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Whose Innocence?: Thoughts on Copts, Muslims, and a World Gone (Temporally) Mad

 [Muslims and Christians mingle at the Feast of St George in Mit Damsis, August 2007. Photo by Anthony Shenoda] [Muslims and Christians mingle at the Feast of St George in Mit Damsis, August 2007. Photo by Anthony Shenoda]

Note: The author posted the following addendum on 18 September 2012:

I want to be very clear that I neither see the 'Innocence of Muslims' video as expressing a general Coptic view (if there is one) nor do I perceive the recent riots/ protests ostensibly in response to the film by Muslims to be indiciative of a general Muslim or Islamic ethos. What I do insist on, however, is that each of these (video & riots/ protests) can be understood metaphorically as expressing the problems that each community (Copts/ Christians & Muslims) faces and causes, even if many individual members of these respective communities are indifferent to or outright reject the actions of other members of their respective communities of faith.

There is no doubt that some of the responses to the video on the part of some Muslims have been outrageous and hateful, in the same way that the video itself is outrageous and hateful. But it is a focus only, or primarily, on the response (and a reduction of the 'response' only to the video) that we get side-tracked into a now commonly accepted discourse among many non-Muslims, namely that Islam advocates violence and 'true' Muslims are willing to take it up. We need only consider the violence that all religious communities thrust upon the world in the name of their respective religions to know that making this argument about one particular religion is erroneous and dangerous. It is also politically expedient for a certain quite powerful nation that wants to control a certain, predominantly Islamic region of the world. 

A related note, then, is that the reason I think the 'film' undermines the actual persecution of Copts is because it distracts us from seeing the structural aspects of discrimination against Copts (and other religious minorities) in Egypt and instead pushes us towards a myopic vision wherein we only see 'flare-ups' that suggest that the only real problem is that of a series of physical and destructively violent sort. Most discrimination that Copts in Egypt complain of has nothing to do with violent attacks. Such attacks are only the most publicly visible.

Finally, I need to correct a misspelling. It should be Bohaira, not Bahaira. And in the film there seems to be a conflation of Waraqa (one of Muhammad's wive's [Khadija] relative] and Bohaira. But this is a matter too detailed to discuss here and will not, at any rate, get us to a better understanding of recent events. [Thanks to my colleague SZ for pointing this out to me.]


Anthony Shenoda

18 September 2012


Whose Innocence?: Thoughts on Copts, Muslims, and a World Gone (Temporally) Mad

As I was preparing to go to bed on 11 September, I suddenly discovered the news about the American Embassy in Cairo being stormed by angry Egyptians ostensibly offended by a film (Innocence of Muslims) that they claimed was not only an affront to the Prophet of Islam but one made by Coptic Christians in the United States. Little did I know that I would wake up the next morning to what still feels like a Ramadan television serial gone bad.

Since the film fiasco began, a good deal has been written about who made or did not make the film. It makes no sense now to rehearse the chaotic revelations (chaotic, it seems, by design) over the last several days regarding who produced the film and who directed it, what actors and actresses actually thought they were doing, how it managed to make it into Egyptian and, in turn, Middle Eastern media, and how it was linked or not to the killing of the United States Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi. Juan Cole offers a succinct summary. And The Atlantic also offers a timeline of sorts of the chaotic revelation. And now, "protests" have spread throughout the region and continue to rage in Cairo. What I want to do here is to offer some raw thoughts about why I think all of this matters to Copts and to Muslims.

When I first watched the "film," or the trailer, or whatever it is, I had little doubt that Copts, or someone quite familiar with Coptic historical meta-narratives, were behind it. Many of the slanderous comments against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in the film are made by all manner of right-wing Christians and Jews, but the Coptic give-away in that 13 minute clip was the bit about the Egyptians believing in one god some five thousand years ago. This is a typical modern move on the part of many Copts and the nineteenth century Orientalist scholarship of things Coptic from which these narratives have frequently drawn authority. If, once upon a time, Egyptian Christians were engaged in the destruction of a pagan Egypt, now they are concerned to show how Christianity in Egypt was the natural evolution of an Egyptian religiosity that already hinted at a triune godhead, resurrection of the dead, and eternal life. This largely has to do with a desire on the part of many Copts to secure their national and Egyptian territorial belonging. Other scenes in the available clip also supported my thinking that Copts might be involved: The scene in which the doctor is educating his daughters (?) on the ways of Muslims shows an image of Jesus that is extremely popular among Copts, an image that I have not seen popularly among other Christians. And the Syrian monk, Bahaira, who makes a later appearance, is an indication that whoever made this “film” 1) has a pretty good sense of contemporary Coptic monastic garb and 2) is aware of the very commonly held view among Copts (but also the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians that I have met) that the Quran was written by a (fallen) Christian monk. People who are aware of Islamic history know that Muhammad had met a Syrian monk called Bahaira. Many Copts hold that this monk is the “true” author of the Quran.

Why This Should Matter To Copts

Why does it matter that Copts (or a Copt) might have been in some way, whether by promotion or otherwise, involved in the making of the “film?” It matters because it forces Copts, especially in the American diaspora, to confront the real consequences of taking American-style fundamentalist (as Juan Cole puts it) discourse about Muslims for granted. It is rather unfortunate that so many Copts in the United States (and in many parts of Europe as well) have been swayed by an environment that has normalized and takes very lightly the slander and discrimination of Muslims and Islam. Coptic experience in Egypt, while no doubt marred with many difficulties, including persecution, suggests something else. Many Copts in Egypt have Muslim friends and colleagues and certainly deal with Muslims on a regular basis without any troubles at all. Diasporic Copts could learn a thing or two from their Egyptian counterparts. It matters because it forces those Copts who find this kind of discourse problematic to come out and say so. Already the Coptic Diocese of North America and the Coptic Diocese of Los Angeles have both issued statements condemning the “film” and the blanket linking of it to Copts in general. Finally, it matters, and I think this might be the most important reason, because the “film” ultimately undermines, not bolsters, whatever actual persecution Copts in Egypt face. And it is important, I think, for diasporic Copts to proclaim this.1

Why This Should Matter To Muslims

It is deeply misguided to take the protests (or whatever they are) that we now witness spreading across the Middle East as ignorant responses to a “film” that most have not seen. There is no doubt that this is happening, but it is senseless to reduce the myriad grievances that people across the region have, not just with the United States but with their own governments, to a religious sensibility that is so frail that it cracks at any indication of its being offended. (See, for example, The Atlantic’s annotated map of current protests.)  Even The Onion has resorted to the line of delicate Muslim religious sensibility in a recent piece which shows Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious figures ‘engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity’, then proclaiming that no one was killed as a result of the publication of the image. (I may have actually missed the satire here. And this probably has to do with the fact that I do find the image deeply offensive and troubling.) Simply put, reducing Muslims to a religious sensibility that just cannot handle “critique” is a foolish and utterly misplaced interpretation of a matter that bears the weight of decades of Western abuse. As Omid Safi has recently written, Innocence of Muslims is a form of hate speech. And no one should be expected to tolerate hate speech especially when it is directed at them. Add to this that the “film” comes out of a country that has shown tremendous disrespect for Islam and Muslims, and one can understand, without necessarily always justifying the sometimes violent forms it takes, the anger that has poured out into the streets of Cairo and many other cities across the Middle East. 

Some Concluding Thoughts

The Coptic community, it seems to me, is in a rather strange position. On the one hand, it suffers the kind of marginalization that minority communities everywhere suffer. On the other hand, some of its members are engaged in a game of provocation that at times strikes me as rather unnecessary, vis. attacks on Islam and its followers as wrongheaded. This is not a political game, in the sense of vying for political power. It is, as I have argued elsewhere,2a question of securing one’s own sense of religious orthodoxy. It is a matter of answering the question: Why be a Christian? But it is also a matter of finding a balance between being proud and at times feeling defeated. Terry Eagleton captures well the strange interplay between pomp and persecution in his account of Catholics in England.  “Like many a minority group,” he reflects, “we combined arrogance with paranoia, the self-satisfaction of the elect with the malicious anxiety of the insecure. We also combined the dissidence of the outsider with a conservative will to belong” (Eagleton 2002: 37). Perhaps this tension needs to be sorted out. And perhaps it takes an utterly inane “film” like Innocence of Muslims that implicates Copts, rightly or wrongly, to take a step in that direction. After all, no one is really innocent here.

[1]See the recently published Jadaliyya piece by Paul Sedra for a good overview of diasporic Coptic activism.
[2] Shenoda, Anthony. 2012. The Politics of Faith: On Faith, Skepticism, and Miracles among Coptic Christians in Egypt. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology. 77(4): in press.


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