The New Year’s Eve Attack on a Coptic Church in Egypt has left by the last count 23 churchgoers dead. While the Egyptian security is busy trying to figure out what happened and in the meantime beat the Copts that are demonstrating in anger, the Egyptian public has acted, as it usually does, with denial. The attacks are claimed to be an attack on Egypt’s national unity, could not have been carried out by a Muslim or an Egyptian, and in a manner that reflects all the ills of a troubled society has blamed Israel. While Anti Semitism has become the very fabric of political discourse in the country, the current attitudes reflect a more entrenched failure to take responsibility for any action and a desire to bury the problem as deep as possible by denying its existence.
While the actual perpetrator of the crime is responsible for his actions, the attack is the ultimate result of a historical process that is created and maintained by the Egyptian regime, the religious establishment, Islamists and finally society at large. The lack of religious freedom is at the heart of this process.
The current attack is attributed to Islamist anger over the alleged kidnapping by the Coptic Church of a Priest’s wife whom they claim converted to Islam. The general context is Islamist anger at what they perceive as the humiliation of Islam at the hands of Copts by asking to build churches. The public discourse is dominated by a hateful message that uses the fact that Christianity and Christians are a taboo in the Egyptian public sphere to claim all sorts of things about them ranging from Priests wearing black because they are sad that Egypt is Islamic to gathering weapons from Israel in the monasteries.
In all of this there is no alternative provided. There is no argument for the right of an individual to choose his religion, there is no defense of the right of people to build churches, and there is no public sphere opened to Christians. Religious freedom as a discourse and a value is nonexistent and until it does, the same story will be repeated over and over again.
So what can be done? Policy makers have beaten the drums of democracy for the region. But Democracy is more than voting. Democracy without liberal values solves nothing and creates even worse totalitarian societies. If this is a War of Ideas then let us start by actually providing Ideas.
Bret Stephens had a modest suggestion in The Wall Street Journal, translating John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration to Arabic. While we are at it fill the vacuum of ideas with a broader vision for freedom generally. Give them Adam Smith and give them Burke. Give them Jefferson and give them Hayek. Give them enduring principles to fill the void
Samuel Tadros is Senior Partner at the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth.
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