Last month, ISIS terrorists tried to attack the ancient monastery of St. Catherine’s, in Egypt’s Sinai desert. That fact might not sound too surprising, until we recall that St. Catherine’s has in its possession a decree of protection issued by the Prophet Muhammad himself and supposedly valid until the end of the world. If any place in the world should be immune from Islamist terrorism, it is this religious house. Following so closely on the hideous massacre of over 40 worshipers at their Palm Sunday services in Egyptian cities, this event indicates just how lethally perilous life has become for the country’s nine million or so Coptic Christians.
The attacks were followed last week by a previously scheduled visit from Pope Francis, who declared that “no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his name.” Western observers, the Roman pontiff included, tend to attribute such atrocities to the evils of religious fanaticism and intolerance. But in fact, these attacks do have a rationale and a logic.
Most obviously, they demonstrate the Egyptian government’s weakness in the face of armed jihad, while helping to undermine the economy by deterring tourists. But there is a larger and more critical agenda. These terrorist spectaculars are intended to appeal to specific audiences within the Egyptian ruling establishment, and particularly in the armed forces and the intelligence apparatus. By giving the continuing crisis a distinctly religious coloring, the jihadis are trying to force Egyptian elites to choose between Islam (as they portray it) and its enemies. This strategy is dangerous because it plausibly could succeed in splitting Egyptian elites and causing significant defections. This in turn would accelerate a critical trend in the modern Middle East, namely the near-collapse of secular ideologies across the region and the consequent rise of hard-edged political Islamism. In the worst-case scenario, such a process runs the risk of bringing Egypt to conditions that we more commonly associate with Iraq, which would pose catastrophic dangers.
While issues of religious freedom and persecution are grave enough in their own right, Western policymakers urgently need to understand these larger contexts.
In the second half of the last century, movements across the Arab world adopted similar ideologies in their struggle to modernize their countries and resist colonialism. Commonly, these were nationalist, socialist, and secular, while pan-Arabism had a powerful appeal. Such modernizing ideas found hospitable homes in the armed services and intelligence communities of key nations, and a series of coups d’état brought nationalist movements to power in Egypt (Nasserism), and also in Ba’athist Syria and Iraq. Nationalist regimes were not necessarily anti-religious, but they had absolutely no time for any hint of political Islamism, especially when it resisted modernization. Nasser bitterly persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1966 Egypt executed the movement’s leading intellectual, Sayyid Qutb.
That religious element had a natural appeal for minorities of all kinds, who feared the overwhelming weight of political Islam. In Egypt, the substantial Coptic minority had done well under British rule, but recognized the need to prepare for new post-imperial political arrangements. Copts gravitated toward secular and nationalist movements, often with interfaith aspirations. They disliked Nasser’s pan-Arabism for the simple reason that they saw themselves not as Arabs but as pure Egyptians, with Pharaonic roots. Even so, Nasser was obviously preferable to the kind of intolerant Islamic regime established in Saudi Arabia.
In Egypt, then, as in Iraq and Syria, minorities were firm supporters of nationalist politics, which worked well as long as those regimes flourished. The problem was that when the states faltered or collapsed, minorities were tainted by their association with unpopular dictatorships. That was all the more dangerous when those minorities were the targets of long-standing ethnic or religious prejudices.
In all these countries, moreover, secular nationalist regimes always had to deal with mass conservative religious sentiment in the population at large. Ordinary Muslims were happy to follow General Nasser as a symbol of national pride, but when later regimes descended into economic collapse, cronyism, and kleptocracy, older allegiances revived. The disastrous failures of the nationalist states in confronting Israel proved fatal. Secularism, it seemed, was bankrupt. What else was left?
Radical Islamist movements reorganized, and in 1981 the guerrilla group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya assassinated Nasser’s successor Anwar al-Sadat and some of his closest allies. Terrorist groups could be fought and suppressed, but much more dangerous was the success of Islamist political activism in gaining a real mass following. In the elections of 2011–2012, some two-thirds of votes cast in Egypt went either to the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood or to the Salafist party, al-Nour. Based on this mass democratic support, the Brotherhood formed a government, which was in turn overthrown by the bloody military coup led by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in July 2013.
In some ways, Egypt’s current Sisi government is trying to reproduce the old Nasser system, complete with personality cult, but this is now happening in a vastly different political context. Far from being relatively passive, activist Muslims are now highly militant and organized, while the coup destroyed any hopes of a peaceful democratic road to Islamist political power. That left only the armed road to revolution. Boosted by internet propaganda, ideas of popular armed jihad have become mainstream, resulting in surging guerrilla campaigns across the country, especially in the Sinai. But interfaith relations have also been transformed, with much more intense and widespread popular hatred of Christians. As Muslim activists struggled against the 2013 coup, they launched attacks on churches and monasteries on a scale that by some accounts had not been equaled since 1321. Although the Brotherhood sporadically tries to make friendly gestures to Christians, the underlying mass sentiment is toxic.
In the new post-2013 environment, there are multiple reasons why Christians are such a natural target for Islamist terror. (I claim no great prophetic powers for having predicted this present strategy back at that time .) Given the strength of the Egyptian military and its strong intelligence networks, it is natural for jihadis to choose soft targets—poorly defended places and institutions—where the goal is to kill the maximum number of civilians. Once upon a time, Western tourists would have been the obvious targets of choice, but such visitors are no longer much in evidence. By default, then, Coptic Christian churches and communities are attacked.
But Christians have many other virtues as terror targets, fitting as they do into the Islamist global mythology. According to the propaganda vision of ISIS and like-minded groups, such attacks show the guerrillas to be Islamic warriors heroically struggling for the faith against its idolatrous enemies, who are also intimately linked with a corrupt and tyrannical regime. Moreover, anti-Christian terror serves to divide Egypt along religious and sectarian lines while offering the added bonus of infuriating the West. If attacks became sufficiently common, we might expect to see Upper Egypt sliding into overt sectarian conflict as Christian and Muslim militias battled.
But another agenda is also at work, as church attacks place Egyptian security forces in a dreadful quandary: How much repression can they properly launch against bloodthirsty terrorism, without appearing to take the side of Christians against Muslims? Such a consideration was no real problem in the Nasser years, when he was a popular national hero, and political Islamism was such a marginal factor. Clearly, it seemed, Nasserism represented a glorious future, an independent Arab road between capitalist West and Communist East, and no sane or vaguely progressive person paid much attention to those stuffy old religious ideas. Today, though, it is difficult to avoid the impression that if the Middle East has any future, it lies in some form of Islam. In the 1960s, thoughtful and educated Arabs could seriously believe in the intoxicating mix of nationalism, socialism, secularism, and pan-Arabism, all of which are now utterly discredited as serious ideologies. In Sisi’s world, military and bureaucratic elites rule for the sake of holding power, with the wealth that goes with it, and any higher aspirations are viewed very skeptically.
Such a situation can endure for decades, but not infinitely, and growing religious tensions might well detonate real change. It is all too tempting to play with scenarios and political war-games, which lack much basis in observed reality. In the Egyptian case, though, the situation has changed so rapidly, and generally deteriorated, over the past few years that it is necessary to project present trends only a little into the future. Some hypotheticals are all too probable.
If Egypt’s armed forces were to become engaged in prolonged internal warfare like the horrors that overwhelmed Algeria in the 1990s, how long would they be able to maintain the loyalty of their (conscripted) ordinary soldiers and junior officers? In particular, how long could the government count on the army and police to defend those hated Christians against good Muslims? If the armed forces split, that would simply open the way to revolution. Perhaps this would be an elite Colonels’ Coup, such as Nasser himself led in 1952, or else we might imagine something like the general defection of the armed forces to Islamist revolution as occurred in Iran in 1979. Either way, we would be looking at a new military order, with a radical new sympathy for Islamist causes. The fate of Coptic Christians in such a new Egypt would be grim indeed.
We don’t have to wander too far from Egypt to find an ideological transition not too far removed from what have been imagining. Egypt was long dominated by a military/ bureaucratic/intelligence elite pledged to secular nationalist views, and that regime was firmly rooted into what we might call a classic Deep State. Sometimes, such a governing system can be overthrown, but it is also possible for it to switch towards a religious orientation that at first blush looks like a total reversal of older beliefs. Iraq offers the best example of such a transformation. However bizarre this might appear, we can witness a direct transition from secular nationalism to the most extreme forms of religious extremism, including the Islamic State itself.
From the 1960s until the Allied invasion of 2003, Iraq was led by the Ba’ath Party, which was pledged to secularist Arab socialism, and which prided itself on including leaders of diverse religious backgrounds. As in Egypt, though, those secular ideals became tainted over time, as the elite became ever further removed from its subject peoples. In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein made an explicit decision to adopt more Islam-friendly policies, which began a rapprochement with conservative Salafi Sunni believers. Domestically, the state moved from strident secularism to a pervasive religious reorientation, a Faith Campaign. That in turn laid the foundation for a revolutionary shift after 2003, with the growing resistance to Allied occupation.
Within a few years, most of the surviving Ba’ath leadership had forged close ties with extreme Sunni Islamists and Salafists, and many studies have now demonstrated the clear Ba’athist roots of the ISIS movement that emerged after 2013. (That story has been widely reported, including by Liz Sly in the Washington Post ). At every stage of the rise of ISIS, the most active leaders and organizers included former members of the Iraqi Ba’athist military and political elite, and above all of the intelligence agencies, the mukhabarat.
Just what occurred in Iraq is open to debate. Some observers think that Ba’athist secularists cynically adopted a religious mantle in order to regain power; others see genuine religious conversions. More probably, we should not waste too much time in applying Western labels and dichotomies to Arab societies, where religion is so intimately bound up with the ties of family and clan, and of personal honor. In retrospect, perhaps the vaunted secularization of those nationalist movements was never as deeply ingrained as it appeared. And just possibly, the ambitions of today’s Islamic State are as much based in ideologies of clan, family, and simple realpolitik as they are in Islam.
But the lessons for understanding Egypt are suggestive. Is it vaguely conceivable that a secular- and nationalist-minded military/intelligence establishment make a near-overnight transition from persecuting Islamists to joining and leading them? Just ask the Caliphate.
These experiences offer many lessons for U.S. policymakers, most powerfully in how they select their regional priorities. In so many ways, Egypt matters enormously, as by far the most populous Arab state, and as a cultural powerhouse for the whole Arab world. If the present regime did fail, that could have cataclysmic consequences. At the same time, it is far from clear what kinds of intervention might promote Western goals in the region, or whether any possible U.S. actions might do more good than harm. At the least, American leaders should recognize just how fragile the Sisi regime might be, in contrast with its recent predecessors. Having closed off alternative routes to change, any transition is likely to come from within the military or the intelligence world, and the U.S. should be prepared for sudden and perhaps lurching transformations.
Other lessons, though, are more general and more widely applicable. One involves the role of religion in political life, and by no means only in the Middle East. We tend, perhaps, to imagine “religious politics” being highly distinctive and segregated from “real” matters. Obviously they are not, and sacred and secular exist on a single spectrum, and often much more closely than we might assume. Also, even countries that give the impression of having controlled or suppressed those religious impulses really have not, however successful “modernization” efforts might appear. What is dormant is not dead.
U.S. policymakers in particular must be very cautious in selecting the regimes they seek to weaken or even to displace. As we saw all too well in Iran in 1979, and more recently in Libya and Iraq, removing even loathsome dictators can mean that they are replaced by far worse alternatives, commonly rooted in extremist forms of religion. And even when a state is seemingly destroyed, we honestly have little idea about what will grow from its ruins. The Iraq case suggests that even a movement that is supposedly crushed beyond hope of recovery can indeed return to life, and morph into still more dangerous forms. The less we understand of religious motivations in politics, the more likely we are to be shocked by such an afterlife.
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels . He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.