Second Page


On the “Coptic President of Egypt


The Dhimmis Within the Copts


By Mounir Bishay


At this juncture in Egyptian history, it would be tragic if a Muslim citizen looks upon Christian Coptic citizens as Dhimmis. But, for Copts to view themselves in this demeaning manner is a tragedy beyond comprehension.
While writing my recent article in Watani of 3 April 2005 entitled, “A Coptic President of Egypt?” I anticipated that some Copts might still be imprisoned by this Dhimmi mind set. In an effort to preempt that tendency, I stated that if the Copts hoped to reach higher political offices, they would have to overcome the Dhimmi mentality. I am saddened to report that there are Copts who didn't get the message. My heart aches for those Copts who lack self esteem and still maintain that demoralizing mind set.
Dhimmitude is a term that was used in reference to Christians and Jews living in the Islamic Empire. They were also called “People of the Book” or “Ahl Al Kitab” in Arabic. The concept was created to describe Christians and Jews who did not want to embrace Islam. They were permitted to practice their religions in exchange for paying the Jizya tax. Their wishes to remain faithful to their religious heritages demoted them to the humiliations of being viewed as second-class citizens.
As such, it was forbidden for them to obtain high-ranking jobs or any position that might infer that they were equal or superior to Muslims. They were not trusted for employment in police and military agencies. Any meaningful position pertaining to national and civil defense was solely entrusted to Muslims. This unfair practice was abolished, hopefully never to return, by the Ottoman Empire in 1856.
Nonetheless, the concept still lingers in the minds of some fanatical Muslims. For more than two decades now, Muslim extremists have been collecting Jizya from wealthy Christians in Upper Egypt. Governmental rulings that forbid the refurbishing and building of churches are undoubtedly a reflection of Dhimmitude attitudes toward Christians. In addition, the discriminatory practices that restrict hiring Copts or promoting them to higher positions are linked to this mentality.
Regardless of this attitude amongst some Muslims, it is encouraging to note that a new trend is starting to emerge in the Islamic world. Though it is likely due to international pressures, there are comforting signs that changes are taking place. News reports from Bahrain brought a pleasant surprise. A Christian woman led a parliamentary session. For two hours, Alice Samaan actually chaired the Shura Council of Bahrain’s parliament. This event set a new precedent, as it was perhaps the first of its kind to take place in an Arab State. All of the council members graciously responded to her presence with a long round of applause.
There is a strange irony in all of this. On one hand, there are signs that many Muslims are experiencing a change of heart. On the other hand, it is apparent that there are Christians who are not. These are so rigid in their thinking that they persist in perceiving themselves as unequal to Muslims. It is embarrassingly outrageous to discover that objections to demands for equality are actually coming from Christians, more so than Muslims.
In my previous article I called on Copts to take advantage of Egypt’s upcoming Presidential election in September of this year. I stressed that if Copts are to be a viable force in the election process it would be a good idea to have at least one Coptic name appear on the election ballot. Among those reacting to the idea, I haven’t heard of many Muslims voicing objections. Believe it or not, those who are voicing objections are mainly Copts.
A prominent Copt, Mr. Nabil Bibawi, objected to the idea saying, “I personally take responsibility in emphasizing that there is no Copt who is capable of carrying the full responsibility of being the president. No Copt is able to save the country from the dangers that encompass it from the inside and the outside.”
I trust that this does not indicate that Mr. Bibawi actually believes that all Copts are so ignorant that none are fit candidates for the job. Perhaps he was attempting to convey that he believes the general atmosphere in Egypt is not liberal enough to allow a Christian to become president. If so, this would be a statement against claims of religious tolerance in Egypt that he often boasts about.
Other Coptic Christians objected to my proposal with the accusation that I was unrealistic, as a Christian could never become the President of Egypt. Well, I believe I am realistic enough to recognize two things. First, I grant that the chances for a Copt to win the upcoming election are practically non-existent. Secondly, the history of politics in every nation proves that dreams do come true. It is my dream and responsibility to encourage my fellow Copts to seek the highest office in the land until one of them achieves it. I have the right to dream that the day is coming when Egyptians will vote for candidates on the basis of their abilities rather than their religious affiliation.
The reality that the odds are against a Copt succeeding in winning the next election by no means infers that running in the election is a wasted effort. To the contrary, the act of running for the office is in itself a successful accomplishment. The success is borne from the fact that Copts are taking their rightful place as genuine citizens of a democracy by claiming their rights.
Coptic names appearing on the ballot will ensure that all of Egypt’s citizens become accustomed to the concept that it is proper for Christians to seek high visibility public offices. Perhaps the biggest advantage in running in the election is that it will give Copts opportunities to have their voices heard. It will give them the chances to participate in the dialogues that will shape the nation’s destiny
In days gone by, Copts complained that nobody recommended them for higher positions in Egypt. Now, they are the ones that must take the initiative to pursue those positions. If they neglect that right, they would have nobody to blame but themselves.
If Copts think of themselves as Dhimmis, why should they be surprised when others treat them as Dhimmis?
Mounir Bishay is president of Christian Copts of California. (