November 7, 2011
by Kurt Werthmuller
The overwhelming majority of the Arab world is Muslim, and so it would seem to reason that the two words on everyone's lips in that region since January -- revolution and democracy -- should hinge on the participatory, popular will of that population. However, a crucial test of the potential gains of the Arab Spring will also rest in the status of the region's non-Muslim minorities. In this sense, the standing of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority since the #25 January Revolution -- some 8-10 million people, roughly 10-12 percent of the country -- warrants the recent global attention that has turned to this community. And so far, the Arab Spring has not been kind to the Copts.
During the peak of euphoria in Tahrir Square in early February, many Egyptian Christians set aside their grievances with the Muslim majority, and the latter their discrimination against the former, to unite in toppling Hosni Mubarak. However, the protest banners had barely been re-furled when ultra-conservative Salafi groups, largely an underground movement under Mubarak's repressive security state and strongly influenced by Wahhabi fundamentalism, made their presence felt. A long-forming pattern of anti-Christian violence has since increased across the country, often prompted by intolerant Salafi preachers and perpetrated by local Muslims intent on reminding Copts of their second-class status.
These are all tragic events, but why do they matter? Why focus on the status of a minority community, when the big picture of the Arab Spring is really about the collective will of Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians, Yemenis, Libyans and Bahrainis rising against their respective autocracies?
The reason is simple: No nation can claim to uphold, implement or even pursue democratic ideals when it subjugates and oppresses its minorities, as Americans finally began to understand during its own Civil Rights movement. The pattern of violence and discrimination against the Arab world's largest religious minority (roughly the same population as New York City) by members of the country's religious majority, and by the ruling military that is supposedly shepherding the country toward civilian rule, hints at a terrible price that Egypt may pay for its revolution, regardless of its original, noble intentions. The Arab Spring, in Egypt and beyond, will thus be meaningless if it exchanges one form of oppression for another.
Concerns about the emergence of Islamist factions as the most organized and mobilized groups in the region's new democratic processes, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its small but vocal population of intolerant Salafis, are indeed valid. They are an expression of genuine, well-founded apprehension about the future of Arab societies governed by Islamists and the rigid, archaic interpretations of shariah that most of them share. Renowned Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany, himself a Muslim, has voiced such deep concern: "We can expect them [Islamists] to use the democratic system as merely a ladder to power, which they will climb up and then kick away so that no one else can use it." Non-Muslims will likely be the first and certainly not the last victims of such a future.
To this end, the United States and its allies should do everything in their power to assure that the Copts, along with other non-Muslim and Muslim minority communities, receive the benefits of the Arab Spring, rather than become its victims- as many fear has already begun to happen.
Kurt Werthmuller is an Adjunct Fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.
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