The First Monastics

One of the most important consequences of the so-called “Constantinian compromise” in the fourth century was the rise of the monastic movement. Once Christianity became part of the Roman establishment, some believed they could preserve a pure faith only by removing themselves for a life of prayer in the desert. The movement was especially influential in Roman Egypt–where Coptic monasteries continue to thrive, under great stress and threat of violence, today. Next month, Cambridge releases a translation of the works of one of the fathers of Coptic monasticism, Selected Discourses of Shenoute the Great: Community, Theology, and Social Conflict in Late Antique Egypt. The translators are David Brake (Ohio State) and Andrew Crislip (Virginia Commonwealth University). Here is the description from the Cambridge website:

Shenoute the Great (c.347–465) led one of the largest Christian monastic communities in late antique Egypt and was the greatest native writer of Coptic in history. For approximately eight decades, Shenoute led a federation of three monasteries and emerged as a Christian leader. His public sermons attracted crowds of clergy, monks, and lay people; he advised military and government officials; he worked to ensure that his followers would be faithful to orthodox Christian teaching; and he vigorously and violently opposed paganism and the oppressive treatment of the poor by the rich. This volume presents in translation a selection of his sermons and other orations. These works grant us access to the theology, rhetoric, moral teachings, spirituality, and social agenda of a powerful Christian leader during a period of great religious and social change in the later Roman Empire.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Bishop Suriel, “Habib Girgis”

The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is today suffering one of the worst periods of persecution in its long history. Few in the West realize, though, that this period of trial follows a renaissance in Coptic identity and spirituality in the last century. A central figure in that renaissance was scholar Habib Girgis, leader of the Sunday School Movement, which relied on religious education as the foundation for a revived community. A new book from Bishop Suriel of the Coptic Church, Habib Girgis: Coptic Orthodox Educator and a Light in the Darkness, explores Girgis’s life and legacy. Here is the description from the publisher, the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press:

GurgisPaperFINAL41__44909.1491341742.300.300This is the first comprehensive work published on the life of Habib Girgis. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Coptic Orthodox Church was in a state of deep vulnerability that tore at the very fabric of Coptic identity. In response, Girgis dedicated his life to advancing religious and theological education.

This book follows Girgis’ six-decade-long career as an educator, reformer, dean of a theological college, and pioneer of the Sunday School Movement in Egypt—including his publications and a cache of newly discovered texts from the Coptic Orthodox Archives in Cairo. It traces his agenda for educational reform in the Coptic Church from youth to old age, as well as his work among the villagers of Upper Egypt. It details his struggle to implement his vision of a Coptic identity forged through education, and in the face of a hostile milieu.

The pain and strength of Girgis are seen most clearly near the end of his career, when he said, “Despite efforts that sapped my health and crushed my strength, I did not surrender for one day to anyone who resisted or envied me…. Birds peck only at ripe fruits. I thank God Almighty that, through his grace, despair never penetrated my soul for even one day, but in fact I constantly smile at the resistances…. It is imperative that we do not fail in doing good, for we shall reap the harvest in due time, if we do not weary.”

Habib Girgis remains a pioneer of Coptic religious and theological education—a Copt whose vision and legacy continue to shape his community to this very day.

Guirguis, “Copts and the Security State”

In November, Stanford University Press will release “Copts and the Security State: Violence, Coercion, and Sectarianism in Contemporary Egypt,” by Laure Guirguis (Orient-Institut, Max Weber Foundation).  The publisher’s description follows:

Copts and the Security State combines political, anthropological, and social history to
analyze the practices of the Egyptian state and the political acts of the Egyptian Coptic pid_26146minority. Laure Guirguis considers how the state, through its subjugation of Coptic citizens, reproduces a political order based on religious identity and difference. The leadership of the Coptic Church, in turn, has taken more political stances, thus foreclosing opportunities for secularization or common ground. In each instance, the underlying logics of authoritarianism and sectarianism articulate a fear of the Other, and, as Guirguis argues, are ultimately put to use to justify the expanding Egyptian security state.

In outlining the development of the security state, Guirguis focuses on state discourses and practices, with particular emphasis on the period of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, and shows the transformation of the Orthodox Coptic Church under the leadership of Pope Chenouda III. She also considers what could be done to counter the growing tensions and violence in Egypt. The 2011 Egyptian uprising constitutes the most radical recent attempt to subvert the predominant order. Still, the revolutionary discourses and practices have not yet brought forward a new system to counter the sectarian rhetoric, and the ongoing counter-revolution continues to repress political dissent.

Hansen, “Christian-Muslim Relations in Egypt”

This June, I.B. Tauris Press will release “Christian-Muslim Relations in Egypt: Politics, Society, and Interfaith Encounters” by Henrik Lindberg Hansen (University of London).  The publisher’s description follows:

The subject of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East and indeed in the West attracts much academic and media attention. Nowhere is this more the case than in Egypt, which has the largest Christian community in the Middle East, estimated at 6-10 per cent of the national population. Henrik Lindberg Hansen analyzes this relationship, offering an examination of the nature and role of religious dialogue in Egyptian society. Taking three main religious organizations and institutions in Egypt (namely the Azhar University, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic Orthodox Church), Hansen argues that religious dialogue involves a close examination of societal relations, and how these are understood and approached. Including analysis of the occasions of violence against Christian communities in 2011 and the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, Hansen provides a wide-ranging exploration of the importance of religion in Egyptian society and everyday encounters with a religious other . This makes his book vital for researchers of both religious minorities in the Middle East and interfaith dialogue in a wider context.”

El-Menawy, “The Copts”

This September, Gilgamesh Publishing released “The Copts: An Investigation Into The Rift Between Muslims And Copts In Egypt” by Abdel Latif El-Menawy.  The publisher’s description follows:

The CoptsAbdel Latif Al Menawy met and interviewed late Pope Shnouda, the third Patriarch of Egypt many times during his rule. Throughout his career in journalism he was constantly in touch with leaders of the Coptic Society in Egypt. He had unparalleled access to developments of the various crises unravelling in the streets of Egypt as a result to confrontation between religion and politics.

The Copts explains how Christianity became so deeply rooted in Egypt that Islam was never able to overcome it, leading to an uneasy relationship between the two faiths. It will give accounts, never published before, of direct confrontations between  the Late Pope Shnouda and both Presidents Late Anwar Sadat and former President Hosni Mubarak.  Abdel Latif also reveals the role the Coptic Church has played in the recent uprising in Egypt.

Confusion About the Freedom of Speech and Incitement to Violence

I’m having a hard time understanding the claim — if it is a claim, or perhaps it’s just the suggestion of a claim — by some in the media that the video, “The Innocence of Muslims” (discussed by my colleague Mark) is not protected by the freedom of speech.  But I’m not a speech scholar, and the byways of speech law are as byzantine as any in the law.

What is it about the video that would not warrant free speech protection?  I have not watched it, but I believe that the speech here relates to criticism — crude, ignorant, and thoughtless criticism, to be sure — of Islam, Muslim countries, and Muslim people.  I will also assume that it is offensive to Muslims. 

Offensiveness to particular constituencies, including religious constituencies, is not the test for speech protection.  How could it be?  One only has to read the newspaper to see offensive and ignorant commentary about religion and religious people produced all the time.  That speech is clearly protected, and nobody — certainly not the LA Times — would ever suggest otherwise. 

The claim in the LA Times piece seems to be that speech which is intended to incite violence is unprotected.  The author of the op-ed is relying on the exception set out in the Brandenburg case, which permits regulation of speech where (1) the violence or illegal activity is imminent; (2) the speaker intends to cause the violence or illegal activity; and (3) the speech is likely to cause the violence or illegal activity.  But I have questions about this. 

First, what is the evidence that the video’s makers actually did intend to incite violence, as opposed to intending to say something provocative?  In fact, I doubt that anybody intended to incite a violent mob to murder our diplomatic personnel in Libya, but before doing away with speech protections here, I’d like to see the evidence that they did.  Second, what is the evidence of “imminence”?  The best that the op-ed writer can come up with is that the video was published around September 11, and that “the timeline of similar events after recent burnings of religious materials indicates that reactions typically come within two weeks.”  I had not thought that “imminence” is as context-dependent as this author suggests.  In the law of self-defense, imminent means imminent, as in right now, immediate, not two weeks later, or perhaps even later than that.  Third, I’ve always been curious about the third leg of the Brandenburg test.  Why should a greater likelihood that a particular constituency will rise up in violence in response to provocative speech mean that the speech itself is less deserving of protection than speech which targets a constituency which is not likely to react violently to the offense?  Does the third leg of the test not reward the sort of behavior that we have been witnessing?  Does it not stimulate similar behavior?  Perhaps a free speech expert can help me out.

Egypt Issues Arrest Warrants for American Filmmaker and Others

According to the AP, Egyptian prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for several American citizens connected with the production and distribution of the YouTube video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that has sparked violent protests in that country and throughout the Muslim world.  Egypt charges the defendants — who include the video’s maker and publicist, assorted Coptic Orthodox Christians, and Florida pastor Terry Jones — with “harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam, and spreading false information.” Some of the charges carry the death penalty.

What happens now? Some reports indicate that Egypt has contacted Interpol, the  international police cooperation organization in Lyon, France, for help in executing the warrants. In a press release, however, Interpol says  it has  not received any such request and that, in any case, its Constitution forbids it from undertakings “of a political, military, religious or racial character.” The strong implication: don’t expect us to help. The US and Egypt have an extradition treaty that dates back to Ottoman times, but, according to this unofficial version on the web, the treaty doesn’t cover offenses of the sort Egypt alleges here. Anyway, it’s inconceivable that the State Department would assist Egypt any more than Interpol, or that American courts would ever allow these defendants to be transferred to Cairo. Observers expect Egypt will end up trying them in absentia.

What Film?

That, I think it’s fair to say, was the first reaction most Americans had to the news that a film insulting the Prophet Mohammad had set off mobs in Egypt and Libya, resulting in attacks on American embassies and the murder of an American ambassador. Apparently, the story is this. A couple of Americans have posted a film on YouTube, the oddly-named “The Innocence of Muslims,” that ridicules the Prophet and the founding of Islam, and also portrays the suffering of Coptic Christians in contemporary Egypt. It’s unlikely the “film” — it’s really more a poorly-done video — would have been seen by more than a handful of internet trawlers, had not Terry Jones, the Florida pastor last known for threatening to burn a Quran, promoted it. Word spread through the Middle East – who knew Jones had a following there? – and, eventually, as one thing led to another, Islamist mobs saw a chance to stoke resentment against the US. And now we see the results.

There will be time to reflect on all of this, but two things seem immediately clear. First, there’s going to be more violence before this episode ends. Some of that violence will be directed against American interests, but most will be directed against the Middle East’s own Christians, particularly Egypt’s long-suffering Copts. Local governments will do relatively little to protect these Christians, and the international human rights community will remain largely silent as well. (Hopefully, the US is getting ready to grant a wave of asylum applications from Coptic refugees, but you never know). In Syria, Assad’s support among Christians will only solidify. Syrian Christians really need no reminder of what is likely to happen to them if the Ba’ath regime falls, but yesterday’s events do underscore things.

Second, whatever happens in this crisis, similar crises are bound to occur in future. As long as America continues to respect the First Amendment, people will continue to make and show films like “The Innocence of Muslims.” In a YouTube age, in which anyone with a video camera and a computer can beam films around the globe for very little money, it will be virtually impossible to restrain them — even assuming it would be legal, which it would not be, to attempt to do so. And, as long as the religious sensibilities of the West and the Muslim world continue to diverge so radically — as long as videos most Americans would dismiss as obscure junk continue to be bloody provocations in the Muslim world — clashes like yesterday’s seem sadly inevitable.

Prominent Egyptian Liberal to Face Trial for Insulting Islam

According to the Reuters FaithWorld blog, a Cairo prosecutor has decided to prosecute Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, head of the telecommunications firm MobilNil and founder of the secularist “Free Egyptians” party, on the charge of showing contempt for religion. The charge stems from an episode last June, when Sawiris tweeted a cartoon that many Muslims found offensive. The cartoon showed Mickey Mouse wearing a beard and Minnie Mouse wearing a face veil. Sawiris subsequently apologized for the incident.

The Reuters headline refers to Sawiris as a “leading Copt,” but in this BBC interview, in which he criticizes the “closed” nature of the Egyptian Christian community, he comes across more as a secular nationalist. Like other liberal parties,  his “Free Egyptians” party, which advocates the separation of religion and state, has struggled in recent parliamentary elections, which have been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and  more radical Salafi parties.