In the year 1321 Muslim mobs, with tacit allowance from the Mamluk Sultan, destroyed 60 churches in Egypt and openly attacked Copts on the roads and in their homes. Incitement included accusations Christians supported the invading Mongols in their ‘coup’ attempt against the state.
According to UK-based Fadel Soliman, these days may soon return. Coptic support for President Sisi and his coup against the democratically elected Islamist presidency of Mohamed Morsi has resulted in a ‘poisoned atmosphere’ between religious adherents.
‘I am so worried about the future of Egypt,’ said Soliman, ‘especially about the reactions of Muslims toward you.’
Soliman issued this comparison in the context of a larger argument about restoring hope to Muslim youth who own the dream of ruling by sharia. Too many, he laments, are attracted by the success of the so-called Islamic State following the ‘betrayal’ of the democratic dawn.
‘Either give the way to Muslim youth to try to reach their dreams through peaceful means,’ he told Lapido Media, ‘or they will definitely seek violent means. This is normal, this was expected to happen.’
Soliman is the Egyptian founder and director of Bridges Foundation, a UK-based NGO that aims to overcome misconceptions about Islam. His work has been praised by diverse figures such as Representative Michael Doyle of Pennsylvania and the liberal satirist Bassem Youssef of Egypt. He has consistently condemned terrorism and appealed to the Islamic State for the return of Alan Henning, later beheaded.
He is also an Islamist, arguing sharia law supports and enhances the principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He wishes justice for Egypt, to which he has not returned since the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa where he witnessed sixteen of his students killed.
But the crucial question is – if his argument is correct will frustrated Islamists flock to a jihadist vision? And similarly, should policymakers encourage ‘moderate’ Islamists as a counterweight to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State?
The argument is very popular in academic circles, informing much of the enthusiasm of the initial Arab Spring. Khalil al-Anani of Georgetown University in Washington DC, writing in Foreign Affairs, speaks for many in his worry about a return to authoritarianism in Egypt.
‘Through its clampdown on political dissent, Cairo has created a fertile ground for ISIS and groups like it,’ he wrote,‘with the potential to recruit young people, Islamists, and moderates alike.’
Indeed, most Muslims in Egypt are religiously conservative. The 2013 Pew survey showed 74% want sharia to be the law of the land, with 56% believing Egypt’s current legal system is deficient. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties captured nearly three-quarters of the parliament in the 2012 elections. It would appear these numbers represent those are ripe for radicalisation.
But Soliman’s appraisal of Egyptian politics fails to account for the millions of Muslims and Christians who rejected the presidency of Morsi. Coup or not, the subsequent ‘yes’ votes for the constitution and Sisi’s presidency each exceeded the 13 million Morsi won in 2012.
These numbers do not negate the conviction of Islamists that they have been cheated out of gains fairly won. Their grievances have been buttressed by the 632 people killed at Rabaa, according to Egypt’s semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights. A minimum of 6,400 people have been detained for ‘rioting’, according to the Ministry of the Interior.
But the assumption these frustrations will drive Islamists to violence is simply a form of bigotry, according to Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.
‘I disagree with this line of argument,’ he said. ‘It is shallow and insulting to Muslims. It is the bigotry of low expectations.’
Where Soliman sees the path to violence as normal—despite his firm rejection—Tadros sees responsibility.
‘Violence is a choice,’ he said. ‘It is not an inevitable one. Just as some have chosen the path of terrorism, there are millions of men and women who have chosen not to become terrorists, not to kill their enemies.’
Estimates of Egyptians fighting in Syria and Iraq range between 5,000 and 8,000. Islamist movement expert Ahmed Ban of the Nile Center for Strategic Studies believes this makes up 20-30% of their fighting force.
These are significant numbers. But according to two recent polls, only three to four percent of Egyptians view the Islamic State in positive terms. Viewed in light of a population of 90 million, small percentages cause considerable worry. But Egyptians, including the mass of Islamists, are not rushing headlong into jihadism.
Soliman says that every time he criticizes the Islamic State his Facebook and Twitter feeds light up in protest.
But Khaled Dawoud of Egypt’s Constitution Party, writing for the Atlantic Council, says the majority of Egyptians in Syria and Iraq travelled there during the presidency of Morsi. It was not the failure of Islamism that boosted jihadism, but its success.
Egypt has instituted travel restrictions to Turkey to prevent the further flow of citizens to the Islamic State. Terrorism continues in the restless Sinai where the Islamic State has formed a local chapter. The threat is real.
But even peaceful Islamists have a distinct illiberal agenda, writes Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in his acclaimed book Temptations of Power. The premise that democracy would moderate them did not prove true in Egypt. In an excerpt from the Atlantic he describes the conflict this makes for observers, but Egyptians bear the greater struggle.
‘The ensuing—and increasingly charged—debate over the role of religion in public life put Western analysts and policymakers in the uncomfortable position of having to prioritise some values they hold dear over others,’ he wrote.
In the ongoing debate about how to include Islamists in the political order, foreign governments and Egyptians will set their agenda according to particular interests and principles.
But the implicit threat of jihadism should not be given a place of priority. It is neither sufficiently true nor morally honorable.
This article was originally published at Lapido Media.