Re-examining the Discourse on Coptic Egypt

History reminds us often of the devastating effects of Colonialism on ethnic minorities. With events that range from subverted, underhanded attempts to indirectly wipe out local populations, to more explicit and horrendous events such as sanctioned ethnic cleansing, history has been a witness to the power of human greed as it discards respect for human life in search of riches and power.

In North America, there is no greater example than European colonialism in Aboriginal lands, and the devastating effects that this had (and continued to have) on local populations. However, we must be aware that Europeans are not the sole perpetrators of such atrocities in human history.

The expansion of the Muslim Caliphate in the Middle East during the 7th century is an often-overlooked example of such colonialism. If one were to examine the pattern by which Muslim armies entered strongholds such as Egypt, as well as the subsequent treatment of native populations, the similarities to the atrocities committed by European colonizers in North America are staggering.

Subduing Egypt by the Sword

Within 2 years of entering Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula, the Arab armies of the Al-Rashidun Caliphate had conquered Egypt’s capital (Alexandria) and established a new capital city stronghold (modern-day Cairo). They inherited a rich province that was bitter about Byzantine rule, and looked at Arab rule in Egypt as a new era.

It wasn’t long after conquering Egypt that the country’s native population began to realize the serious mistake they had made in viewing the Arabs as liberators. Seeking to reap the country’s riches, the Arab rulers heavily taxed local Egyptians (many of whom were of Greek origins) with an arbitrary Jizya tax, or forcing them to leave the province if they refused to pay the tax. In addition, there were several attempts at forcing the local population to convert to Islam by force in some ways. The Coptic population in Egypt bore the brunt of these forced conversions, as they were undoubtedly one of the largest ethnic groups in Egypt at the time (and made up a large percentage of the local population).

Despite some resistance by local Coptic groups, dissent was brutally crushed by the sword, and the last flare-up of dissent was seen in the Coptic Bashmuric Revolts of 832 AD. This last incident was the changing point in subduing native resistance in Egypt.

The rest, as some might say, is history – Coptic Egypt became no more, and the Arabization of Egypt was in full force.

How this relates to today

To argue that a Coptic Egypt exists today is a marked departure from mainstream discourse. Perhaps it’s because of the passage of time since the 832 AD Bashmuric revolts, or perhaps it’s because of the sensitivity surrounding Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt today, but one thing is certain: to discuss a “Coptic” Egypt as a distinct entity from modern Egypt is often looked down on, or ridiculed, or met with aggression as some sort of ‘unpatriotic talk’.

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The rejection of discourse on Coptic Egypt has been mainly to avoid sectarian tensions, but it is a topic that cannot, and should not, be avoided.

But I disagree with these sentiments. The history clearly indicates that Copts within Egypt enjoy a special status as an integral element of Egypt that has long existed as a distinct society with its own set of beliefs, cultures and traditions that are perhaps best exhibited through its last remnant, the Church. Coptic culture has been forcedly assimilated into the broader Arab culture so much, that it is no longer distinguishable on its own (and this is perhaps the reason why many might disagree with the idea that a distinct Coptic culture exists). While it may seem ridiculous to blame an assimilation process that began well over 1,100 years ago for the disappearance of Coptic culture, it is a valid point to make for the purpose of recognizing past wrongs and to prevent it from being repeated in modern times.

Over the past several years, I have met several Egyptians (both Muslims and non-Muslims) that have repeatedly emphasized the “national unity” dialogue that has become a prominent part of Egypt’s liberal/secular discourse. I applaud their efforts to do so in order to quell any claims of religious-based, sectarian violence that could easily be fanned by religious zeal and result in a bloody civil war. But imposing this discourse ignores the brutal reality that we must come to recognize: religiously motivated Arabs colonized Egypt’s native Copts, and this has resulted in the loss of an important part of Egyptian history that still lives on today. To ignore such a reality would be akin to ignoring the effects colonization of North America by Europeans on native Aboriginal populations.

As a Copt myself, I do not bring this up to fan sectarian tensions, but to acknowledge a past wrong that has robbed both the Coptic community and Egypt at large of an important part of its rich heritage. I would not seek an apology from a government, nor a monument to commemorate the atrocities to our collective memory. I would only ask that this be taught to our children, in the hope that they also teach it to their children in order to remind ourselves and future generations, that the effects of colonization can live on for centuries, and can plant seeds of hatred and resentment into generations. But most importantly, I would want to teach it to our children to show that colonization is not a long-gone historical concept: it exists today, and is certainly rearing its ugly head in Egypt today.

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