Coptics, Christmas and Coexistence: Reflections from Egypt
To coexist or not, that is the question.It seems to be a shared, universal desire of ours ... to coexist in peace. To love our neighbors despite our disagreements. To show respect when we differ and model the Golden Rule. But sadly, as we have seen, civil coexistence is not the inevitable trajectory of a developed society.Our firm is named after an 18th century community of political, social, and cultural reformers outside London committed to making goodness fashionable. The Clapham Sect, as they were known, pursued their objective through a broad framework they called “the reformation of manners.”They were also a faith-based community, so it was with great interest that my wife and I joined an American faith delegation to attend the official opening in Egypt of both the largest Cathedral and one of the largest Mosques in the Middle East, remarkably built by the national government side-by-side.Faith has inspired social reforms, motivated self-sacrifice, and encouraged charity.
Sadly, faith has also fostered intolerance, oppressed minorities, and even fueled violence. I believe that one of America’s exceptional contributions to the modern era is its separation of church and state in such a way that faith is encouraged and religious liberty is protected. This separation of theological institutions from government institutions was the result of the way the 18th c. Great Awakening baptized the Enlightenment.There are few Muslim-majority countries that have found a way to ground an American-style religious reality for their citizens, like the thoughts we shared last year on the Super Bowl ad. Not many Muslim-majority countries utilize their own religious, intellectual, legal and cultural foundations. After visiting Egypt, I am hopeful the way is being paved for others. Egypt’s tradition of religious coexistence was violently challenged by the revolution that took place in 2011, during which churches were burned and Christians were martyred. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood was the most organized political/religious group that was in a position to take advantage of the system's vulnerability and the closest link to Egyptian government. Current President el-Sisi, at the time serving as Minister of Defense, was able to oust the Brotherhood and restore a resemblance of democracy, order and freedom. Although Egypt has made great strides since ousting the Brotherhood, it seeks to make more progress, both legal and religious, as indicated by this profound comment from the head of Al Azhar (the most important Islamic educational institution in the world and the oldest Islamic university): “El-Tayeb also said that Islamic law dictates that Christian and Jewish houses of worship must be safeguarded to the same extent that mosques are.”The two houses of worship are the first fully constructed, functional structures in the new administrative capital of Egypt, which is being built 28 miles outside of Cairo. It will be 270 square miles in size, and serve as the administrative and financial capital of Egypt, housing the main government departments and ministries, as well as foreign embassies. Cairo’s population is now over 25 million and growing, whereas the new capital will have a population of five to seven million.In our meetings with religious and government officials, including the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, we were told that the reason the cathedral and mosque were built first was to acknowledge that religion is both fundamental and foundational to Egypt’s society and government. They were built by the Egyptian equivalent of our Corps of Engineers, and the general responsible for their construction spoke at both openings. This was an “all-in” effort of Egypt’s political, military and religious leadership.For me, this was possibly the most striking takeaway of our trip: President el-Sisi understands that politics is downstream of culture. As Hannah More of the original Clapham Group wrote, “reformation must begin with the great or it will never be effectual … To expect to reform the poor while the opulent are corrupt, is to throw [perfume] into the stream while the springs are poisoned.”The opening began with an event attended by world and regional leaders, both political and religious, which repeatedly affirmed the ideal and aspiration of religious coexistence. The event ended with Pope Tawadros II, speaking at the opening of the mosque, and Cairo’s Grand Mufti speaking at the opening of the Cathedral. Additionally, President el-Sisi gave a final speech calling for a New Egypt that rediscovers its roots of religious tolerance.Perhaps Egypt’s greatest challenge, however, is cultural. President el-Sisi seems to understand this as well. Through literal symbols, polished videos, speeches and even music, the opening of the cathedral and the mosque were a critical first step to shape a cultural ethos of religious inclusion and affirmation.As important as “the Greats” are to social transformation, true lasting reform cannot be strong-armed. It is the cultural context which permits or restricts critical social and political reforms to take hold. With more than 50% of Egypt’s population under the age of 25, “the Greats” need to find more creative ways to reach “the poor” (the masses). This brings me to two recommendations.First, we had the privilege of spending a day with Mama Maggie, the “Mother Theresa of Cairo,” who serves the children of Garbage City, both Muslim and Christian. Because of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has been hard hit by a decline in tourism and subsequently the economy has struggled. The needs are visibly real, and my first recommendation is for governments and other international foreign aid donors, including the US, to focus particularly on indigenous faith-based NGOs, especially those which cooperate with each other. Nothing models tolerance and rebuilds trust and social capital better than working side by side caring for the poor, the widow and the orphan.Second, to reach the youth, I recommend Egypt tap into the power of its creative class and popular culture, which has proven in other countries to be a powerful tool in the shaping of cultural mores. Yes, politics is downstream of culture, but in the 21st Century, with smartphones as the norm, creative cultural content may be the wellspring of social reform, especially when it comes to shaping the youth. Egypt should take a chapter, literally, from Hannah More’s efforts to use creative capital (short stories, poetry and plays) to reform the manners and morals of 19th century England. Egyptian pop musicians, concerts, television shows (even homes in garbage city had satellite dishes), movies, literature and even comic books should all be recruited in the effort to promote coexistence. I am under no illusion the efforts undertaken in Egypt will inevitably succeed, but I am confident that if we cheer them on and do a better job at modeling inclusion and civility in our personal lives and our public life, including media, we may see the seeding of a reformation of manners that allows not just Egypt, but all of us, to better coexist despite our inevitable differences.