25 October 2011

Seek the Peace of the City

Written by 
Muslims demonstrating their support for Christians in Tahrir Square on Feb. 9th, 2011 Muslims demonstrating their support for Christians in Tahrir Square on Feb. 9th, 2011 http://www.popfi.com/2011/02/09/muslims-protect-christians-in-egypt/


The eyes of the world stared in disbelief at the clips of armored vehicles lunging into crowds of peaceful protesters in Cairo. Over 50,000 Coptic Christians, men, women and children, were marching on October 9 to protest the burning to the ground of a church in Aswan. Media personnel at the morgue witnessed bodies with bullet wounds and others partially crushed. Over two dozen people died that evening, most of them Copts.


A quick aside: this happened in Cairo, the capital city and microcosm of the whole country, with one fifth of Egypt’s eighty million inhabitants. Egyptians call it “Masr,” the same word for “Egypt.” We lived three and a half years in Ismailia, two hours northeast, midway on the Suez Canal, doorway to the Sinai Peninsula, and birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Because of medical care and banking needs, we had to take collective taxis regularly to “Masr,” where the pediatric specialist was. To pray for “the peace of the city,” then, is to pray for the peace of the nation.


Three days after the deadly protest, a Coptic Orthodox press release issued from the UK denounced the unprovoked army violence, but also deplored the wave of attacks on Christians and their places of worship just weeks after the revolutionary displays of national unity in Tahrir Square. I quote,


“For the first time we saw churches burned and demolished with the army looking on and doing nothing. Christians lost their lives, while those who had promised to protect ‘every Egyptian’ looked on. Since then, we have had an escalation of violence from Imbaba to Atfih to Aswan, along with the terrorist bombing of a church in Alexandria earlier this year. The common denominator in all of these, and every other attack in the past decades, is that there has been insufficient official investigation, and an absence of prosecutions and convictions.”


In light of this, the largest church in the Middle East (7 million) calls for a thorough investigation and for Egyptians as a nation to choose one of two roads:


One, “positive reform and the building of a new Egypt that is cohesive and that instills a sense of citizenship, ownership, and responsibility into every Egyptian, ceasing to focus on the person’s religion, but more on his or her contribution and accountability to a single nation state.”


Or two: “we merely continue denying the reality of the presence of conflict, leaving unlawful acts unresolved and unprosecuted, presenting one part of the community as a justifiable target, and continuing to drive a wedge between members of a single society, and this will lead to the demise of all.”


Egyptian Christians, continues the document, are no strangers to persecution and martyrdom in their long history dating back to the first century. The God “who seeks to protect His whole creation” will not allow the Coptic Church to be destroyed. Rather, we should fear the weakening of all of Egypt, if the country does not stand together.


The media statement concludes with the church’s response: a three-day fast of repentance and prayer, believing that “God’s name with be glorified and exalted above all.” As it happened, all the Catholic and Protestant churches in Egypt joined with their Orthodox brethren in the fast.


I applaud all these true followers of Jesus: they’re calling for justice in a peaceable way . . . then turning to God in humble submission to his merciful ways. May it be so!


Another group of Christians did something very creative. The day after (what some are calling “Black Sunday”), the Bible Society of Egypt put an add in several newspapers with this verse from the prophet Jeremiah (writing to the recently exiled Jews in Babylon): “And seek the peace of the city… and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jer. 29:7). Contact information followed, and then this phrase: “Let us share together in prayer for peace and unity in Egypt.”


Ramez Atallah, the Bible Society’s General Director, offers this comment about the project:


“This is the first time we have been allowed to quote a Bible verse in any of our public advertising, and many people, from all backgrounds, have called the Bible Society to thank us for the timely message and positive role. One prominent political figure, the editor of a major newspaper, called to say that he is grateful for all that we are doing to promote peace and unity in these difficult days.”


The history of Muslim-Christian misunderstanding, conflict and even war is long and tortuous, and nothing grates the Muslim psyche more than the memory of Christian missionary efforts of the past. If you read Hasan al-Banna’s memoirs, you will notice this was a strong irritant which added to his motivation to reawaken his beloved umma (“Islamic community”) through the launching of his grassroots movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. No doubt, any advertisement for the Bible will strike some Muslim zealots as Christian propaganda exploiting a human tragedy for the sake of proselytism.


I disagree. This was meant as a peacebuilding initiative. And in fact, both Muslim and Christian responses were overwhelmingly positive. Atallah offers one example:


“A Muslim Arabic teacher called to say thank you for the beautiful verse that was used in the ad. His supervisor had asked him to say a word to the student body about National Unity, so he asked the Bible Society if he could use this verse, to share with all of the students.”


Still, the beginning of this blog demonstrated just how difficult implementing this vision would be in many villages and neighborhoods around the country. Nonetheless, a powerful prophetic voice rises up for those still willing to listen – from unexpected quarters.


The then influential Egyptian judge, Hasan al-Hudaybi, to the surprise of many inside and outside the movement, was named in 1951 the second General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. The founder, Hasan al-Banna, had been assassinated two years prior, almost certainly by government agents. Three years later, the “great persecution” (mihna) closed in the Brotherhood like a steel trap. The movement was dissolved, hundreds were arrested and six were executed.


Hudaybi, already sixty-three and in poor health was placed under house arrest for six years, then imprisoned for another seven years. These were trying times for him as a leader. As it turned out, persecution from the outside was light, compared with the bitterness of the strife within. His foe, eloquent with the pen and razor-sharp in his radical ideology, was none other than Sayyid Qutb. For Qutb, Egypt had long past the point of no return. It was no longer Muslim, as its laws and political institutions had been imported from the pagan west. As a jahili society (having reverted to the state of polytheistic pre-Islamic 7th-century Arabia), it had to be destroyed, so as to rebuild a new, pristine nation on the foundation of the Qur’an and Sunna (the Prophet’s good example).


In effect, Sayyid Qutb was reverting to the practice of the first “withdrawers,” the Kharijites, who isolated themselves in remote places, calling themselves the only true Muslims and launching attacks on the rest. To declare fellow Muslims “apostates” in Kharijite fashion – and thus to justify their killing– is to engage in takfir (labeling a Muslim “kafir”).


Hudaybi issues several pamphlets that aim to refute this dangerous ideology of takfir (see my 2007 article on Hudaybi in Comparative Islamic Studies). I won’t go into the arguments here – only to say that he won. His successors followed suit. Just a minority in the end embraced Qutb’s Manichean worldview. Nonetheless, his views inspired many radical and violent offshoots since then, and most recently, al-Qaeda and its allies.


As it turns out, Hudaybi’s prison travails bear directly on the issue of Muslim and Christian harmony in Egypt. In one particular pamphlet (“Our Constitution”), he explains that the Egyptian constitution is quite acceptable the way it is, as long as the moral content of Islam – which is the same as Christianity and Judaism, he adds – is respected. That is why educating the young is so important, he continues. Egyptian schools must intentionally draw on the moral fiber that is found in the Qur’an and the Bible. I quote from my own translation:


“It is good for Muslims and Christians to be trained by the spiritual formation provided by their respective faiths so that they come to agreement on what is good and virtuous. It is the government’s duty to provide this education with all seriousness in primary and secondary schools for both Muslims and Christians.”


This would be a good time for the Muslim Brotherhood to dig up Hudaybi’s wise and peaceable teaching. I believe we should see the Bible Society ads in this light. Now more than ever, common values and spiritual resources are crucial for the healing of this broken nation, especially in view of the dramatic demonstrations of national unity by Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, during the spring protests in Tahrir Square (refer to the picture).


Paul-Gordon Chandler, author, Anglican priest and rector of St. John’s Church in Cairo, put it this way in a newsletter at the end of March:


“The scenes are moving, as Egyptians wave flags and carry banners depicting the cross and crescent embracing, with slogans such as ‘The crescent and the cross are one. We are all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian.’ Around the country, Muslim imams address religious harmony and the importance of unity in their Friday sermons. In the now world famous Tahrir Square, Muslims and Christians have prayed together for the unity and safety of Egypt. In essence the Egyptian revolution ended up as a summons to national unity, thereby condemning religious sectarianism. It has been deeply inspirational.”


I have no doubt that many of the young members of the Brotherhood who spontaneously joined the protesters in Tahrir Square in the first week of the uprising were following Hudaybi’s guidance, whether consciously or not. This is the kind of energy the army now in charge wants to dissipate at all costs.


Clearly, the ruling junta, by mowing down Christian protesters, calculated that fanning the flames of sectarian strife would strengthen their grip on power and divide the rising forces of democracy (see sociologist Khalil al-Anani's excellent article on this).


Equally, I can say that many ex-members (mostly in their 20s and 30s) left the Brotherhood for more pluralist pastures. Perhaps not so coincidently, I heard a young Brotherhood cadre (still in his twenties) speak at a think tank venue in Washington. His name was Ibrahim El-Houdaiby. I went up to talk to him after. Amazingly, he turned out to be Hudaybi’s great grandson, then in charge of running the Brotherhood official website. He has now left the organization and joined a more inclusive political party.


To sum up, I believe with Hudaybi that Muslims and Christians can draw upon their respective sacred texts and find the necessary resources to put aside past grievances and bitterness – calling for justice, while at the ready to forgive. And yes, I believe too the Bible Society was inspired to proclaim Jeremiah’s ancient message to the deported Jews in Babylon, now addressed to all Egyptians: “Seek the shalom (peace and prosperity) of the city!”