September 12, 2006. The date may seem rather ordinary, but the event that took place was momentous, for it was on that day that Pope Benedict XVI delivered his greatly maligned “Regensburg Address” which challenged the rationality of Islam and gave rise to an interfaith dialogue unseen in a millennia. In response to the Pope’s address, the greatest minds of the Islamic world gathered to write “A Common Word between Us and You,” a document, addressed firstly to Pope Benedict, which stressed the similarities between Islam and Christianity and was signed by 138 Muslim scholars.
The signatories of the document have since risen from 138 to more than 300 today.
Perhaps the most influential scholar of the 138 is Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, the president of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University and mosque. Noted for his “moderate” views and French education, el-Tayeb became Egypt’s top cleric – the grand imam – last year when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak appointed him to replace the late Sayed Tantawi. Sadly many people feared that his popularity and leadership would be co-opted by the Egyptian government. Such appears to be the case. Last month el-Tayeb announced Al-Azhar University – along with many Islamic scholars – was cutting off dialogue with the Pope.
Why was this?
To find our answer, let’s go back a few months to October 31. On that Sunday as Catholics gathered for Mass in Baghdad’s Our Lady of Deliverance Catholic Church, armed men stormed the building. While Iraqi troops eventually ended the assault, the attackers left over 58 people dead (including two priests gunned down immediately – one at the altar and the other exiting the confessional) and over 100 wounded. This, however, was only the geographical center of violence since the dawn of November. To the southwest, in Nigeria, Islamic terrorists bombed churches throughout the capital on Christmas Eve, claiming the lives of 86 and wounding hundreds more. In Pakistan, the Islamic governor of Punjab was assassinated by his own bodyguard because he was attempting to protect a Christian woman from the death penalty for her “blasphemy” against Islam.
Then came the New Year’s Eve bombing of Christians in Cairo.
A suicide bomber attacked St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church shortly after midnight as people were attending midnight Mass. Twenty-three were killed in the bombing and almost 100 more were wounded. The bombing came shortly after the head of the Egyptian Association for Culture and Dialogue – and new signer of the “Common Word” – publically asserted that Christians were hiding weapons in their churches. One commentator recently stated that in the past Christians had defended themselves, but that today, “almost everywhere the Christian resistance is peaceful. Iraq is today the most glaring example of massacres carried out against innocent and unarmed victims, killed only because they are Christian.”
In the end, the pope decried the rise of “Christophobia” which tended towards violent acts against Christians or any who protected them. Egypt is the most glaring example of government officials and Islamic religious leaders making accusations against Egypt’s Christian minority while not offering the slightest protections during important Christian celebrations. Shockingly, after all the anti-Christian attacks throughout the Muslim world since October, Egypt’s Ambassador to the Vatican told a Roman newspaper that Egypt does “not share the views that Christians are persecuted in our part of the world… They have all the protection as any other Egyptian citizen in Egypt.”
Furthermore, in response to Pope Benedict’s condemnation of the attacks on Christians (including non-Catholic Christians), Al-Azhar University and el-Tayeb have broken off dialogue with the Vatican, citing “insulting remarks issued by the Vatican Pope toward Islam” and the supposed “unacceptable interference” of Pope Benedict XVI in Egyptian affairs. The Egyptian government has since recalled its Vatican ambassador.
The collapse of religious dialogue and official Egypt-Vatican relations was rather disturbing and unexpected – but now makes sense in light of the new Egyptian anti-government protests and end of the Mubarak regime. Now entering the third decade of “emergency rule,” President Mubarak’s days have been numbered for some time and the Egyptian people were concerned about a Mubarak family dynasty ruling Egypt for good. But then came the revolution in Tunisia and the secession of Sudan’s Christian south where voter turnout stood at 97% and of those 99.57% voted to secede.
Enter Pope Benedict XVI. Recall that the “Common Word” document was addressed first and foremost to Pope Benedict. Since the middle ages, Islam has seen the pope as the representational male figure of the “West” and his word carries perhaps more weight for Muslims than for European or North American political leaders. This point is certainly clear when one contrasts Pope Benedict with the U.S.’s Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. In the Muslim world, a politically secular, empowered woman simply does not carry the same force as the religious head of Christendom. Thus we should note that Egypt’s government and religious leaders cut off communications with the pope as Egypt’s political unrest began to grow. The goal was to deny the “West’s” chief spokesman a platform in the ensuing political upheaval.
And little has been heard from the Vatican regarding Egypt since.
The push against the pope should also be seen in the context of the recent attacks on Christians in the Muslim world. An essential element of radical Islamist ideology is the eradication of the Christian and Jewish populations in the Middle East. Jihadists in the region see secular influences as diminishing their religious character and undermining their faith. Thus to truly re-Islamize the Islamic world, radical Islam will do its best to cleanse itself of Christians within their countries and destroying Israel as a Jewish nation. As Israel has become a heavily protected nation from within and without, Christians have become a “soft target” of Islamic aggression – particularly when Jihadists have noticed that Islamic governments and secular nations like the United States will do nothing to protect them.
But is there no hope? I offer three positive signs:
1. The Proto-Protest: As Egypt is now engulfed in protest, it is forgotten in the press that the first Egyptian protests began early last month in defense of the Coptic Christians. Inspired by an Egyptian artist’s slogan “We either live together, or we die together,” thousands of Muslims were joined by President Mubarak’s two sons to form a human shield around Christian churches in Egypt. As one participant put it: “This is not about us and them… We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.” Other groups in Alexandria, Egypt cried out: “Long live the cross and the crescent!” Egyptians must further recognize the right and duty of other monotheists to worship God. Furthermore, as religious freedom is respected outside of the Muslim world, the same freedom should be respected within the Muslim world. Mosques in Europe and America are not being attacked by armed terrorists – and if they were, the police would be on full protective alert to guard the mosques and no one would blame worshippers for bringing weapons to defend themselves. But while the united protest between Muslims and Christians was a positive first step, now may be the time to establish Lebanon – a nation historically Christian – as a Christian nation in the same way that Israel is a Jewish nation. As such, it would present Israel with a much needed ally while providing protection to the Christians in the Mideast.
2. Yawm al-Sâbi: On January 24, the Egyptian magazine “Yawm al-Sâbi” published a document containing a twenty-two point list for renewing religious dialogue. Most importantly, the document focuses on matters particular to Islam which the religion needs to reexamine in order to make real progress in religious dialogue. Moreover, the document also points out that Islam can shape Egypt as a nation and keep Egypt from being swept up in a new caliphate (international Islamic state). The document also rejects the idea of forced conversion and even wishes to make allowances for a Christian to become the President of Egypt. While it has met mostly with criticism in the Muslim world, the document comes from Muslims and is another step forward in the post-Regensburg religious dialogue. You can read more about this document here.
3. Marriage, not money: On his foreign policy weblog, Thomas P.M. Barnett noted the real reason why the men of Egypt are protesting: “Ask young Egyptian men, as I did repeatedly on a trip, what their biggest worry is, and they'll tell you it's the inability to find a job that earns enough to enable marriage.” In the post-Marxian era, money has become the focus of almost every issue. This may be in part due to the fact that Americans have become more and more money-centered (be it for commercial interest or trimming the federal deficit), but it is mostly due to the “class-conflict” approach of Marxist thought. There are certainly some Marxists involved in Egypt right now, but when we think of three words that begin with the letter 'm' in Egypt, we should be thinking: marriage, monotheism, and masculinity, not money.
The fact that Egyptian men are predominantly concerned with having a spouse is a very good thing and should be a clarion call for Christian men whose monetary ambitions often have absolutely nothing to do with finding a spouse and raising a family. We should also note here that when man’s needs are not met properly, the void will be filled somehow (for “nature abhors a vacuum”). As Muslim men cannot find true fraternity or a stable social/economic life for their brides, they have turned to the Muslim Brotherhood – a radical organization that, while seemingly meeting their needs, can bring men to theocracy at best and acts of sectarian violence at worst. In the absence of a pursuit of the ordered good, Egypt’s strong sense of masculinity, monotheism, and marriage risk being usurped by the forces of evil. Nevertheless, the fact that Egypt has such a strong sense of these matters is a step in the right direction – and a step Christian men in Europe and America must retake in order to be truly progressive.
While no one is really sure yet how matters will turn out in Egypt, there is a chance that the challenge of Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg will pave the way for a nation that is not only democratic, but also religiously renewed and purged of any Islamist national counterfeits. In the war on communism, two men are remembered most: Pope John Paul II in Poland and President Reagan of the United States. Perhaps the combined efforts of President George W. Bush’s challenge for Islamic democracy and Pope Benedict’s challenge for Islamic rationality will work together to overthrow radical fundamentalism in the Mideast and establish authentic, unique nations where God is worshipped by monotheists, be they Jews, Christians, or Muslims.