[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler is an Episcopal priest living in Egypt. He has served since 2003 as rector of St. John the Baptist Church in Cairo. In this ENS interview, Chandler reflects on the changes in Egypt over the past two years and speaks about the recent protests triggered by a film containing anti-Islam content.
ENS: Egypt has seen some major transformations in the past two years. How would you describe the country’s current political landscape and infrastructure to someone who doesn’t really understand the context?
P-GC: Where does one start, when it comes to Egypt over the last 18 months, let alone the last few weeks, even days? Each day is so full of surprise that it is hard to stay up with it all.
Obviously, after more than 60 years of authoritarian rule, and decades of being a police state, Egypt is experiencing what might be called “growing pains.” However, it has to be said that in the most democratic elections since 1952, the Egyptians did freely select their leader, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who won 51 percent of the vote. The famous Tahrir Square went crazy with joy when the announcement was made. Many were jubilant because a proponent of conservative Islam had won. Others, not so excited about this and even concerned about the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, nevertheless rejoiced in the revolution’s true victory.
One of the main challenges right now is related to the basic infrastructure of the country, let alone the economic issues. These challenges are really starting to pile up. There is excessive trash everywhere, less security (the police force is minimal), electricity goes off more and more, less medicines are available at pharmacies, wheat is thought to perhaps soon run out, there are shortages of bottled water, etc.
One respected political analyst here described the current state of Egypt, well with these words: “Egypt is going through a state of revolutionary fluidity…”
However, in the midst of it all, we see so many positive signs that are critical for Egypt’s future health, and recognize that one must have a long-term perspective. So we are rooting Egypt on and are immensely proud of the Egyptians.
ENS: What have these changes meant for the country in general, and for Christians in particular?
P-GC: Those most concerned at Morsi’s victory were the Coptic Christians. Yet the concern was largely based on fear of the unknown. The familiar, even if undesired, always feels more secure. Rumors started proliferating against Morsi, and not only did he try to dismiss their claims, during his victory speech Morsi sought to allay the fears of the Copts. “We as Egyptians, Muslims and Christians … will face together the strife and conspiracies that target our national unity…. We are all equal in rights, and we all have duties towards this homeland.” He even officially resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood following his victory speech. Nevertheless, some Copts are not convinced, instead believing the country has been slowly but surely manipulated into Islamist rule. Egypt is a country of rumors!
One of the first actions of President Morsi was to invite the heads of all the Christian denominations to the Presidential Palace. He warmly received them and assured them that Christians are equal citizens in Egypt and it is his duty to make sure that every citizen receives his or her rights. The president also told them stories from the history of Islam of how Muslim leaders were very keen to ensure the right of citizenship of all Christians in Egypt. The president promised to do his best to ensure the rights of Christians, especially in regard to building churches. The Christian leaders came out of the 35-minute meeting very encouraged.
Quite remarkably, President Morsi invited the heads of the denominations in Egypt to meet with him last month, for a second time. Twice in less than two months to talk and listen them. This had not happened in Egypt in the last 30 years. President Morsi assured them that his Islamic faith commands him to be gracious and just with people of other faiths. They left the meeting very encouraged and determined to do their best in order to see the Egypt that we all dream of.
Where I serve, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in southern Cairo, the unique opportunities for ministry have grown exponentially in this “new Egypt,” with far more religious freedom than before the revolution. We soon host our fall Abraham Forum that brings Christians and Muslims together around a theme relevant to the country. Our special speaker is Jeffrey Fleishman, the Cairo bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, novelist, and Pulitzer Prize finalist. Nevertheless, regardless of what the reality is, more and more Coptic Christians desire to emigrate. There is too often this inherent fear of the “other.”
ENS: What is the latest on the protests in Cairo? Who is protesting and why? Are the protests just a response to the anti-Islam film or is it more complicated than that?
P-GC: I know many have been following in the Western media the unrest that has been taking place in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East as a result of the immensely disgraceful film produced by an Egyptian man of Christian background living in the U.S., whose 13-minute film trailer was released on YouTube.
We were actually very safe. Most of the unrest was very localized, just around the U.S. Embassy downtown, and though it started out with a couple thousand protesters, it ended up very quickly as a relatively small group. In some other countries, like Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, the protests have ended up with more serious consequences. However, here in Egypt, it has to date been largely a mixture of different groups grasping the chance to serve their own interests, settle scores and express their frustrations. In Egypt, the recent unrest has largely not been from Islamic fundamentalists as portrayed in the media.
In this sense, the U.S. Embassy area and nearby Tahrir Square became the battlefield for disgruntled people, and not just a protest against the film. According to the respected Egyptian political analyst and journalist Ayman El-Sayyad, “…people grasped the chance to vent their anger.”
As to who these people are, well, it is quite a motley crew, all with differing reasons for demonstrating violently. El Sayyad expressed it well: “It’s…Islamists against the U.S. administration; revolutionaries against [Egyptian] security forces; Salafists [a fundamentalist Islamic group] against the Muslim Brotherhood [who are much more moderate]; and the marginalized [i.e. unemployed] against the reality in which they live.”
ENS: How have the president and other political leaders responded to the protests given their commitment to building a more democratic society in Egypt?
P-GC: Thankfully, President Morsi, while condemning the dishonorable film, also strongly condemned violence of any kind in demonstrations. This public denouncement of violence helped to dissolve a lot of potentially violent protests.
As covered in the New York Times, Khairat El-Shater, the deputy guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, said: “Our condolences to the American people for the loss of their ambassador and three members of the embassy staff in Libya.” He went on to highlight that he did not hold the U.S. government or its citizens responsible for the acts of “the few” that abuse the right to free expression, despite his disapproval over this anti-Islam film. He also condemned the “breach of the U.S. embassy premises” by Egyptian protesters, which he described as illegal under international law. He described the current state of Egypt well with these words: “Egypt is going through a state of revolutionary fluidity, and public anger must be dealt with responsibly and with caution.”
So in short, we are safe and the vast majority of Egyptians continue to be extremely magnanimous in all ways toward guests in their country. While the media often gives the opposite impression, nothing could be further from the reality we experience here.
ENS: Some of the justification for producing this anti-Islam film has been based on America’s rights for freedom of speech and expression. What about instances where freedom of speech and expression cause offense to millions of people?
P-GC: It is very difficult to explain the concept of freedom of expression in a context like this. The worldview starting point is completely different than in most Western cultures. In a shame culture, which is prevalent in the Middle East, preserving honor is the highest priority. People in different parts of the world react differently, especially when it comes to matters of faith.
One thing that is interesting is that the four Episcopal/Anglican diocesan bishops recently sent a joint letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations suggesting “that an international declaration be negotiated that outlaws the intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith.” Their motivation in doing so is that they believe that this might help to avoid the possibility of further violence – between people from different cultural or philosophical backgrounds or followers of different faiths.
Whether one believes this is the proper response or not, it does show how seriously local church leaders here are taking all this.
[The four bishops are the Most Rev. Mouneer Hanna Anis, bishop of Egypt and president bishop of the Episcopal/Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East; the Rt. Rev. Michael Owen Lewis, bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf; the Rt. Rev. Bill Musk, area bishop for North Africa; and the Rt. Rev. Grant LeMarquand, area bishop for the Horn of Africa.]
ENS: You have said it’s not just Islamic fundamentalists who are protesting. But in some countries, the protests have largely involved people associated with extremist groups have they not, or is that misrepresentation in the media?
P-GC: To be very honest, each country’s context is so completely different that it is hard to answer this with any accuracy. One of the challenges we face here is that West often sees the “Muslim World” as this monolithic body, almost as if they are one political and religious entity. However, the issues in one country are as different from those in another country as would be the issues in the U.S. from Denmark, for example, both seen as “Christian countries” in Muslim eyes.
ENS: How damaging are the inaccuracies reported in the media?
P-GC: First of all, I am not so sure that the Western media necessarily is intentional in mis-portraying the situation. It is most likely that there is a general lack of understanding in order to present the news within the correct context, and also that the very nature of the news media focuses on reporting controversy, which often magnifies what is happening out of proportion. As a result the damage done is that it tends to reinforce negative stereotypes of people in this region based on misinformation.
ENS: What does the world need to learn from this series of events?
P-GC: I believe all of this is a powerful reminder of how important it is for all people (including those in the media) to be responsible and self-restraining in expressing or promoting insulting or malevolent opinions with regard to religion. Instead, we need to focus on waging peace on all people.