As the New York Times report about the fears of Coptic Christians makes clear today, the increasing influence of Islamists in Egypt in the wake of the collapse of the Mubarak regime calls into question the security of non-Muslim minorities. Some will simply ascribe the tragedy that seems to be unfolding to the perils of increasing democracy in societies where there is no tradition of either genuine religious freedom or the rule of law. That may be true, but Egypt’s problem runs deeper than merely blowback from the Arab Spring.
The role of the ahl al-dhimmah—religious minorities protected in principle under Muslim law but still subjected to discrimination and often mistreatment—is the kind of topic that those who wish to promote good relations with the Muslim world often treat as out of bounds for civil discussion. The mere utterance of the word dhimmi is enough to risk an unfair accusation of anti-Muslim bigotry. Yet it goes to the heart not only of Egypt’s problems but those of the Middle East in general.
Although they make up approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s population, Coptic Christians understand that the sensibilities of the Muslim majority are such that any assertion of equal rights or self-defense against discrimination is treated as a blow against Islam that will not be accepted. Thus, they must hope that whatever government emerges from the post-Mubarak transition will be able to protect them against the whims of an intolerant majority.
At the same time, it must also be understood that much of the anger against Israel in the region has little to do with disputes about borders as it does with revulsion against a Jewish majority state in which Muslims are the minority. As it happens, Israeli Arabs have, as has often been pointed out, more democratic rights (including the right to vote and hold office, seek legal redress in independent courts, and speak out via a free press) than those living in any Muslim country. But the idea that the Jews—who were reduced to dhimmitude in the Muslim world for 13 centuries—now rule over even a tiny portion of that part of the world is simply unthinkable to many Muslims.
Concern about the safety of the millions of Christians in the Egypt that will emerge in the coming months needs to be an integral element to U.S. policy toward that new government. But those who care about Middle East must also understand that the same dynamic that drives discrimination and violence against the Copts is just another aspect of the same ideology that refuses to accept Israel’s legitimacy and keeps alive the war against the Jewish state 63 years after its rebirth.