What the attacks on Egypt's Minority Copts means for the Muslim World

What the attacks on Egypt's Minority Copts means for the Muslim World
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By Farahnaz Ispahani

The Islamic State (ISIS) marked the advent of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan with an attack on buses carrying Coptic Christians in Egypt to a monastery. The attack resulted in the deaths of 29 people, including 10 children. That ISIS chose slaughter of innocents, rather than prayer or meditation, as its marker for a religious occasion sets it apart from the over one billion Muslims for whom Ramadan is an occasion for soul-searching and abstinence.

But many in the Muslim world did not react with horror commensurate to the crime over the killing of the Coptic pilgrims. This was markedly different from the reaction of Muslims in Europe and North America over the terrorist attack last week in Manchester. Muslim leaders vehemently condemned the Manchester attack, partly to forestall Islamophobic reactions and retaliation.

The attack in Egypt was the fourth targeting Copts since December. It represents growing intolerance and, in some cases, indifference towards religious minorities in majority-Muslim countries. It is part of a pattern of rising terrorist and mob attacks on Christians, other non-Muslims as well as minority Muslim sects from North Africa to Indonesia.

The Copts are an ancient sect established by St. Mark the Apostle and have been part of Egypt’s social fabric for centuries. They are now being targeted with considerable frequency. Suicide bombers killed 45 people attending Palm Sunday services in April in the cities of Alexandria and Tanta.

The Copts in Egypt are not the only victims of the apathy of large numbers of Muslims in majority-Muslim countries to the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities or to religious and sectarian intolerance in general.

Although many Egyptian officials, religious scholars and public figures have condemned the attack, there is no sign that the plight of the Copts is seen by Egypt's majority as part of their suffering. A few weeks ago, in Pakistan, no one tried to save a Muslim student at Mardan University while he was being lynched over allegedly blasphemous remarks.

Few Muslim Indonesians have spoken up or the Christian former Governor of a province convicted for blasphemy over remarks made during his failed re-election campaign.

In most Muslim countries, even Muslims seen as acting or believing outside the orthodoxy are unsafe from the mob and left unprotected by the State they reside in. Extremists have attacked secular Muslims and members of sects such as the Shia and the Ahmadiyya for ‘apostasy’ or ‘blasphemous beliefs’.

One measure of the rising tide of intolerance towards non-Muslims in the Muslim world is the declining Christian population in Arab as well as some non-Arab majority-Muslim countries.

Before 2003, there were around 1.2 million Christians in Iraq. Within ten years, their number halved to around 500,000. The story is not very different in many other countries. Pakistan’s non-Muslims constituted 23 percent of the population before independence in 1947 but now number less than three percent.

This pattern of ‘purifying’ majority-Muslim countries of minorities has not received the same attention from Muslim leaders, scholars and journalists as is given to terrorist or Islamophobic attacks in western countries.

It is almost as if there is an eagerness among Muslims to condemn Muslim terrorists in the west only to prevent the rise of Islamophobia, which many recognize as rising alongside the rise of radical Islamism.

The growing attacks on non-Muslims and minority Muslim sects in majority-Muslim countries that are not condemned reflect acceptance of intolerance, which in turn fuels terrorism.

Terrorists and orchestrators of mob violence against minorities are emboldened if they know that at least within their own countries very few people will even raise a voice at violence against minority communities.

By letting attacks on non-Muslims go unnoticed, Muslim majority nations seem to have assimilated or normalized hatred. Islamist extremist groups operate with sympathy and support of increasingly intolerant citizens, as others acquiesce in the resolve to eliminate religious minorities through their silence.

Muslims in the West, who are feeling the effects of Islamophobia, have become quite vocal against terrorist attacks against western targets.

The recent attack in Manchester drew widespread condemnation from Muslim organizations across Europe and North America. But a similar resolve seems absent in condemning mistreatment or terrorizing of non-Muslims in Muslim countries.

The governments in the Muslim world often hide behind the excuse of public opinion while refusing to change or amend discriminatory laws targeting non-Muslims. The promotion of religious bigotry through school curriculum and media is widespread.

Nationalist sentiment or solidarity sometimes blinds Muslims in the west to the precarious position of religious minorities in their countries of origin. While condemning Islamophobia that targets them or terrorism by their co-religionists in countries where they now live, Muslims must not forget the embattled minorities in their homelands.

The writer is author of Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford, 2017) and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

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