Adam Hedengren
Last updated: 23 March, 2012

Video: Egypt’s Copts and Muslims find ways to coexist

The institutional base of the Muslim Brotherhood consists not simply of conservative religious scholars, but is a dynamic body made up of students, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, state employees, and journalists among others. The group’s wide member base partly comes as a result of its success in professional associations, unions, student clubs and local councils.

Despite its relatively dynamic constituency, there are widespread fears regarding the Muslim Brothers’ attitude towards non-Muslims and other minorities across Egypt. Concern has been raised about the organization’s willingness to offer equal civil rights to the Coptic community in particular, a Christian denomination representing the largest part of the non-Muslim population in Egypt.

Sceptics sometimes refer to the concept of the dhimma, essentially meaning a contract that obliges non-Muslims to accept the domination of Islam and subsequently agree to pay a special tax, the jizya. While the dhimma system in theory guarantees the protection of non-Muslims, it nonetheless implies the superiority of Muslims over others and ultimately constitutes a framework in which non-Muslims lack equal rights. Some members of the Brotherhood, such as the late conservative thinker Sayyid Qutb, have expressed support for the dhimma.

“Without a reinterpretation of the classical Islamic doctrine regarding non-Muslim minorities as ‘protected people’ (dhimmi), an ideologically oriented Islamic state would be at best a limited democracy with a weak pluralistic profile; its ideological orientation would restrict the participation of non-Muslims in key government positions”, writes the influential Middle East scholar John Esposito.

But this statement is problematic for one reason; the Quran leaves a lot open to interpretation in terms of how to implement the dhimma, which means that there is really no consensus amongst Islamists on this issue.

“The rights of Egypt’s Christians to absolute equality, including their right to seek election to the presidency, is sacrosanct.”, said Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt. This statement would undermine fears that non-Muslims are restricted from taking up key government positions. Following in the same footsteps, a recent article from the Brotherhood’s English website reads:

the Sharia is the best method to ensure the reformation of the conditions of our society that will lead it to happiness and progress, as well as guaranteeing the rights of our fellow Christians and their freedom of belief and worship according to their laws and rules, in addition to safeguarding their litigation through Christian laws and rules in their private affairs.”

The video clip above shows promising signs that, despite episodes of inter-religious turmoil, Muslims and Copts have a desire to coexist peacefully. Bystanders in the video celebrate as the Egyptian flag connects the Church of Saints, where the 2011 New Year’s Eve bomb took place, with the adjacent mosque. If you are interested in reading more about this issue click on the links below. They will help you get a 360 view.

Analysis: Engaging Egypt’s Copts

Christians Question Their Future in Post-Arab Spring

Egypt’s Islamists Vow to Protect Churches on Coptic Christmas