Stop Murdering Terrorists

From Christianity Today, in an interview with Brother Andrew of Open Doors:

Not long ago of course Osama bin Laden was assassinated, and the whole world rejoiced. Thousands have died in drone assaults. What is your response to such killing?

I have been speaking in meetings in America, and part of my sermon was, “Have you prayed today for bin Laden?” People were rather shocked, and some people said, “I must confess. I have never prayed for bin Laden, but now I do it.”

Bin Laden was on my prayer list. I wanted to meet him. I wanted to tell him who is the real boss in the world. But then he was murdered, I call it. Murdered, because he didn’t shoot back. He had no resistance. That’s not warfare. And I have had too much of that. A good number of my own friends in Gaza have been assassinated. Liquidated they call it in their terminology. I call it murdered.

We must witness to people. And all the people that I now talk about in Gaza that were murdered were people that I met in their homes and I gave a Bible. I prayed with them.

The title of this post is taken from Christianity Today, and is the part of this interview the magazine chose to highlight.

Let us suppose there was certainty about the object of a drone attack being a self-confessed, proud, and practiced terrorist. The reality is that this certainty is often lacking, and many otherwise innocent people die in the process of targeting them. But let us suppose.

One of the tensions of Christianity – a very positive one – is that it encourages fidelity to both country and creator. As an American, a case can be made that drone killings are cheaper, more effective, and save more lives than traditional warfare. Certainly they keep the lives of our own soldiers from risk.

But as a Christian? The appeal to Genesis – he who sheds the blood of man, let his blood be shed – only applies if you give America jurisdiction over the rest of the world. That such a terrorist be killed may represent justice, but that anyone assume the right to kill him is another matter.

The words of Brother Andrew are poignant, because he is not just an armchair theorist. He has met with such people, and loved them. Perhaps this distracts him from the necessary cold-hearted calculation required of a nation.

But let it tug at the heart strings of Christians, who must be merciful, as God is merciful. Who must love their enemies, and do good to those who hate them. Who must from love keep no record of wrongs, refuse to delight in evil, and always protect, trust, hope, and persevere.

Dear Christian, dear citizen, live in this tension, but remain whole.


To Name Our Son in Egypt

Come November 6, I will no longer be Abu Talaat Banat – the father of three girls. Though it is not so prevalent in Egypt, in good Arab fashion I will soon be Abu ….. – the father of the name of our first-born son.

So what name will we choose? The rule is that it must work in both Arabic and English, and we prefer as well there be a connection to Egypt. Of course, it has to sound nice and have a pleasant meaning as well. Here are the choices that have made the cut, in alphabetical order:

Alexander, Jeremiah, Matthew, Nathan/Nathaniel, Osama, and Thomas.

Allow us to share some of our rationale below. Please feel free to share your opinion or prediction at the end. Who knows, maybe it will sway us.


Arabic: Iskander – we really like the sound of this, and can imagine calling him ‘Iskander’ even around the house.

Egypt: Egypt’s second largest city – Alexandria – was named after Alexander the Great.

Bible: There are a couple Alexanders of ill repute in the Bible, but Alexander was also the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross. Cyrene, near modern Benghazi in Libya, was associated with Egypt in history. Church history connects this Alexander with St. Mark – the founder of the Coptic Church – as heralding from the same region.

Family/Friends: Alexander is my second brother’s middle name. As with all family connections to follow, we’re not sure if this would be a positive honoring or a negative stealing – in case he wanted to use his name for any future sons of his own. Alexandria is also my mother’s middle name.

Drawbacks: Though the name nobly means ‘defender of men’, the best known Alexander was hardly such. He was a man of war and creator of empire. Of course, much of Western civilization derives from his Hellenization of Europe and the Mediterranean, but bloodshed is not the best legacy to grant a son.

More trivially, though he was my favorite sitcom character growing up, Alex from ‘Family Ties’ is not the best role model either.


Arabic: Armia – It is a bit awkward in Arabic but is known in Egypt through the Coptic population. I think we would most likely call him ‘Jeremiah’ even among Egyptian friends.

Egypt: There is a Coptic bishop named Armia who is a member of the Holy Synod and was a secretary to Pope Shenouda.

But a greater connection comes through the Biblical prophet, who at the end of his life was carried captive to Egypt, where he presumably died, perhaps at the hands of his own people.

Bible: The book of Jeremiah is my favorite Old Testament book. Jeremiah puts forward an example of faithfulness to a task even when failure is promised. His personal pathos is matched only by God’s faithfulness to him in return – through his presence, not through success.

Family/Friends: We have a few friends named Jeremy, but know of no one named Jeremiah. Perhaps this in itself is a plus.

Drawbacks: The Biblical Jeremiah is known as ‘the weeping prophet’. While the above description shows our appreciation for this aspect of his character, it also could be a difficult legacy to bequeath.


Arabic: Matta – Unlike many Arabic equivalents this is simple and easy for non-native speakers to pronounce.

Egypt: Matta al-Miskeen – Matthew the Poor – is a well-known and controversial Coptic monk. Now deceased, he was a prolific writer, fully Orthodox, but appreciated by Protestants. He also dared to criticize Pope Shenouda in his early years over the politicization of the papacy. I’ve always had a soft spot for sincere troublemakers.

Bible: The Gospel of Matthew is perhaps my favorite New Testament book, containing the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ choice of Matthew as a disciple, when he was from the hated Roman-collaborating tax collectors, is an inspiring act.

Family/Friends – Matthew is my father’s middle name.

Drawbacks: Our daughter Hannah complained a boy in her kindergarten class named Matthew was naughty.

Nathan / Nathaniel

Arabic: Nasaan / Nasana’eel – These are not particularly well known as names in Arabic, even among Christians, despite their Biblical origin.

Egypt: His martyrdom anniversary is celebrated on the first day of the Coptic New Year.

Bible: Nathan was an Old Testament prophet in the court of David who had the courage to rebuke his king and the wisdom to do so in a manner yielding his repentance.

Nathaniel is the alternate name for Bartholomew (in John’s Gospel), one of the twelve disciples, of whom Jesus said there was no guile.

Family/Friends: A few Nathans were friends from university days.

Drawbacks: Both Biblical characters provide good examples, but the pronouncement of being guileless was preceded by Nathaniel’s prejudice against Jesus’ hometown. Transparency is a virtue, but can lead to lack of tact. Picking straws, here, of course.


Arabic: Osama is Arabic, with no English equivalent. It is related to being exalted, as in the heavens, and is one of the words for ‘lion’. It is used by both Muslims and Christians. Does not Osama bin Jayson have a nice ring to it?

Egypt: Many of Osama bin Laden’s closest advisors were Egyptian, as is his successor in al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Bible: No direct connection, but the choice of this name comes from the example of Isaiah, who named his son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means ‘quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil,’ and was connected to his prophetic ministry. Poor kid.

Yet the idea is that those who love us will also love our son. Those who love our son will love him in his entirety, including his name. Perhaps those who love him – and his name – will also come to love his notorious namesake and his imitators. At the very least we hope our son in this legacy can redeem a name, and perhaps even dent the association with a war on terror which has done so much harm to this world.

Family/Friends: A wise counselor and Muslim friend in Egypt is named Osama.

Drawbacks: These are obvious, really. Poor kid.


Arabic: Toma or Tomas – We get mixed up between the Arabic and the Coptic equivalent, but both are well known in Egypt and easy to pronounce.

Egypt: Bishop Thomas is a well-known bishop in the Coptic Church, beloved by both Orthodox and Protestants.

The Apostle Thomas is also beloved by Egyptians because he is the sole disciple believed to have witnessed the assumption of Mary into heaven.

Bible: Best known as ‘Doubting Thomas’ for failing to believe the report of Jesus’ resurrection, he is less known for his great courage. As opposition to Jesus was mounting, Thomas told the disciples, ‘Let us also go [to Jerusalem] that we might die with him.’

Family/Friends: Thomas is the middle name of my third brother. It is also the favorite choice of our daughters, who picked it themselves.

Drawbacks: The doubting heritage is not best, even though courage in the midst of doubt is admirable. Thomas also means ‘twin’, which is unfortunately (?) not the case with our son to be.

So, these are our choices. The middle name can make a difference, of course, which we have chosen but will not share at this time.

For review: Alexander, Jeremiah, Matthew, Nathan/Nathaniel, Osama, and Thomas.

The name may or may not follow the pattern of our daughters, but for reference they are:

  • Emma Hope
  • Hannah Mercy
  • Layla Peace

With Layla’s name we played a similar game on our blog. For a long while it was the most viewed post we have written, and remains the most commented.

Currently, the most viewed post is about the assault on the US Embassy in Cairo. What do you say we knock that one off its perch, and celebrate something more seemly? In any case, we hope you and your friends will have as much fun with this as we will.

We look forward to sharing the good news to come.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Dar al-Ifta’: The House of Fatwa

Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti

The fatwa is commonly known in the West as a death sentence. Among Muslims, the fatwa can be among the most powerful tools of Islamic populism. On a third front, the fatwa is simply a bureaucratic function. Which definition encompasses reality?

Since the dawn of Islam the scholar has had a place of prominence, celebrated for his command of the Quran, the traditions, and mastery of the sharia. For this reason, the state has always wanted to remain on good terms with the scholars, and if possible, to co-opt or institutionalize them.

What makes a scholar? There is a threshold of necessary knowledge, without which any claimant would be exposed as a fraud. But scholars must also be linked to networks, or else they would simply sit at home issuing fatwas to themselves. It is these networks which are under redefinition in Egypt and much of the Arab world today.

For example, the Muslim Brotherhood has a mufti – the Arabic term for one who gives a fatwa. Is he legitimate? What about each and every Salafi preacher around whom the people congregate? If someone appears on television, is he fit to issue a fatwa?

Conversely, though the state conveys legitimacy on many aspects of society, does it also pertain to religious life? Islamic societies have historically treaded carefully here, wary of the corrupting possibility of power but keen to preserve the stability of the nation.

For centuries, in Egypt especially but also throughout the Sunni Muslim world, the Azhar established itself as the pinnacle of Islamic scholarship. Its graduates secured both popular and institutional credibility. Yet in 1961 President Nasser brought the prestigious university under state control.

The process to diversify – and perhaps dilute – the influence of the scholars was already long underway, however. In the 19th Century under British occupation the Dar al-Ifta’ was created to issue official fatwas. The institution survived the 1952 revolution and was used at times thereafter to obtain favorable rulings for controversial state policies.

As both Sheikh al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti are positions appointed by the president, many have criticized the venerable bodies as being little more than mouthpieces for the ruling regime. It has not been uncommon, however, for many criticisms to issue from scholars of either dubious representation or extremist trends. Is not the state the societal organ best fit to establish proper regulations and qualifications?

Ibrahim Nagm

Though not a justification, Dr. Ibrahim Nagm explains the functions of Dar al-Ifta’. Serving as senior advisor to the Grand Mufti, he seeks to make understandable the concept of ‘fatwa’, which has been sensationalized due to what he would say is its frequent misuse.

Nagm defines a fatwa as ‘non-binding religious advice given by a qualified scholar in response to a question asked by a member of the public’. He then proceeds to unpack the meaning of each key phrase.

Non-binding: A fatwa carried no legal authority or compulsion of implementation. This invalidates the popular idea that a fatwa is a summons to kill a particular individual, for example.

Qualified: Though anyone can give their religious opinion, only a certified scholar is permitted to issue a fatwa. Dar al-Ifta’ insists upon deep Islamic scholarship from a respectable university (such as al-Azhar), and then provides three additional years of training before accrediting anyone.

Question: A fatwa must be spontaneous, issued in response to a real life issue submitted by the public. It cannot be internally generated according to policy. Every day the Dar al-Ifta’ receives +500 personal fatwa requests and +2000 by phone in up to nine languages from around the world.

To handle these requests, the Dar al-Ifta’ has about 50 accredited scholars working in its administration, with an additional 50 scattered throughout Egypt.

Each fatwa issued conforms to the basic methodology of Islamic scholarship, which Nagm outlined as the following:

1)      Consult the Islamic sources: These include the Quran, the sunna, and the legacy of Islamic scholarship. Look for precedents and consider their application.

2)      Understand the person and the issue: Fatwas are expected to apply differently according to circumstances. The legal texts are incomplete without full knowledge of the problem.

3)      Issue the fatwa: To be done in a manner bridging tradition and reality.

As an example, Nagm described a request for a fatwa to see if it was permitted for a particular man to take a second wife. After consulting the sources, the indications were yes – it is permitted for a Muslim to marry up to four wives.

Yet after consulting the situation, the person requesting the fatwa was discovered to be residing in a non-Muslim nation which forbids polygamy. Bridging between the tradition and the reality, Dar al-Ifta’ issued a fatwa instructing the requester to submit to the laws of the country he lived in, and not marry again.

In another example a farmer requested a fatwa to permit or forbid the use of certain chemicals in the fertilization process. Nagm indicated clearly this was a matter beyond the competence of the institution. They referred the question to scientific specialists, who indicated the mentioned chemicals were harmful. Armed with this knowledge, it was a simple matter to issue the fatwa forbidding their use.

Returning to the question of Islamic legitimacy, Nagm does not answer the question, but does paint Dar al-Ifta’ as a thoroughly bureaucratic institution. Its methods are sound, but reflect the dry, thorough work of professionalism.

Professionalism is good, of course, but Nagm frequently contrasted it to academia, which is not enough. It is not scholarship that makes a mufti, but training.

Of course, training is also good. Nagm commented that Osama bin Laden was an engineer, and Ayman al-Zawahiri was a doctor. No matter how substantial their personal study of Islamic jurisprudence, they are not part of a credible, established network.

In terms of establishment, this is certain. But credibility is in the eye of the beholder. Dar al-Ifta’ walks the fine line between professional accountability and state submission. Yet this is no different from the family of Islamic scholars throughout history who have navigated the same challenge.

After all, though scholarship is immensely valuable, it puts no food on the table. It must market its knowledge somewhere. The public trusts the scholar, while marketing, to remain faithful ultimately to God.

That trust is his only credibility.

Related Posts:


Previous Articles on Egypt’s Constituent Assembly Members

Egypt is currently undergoing a major political stir concerning the formation of the constitution. The referendum in March 2011 assigned parliament the right to elect a 100 member constituent assembly to draft the constitution, which would be put to a popular referendum after fifteen days. Very little instructions were provided on how this should be done, resulting in the current crisis.

Consistent with their powerful parliament majority, Islamist forces have approved an Islamist-dominated assembly. First they apportioned one-half of the membership to be drawn from parliament, which was distributed roughly according to party percentage. As Islamists represent 70% of this body, they immediately commanded a dominating percentage of the assembly as well.

The remaining half of the assembly was to be drawn from civil society, but the Islamist parliamentary majority submitted the final candidate list only one hour prior to voting, and then pushed through their desired candidates. This list includes several prominent non-Islamist figures, but most of these have since resigned in protest over Islamist dominance of the assembly.

The crisis is ongoing, with reformist Islamists seeking to reach out to the disgruntled liberals, while the Muslim Brotherhood engages in an ongoing war of words with the government and military council over the cabinet – which they want dismissed so as to form one themselves (in coalition, they insist, with all political currents) – as well as the presidency. The next few days in Egypt may be very politically telling.

In the meanwhile, this article purposes also to provide brief background on some of them selected members of the constituent assembly I have interacted with or written about in the past.

Only six Coptic members were elected to the body, but one of them is Rafik Habib. He is noteworthy as being a vice-president in the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. A Protestant, he cares deeply for the issues of Copts, but wraps their best future in an Islamic vision.

Rafik Habib: On Sharia, State, and Christianity – April 14, 2011

A more traditional Islamist is Nadia Mostafa, who is one of only six women in the 100 member assembly. She is a professor at Cairo University and discussed with me the relationship between Islam and civil society, especially how the promotion of civil society is often to the exclusion of the Muslim religion.

Islam and Civil Society – April 22, 2010

The final figure I have profiled was former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Nasr Farid Wassel. In a short interview I highlighted his statement honoring Osama bin Laden, but then spoke with an official member of the Azhar to dispute his interpretation.

Refuting bin Laden’s Martyrdom – May 24, 2011

It is certainly a unique body of Egyptians. Will they be able to draft a constitution acceptable to the Egyptian consensus? While already in question, the outcome is still to be decided.


Friend’s Brother Killed by US Drone

Translation: Conference of Supporters for the Imprisioned Scholar, Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman; No to killing civilians or innocent; No to persecuting Muslims or religious scholars; On the 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2001

I should take care with a word like ‘friend’. It may well be this line of work promotes a false intimacy between the subject and the interviewer. My goal is to learn, to honor, and then to share. A friendship, however, is self-contained; others may be invited in, but there is never an inside-out. If the subject has a message to share, he is inclined to be friendly, that it be given justly. I know this. All the same, the power of this line of work lies in the crafting of relationships. They may be false; I aim for them to be true. I aim also to maintain objectivity, while seeking to incline my heart.

Ahmed Omar Abdel Rahman was killed in Afghanistan on October 14, 2011, by an American drone. One of thirteen sons of the ‘Blind Sheikh’, he and his brother Mohamed followed the encouragement of his father to travel to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation. Ultimately successful in league with a chorus of such mujahideen, both foreign and local, the Egyptian contingent discovered they could no longer go home. In absentia, Egypt convicted them of plotting to overthrow the Mubarak government, at least in association with groups like al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, of which the Blind Sheikh is the spiritual head.

Mohamed was captured by the Americans when the superpowers passed the baton, and was extradited to Egypt in 2003. He spent four years in a secret underground prison in Nasr City, Cairo, with all communication between him and his family halted. Afterwards he was transferred to a public prison in Tora to the south of Cairo, current home of former Mubarak regime figures deposed since the revolution. Mohamed, however, was never a fellow inmate, as his release was granted in August 2010. He reentered society and decided to continue his education, pursuing a degree in historical literature at Cairo University.

Mohamed joined in the events of the revolution, but thereafter dedicated himself to a further goal – gaining the release of his father, the Blind Sheikh, from an American prison. It is within these efforts I met him, as well as his brother Abdullah, at a sit-in protest outside the American Embassy in downtown Cairo.

Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh, was imprisoned in 1993 as part of the plot to blow up the World Trade Center. He is kept, at least some of the time, in solitary confinement, though he is able to communicate with his family in Egypt. He is now old, and perhaps dying. His family sits-in day and night on the pavement outside the embassy asking the United States to allow him to return home, and for Egypt to help plead his cause.

Mohamed and Abdullah not only ask his release on humanitarian grounds, but also because they maintain his innocence. Abdel Rahman freely criticized the government of Mubarak during his residency in America. Fearing America might facilitate a triumphant return home as France allegedly did with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Mubarak regime sent agents to the United States to incriminate Abdel Rahman. His sons argue their father never advocated violence against civilians, and is wrongly charged. In exchange for doing away with this political menace, Mubarak promised to toe the American line on Israel and other issues of concern.

I have not yet investigated these claims, nor the original case. Neither am I fully aware of the activities of Mohamed and the now deceased Ahmed in Afghanistan. Mohamed tells me they stood on the sidelines during the internecine conflict that enveloped the nation after the Soviet pullout. He states as well they were never in league with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and that their father condemned the attacks of September 11. I will need to have further conversations on these matters, as well as do my homework.

Originally, I had planned on holding the content of these early conversations until I was more fully prepared. Then the newsflash: Their brother was dead.

I have been long troubled by the use of drones, which have increased significantly during the administration of President Obama. The issue surfaced in American political consciousness when al-Qaeda strategist Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was killed by a drone in Yemen. Meanwhile a Reuters report revealed the existence of a secret government council connected to the National Security Council, which places American citizens on a ‘kill list’ to be submitted to the president. Additionally, Turkish President Erdogan states the United States has agreed to give drones to his nation, and Saudi Arabia has asked for them. Currently, Israel flies drones over its border with Egypt.

Few Americans would lodge complaints against the nature of person killed so far in drone attacks. The profile is of the terrorist, al-Qaeda member, dedicated to killing innocent civilians. I will inquire if this was true of Ahmed.

Furthermore, there can be a logic to the use of drones. Scattered in caves in far away, unfriendly nations, such militants oversee operations that directly threaten American soil. Drones are cheaper in both expense and human lives. Our soldiers need not risk the operation necessary to apprehend the criminal.

Yet I argue this is exactly why the use of drones is dangerous. A virtue of democracy is that it is less likely to promote war, as the nation’s citizens must commit to bear the cost of its own sons’ lives. The use of drones breaks this link, placing the decision to kill squarely in the hands of the government. Yes, the government is still accountable, but it is a step removed from requiring a popular mandate. Elected representatives, we trust, are judicious in who they label an enemy, or at least in their appointment of military and intelligence officials bequeathed with this task, however extra-judicial it may be. Is there adequate monitoring? Is there transparency? If the public is largely separate from decision making, are their checks on who may be killed? Without a contingent of American troops also suffering casualties, who will care, or even know, that Ahmed is now dead?

To some degree at least, I do. Upon hearing the news I called Mohamed and Abdullah and offered my condolences. They were not grieved; they believe he died in the path of God and is now a martyr in paradise. All the same, I will render my social duty and pay them a visit soon.

The question is, will I be rendering a duty of friendship? Am I being played? Was Ahmed a terrorist? Was Mohamed? Is he still? I don’t yet know, but neither do I yet feel it.

All I have experienced so far are two men among many, with families and children, who have sat outside the American Embassy since August for the sake of their father. This is a noble act, whether or not they and their father are ignoble men. I hold the questions above as a check for my objectivity. I write with this in mind, but also with an inclined heart. I have not yet fully learned, so I cannot yet fully share. But I can honor, and I wish this plea against the use of drones to be a mark of what may become a friendship. It may be false; I aim for it to be true.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Refuting bin Laden’s Martyrdom

The Middle East Media Research Institute recently highlighted a YouTube video issued by the former Mufti of Egypt, Nasr Farid Wassel, on May 7, 2011. In his presentation, MEMRI quotes him as saying:

The martyr bin Laden, Allah’s mercy upon him, waged Jihad for the sake of Allah against the Soviets and against America. … There was a call at the Al-Nour Mosque to pray for the soul of bin Laden, since he is a martyr. But I said that we were forbidden to pray for the soul of a martyr, and that bin Laden lives on. He is not dead. ‘Do not consider those who were killed for the sake of Allah to be dead. They live on, sustained by their Lord.’ Therefore, I said, immediately after his martyrdom, that he was a martyr, and that he had been killed by the enemies.

The link to the video clip presented by MEMRI can be accessed here.

Arab West Report spoke with Dr. Abd al-Muti Bayoumi, member of the Islamic Research Academy at the Azhar. Bayoumi did not know what would lead the former Mufti to issue a statement such as this. From his personal viewpoint, however, Bayoumi declared that bin Laden killed civilians, and therefore, was not a martyr.

Bayoumi stated that the Islamic Research Academy has not discussed the question whether or not bin Laden was a martyr.


Thoughts on Belonging and the Salafi Label

translation: We reject violence…peaceful…peaceful (R); Don’t believe the lying media (L)

The past week has presented opportunity to reflect on interactions with Muslims here in Egypt. More precisely, the reflection has been on my demeanor within these interactions.

On the whole, we are very comfortable and happy to be living in Egypt. We enjoy good relations with friends and neighbors, Muslims and Christians. We do, through the church, have a disproportionate number of Christian friends, but having been several years now in the Arab world, we know the goodness of the Muslims we live among.

Why then has this sense of belonging felt compromised in the last week?

On the one hand the reasons are obvious. My work placed me at a pro-bin Laden demonstration one day, and in an area torn apart by religious strife on another. Following the death of bin Laden warnings were dire his supporters would retaliate, especially against Americans. Following attempts to investigate the religious strife in Imbaba, a CNN reporter told his story of having to run for his life from angry mobs. Tensions are high; there is no room for a cavalier spirit.

Yet is there room for belonging? If so, what would it look like? This is the central question for us, not whether a report can be written or a story conveyed. Can we do these jobs with concern for and commitment to those with whom we interact?

I felt the compromise most on Friday, when I visited both the bin Laden demonstration and the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. At the cathedral Copts were awaiting the coming of Salafi Muslim protestors; due to several factors, including the bin Laden rally, they never came.

Yet while the Copts demonstrated anyway, I moved among them freely. I asked questions, I took pictures, I shot video – I had nary a thought of concern. I was not demonstrating with them; in fact, I felt quite at odds with what they were doing. But I felt at home; I felt comfortable. I trusted them.

Contrast this to my feelings at the bin Laden protest. It started earlier when I visited the mosque from whence the protest began. I stood at a distance, I held aloof from security, I scoured the area for a place of protection – I had nary a thought of tranquility. I was not watching opposed to them; in fact, I felt sympathy with their effort to honor the dead in defiance of Western scorn. But I felt foreign; I felt alone. I feared their reaction to me as an American.

Fear is not the right word, not if interpreted in terms of safety. But this feeling was amplified later that day when I arrived at their protest in front of the American Embassy. With the Copts, with Christians, I had no thought other than to jump right in. Here, with Salafi Muslims, I kept my distance, watching from the other side of the street. Again, there was no fear – the demonstration was peaceful, and soldiers kept watch of the proceedings – but there was also no belonging.

Perhaps the distinction of religion makes the difference. We aim for a sense of belonging to Egypt; we have a double sense with the Christians here. That second level of belonging is missing with Muslims, particularly with Muslims who practice in confidence. There is no opposition; on the contrary, there is great admiration. We wish to befriend these, learn from them, and should any opposition be found on their account, we wish to overcome it.

This was my attitude visiting Imbaba, but there were Christian sources to pursue first. Our interview was with the priest of the church, and we spent our time within its burned out walls. When certain youthful Copts had a run-in with the army outside, and then their fury was unleashed back inside within ecclesiastic safety, I was overcome with the weight of the situation. The day before, twelve people were killed as churches were attacked. Many feel the army did little to protect them. Witnessing their rage, I was initially paralyzed, but knew there was a place for me to have a role. It is my church also. It is not my struggle, but these are brothers in faith. Eventually, I did my best to offer words of calm and comfort. Again, I felt at home.

After we conducted our interview, I suggested to my Egyptian colleagues that we seek the army’s help in arranging a meeting with a Muslim sheikh. The area was still tense, and it would likely not be right to simply wander around, especially with me as a foreigner. They hesitated; there were time factors involved to be sure. But they too were nervous about the tension in the area, unsure of how they, as Copts, would be received. In the end we returned home.

Our report would have been better if we had Muslim sources to match, but that was not my chief concern, and may have marked a difference of emphasis between me and my colleagues. If I struggle with my lack of second-level belonging to Egyptian Muslims, many Copts, who should bear first-level belonging as Egyptian citizens, lack it altogether. Fine. Many on both sides are polarized, and in this text I am not reflecting upon them.

In this instance I sensed the divisions in the neighborhood, perhaps extending to the world, and wished to overcome it. In the middle of strife, I wished an uninvited American could sit down with, seek the opinion of, and honor the Salafi sheikh in front of him. Who will ever read what I write? Yet there was a chance to build relationships of peace with one in an area currently in need, with one in whom no natural bond existed.

This is the valor I can sometimes summon, but part of my language above gives me away. I stated: It would likely not be right to simply wander around, especially with me as a foreigner.

Why should I have not walked right into the middle of the pro-bin Laden demonstration? Why do I assume I would have little welcome in Imbaba? The external reasons are obvious, and should not be treated lightly. Yet it is the internal reasons which concern me. Where is my sense of belonging?

It is natural to be comfortable with those of like nature. With Egyptian Christians there is a like nature of faith, and with Egyptians in general we have discovered a like nature of humanity.

With both of these groups, however, and especially from my essential nature as an American, there is an assumed and created nature of enmity. Yes, every group defines itself at least partially in opposition to the other, and there is little harm here. Yet my group has demonized bin Laden and his supporters. My group – both American and Egyptian – sit either fearful or suspicious of Salafi Muslims. This, through belonging, is nurtured in my heart also.

Therefore, it is only through belonging that it can be nurtured out. Yes, those groups are demonized because they demonize us; yet which is first, the chicken or the egg? In the end, both become food: Do you prefer to be rotisserie or scrambled?

I have a fear that the label ‘Salafi’ is being appropriated in popular usage to generalize a community and minimize their humanity. Not all Salafis are violent, perhaps most are not. This is an item I must discover through research and relationships. They may bear an ideology many would be right to oppose; they themselves must be treated with dignity and the diversity present in their thought. ‘Salafi’ risks becoming like ‘terrorist’ or ‘Muslim extremist’ – catchphrases utilized to instill fear and rejection, while the content of the label remains nebulous and ill-defined.

We must resist all labels, even as we acknowledge their reality. If we can find in our hearts the desire to belong to those with whom we naturally do not, maybe one day we will. This, perhaps, is the path of peace.

Current Events

Copts Rally to Resist Salafis at Cathedral, while Salafis Laud bin Laden at US Embassy


Thousands of Copts descended on the Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasiya, Cairo on Friday, May 6, in response to a Salafi Muslim demonstration at the same location a week earlier. Salafi Muslims represent a conservative current in Islam which calls for the strict application of sharia law and rejection of modern, democratic principles, believed to be Western in origin. The previous Friday, April 29, Salafis rallied for the release of Camilia Shehata and other Coptic women believed to have converted to Islam, yet allegedly held illegally in Coptic monasteries. Salafis conducted similar demonstrations repeatedly over the past several months, but this was the first time they gathered at the heart of Orthodox Christianity in Egypt – the papal seat of Pope Shenouda III. They called for the prosecution of the pope, and Copts interpreted many of their chants as insults against him and their community.

Feeling threatened, lay Coptic groups issued a call for a counter demonstration at the cathedral in anticipation of a subsequent Salafi protest. John, a Copt from Matariya, a town to the north of Cairo, stated the demonstration would be held within the walls of the cathedral, not outside. Groups would be stationed at the four gates, to prevent entry should the Salafis so attempt. Yet John instructed his delegation that if the Salafis remained outside and simply hurled insults, Copts should remain silent. Asked if there could be a positive reply, chanting words of blessing of the Salafis, John stated this would nevertheless be received as provocation. Silence would be the best response, and provide the best testimony. If attacked, however, Copts should resist and defend the seat of the pope.

Coptic fears are understandable, while also being an overreaction. Certainly Salafis engaged in provocation by marching at the cathedral. In weeks previous certain Salafi groups desecrated shrines erected at the tombs of Muslim saints, believing these to be heretical accretions to pure Islam. Yet sharia law calls upon Muslims to honor and defend churches and monasteries, and though they demonstrated at the cathedral, they inflicted no material harm. Nevertheless, Salafi groups stand accused of several grievances against the Copts perpetrated since the revolution, and there is a general sense, unproven, that remnants of the former ruling regime and its security forces intentionally stoke sectarian tensions. Yet despite the presence of rumors, it does not seem any threats were directly issued against the sanctity of the cathedral.

On Thursday, a day before the anticipated protest, Yassir Metwali, a leader of the Coalition to Support New Muslims, one of the chief post-revolution organizers in the defense of Camilia Shehata, declared there would be no demonstrations that day. The cancellation was issued late and was not widely known; in any case most Copts had already made their plans to gather. Metwali stated this was unrelated to the Coptic gathering. Unmentioned may have been another factor; Thursday morning the al-Ahram newspaper published photos of Camilia, her husband, son, and Coptic lawyer, seated together happily. The lawyer, well-known activist Naguib Gibraeel, produced documentation stating he was authorized to speak on Camilia’s behalf, who asserted she was happy in her Christianity. Surely this would not satisfy Salafi clamor, as claims and counter-claims of fraud have been exchanged between the two communities. All the same, it may have given them pause.

There have been two other issues dominating Salafi attention since the cathedral protest. The first was an attempt to usurp the pulpit at the Noor Mosque, the largest in Abbasiya. The second was the death of Osama bin Laden.

Shiekh Hafez Salama is a celebrated war hero in Egypt. In his retirement he had dedicated himself to religion, founding the Association for Islamic Guidance, through which the Noor Mosque was built. Yet since the 1970s the Egyptian government has attempted to bring all mosques under the supervision of the Ministry of Endowments. Ostensibly, this was to curb the potential for unaffiliated imams to use their pulpits to spread extremist or terrorist ideology. The effort has been mostly successful, with 95% of mosque imams receiving certification from the official ministry. The current imam, Sheikh Ahmad Turki, has been in place since 2002. Muhammad, a garage attendant in the neighborhood of the Noor Mosque, states he enjoys wide favor and is loved in the community. He also expresses admiration for Hafez Salama.

Hafez Salama, however, reflects Salafi trends, and has sought to inculcate them in the mosque since the revolution. For the first Friday prayers following the success of the revolution, he approached Ahmad Turki to allow popular Salafi preacher Muhammad Hasan to address the people. He acquiesced, provided Salama secure permission from the Ministry of Endowments. He did, it was approved, and all proceeded normally.

On April 22, however, clashes broke out between supporters of Hafez Salama and Ahmad Turki, in which sticks and knives were employed to force Turki to abdicate his position. He has called for intervention from the military to enforce ministry protocol, but in advance of this Friday’s sermon, Salama announced he would lead the Islamic funeral ‘Prayer for the Absent’, in honor of Osama bin Laden.

Police and military personnel maintained a heavy presence both inside and outside the mosque, assuring the ascent of a ministry-approved imam, though not Turki. There were no signs of altercation during the proceedings, but following the sermon and the exit of military personnel, Salama boomed with his powerful voice, honoring the hero and martyr, Osama bin Laden, calling for a march on the US Embassy. As he finished, chants began within the mosque and a crowd exited and assembled, waving banners extolling the fallen al-Qaeda head.

The size of the protest, in comparison to the expanse of the mosque which was filled to capacity, was rather miniscule. Perhaps around two hundred demonstrators committed to the approximately hour walk downtown to the embassy. As they departed, significantly slowing traffic patterns in front of the mosque, a driver stopped and shouted, “They are corrupting the image of Islam! Who are these people and what are they doing to our religion?”

Meanwhile, Copts at the cathedral seemed aimless as their expected challenge never materialized. Several hundred milled about outside the walls of the cathedral, unsure what to do next. A priest and cathedral lay leaders tried to usher them back inside, but to no avail. Military and police personnel kept to their positions, but shortly thereafter a contingent arrived from the Noor Mosque, only a five minute walk away, to guard the flow of traffic.

Within the commotion media began appearing and taking statements from various people. Fr. Basilius, who had arrived from Ma’sara, an area to the south of Cairo, provided commentary. “We are here only to defend our father’s house, as anyone would defend their father’s house,” he said. “The Salafis are not our enemy, only Satan is our enemy. We have no weapons except the cross, and God is our protector.” When asked if there was a way to return blessing upon accusing Salafi chants, he spoke similarly as John, quoted earlier: “If they revile us, we will remain silent. In this way they will see their actions in comparison to ours, and be affected.”

Shortly thereafter, perhaps prompted by the appearance of cameras, several Copts gave up their silence. Several dozen gathered together with placards and banners, and began chanting:

  • With our spirit and blood we will sacrifice for you, oh pope!
  • Christians and Muslims, one hand!
  • Not military and not religious, we want a civil state!
  • Long live Egypt!

Perhaps a hundred or two watched along, as the military kept the protest from blocking traffic. In comparison to the thousand or so protestors who had been inside the cathedral, this demonstration also appeared somewhat minor. Opinion, however, was that Copts would fill the cathedral again next Friday, to be ready should the Salafis return.

Click here for a video clip of the protest. The chanting heard is ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!”

By now having arrived at the US Embassy, it was clear that the Salafis had maintained their numbers through the heat of the day, but had not increased them. Army personnel did not allow them to gather directly in front of the gate, yet their presence slightly down the street still took place in sight of the waving American flag. Chanting condemned the US military operation which assassinated bin Laden, and called for the release of Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind cleric held in an American prison for involvement in a pre-September 11 attempt to bomb the World Trade Center. Ominously, there was also a chant commemorating an Islamic-era victory over Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, warning Jews that the army of Muhammad would soon return.

Click here for a video clip of the protest. Muslims are engaged in afternoon prayers in front of a military contingent guarding the embassy.

Ayman is a youthful, beardless protestor about twenty years old. He and Ahmad maintained that bin Laden was not involved in the September 11 attacks at all. Al-Qaeda, they said, was against the killing of civilians, though certainly some died as collateral damage in attacks on legitimate American military targets involved in Iraqi and Afghanistan occupations. Furthermore, he never killed other Muslims. Asked about the bombing of a Muslim wedding procession in a hotel in Jordan by al-Qaeda operative al-Zarqawi, they denied he was involved. Instead, in effort to discredit the organization American friendly Arab governments would commit such atrocities. The New Year’s Eve church bombing in Alexandria, they said, was orchestrated by the Egyptian Minister of the Interior, Habib al-Adly.

Tarak is an older protestor, though also beardless, in contradistinction to the great majority of bin Laden supporters present. His opinions were more nuanced: “Yes, Osama bin Laden admitted to the September 11 attacks, and we must not countenance the killing of innocent civilians. But I certainly support bin Laden for his courage in opposing the American military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which far more innocent civilians perished. For this, bin Laden is an Islamic hero, and he died a martyr.”

It should be noted all three individuals were civil and friendly in their conversation, taking no offense at the presence or questions of an American interlocutor.

As the day closed and the protest ended I walked five minutes from the US Embassy to Tahrir Square to take the metro home. The atmosphere was festive, with many protests going on simultaneously. One was for the release of demonstrators arrested following a military raid on Tahrir in which it appeared rogue soldiers were involved. Another was a sole woman surrounded by a handful of onlookers wailing over an issue I couldn’t quite understand. Another supported the recent Palestinian reconciliation and called for the end of the Israeli occupation. The largest was a rally in solidarity with Arab protests taking place around the region, complete with flags of the different nations of the Arab League.

As I reflected on the day’s events, I called to mind the words of Alaa’, a Muslim guard for a minor government office outside the Noor Mosque, where I purposed to take refuge should the bin Laden demonstration have turned violent. “For thirty years we had almost no freedom of expression. Now, the pressure has given way to an explosion. Soon, things will settle down and get back to normal.” Indeed, protests have multiplied and are scattered over a multitude of issues, many at odds with one another. So much so, any individual protest is lost in the sea of demonstrations, appearing irrelevant in the process. Yet each protest is imbued with utmost fervor, as the group seeks to make its demands and criticisms known.

That this has occurred with the utmost of civility is a testimony to the Egyptian people. May it so continue, and may the balance of justice, in the end, satisfy its many claimants.


Osama bin Laden and the Death of the Wicked

2011 05 01 - 2181 - Washington DC - Osama Cele...
Image by thisisbossi via Flickr

The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming. (Psalm 37:12-13)

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked. (Ezekiel 33:11)

As news of the death of Osama bin Laden rippled through the American consciousness, people of God must now contemplate which attribute of God to imitate. Many citizens rejoiced as the man responsible for the death of thousands of Americans on September 11, 2001 has received the judgment articulated to Noah: Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. Justice is established; is this right warrant for celebration?

As a reminder of the dangers in spontaneity, Americans were horrified by images of pockets of Muslims around the world who danced in the streets when the Twin Towers fell. Equivalency is not suggested, but perceptions are telling: Some Muslims viewed 9/11 as comeuppance to a superpower aligned against their people, allowing the innocents as a casualty of war. Regretfully, some Americans have scant consciousness of the thousands of casualties in Afghanistan resulting, ostensibly, from the pursuit of bin Laden. Each will be judged in the intentions of their heart, not the reactions of the other. Yet the question of reception is fair: Crowds evidence the instinctual manifestation of the values of a people; what now will others see in us?

God is perfect in his judgment; as man rebels against his moral will God responds in both righteous sovereignty and empathetic longing. His laugh is at the futility of sin seeking imposition of an order other than his own. His lament is over the finality of such sin. As Ezekiel continues plaintively from the above: …but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die?

The American demonstrators can be forgiven their collective exhale at the sense of closure following senseless loss of life and a ten year war on terror. Furthermore, continued vigilance against those who threaten the innocent is demanded. Reflection on these celebrations, however, may give time for pause. What values do we pursue chiefly and model to the world? Justice, of course, is among them. Can there be room, even primacy, for mercy, forgiveness, and love?

President Obama rightly reemphasized this action was not against Islam. In doing so he pays tribute to an American value of fairness, refusing to attribute wrongly the sins of another. Governments may or may not be held to different standards of morality than individuals, but is there a way for the latter, at the least, to extend the value of goodness? Creative thinking is needed, but how might we view bin Laden and his ilk through the lens of transformation? How might the enemy hear, and then receive from us the call of Ezekiel?

The Bible closes with a scene from heaven, in which its inhabitants are urged, concerning the destruction of wicked Babylon: Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.

We are not in heaven yet. In this world, the overarching power of perspective can blind us to our own sins, blind us to the way we have treated others. Without the absolute wisdom of the end, we should not be so quick to assume the position of saints and apostles. Rather, as Jesus commended: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. When we have received the ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant’, perhaps then, and only then, can we laugh along with God.

Until then, the proverb speaks best: Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles do not let your heart rejoice, for the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.

From God’s perspective, the heart of triumph and rejoicing will lose the war on terror. Be careful, America.