Miriam Fekry, a 22-year-old Egyptian, savored her life as she updated her Facebook page. “2010 is over. This year has the best memories of my life. Really enjoyed this year. I hope that 2011 is much better. Plz God stay beside me & help make it all true.” She was to die coming out of New Year’s Eve mass at St. Mark and St. Peter Church in her hometown of Alexandria. More than a score of her fellow Copts were killed, and about a hundred wounded, in the most brazen deed of terror against the Coptic minority.
The Copts, of course, are rooted in Egypt; the very word itself, in Arabic, once designated the Egyptians as a whole. Islam had found them there when it came to Egypt in the seventh century. A majority of them went over to Islam, and the Coptic and Greek languages yielded to Arabic. A 10th of the population would stay true to the Coptic faith. Yet today, in one of the great intellectual swindles, they are made to feel unwanted, interlopers in their own homeland.
Two months earlier, a church in Baghdad was assaulted by terrorists, and 46 worshipers perished. Christianity is embattled in the lands of its birth. In a recent study of exquisite quality, Habib Malik, a Lebanese philosopher and historian, sounded an alarm. In his book Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East, published by the Hoover Institution, Malik conveyed the moral and philosophical passion of a Christian Arab of deep liberalism worried about the fate of the Christians all around him. In times past, Western gunboats and envoys and the educational and religious missions of Western powers had concerned themselves with the fate of the Christians of the East. Consulates in the Levant provided a shield for local Christians. Jerusalem was dubbed a kingdom of the consuls. But the world has been remade, and the Christians of the East have to fend for themselves.
The terror that hit Alexandria did not come out of the blue. Islamists have been sowing the wind, and the Egyptian state, interested only in the prerogatives of the pharaoh and his retainers, has stepped out of the way. There is no end to the charges hurled at the Copts. In the dark fantasies, the Copts, friends of the Zionists and tools of America, are hellbent on a state of their own in rural upper Egypt, where there is a heavy Coptic concentration. It is said that they use churches to store weapons. In truth, the Copts walk on eggshells, eager not to offend. They are denied elementary communal rights: they are forbidden to repair their churches, let alone use them as hiding places for arms.
As the dream of modernity in Egypt has faded, there has settled upon that crowded land a deep sense of disillusion—and bigotry. Egyptians were once proud of the openness of their country. Their identity was eclectic. Europe began at Alexandria, Asia at Cairo, and Africa at Aswan. The pillars of their civilization were Pharaonic, Coptic, Greco-Roman, and Islamic. The world, in its richness, could be found in Egypt, and Alexandria itself was the hedonistic city celebrated by Lawrence Durrell in his timeless quartet. One does not have to be unduly old, or unduly nostalgic, to recall that Egypt. But the radical Islamists, and the multitudes that wink at them, are a different breed. For that kind of open world, the forces of darkness have nothing but searing enmity.
Once upon a time, E. M. Forster described the Egyptians as a people used to “harmonizing contending assertions.” But the pressures on this crowded land and the brittle ways of a military autocracy have swept away so much of Egypt’s promise. The Copts have taken to the streets of late; they have crossed the threshold of fear. But the autocracy is entrenched, and so are its ways of evasion and denial—and outright repression.
Pity the Christian Arabs. They were the pioneers of Arab nationalism. In the late years of the 19th century, they led an Arab renaissance. The manifesto of Arab nationalism, The Arab Awakening, was written in 1938 by George Antonius, born in Lebanon to the Greek Orthodox faith and raised in Alexandria in the years of its economic boom. The principal theorist of the Baath party was a Greek Orthodox Syrian by the name of Michel Aflaq. The examples can be multiplied. The Christian Arabs were sure that a new age of Arab enlightenment would make room for them. How tragically wrong they were.
Ajami is director of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.