Monday, March 19, 2012

Mourning Pope Shenouda III

This weekend the Coptic Pope Shenouda III passed away after leading his flock for over forty years. My thoughts are with the Coptic Community at this time of mourning. Pope Shenouda once said that “It is not we who live in Egypt, but it is Egypt that lives in us.” I know his memory will live on in Egyptians for years to come.

The outpouring for Pope Shenouda has been massive from all Egyptians, as these excellent photographs by @mosaaberizing show. 

Photo by Mosa'ab Elshamy

However, Egypt being Egypt, there have been a few sectarian snafus. The government has declared three days of mourning in memory of Pope Shenouda. However, some have criticized state media for reciting verses from the Qur’an after making that announcement. Others view the Qur’anic recitations as a measure of interfaith respect. Either way, this debate must been seen in the context of Egyptian state television’s complicity in stoking sectarian tensions, most perniciously during the Maspero massacre. The cartoon below was posted in a popular Egyptian Facebook group and reads, “Egyptian television plays the Holy Qur’an in mourning the death of Pope Shenouda.”

From Egyptian Sarcasm Society Facebook Group

There is no debating, however, the symbolism of what happened today in parliament. As parliament stood in a moment of silence to mourn Pope Shenouda, some Salafi MP’s from al-Nour party decided not to participate and left the chamber. Their behavior speaks less of their devotion to God than it does their intolerance of how others devote themselves to God. In response, Kurt Werthmuller (@KWerthmuller) of the Hudson Institute tweeted, “Reports of Nour MPs leaving parlmnt, refusing to stand in respect for Pope Shenouda are sickening. Who says politics are moderating Salafis?”

I would actually view this in the exact opposite way. The Salafi experiment with politics has just begun, and it is far too soon to determine whether their participation will lead to moderation. However, it is exactly these kinds of incidents that could potentially lead to moderation. As time goes on, Salafis will repeatedly have to reconcile their hardline beliefs with political pragmatism. Every time they choose their hardline beliefs, as they did today, they will incur political costs. If politics does in fact lead to moderation, it will be because those costs forced Salafis to make tactical compromises that, over time, solidify into strategic changes in ideology. For further reading on this topic, I suggest Carrie Wickham on how politics changed the Muslim Brotherhood and Nadav Shelef on how pragmatic politics leads to the evolution of ideology.

Certainly, the rise of Islamists and especially Salafis have many worried in Egypt – especially the Copts. As this al-Ahram article makes clear, Coptic leaders are concerned about facing the challenges of post-Mubarak Egypt without the guidance of Pope Shenouda. But there are also opportunities to be found in Egypt right now. It is not just Islamists that will gain strength after Mubarak, but al-Azhar now has the chance to assert itself once again as the premier seat of Sunni Islamic thought. If it succeeds, it will become an important counterweight to Islamist movements in Egypt and in the broader global Muslim community. Similarly, the next Coptic pope will have the opportunity to revitalize the Church in a new era of openness and renaissance. If he seizes that chance, the Coptic community and thereby all Egyptians will reap the rewards.

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