Last month, ISIS terrorists tried to attack the ancient monastery of St. Catherine’s, in Egypt’s Sinai desert. That fact might not sound too surprising, until we recall that St. Catherine’s has in its possession a decree of protection issued by the Prophet Muhammad himself and supposedly valid until the end of the world. If any place in the world should be immune from Islamist terrorism, it is this religious house. Following so closely on the hideous massacre of over 40 worshipers at their Palm Sunday services in Egyptian cities, this event indicates just how lethally perilous life has become for the country’s nine million or so Coptic Christians.
The attacks were followed last week by a previously scheduled visit from Pope Francis, who declared that “no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his name.” Western observers, the Roman pontiff included, tend to attribute such atrocities to the evils of religious fanaticism and intolerance. But in fact, these attacks do have a rationale and a logic.
Most obviously, they demonstrate the Egyptian government’s weakness in the face of armed jihad, while helping to undermine the economy by deterring tourists. But there is a larger and more critical agenda. These terrorist spectaculars are intended to appeal to specific audiences within the Egyptian ruling establishment, and particularly in the armed forces and the intelligence apparatus. By giving the continuing crisis a distinctly religious coloring, the jihadis are trying to force Egyptian elites to choose between Islam (as they portray it) and its enemies. This strategy is dangerous because it plausibly could succeed in splitting Egyptian elites and causing significant defections. This in turn would accelerate a critical trend in the modern Middle East, namely the near-collapse of secular ideologies across the region and the consequent rise of hard-edged political Islamism. In the worst-case scenario, such a process runs the risk of bringing Egypt to conditions that we more commonly associate with Iraq, which would pose catastrophic dangers.
While issues of religious freedom and persecution are grave enough in their own right, Western policymakers urgently need to understand these larger contexts.
In the second half of the last century, movements across the Arab world adopted similar ideologies in their struggle to modernize their countries and resist colonialism. Commonly, these were nationalist, socialist, and secular, while pan-Arabism had a powerful appeal. Such modernizing ideas found hospitable homes in the armed services and intelligence communities of key nations, and a series of coups d’état brought nationalist movements to power in Egypt (Nasserism), and also in Ba’athist Syria and Iraq. Nationalist regimes were not necessarily anti-religious, but they had absolutely no time for any hint of political Islamism, especially when it resisted modernization. Nasser bitterly persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1966 Egypt executed the movement’s leading intellectual, Sayyid Qutb.
That religious element had a natural appeal for minorities of all kinds, who feared the overwhelming weight of political Islam. In Egypt, the substantial Coptic minority had done well under British rule, but recognized the need to prepare for new post-imperial political arrangements. Copts gravitated toward secular and nationalist movements, often with interfaith aspirations. They disliked Nasser’s pan-Arabism for the simple reason that they saw themselves not as Arabs but as pure Egyptians, with Pharaonic roots. Even so, Nasser was obviously preferable to the kind of intolerant Islamic regime established in Saudi Arabia.
In Egypt, then, as in Iraq and Syria, minorities were firm supporters of nationalist politics, which worked well as long as those regimes flourished. The problem was that when the states faltered or collapsed, minorities were tainted by their association with unpopular dictatorships. That was all the more dangerous when those minorities were the targets of long-standing ethnic or religious prejudices.
In all these countries, moreover, secular nationalist regimes always had to deal with mass conservative religious sentiment in the population at large. Ordinary Muslims were happy to follow General Nasser as a symbol of national pride, but when later regimes descended into economic collapse, cronyism, and kleptocracy, older allegiances revived. The disastrous failures of the nationalist states in confronting Israel proved fatal. Secularism, it seemed, was bankrupt. What else was left?
Radical Islamist movements reorganized, and in 1981 the guerrilla group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya assassinated Nasser’s successor Anwar al-Sadat and some of his closest allies. Terrorist groups could be fought and suppressed, but much more dangerous was the success of Islamist political activism in gaining a real mass following. In the elections of 2011–2012, some two-thirds of votes cast in Egypt went either to the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood or to the Salafist party, al-Nour. Based on this mass democratic support, the Brotherhood formed a government, which was in turn overthrown by the bloody military coup led by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in July 2013.
In some ways, Egypt’s current Sisi government is trying to reproduce the old Nasser system, complete with personality cult, but this is now happening in a vastly different political context. Far from being relatively passive, activist Muslims are now highly militant and organized, while the coup destroyed any hopes of a peaceful democratic road to Islamist political power. That left only the armed road to revolution. Boosted by internet propaganda, ideas of popular armed jihad have become mainstream, resulting in surging guerrilla campaigns across the country, especially in the Sinai. But interfaith relations have also been transformed, with much more intense and widespread popular hatred of Christians. As Muslim activists struggled against the 2013 coup, they launched attacks on churches and monasteries on a scale that by some accounts had not been equaled since 1321. Although the Brotherhood sporadically tries to make friendly gestures to Christians, the underlying mass sentiment is toxic.
In the new post-2013 environment, there are multiple reasons why Christians are such a natural target for Islamist terror. (I claim no great prophetic powers for having predicted this present strategy back at that time.) Given the strength of the Egyptian military and its strong intelligence networks, it is natural for jihadis to choose soft targets—poorly defended places and institutions—where the goal is to kill the maximum number of civilians. Once upon a time, Western tourists would have been the obvious targets of choice, but such visitors are no longer much in evidence. By default, then, Coptic Christian churches and communities are attacked.