Editor’s note: A shorter version of the following book review of Christian-Muslim Relations in Egypt: Politics, Society and Interfaith Encounters by Henrik Lindberg Hansen first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Middle East Quarterly and was written by Raymond Ibrahim.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Hansen has made a substantive contribution to our understanding of Egyptian society by focusing on relations between Christians and Muslims. His discussions on a number of topics are insightful: the patron-client relationship between the two groups, the complex identities existing within the continuum between Muslim and Christian—from those on the extremes who see themselves exclusively as Muslim or Christian to those in the middle who see themselves as Egyptians—and Egyptian society’s worsening post-revolutionary polarization along Islamist, secular, and Christian lines.
The book is not for the lay reader; its first 50 pages closely examine a number of socio-political and psychological theories. These are then regularly invoked as paradigms for understanding. This abstract approach may be excused as the author asserts that “this book is addressed to Western academia.” (p. 110)
Accordingly, drawbacks are the type one expects from Western academics. Although Hansen notes the Christians’ marginalized position, in what seems a strained effort to appear “objective,” he also portrays Christians as equally clannish and mistrusting—“segregation comes from Muslims and Christians alike” (p. 122)—as if such paranoia is unwarranted. Hints that the Copts brought it on themselves by supporting the anti-Muslim Brotherhood revolution occur (e.g., p 234).
The greatest drawback is that while the author habitually articulates his topic through socio-political, economic, and psychological paradigms, he completely fails to factor religion, particularly Islamic doctrine.
Instead, “discrimination [against Christians] is not a product of Islam as an essentially evil religion, which propagates the suppression of people not belonging to the faith” (p. 152). By using the word “evil,” Hansen trivializes and thus dismisses the question without bothering to state the actual tenets of Islam concerning non-Muslims.
For example, while closely examining the social, political, and psychological aspects that make it difficult to build or repair churches, the author never informs the reader that shari‘a bans the building and reparation of churches and that this is what Muslims cite when they protest and attack churches. Nor does he mention the issue of “defamation of religions” and how it has been used to harass and imprison Christians (most recently youths who mocked ISIS).
Without knowledge of Islamic teaching, strange or naïve assertions appear: “Salafi with an inclusive attitude towards religious minorities” supposedly exist (p. 222), and it is still “debatable” whether the Brotherhood, which Hansen acknowledges incited violence against Christians, was “democratically-minded or just politically opportunistic.” (p. 103)
Hansen minimizes distant history, making the current plight of Christians an aberration though it is more a continuation. He mentions a story of Christian persecution set in 10th century Egypt but suggests that its wording has been intentionally manipulated so modern Egyptian Christians can relate. In fact, the historic parallels are many and authentic and provide context on why Copts continue to be persecuted (because of religion). (p. 138)
The book offers a comprehensive and sometimes insightful, albeit academic, look into its topic, especially through the secular prisms of socio-political and psychological theory. However, because it strictly avoids religion—specifically Islamic doctrines concerning non-Muslims—it offers a seriously incomplete analysis.