Living in the peacefully-mundane Central Valley of California, it’s hard to comprehend that in other parts of the world people are harassed, tortured and even killed for their beliefs every day. But they are.
It’s been over a year since the beginning of what was hopefully termed the “Arab Spring,” an explosion of political and social upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa that led to the overthrow of three dictatorial regimes and the destabilization of several more. But amid the exuberance of change, troubling trends have emerged. Of these, perhaps the most troubling is a marked increase in persecution of religious minorities by democratic Islamic fundamentalists.
Egypt, where Islamist militias led by the Muslim Brotherhood ousted long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, has seen liberty for religious minorities enter a crisis. Coptic Christians — who comprise approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s population — had experienced persecution for decades from Muslim groups, but until the fall of Mubarak, the government provided the Copts with official protection.
Since Mubarak’s demise, however, the situation for Copts has deteriorated. A wave of targeted murders, rapes, mob beatings and church burnings has devastated the Coptic Christian community on an almost daily basis for the past year. Despite the brutality of these attacks, the new democratic government has shown no desire to stop the persecution. Last October, a peaceful march protesting the destruction of a Coptic Christian church was broken up by police and military forces. Over 20 people were killed and more than 300 people were injured, some of them run over by military vehicles. In a recent and typical instance, when a mob of 3,000 Muslims attacked and burned Coptic homes, churches and shops in the village of Kobry-el-Sharbat, the police waited outside the village until the mob had enough of looting and beating.
Aside from direct persecution, Egypt’s religious minorities face societal discrimination and pressure as well. Barbaric practices such as “chitan,” or female circumcision, which had been banned under Mubarak, have become popular again. Christian women, easily identifiable for their lack of a head covering, are a target for rapes and beatings. Christians and other non-Muslims also face a virtual apartheid in legal and societal standing based on radical interpretations of Sharia law. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that Egypt be placed alongside North Korea, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as a “Country of Particular Concern.” Not surprisingly, human rights groups in Egypt have estimated that 100,000 to 200,000 Coptic Christians have left Egypt since the Revolution.
While Egypt is perhaps the most visible offender, the democratization caused by the Arab Spring has had negative effects elsewhere as well. Mark Hetfield, a former senior advisor to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stated that throughout the Middle East, “Democratization has resulted in ethnic cleansing.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a bestselling author who left Islam to become a women’s rights activist, says, “From one end of the Muslim world to the other, Christians are being murdered for their faith.”
For those who hoped for an improved human rights climate in the Middle East, the reports of increased persecution are a discouraging reminder that democracy alone cannot create liberty or civilization on its own. If there is one message conveyed by the Arab Spring, it is that institutions of democracy cannot mask the brutality and intolerance that can characterize fundamentalist Islam.
For those of us living in safety in the West, the fear of living in a fundamentalist country can seem distant, even unreal. But we can still make a difference. With Egypt and others increasingly dependent on aid from the U.S. to survive, we must have the political will to demand equal treatment for non-Muslims as a condition of that aid.
The first step, as always, is to speak the truth. The famously-astute Vice President Biden, rhapsodizing about the Arab Spring in December, compared it to the American Revolution, and quoted poetry about the “terrible beauty” of the movement.
Unfortunately for the minorities living in fear throughout the Middle East, the Arab Spring promises far more terror than beauty.
SAM HOEL can be reached at email@example.com.