The Muslim Brotherhood has threatened to kill the Coptic Pope Shenouda III. A nun was stabbed by a Muslim who burst into a Coptic church shouting “Allah akbar.” Three people were killed as thousands of Muslim protestors rioted outside a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt. Relations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt have not been this tense in recent memory.
By all accounts, it’s all because of a DVD that was shown in a Coptic church which Muslims think insults Islam. How exactly does it insult Islam? According to CNN, “The riot was sparked by the distribution of a DVD of a play that was performed at the church two years ago. The play, ‘I Was Blind But Now I Can See,’ tells the story of a young Christian who converts to Islam and becomes disillusioned.”
So a film depiction of someone converting to Islam and then becoming disillusioned is enough to bring more than 5,000 protestors to the church and get a nun stabbed and three people killed? Rumors have spread among Muslims in Egypt that the film insults Muhammad and Islam, but this is unlikely given the Copts’ general reticence about speaking about mistreatment they receive from Muslims. As the Coptic Bishop Armia said, “Copts would never tolerate anyone insulting Islam.” Pope Shenouda himself likewise denied that the play contained anything insulting to Islam. As many Middle Eastern priests and lay Christians have told me, Christians in the Middle East well know that as a matter of survival, they must say one thing in public and another in private. The Copts who showed this video violated that rule, or at least found themselves in violation of it when news of the showing became known.
The rioting also suggests how deeply Egyptian Muslims have internalized the traditional Islamic law mandating death for anyone who leaves Islam, and the old dhimmi laws forbidding Christians to proselytize. Other details, as reported by Al-Jazeera, reinforces this point: “The production features a poor Christian university student who converts to Islam when a group of Muslim men promise him much-needed money. When he becomes disenchanted with his decision, the men threaten him with physical violence to prevent him from returning to his original faith.”
So perhaps the Egyptian Muslims are offended that the student originally converted only for money, and that he was threatened by the Muslims when he wanted to return to Christianity. But this, of course, is like CAIR being offended by a book that depicts Muhammad as a warrior: both are taking offense at the truth. There are numerous reports of Copts converting to Islam under pressure, and certainly many Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere take very seriously the command in Islamic law that anyone who leaves Islam should be killed (which is based, of course, on a statement of Muhammad himself: see Bukhari, vol. 9, bk. 84, no. 57).
It is a pity that Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere don’t heed the words of Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, as reported by The Telegraph: Muslims, said Carey, “were very offended by Satanic Verses but I said you are living in a country and civilisation where we are quite used to this. They say: ‘Why as a Christian don't you condemn the Life of Brian?’ I said: ‘I love the film and I think it is good for religion to be knocked, to be criticised, to be challenged because we have done a lot of damage in the past’. We know religion is a force for good but I don’t want to control a writer not to criticise me, because I may need that criticism. The Church of England is a broad church, we are used to being mocked. I do believe passionately in this. I wanted to assure Salman Rushdie that although many of his statements may have been in bad taste he had the right to say it as a lapsed Muslim.”
If anyone needs the criticism that is apparently contained in the Copts’ DVD, it is the very Muslims who have rioted because of it. If they noted and began to work against the intimidation of Copts and the threats against those who leave Islam, life would be better in Egypt for both Christians and Muslims. Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide, meanwhile, need to realize that the riots in Egypt are but one manifestation of a much deeper problem: the collision of Western notions of freedom of speech and Islamic sensibilities. But few as yet have woken up to that.
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