muslim construction worker. “They asked if we were Muslim or Christian.

“We told them we were Muslim. Then they asked for the rooms of the Christians.

“They threatened us with their guns.”

The article describes how fighters scaled the compound walls, but the story centers on one who got away:

Osama Mansour, a Christian, was sleeping in a room of the first compound when ISIS burst in. Warned of what was happening, he slipped outside and “jumped from fence to fence just ahead of the gunmen,” he said.

He escaped but was left on his own in the dangerous city, separated from his friends.

“I stayed (in Sirte) for 30 days, but I didn’t stay in the same room” from night to night, said the 26-year-old tile worker.

A man he called “Sheikh Ali,” a Muslim from his home province of Assuit, helped Mansour hide and constantly change locations. Eventually, he grew a beard in order to leave Sirte.

“ISIS had two checkpoints that they would move around. I heard they were checking for tattoos” — he pointed to the bluish-black cross that he and many Coptic Christians ink on the insides of their wrists — “and we put a plaster cast on my hand and wrist. Sheikh Ali gave me a Quran and a prayer rug for the trip.

“I had to do this — I can’t have my mother wearing black” for mourning, Mansour said.

The article says most of his companions also eventually returned home, but it does not specify Sheikh Ali. Maybe he is still in Libya, able to work. If so, Osama may be using a pseudonym to protect his friend’s identity there.

One would hope it is not to protect his identity in Egypt. Recent news has some in the village protesting the church President Sisi promised to build in the name of the martyrs.

But in Libya, in this instance, the bonds of relationship and homeland proved stronger than the militant call of extremist religion. Amid constant news of chaos and atrocity, stories like this are precious reminders of humanity.

Unfortunately, guns and ideology can change the equation.

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How Libya’s Martyrs are Witnessing to Egypt

Two Rows by the SeaThis article was published first on Christianity Today, on February 23, 2015.

Undaunted by the slaughter of 21 Christians in Libya, the director of the Bible Society of Egypt saw a golden gospel opportunity.

“We must have a Scripture tract ready to distribute to the nation as soon as possible,” Ramez Atallah told his staff the evening an ISIS-linked group released its gruesome propaganda video. Less than 36 hours later, Two Rows by the Sea was sent to the printer.

One week later, 1.65 million copies have been distributed in the Bible Society’s largest campaign ever. It eclipses even the 1 million tracts distributed after the 2012 death of Shenouda, the Coptic “Pope of the Bible.”

The tract contains biblical quotations about the promise of blessing amid suffering, alongside a poignant poem in colloquial Arabic:

Who fears the other?
The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

“The design is meant so that it can be given to any Egyptian without causing offense,” said Atallah. “To comfort the mourning and challenge people to commit to Christ.”

The Bible Society distributed the tract through Egypt’s churches, but one congregation went a step further.

Isaaf Evangelical ChurchIsaaf Evangelical Church, located on one of downtown Cairo’s busiest streets, hung a poster on its wall at eye-level with pedestrians. “We learn from what the Messiah has said,” it read over the background of an Egyptian flag. “‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you….’”

Pastor Francis Fahim said the poster was meant to express comfort to all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian.

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Christianity Today.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Beheadings

Flag Cross QuranGod,

After a few days the spirit risks becoming calloused. One more tragedy amid a litany of offense. But the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya might strike a nerve that runs deeper. It might awaken a nation to danger, or deaden further a decayed humanity.

For some, God, are blaming the victim. There is talk that the church can only expect such treatment after its support for Morsi’s removal. There is talk that all is faked to further this conspiracy and extend it to Libya.

But there is also action. Two would-be bombers blew themselves up accidentally in the Upper Egyptian city where the victims are from.

God, let not those frustrated with Morsi’s removal descend into hatred and violence. Let them not draw sectarian readings and exact revenge on the innocent. Let not their seeking of justice lead to embrace of chaos. In their struggle, God, save their humanity.

For many are expressing their humanity anew. Government and Muslims alike have poured out sympathy on their Coptic fellow-citizens. A new church will be built in the Upper Egyptian city where the victims are from.

God, let not this moment pass without touching permanently the Egyptian soul. Let not the forgiving example of the Christian families be lost in the outrage against their killers. Let not a desire for justice lump all pro-Morsi together. In their struggle, God, deepen their humanity.

For callousness is still quite possible. So-called Islamic State partisans have been beheading tribesmen in the Sinai for months. May directed targeting of Christians not become as normal. That atrocity is normal at all is a stain on all humanity.

But what should a spirit do to avoid callousness? Do strikes on Libya and a call for international intervention signal a spirit that is hardening? Or is it rather a conscience awakening? Guide Egypt and the world with wisdom to meet this threat.

Whatever the solution, God, limit the blood. Speak alike to presidents and jihadists, that peace, reconciliation, and justice might somehow meet between them.

God, the offenses multiply daily among Egyptians of every persuasion. In their desire to see the world put right, help them hold tenaciously to the humanity of the other. May they forgive, that they be forgiven.

It may be the only way to save their own souls, and Egypt alongside. Be merciful, God, be merciful.

Amen.

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Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: ‘With their Blood, They are Unifying Egypt’

(credit Mohsen Nabil / AP Images, via CT)
(credit Mohsen Nabil / AP Images, via CT)

From my new article in Christianity Today:

Late Sunday night at an otherwise quiet curbside café in Cairo, customers put down their tea and backgammon. They sat riveted, watching Egypt’s president pledge retaliation against the Islamic State in Libya.

Earlier in the day, jihadists released a video of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians. Following President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s declaration of a week of mourning, the channel switched to images of the orange-clad victims, walking to their death on the shores of Tripoli.

“Do you see that?” one customer exclaimed, rising to point out the scene to his friend. “They dressed the Copts like in Guantanamo. This is horrible!”

The remark demonstrates the gut-level reaction of Egyptian Muslims, contrary to the desires of the Islamic State.

“There has been a very strong response of unity and sympathy,” said Andrea Zaki, vice president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. “People are describing Copts as Egyptians, first and foremost, and with their blood they are unifying Egypt.”

The article then provides commentary from other Christian leaders, and ends with a very direct message:

This thought is the central feature of nearly all Coptic advice to Christians in the West: Support Egypt.

Sidhom speaks openly of his “grudge” against the US administration, and no longer holds hope that American organizations can help. Zaki asks Western citizens to pressure their governments to see the “reality” and designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist entity. Kharrat asks for tourism and investment, especially in Upper Egypt.

But all ask for prayer.

“We are praying for God to change the hearts of those who have been raised on extremist thoughts,” said Anton, “and that this generation of Sisi will be different.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, published February 18, 2015.

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Photos: The Orthodox Church and the Tragedy in Libya

As Egypt mourns the victims killed by the so-called Islamic State branch in Libya, the Coptic Orthodox cathedral has been a center of attention. Every day the official spokesman has issued press releases and pictures updating the situation; all photos that follow are credited to the Coptic Media Center.

On Friday, February 13, following the announcement by the Islamic State that they were holding 21 Coptic Christians, the cathedral permitted their families to hold a small protest.
On Friday, February 13, following the announcement by the Islamic State that they were holding 21 Coptic Christians, the cathedral permitted their families to hold a small protest.
On February 14, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab met with the families, promising best efforts and to take care of them while in Cairo.
On February 14, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab met with the families, promising best efforts and to take care of them while in Cairo.
On February 16, after the Islamic State released its video of beheading its victims, President Sisi visited Pope Tawadros to express his condolences.
On February 16, after the Islamic State released its video of beheading its victims, President Sisi visited Pope Tawadros to express his condolences.
He was followed by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab.
He was followed by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab.
Also offering condolences was a delegation from the military, including the Minister of Defense, Sedki Sobhi.
Also offering condolences was a delegation from the military, including the Minister of Defense, Sedki Sobhi.
Also paying condolences were the ministers of social solidarity, health, and youth.
Also paying condolences were the ministers of social solidarity, health, and youth.
Following these was a delegation from the Azhar, including the Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb.
Following these was a delegation from the Azhar, including the Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb.
Later that evening Pope Tawadros received the condolences of the US ambassador, R. Stephen Beecroft.
Later that evening Pope Tawadros received the condolences of the US ambassador, R. Stephen Beecroft.
Also offering condolences was a delegation from the Protestant Churches of Egypt, headed by Safwat al-Baiady.
Also offering condolences was a delegation from the Protestant Churches of Egypt, headed by Safwat al-Baiady.
Many other churches also paid condolences, including Coptic Catholic Bishop Yohenna Qulta.
Many other churches also paid condolences, including Coptic Catholic Bishop Yohenna Qulta.
Also visiting the pope was prominent Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris.
Also visiting the pope was prominent Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab and Minister of the Interior Mohamed Ibrahim and the governor of Minya visited Bishop Paphnotius of Samalout to console the families and promise the state would build a new church in the name of the martyrs.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab and Minister of the Interior Mohamed Ibrahim and the governor of Minya visited Bishop Paphnotius of Samalout to console the families and promise the state would build a new church in the name of the martyrs.

The link given above is to the Facebook page of the official spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which contains pictures of many other visits.

Christians in Egypt have taken great comfort in the expressions of sympathy from state and Muslim citizens alike. It is a difficult time for the church, but the tragedy is serving to unite the nation.

‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’

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Bishop Mouneer on the Beheading of Egyptian Copts in Libya

Copts Killed in LibyaDear Friends,

It is with great sadness I write you today about the heinous murder of 21 Egyptian Christians at the hand of the so-called Islamic State branch in Libya. These men from the Upper Egyptian city of Samalout are no different from thousands of other Muslim and Christian Egyptians in Libya, seeking employment to support their families back home.

Except that these 21 were specifically chosen for their Christian faith. The video of their beheading expressed the Islamic State’s intention to increasingly target the Copts of Egypt.

This morning the Egyptian government launched airstrikes on Islamic State positions. It has declared a week of mourning, banned further travel to Libya, and will work to facilitate the return of all Egyptian citizens. The foreign minister has been dispatched to the United Nations to discuss the necessary international response.

The Anglican Church in Egypt and the world expresses its deep condolences to the families of these men, and also to his Holiness Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Please join me in praying for peace in Libya, Egypt, and the entire Middle East. Please pray the international community will act in wisdom, correctly and efficiently, and support Egypt in its war on terror. Please pray the churches of Egypt will comfort their sons and daughters, encouraging them to resist fear and hatred. And please pray for the perpetrators of this terrible crime, that God would be merciful to them and change their hearts.

Jesus tells us in John 16:33, “In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

Such cheer may seem impossible, but it is God’s promise. Please pray for us, that we may live lives worthy of his name, and hold to the testimony exhibited by the brave Egyptians in Libya.

The Most Rev. Dr. Mouneer Anis
Archbishop of Episcopal / Anglican Diocese of Egypt
with North Africa and the Horn of Africa
Primate of the Episcopal / Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East

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Researching the Islamic State

Researching ISIS

I confess to not having kept up well with the so-called Islamic State. My focus has always been on Egypt, with peripheral attention given to the region. If Egypt has been difficult to understand – living here – the rest of the region seemed near impossible. And fortunately, the complicating factor of the Islamic State had stayed distant from Egypt, until recently.

I am afraid a partial reason for my inattention is a success of their strategy. The Islamic State has its roots in Iraq, where it was one of many groups blowing up lots of stuff. Amid the moral ambiguity of the US occupation, yet another suicide bombing had a numbing effect. Why read one more template of the same story?

As they expanded into Syria the tale changed slightly, but with the same effect. The Islamic State was just one of many groups with unclear origins and less clear funding sources. Whatever nobility the original uprising may have had, it was quickly lost in a devastating civil war and the international hand-wringing that talked much and did little – which may have been for the best except for all the accumulated ‘little’ done behind the scenes.

And late last summer when the Islamic State drove out the historic Christian community and enslaved other religious minorities, it just accelerated a pattern recently established but seemingly inevitable. Palpitations of horror stimulated some writing, but what could be done to stem the tide? For every sympathetic Arabic letter ن placed on a Facebook page in solidarity, the futility of a hashtag campaign just became more apparent.

Finally, the Islamic State became another tool in the tool belt of conspiracy theorists, so abundant in the Arab world. For some their leader was a Mosad operative. Others saw the dirty hand of America looking for an excuse to reoccupy the region. Turkey and Qatar were blamed. As the US-led coalition rained more bombs upon the region in an effort to ‘degrade’ their capabilities, sorting through the conspiracies was far too daunting to contemplate.

All this is said to my detriment, for as noted it fits well with Islamic State strategy. They wish to wear down the morale of their enemy and give the appearance of the inevitability of their victory. Conspiracies aside, this is a key reason why the Iraqi army fled before them. Though greatly outnumbered ISIS believed in their fight. And their fight included years of kidnapping, assassinations, and suicide bombings that convinced the American-trained military it just wasn’t worth it.

My responsibility is Egypt, so I don’t believe I have run from a fight. But allowing myself to fall behind in the scholarship on the Islamic State is a dereliction of duty all the same, for Egypt is part of the on-edge region. The emergence of the Islamic State is one of the most important developments in a long time. Far more than a radical insurgency or religious revolution, their gains are a direct challenge to the nation-state system. That they have been successful relates directly to the weakness of this system in the region.

In the past few days I have finally taken time to remedy my negligence. This has come through reading some of the journalism and research on where the Islamic State stands today, in addition to fabulous video obtained by a journalist given a unique tour of their operations. I hope this brief summary will serve to compensate any deficiency in your knowledge, with less time investment.

But if you have the time to view this 45 minute feature from Vice News, I would recommend it. Published on August 15, it predates the beheading of foreigners and represents a moment in time the Islamic State was more open to outside eyes. They have allegedly issued a set of guidelines for journalists more recently, but I suspect few would be willing to trust their hospitality, let alone agree to the stipulations therein.

The footage is from Raqqa, the 500,000 population city now known as the capital of the caliphate. Familiar with cities in the Arab world, it was surprising to witness the normalcy of the environment mixed with the normalcy of atrocity. Familiar looking desert landscapes were cut with unfamiliar trenches, filled by familiar looking men carrying unfamiliar weapons.

Far worse was the familiar looking city square filled with familiar Arab facial features severed from their bodies. The Islamic State shows no pangs of conscience in its displays of brutality, but as will be remarked later, it all fits into a code that allows, even facilitates the rule of law.

For familiar scenes abounded in roadside shops and government installations, where the Islamic State has assumed the responsibility for service provision and justice. But unfamiliar morality police roam the streets, curbing the unfortunately familiar practices of bribery and corruption. And whereas it is normal to watch fathers and sons playing in a depleted riverbed, it is less common to hear preteens spew the vilest hatred of infidels and eagerly anticipate killing them.

For as Mara Revkin has detailed in Syria Comment, the conventional wisdom about jihadists being agents of chaos is ill-founded. Supported by Sarah Birke in the New York Review of Books, she shows that the chaos inducing practices of insurgency are quickly replaced by law and order once territory is seized. Patterns of governance, she remarks, are actually quite similar to those practiced by Europeans in the dawn of their industrial nation-state building efforts.

In pattern, that is, not necessarily in practice. The task of a state is win a monopoly on violence. To do so in contemporary Syria and Iraq requires quite a bit of violence at the outset. To secure an area the Islamic State uses a combination of fighting and buying loyalty. Upon submission of either kind they first demand repentance, and then disarmament. The Sheitat tribe in Deir Ezzor chose resistance, failed, and then had 700 men slaughtered, and 1,800 disappear. When none rose to their aid surrounding tribes learned a lesson. At the least they made common cause against a common enemy in Shia-led Baghdad. Several top leaders of the Islamic State are former ranking officers in the Baathist Iraqi military.

But once an area is in submission they work to restore functionality. Employees are left in their administrative positions. Zakat is collected and social service established for the poor. Police officers are well paid, enforcing a strict code based on sharia. This includes the cutting off of hands, whipping, and crucifixion. But it is not simply a code of deterrence. The Islamic State has punished, even executed its own members who transgress. This has been key to win at least the tacit acceptance of the population, who see a measure of justice at work. Used to the corruption of the previous regime, if people lie low and stay out of trouble it seems they can get on quite well.

In theory this applies even for Christians, some of whom have agreed to pay the dhimmi jizia tax. But most have fled when given the opportunity, leaving their churches behind which have been ransacked or converted to mosques. The video depicted one interior re-designer who took particular joy in destroying the crosses worshiped by the infidels.

But even in the far worse treatment for Shia and Yazidis, the Islamic State operates according to code. Guidelines have been issued for the treatment of enemy combatants and female slaves that horrify many modern Muslims. They meticulously draw from historic sources and practice, but the point is the importance of law. They are trying to build something that will last, and expand, in imitation of the earliest centuries of Islam.

But the question is, where do they get the money to do so? Long reports by Charles Lister in Brookings Doha, and Martin Chulov in the Guardian describe the history and funding sources of the Islamic State. And the conclusion is they largely earn it themselves. This flies in the face of the conspiracy theories, though it demands investigation of different ones altogether.

The original progenitor of the Islamic State is actually from Jordan, from whence Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hailed. But he made his name in Iraq, stoking sectarian tension to enflame the conflict against the Americans. After his death leadership of then-al-Qaeda in Iraq passed to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who led the incarnation of the first Islamic State effort from 2006-2008, defeated by the Sahwa tribal uprisings supported by the United States. But when Abu Omar was killed in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed leadership, and in 2014 he declared himself caliph. Intelligence sources say many of these jihadis passed through Syria first, given free conduct by President Assad.

Origins of this movement, however, trace all the way back to 2004 in a US prison in Iraq. Research indicates 17 of the top 25 Islamic State leaders spent time incarcerated, which actually helped their efforts. Outside of prison insurgents and jihadis operated independently; prison put them all in contact with one another. They even wrote contact information on the elastic lining in their underwear. When released or freed in jailbreak, they reconnected to put strategies in motion. Boxers helped us win the war, said one leader in an interview.

But the new leadership was at odds with their former worldwide partners in terrorism, and even their own disciples. Baghdadi sent his deputy to Syria when the Arab Spring began. Eventually he created Jabhat al-Nusra and chose not to submit, maintaining allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda. The two groups have clashed several times since, including in Raqqa before the Islamic State took control.

But once in control, and in expansion to other regions, revenues skyrocketed through the sale of smuggled oil. Additional sources included extortion money, ransom payments, and general taxation. At its height before the coalition bombing campaign, revenue equaled $2 million per day. No conspiratorial funding relationship with Saudi Arabia or Qatar is needed, but still conspiracies exist. Who purchases the oil, and from where? Who lets the foreign jihadists, now numbering 18,000 of the 31,000 fighting force, across the borders?

Indications point strongly to Turkey, though regime controlled areas in Syria also have a role. But all articles indicated the Islamic State is indeed becoming a state, though fully outside the nation-state system. What is to be done?

Going further than just this collection of articles, suggestions have included American reengagement on the ground, US support to Arab nation engagement on the ground, arming ‘moderate’ rebels against the Islamic State and the Assad government in some order, or supporting Assad in his position while negotiating a better political situation. Drying up revenue sources by pressuring regional allies to clamp down on the black markets has also been demanded, but with limited success.

It should be stated that I have heard Islamic State-type rhetoric the Arab world over, long before this current emergency. Rarely have I encountered an inclination to mete out such violence in implementation, but the goals of the new caliphate resonate with many a Muslim. It connects to their glorious past, claiming fidelity to the honored scriptures and righteous ancestors. And psychologically it allows non-introspection about current woes, finding refuge in the simpler hope of ‘if only we were more faithful Muslims, God would honor us.’

Of course, Muslims the world over have condemned the Islamic State, though in various fashion. The modern world is far different than the Ottoman Empire, or any other caliphate before it. Islam can get on very reasonably as a spiritual faith, disembodied from political power. Many Muslims are quite happy here.

But there is that something in Islam that clamors for power. It is not enough to live righteously and call others also to do so. Living righteously calls for stopping evil. Stopping evil requires power. Power resides best in governance. But, oh so unfortunately, power in governance tends to corrupt.

The Islamic State is doing its best to root out corruption. They are not after personal gain (presumably), but divine principle. Their horrors are obvious, but not random. They enact a code as they understand it. But at the same time, they issue contracts of sale for their black market partners who purchase the smuggled oil. The Arab world has suffered much evil, and they are fighting back. But so easily are compromises made.

And so wretched when moral horrors find justification in religious texts, rightly or wrongly. Sharia law has a place detailing the legal uses of spoils of war. It is from this heritage the Islamic State draws its regulations on proper conduct toward female slaves.

But war is human, as is power and governance. Muslims have long defended this aspect of their revelation as divine elevation of primal realities. Many state the norms of the past must be updated with the times, but they see it as a credit to their faith that it details all aspects of human existence, even unseemly ones.

So then, what to do with this catch up reading on the Islamic State? I hope this essay is at least partial fruit, that you as well may be better informed. But what good is information in the light of atrocities? Is not more demanded?

I confess I am not well placed to offer policy analysis on what to do in Syria and Iraq. With respect to all those placed in positions of influence, I wish them wisdom, discernment, and a pure heart. The current troubles are built upon compounded errors stretching back decades, from local and foreigner alike. It is far easier to criticize than find solution, especially from the outside. I tend to wish we would leave bad enough alone, and give up policing the world. But then so much would fall apart. It is hard to be on top, responsible to defend the stability of a world order upon which one’s prosperity depends. It is also hard to stomach the interventions at times necessary to maintain it.

But these are idealistic wishes of justice and responsible economy, not the workings of realpolitik. I would like to trust American leadership cares for our prosperity in good conscience with the prosperity of others. Alas, I fear this is not always so. Interest often trumps principle, especially when in power.

I have more confidence, perhaps, in weighing religious response in interaction with the rhetoric of the Islamic State. I see how their conduct is drawn from religion, and I see how rebuttal is drawn from the same. Islam is not monolithic, it is a flexible heritage. It must be, to have been so influential across time and geography.

Therefore, on this front, both groups must be challenged from their own sources. Jihadists and those of similar thought must realize Islam has torn itself apart in history, and created mechanisms to prevent reoccurrence. One many not call a Muslim an infidel, no matter how much he sins. And preventing evil has a rich heritage of interpretation, so that a zealot in his effort to forbid wrong does not wind up creating even more. These are basic lessons of civilization, and they have a religious root.

But for those who are quick to condemn the Islamic State and demonstrate Islam is a religion of peace, this is fine rhetoric but poor research. This group also, both Muslim and non-, must struggle with sources that mirror the practices witnessed today. Many Muslims try, and their efforts have been controversial. Some have looked to find modern ethics in their own heritage, rightly reinterpreted. Others have relegated the heritage to a bygone era, however superior it was to the ethics of the time. This effort is ongoing, but few will dare to condemn, for example, the early wars of Islamic expansion.

In both instances, though, care must be taken to win people and not arguments. The goal is a better vision for peace in this world, and for those who believe, also in the next. The goal is not to demonstrate the superiority of one faith or civilization over another. It is not to tear down a beloved heritage or corrupt sincerely held doctrine. It is to challenge each and every person to live up to higher ideals of truth and love, even as these ideals are debated. It goes without saying one must subject him or herself to the same process.

This will do little to change the Islamic State, but it may do well in conversation about it.

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Current Events

The Sharia of ISIS and Azhar

Sharia Azhar ISISDoes the so-called Islamic State represent the essence of Islam, or its perversion? The answer supplied often closely aligns with one’s ideology.

But what does ISIS say for itself? Here is testimony gathered by the Guardian on what is taught in the training camps:

Unlike previous incidents of stoning adulterers and crucifixion, throwing people from high buildings [for homosexuality] did not even inspire criticism of sharia in the Middle East because many did not realise it was a sharia penalty in the first place.

But it is the obscurity of the punishment that makes it particularly valuable for Isis. The purpose is not to increase the volume of violence but also to raise eyebrows and trigger questions about such practices, which Isis is more capable of answering than mainstream clerics, who prefer to conceal teachings that propound such punishments.

Many Isis members were eager to emphasise they were impressed by such obscure teachings, and were drawn to the group by the way Isis presents Islam with absolute lucidity.

Similar is the question of whether or not Islam spread by the sword:

We spread our message by proselytisation and sword. Ibn Taymiyyah said ‘the foundation of this religion is a book that guides and a sword that brings victory’. We guide and the sword brings victory.

“If someone opposes the message of the prophet, he faces nothing but the sword. As the prophet spread the message across the Earth, we are doing the same.”

Another member echoed Abu Moussa’s reasoning. “The prophet said: ‘I have been given victory by means of terror.’ As for slaughter, beheading and crucifixion, this is in the Qu’ran and Sunna [oral sayings attributed to prophet Muhammad].

“In the videos we produce, you see the sentence ‘deal with them in a way that strikes fear in those behind them’, and that verse speaks for itself. One more thing: the prophet told the people of Quraish, ‘with slaughter I came to you’.”

The article claims that mainstream clerics prefer not to address these more sordid matters. But here is very thorough counter-tract, called an Open Letter to Baghdadi, with a 24-point refutation of the Islamic State and its practices.

It is signed by Muslim leaders around the world, exposing either the ignorance or agenda of those who rail against ‘moderate Muslims’ for not condemning ISIS. The punishment of throwing from the rooftops is not mentioned, but here is an excerpt from their section on jihad:

The reason behind jihad for Muslims is to fight those who fight them, not to fight anyone who does not fight them, nor to transgress against anyone who has not transgressed against them. God’s words in permitting jihad are: ‘Permission is granted to those who fight because they have been wronged. And God is truly able to help them; those who were expelled from their homes without right, only because they said: “Our Lord is God”. Were it not for God’s causing some people to drive back others, destruction would have befallen the monasteries, and churches, and synagogues, and mosques in which God’s Name is mentioned greatly. Assuredly God will help those who help Him. God is truly Strong, Mighty.’ (Al-Hajj, 22: 39-40).

Thus, jihad is tied to safety, freedom of religion, having been wronged, and eviction from one’s land. These two verses were revealed after the Prophet ﷺ and his companions suffered torture, murder, and persecution for thirteen years at the hands of the idolaters. Hence, there is no such thing as offensive, aggressive jihad just because people have different religions or opinions. This is the position of Abu Hanifa, the Imams Malik and Ahmad and all other scholars including Ibn Taymiyyah, with the exception of some scholars of the Shafi’i school.

And for the benefit of Egypt’s reputation, here is a list of her signatories, many of whom are affiliated with the Azhar:

4. Prof. Salim Abdul-Jalil, Former Undersecretary for da’wah at the Awqaf Ministry, and Professor of Islamic Civilization at Misr University for Science & Technology

5. Sheikh Wahid Abdul-Jawad, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

6. Dr. Mustafa Abdul-Kareem, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

7. Prof. Ibrahim Abdul-Rahim, Professor of Shari’ah, Dar al-Ulum College, Cairo University

8. Prof. Jafar Abdul-Salam, Secretary-General of the League of Islamic Universities

11. HE Prof. Sheikh Shawqi Allam, The Grand Mufti of Egypt

13. Prof. Mohammad Mahmoud Abu-Hashem, Vice-President of Al-Azhar University and member of the Centre for Islamic Research at Al-Azhar Al-Sharif

16. Prof. Mohammad Al-Amir, Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies for Girls, Al-Mansoura University

17. Dr. Majdi Ashour, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

18. Prof. Dr. Abdul-Hai Azab, Dean of the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law, Al-Azhar University

21. Prof. Bakr Zaki Awad, Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Al-Azhar University, Egypt

23. Dr. Sheikh Osama Mahmoud Al-Azhari, Islamic Preacher

35. Dr. Mohammad Abdul Sam’i Budair, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

41. Prof. Jamal Farouq Al-Daqqaq, Professor at Al-Azhar University

44. Prof. Mohammad Nabil Ghanayim, Professor of Shari’ah, Dar al-Ulum College, Cairo University

45. Sheikh Dr. Ali Gomaa, Former Grand Mufti of Egypt

55. HE Prof. Mohammad Al-Hifnawi, Professor of Usul al-Fiqh at the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law at Al-Azhar University, Tanta branch

56. Prof. Sami Hilal, Dean of the College of the Holy Qur’an, Tanta University

57. Prof. Sa’d al-Din Al-Hilali, Head of the Department of Comparative Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University

63. Dr. Khaled Imran, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

71. Sheikh Ahmad Wisam Khadhr, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

72. Sheikh Muhammad Wisam Khadhr, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

74. Sheikh Mohammad Yahya Al-Kittani, Preacher & Imam

76. Sheikh Amr Mohamed Helmi Khaled, Islamic Preacher and Founder and President of the Right Start Global Foundation

81. Prof. Dr. Abdul Hamid Madkour, Professor of Islamic Philosophy, Dar al-Ulum College, Cairo University

83. Prof. Mohammad Mukhtar Al-Mahdi, Professor of Islamic Studies, Al-Azhar University and President of the Shari’ah Society

85. Sheikh Ahmad Mamdouh, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

89. Prof. Mohammad Abdul Samad Muhanna, Advisor to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif

90. Sheikh Mukhtar Muhsen, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

91. Professor Fathi Awad Al-Mulla, Pundit and consultant for the Association of Islamic Universities

96. Mr. Abdul Hadi Al-Qasabi, Grand Sheikh of the Sufi Tariqahs in Egypt

97. Prof. Saif Rajab Qazamil, Professor of Comparative Jurisprudence, Al-Azhar University

99. Sheikh Ashraf Sa’ad, Muslim Scholar

102. Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Sharif, Head of the Association of Sherifs in Egypt

107. Prof. Ismail Abdul-Nabi Shaheen, Vice President Al-Azhar University and Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Islamic Universities

113. Prof. Nabil Al-Smalouti, Professor of Sociology and former Dean of the Department of Humanities, Al-Azhar University

121. Dr. Amr Wardani, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

126. Prof. Zaki Zaidan, Professor of Shari’ah, Faculty of Law, Tanta University

At the time of this writing, Prof. Zaidan is the last of 126 signatories. I am not aware of why it is arranged in this order, but high-ranking Egyptians are listed throughout.

Deeper analysis and further study is needed to either rebut or prove the claim that ISIS is Islam, but these scholars are certain it is far from the religion.

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Current Events

Islamism or Jihadism: A False Choice

Fadel Soliman
Fadel Soliman

In the year 1321 Muslim mobs, with tacit allowance from the Mamluk Sultan, destroyed 60 churches in Egypt and openly attacked Copts on the roads and in their homes. Incitement included accusations Christians supported the invading Mongols in their ‘coup’ attempt against the state.

According to UK-based Fadel Soliman, these days may soon return. Coptic support for President Sisi and his coup against the democratically elected Islamist presidency of Mohamed Morsi has resulted in a ‘poisoned atmosphere’ between religious adherents.

‘I am so worried about the future of Egypt,’ said Soliman, ‘especially about the reactions of Muslims toward you.’

Soliman issued this comparison in the context of a larger argument about restoring hope to Muslim youth who own the dream of ruling by sharia. Too many, he laments, are attracted by the success of the so-called Islamic State following the ‘betrayal’ of the democratic dawn.

‘Either give the way to Muslim youth to try to reach their dreams through peaceful means,’ he told Lapido Media, ‘or they will definitely seek violent means. This is normal, this was expected to happen.’

Soliman is the Egyptian founder and director of Bridges Foundation, a UK-based NGO that aims to overcome misconceptions about Islam. His work has been praised by diverse figures such as Representative Michael Doyle of Pennsylvania and the liberal satirist Bassem Youssef of Egypt. He has consistently condemned terrorism and appealed to the Islamic State for the return of Alan Henning, later beheaded.

He is also an Islamist, arguing sharia law supports and enhances the principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He wishes justice for Egypt, to which he has not returned since the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa where he witnessed sixteen of his students killed.

Correct?

But the crucial question is – if his argument is correct will frustrated Islamists flock to a jihadist vision? And similarly, should policymakers encourage ‘moderate’ Islamists as a counterweight to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State?

The argument is very popular in academic circles, informing much of the enthusiasm of the initial Arab Spring. Khalil al-Anani of Georgetown University in Washington DC, writing in Foreign Affairs, speaks for many in his worry about a return to authoritarianism in Egypt.

‘Through its clampdown on political dissent, Cairo has created a fertile ground for ISIS and groups like it,’ he wrote,‘with the potential to recruit young people, Islamists, and moderates alike.’

Indeed, most Muslims in Egypt are religiously conservative. The 2013 Pew survey showed 74% want sharia to be the law of the land, with 56% believing Egypt’s current legal system is deficient. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties captured nearly three-quarters of the parliament in the 2012 elections. It would appear these numbers represent those are ripe for radicalisation.

But Soliman’s appraisal of Egyptian politics fails to account for the millions of Muslims and Christians who rejected the presidency of Morsi. Coup or not, the subsequent ‘yes’ votes for the constitution and Sisi’s presidency each exceeded the 13 million Morsi won in 2012.

These numbers do not negate the conviction of Islamists that they have been cheated out of gains fairly won. Their grievances have been buttressed by the 632 people killed at Rabaa, according to Egypt’s semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights. A minimum of 6,400 people have been detained for ‘rioting’, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

Bigotry

But the assumption these frustrations will drive Islamists to violence is simply a form of bigotry, according to Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

‘I disagree with this line of argument,’ he said. ‘It is shallow and insulting to Muslims. It is the bigotry of low expectations.’

Where Soliman sees the path to violence as normal—despite his firm rejection—Tadros sees responsibility.

‘Violence is a choice,’ he said. ‘It is not an inevitable one. Just as some have chosen the path of terrorism, there are millions of men and women who have chosen not to become terrorists, not to kill their enemies.’

Estimates of Egyptians fighting in Syria and Iraq range between 5,000 and 8,000. Islamist movement expert Ahmed Ban of the Nile Center for Strategic Studies believes this makes up 20-30% of their fighting force.

These are significant numbers. But according to two recent polls, only three to four percent of Egyptians view the Islamic State in positive terms. Viewed in light of a population of 90 million, small percentages cause considerable worry. But Egyptians, including the mass of Islamists, are not rushing headlong into jihadism.

Soliman says that every time he criticizes the Islamic State his Facebook and Twitter feeds light up in protest.

But Khaled Dawoud of Egypt’s Constitution Party, writing for the Atlantic Council, says the majority of Egyptians in Syria and Iraq travelled there during the presidency of Morsi. It was not the failure of Islamism that boosted jihadism, but its success.

Egypt has instituted travel restrictions to Turkey to prevent the further flow of citizens to the Islamic State. Terrorism continues in the restless Sinai where the Islamic State has formed a local chapter. The threat is real.

Prioritising values

But even peaceful Islamists have a distinct illiberal agenda, writes Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in his acclaimed book Temptations of Power. The premise that democracy would moderate them did not prove true in Egypt. In an excerpt from the Atlantic he describes the conflict this makes for observers, but Egyptians bear the greater struggle.

‘The ensuing—and increasingly charged—debate over the role of religion in public life put Western analysts and policymakers in the uncomfortable position of having to prioritise some values they hold dear over others,’ he wrote.

In the ongoing debate about how to include Islamists in the political order, foreign governments and Egyptians will set their agenda according to particular interests and principles.

But the implicit threat of jihadism should not be given a place of priority. It is neither sufficiently true nor morally honorable.

This article was originally published at Lapido Media.