The evening was supposed to be about Fatima Naout and Pope Shenouda. It turned out to be so much more.
That it included Fatima Naout is semi-exceptional in itself. St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Maadi invited her to be the keynote presenter for a memorial service for Pope Shenouda. Naout is a Muslim.
Yet she is well known in Egypt – and celebrated by Copts – as a staunch defender of citizenship, liberal principles, and Coptic rights. There are many Muslims like her, of course, but she goes further. She has memorized many verses of the Bible and lauds Christians over the sublime teachings of their religion.
She stated she loves to go to church because she is jealous of Christians. She finds much in Islam to be their antithesis.
During her presentation Naout made many beautiful remarks about Pope Shenouda, and was received warmly. It was not until the end, however, that the evening got really interesting.
Mahmoud arrived, complete with the full length beard marking a Muslim of Salafi persuasion.
He was noticed quickly, and must have explained himself sufficiently, for before too long he was brought to the front to speak. He apologized for being late, and offered his condolences over the death of Pope Shenouda, offering kind words about their spiritual leader.
The church was electrified. In the days after Pope Shenouda’s death a popular Salafi preacher forbade Muslims from saying the common cultural expression over a death, ‘God have mercy on him.’ Shenouda was an infidel, and the head of the infidels, and God would not have mercy on an infidel, especially one who brought such sectarian tension to Egypt and wished to create an independent Coptic state.
In parliament the Muslim Brotherhood speaker Saad al-Katatni paused proceedings and asked everyone to stand for a moment of silence out of respect for Pope Shenouda. The Salafi members stayed in their seats, except for those who chose to walk out.
The entrance of a Salafi into a memorial for Pope Shenouda, then, caused quite a stir. Later on Naout’s Christian secretary apologized to Mahmoud publically. When she saw him come in she immediately feared he was going to blow himself up in the church.
Mahmoud stated he was afraid himself. Before coming in he thought he would be searched rudely, if not barred at the gate. Instead, he was astounded at his welcome.
These confessions came later. After his two minute offer of condolences the service ended with a final hymn, and all exited. Mahmoud, however, had a crowd around him outside.
Some wanted to get a point across, though were friendly in doing so. It was certainly an opportunity to address a Salafi on their own turf, with numbers in their favor. Mahmoud was gracious and didn’t seem to be bothered by his instant celebrity.
Most of those present, however, simply offered their welcome, and thanked him for coming. He was invited back, so that he might see how Christians pray and get a fuller picture of the faith and the community. He appeared willing to do so.
The whole while Naout was still inside speaking with the organizers of the service, but made a point to speak to Mahmoud. When she exited and found him, the crowd around them doubled in size.
Eventually it led to a spontaneous second seminar. Naout and Mahmoud sat at a quickly arranged table and simply talked about their understandings of religion. Several in the crowd asked questions.
By this time Mahmoud’s story was known, though he repeated it for those who did not hear. He came only to hear Naout speak.
After the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood launched a campaign entitled, ‘Listen to us, don’t listen about us.’ Aware of their poor reputation in the press and their late entry into the revolution, the Brotherhood enjoined people to learn directly from the organization about its principles and values.
Mahmoud wanted to do the same, in reverse.
Given that Naout has such a poor reputation among Salafis, he heard about her presentation and came to the church to listen. Unfortunately, he was late and missed most of it. Yet the swell of attention and the interest of Naout to engage with such an open attitude led to his invitation to speak directly to the whole assembly.
I identified with him, had respect and sympathy for him, but advised him to think twice about doing it. I probably shouldn’t have, but it was my reaction after having been in his shoes. I will never regret wearing them, but I feared he was unprepared, and I feared the Coptic audience.
Several weeks ago I was in Tahrir Square, and I stumbled upon a tent representing the Coalition to Support New Muslims. This was a group that provoked/responded to – depending on perspective – great sectarian tension over the summer concerning a woman named Camilia Shehata. She was the wife of a priest who disappeared, fueling rumors she had been either, one, kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, or two, converted willingly and was kidnapped by the church to prevent the announcement.
The Coalition to Support New Muslims rallied behind her according to their interpretation, and led multiple marches of thousands of conservative Muslims. On one occasion they marched threateningly past the Coptic Cathedral, the seat of Pope Shenouda.
I had long been curious about this group, but had no idea how to get in contact with them. By this occasion in Tahrir Square the Camilia Shehata issue had long since passed, but here I was at their doorstep.
I was received warmly and learned extensively of their perspectives. Despite the fact that Shehata appeared publically with her husband and child on satellite television and confessed her belief in Christianity, the Coalition held to the fact that she had indeed converted, and the church pressured her to return. Of note, the television station she appeared on was foreign based, and she spoke from abroad.
After a little while, though, the conversation changed. There were ten to fifteen people in the tent, and they began asking accusatory questions about Christianity. The Coalition, incidentally, had begun as individual members identified themselves on Paltalk, a popular chat service that hosts multiple rooms for interfaith, um, dialogue.
In reality it is a place of proselytizing, on all sides. The Muslims of the Coalition were long practiced at combating Christian witness on the site, and doing their best to convince in the other direction.
Unlike Mahmoud, they did not have the attitude of ‘listening to us, not about us’ to learn, but to pick Christianity apart. After finishing the basics about the Coalition and Camilia Shehata, they turned their sights on me.
It was not pleasant. A question would be posed, an answer attempted, and then someone else would jump in from a different direction. They were not rude, just purposed, and in the end, annoying (not all, of course, mostly one in particular). It was as if they had never interacted with a real live Christian before, and certainly not a foreigner.
And now, Mahmoud was in the same place.
He handled himself well, as did the audience. The only challenge came from Naout. She asked him about the difference between Quranic verses composed early in Mecca, which are largely irenic, with those from when he later resided, and ruled, in Medina. This is from where ‘verses of the sword’ issue, and most Muslim exegetes consider later revelation to abrogate the earlier. How could he, a kind and open-minded Muslim, accept such commands to kill and discriminate?
It was the sort of question I feared for him, as Naout is well versed in these matters and a strong personality, while Mahmoud, presumably, just wanted to learn. He ducked deftly enough, and no one was out for blood. The overwhelming sentiment in the audience was gratefulness that a Salafi had joined them. The evening ended with the idea Mahmoud could return with other Salafi colleagues, ones able to answer the question well, and the church could host them in seminars to get to know each other better. Fr. Butrous of St. Mark’s Church even offered to visit a Salafi mosque to do the same on their turf. Mahmoud indicated these were good ideas.
They are, in fact, beautiful ideas. The beauty stems from both sides, though in different manners. Mahmoud made the effort to get to know the other. He risked his own community’s condemnation by offering condolences for the pope. He even risked the chance the police guard outside the church might have misunderstood his intentions and gotten into trouble.
The beauty of the church stems from their reception. Copts feel under tremendous pressure from Islamists in general, and Salafis in particular. By and large, they did not take their unprecedented opportunity to lay into a Salafi who was actually kind hearted enough to listen to what could have been their many legitimate complaints. Instead, they welcomed him, and made certain his visit was appreciated.
It is beautiful, but it is also revealing. The Coptic Church is widely panned as being an insular institution whose people have grown more and more isolated within its walls. Salafis can be understood somewhat similarly. There is very little connection between the two groups, and as such, acrimony is frequent on both sides.
I cannot say what the real Salafi attitude is toward Christians, if it differs from that of many of their high profile leaders. Yet the church attitude demonstrated that even if Christians are isolated, they desire to be known. Most may not desire it enough to be as brave as Mahmoud, but when offered a chance to interact with a Salafi, they jumped at the chance. They are desperate to give a good, and corrective, impression.
Naout closed the impromptu session by referring back to Pope Shenouda. She claimed this evening was ‘one of his miracles’. Indeed, had the pope not died, this memorial service would not have been held, Naout would not have been present, and Mahmoud would never have set foot in a church. Is it a miracle?
The answer is probably dependant on theology. Is it safe to say it is a miracle of the revolution? Is God arranging to bring the diverse strands of Egyptian belief closer and closer together? Is it just a token sociological accident? Or has good already begun to emerge from Pope Shenouda’s death?
Regardless, greater interaction between Copts and Salafis, Islamists and liberals, urbanites and villagers, and all manner of Egyptians is desperately necessary. Tonight, Pope Shenouda, Fatima Naout, and Mahmoud all circumstantially intertwined to begin a small chapter.
Or should it be labeled ‘providentially’?
- A Salafi Candidate with Coptic Support: Interview – March 3, 2012
- The History of Salafism in Egypt – January 5, 2012
- Thoughts on Belonging and the Salafi Label – May 12, 2011