Last summer, the Religious Freedom Project offered dissertation fellowships for students exploring the sources, development, and consequences of religious freedom. The project supported five fellows in exploring the relationship between religious liberty and other fundamental freedoms; its importance for democracy; and/or its role in social and economic development, international diplomacy, and countering violent religious extremism. Cornerstone asks the fellowship winners to share about their research and findings.
By: Matthew Anderson
While global media coverage typically concentrates on high-profile blasphemy incidents, such as the controversy surrounding the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 or the murderous attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this year, sensitivities around blasphemy play a more systemic role in several Muslim-majority countries. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, to name three of the most prominent, have enacted draconian laws criminalizing blasphemy and other speech deemed derogatory toward Islam. Although international reports documenting cases from these and other Muslim-majority countries have become increasingly common in recent years, they are often hastily published with insufficient detail. A recent research trip from July 8-10, 2015 to several upper-Egyptian villages, conducted with the Cairo-based Center for Arab-West Understanding, presented a unique view on the painful complexities of a blasphemy case that inflamed the village of Kafr Darwish earlier this year. The trip provided a rare glimpse of the sensitive dynamics that characterize Coptic-Muslim relations in huge parts of the Egyptian countryside, relatively far from the cosmopolitan Egyptian capital of Cairo.
Aspects of the case began to surface in Egyptian media in late May this year after the expulsion of several Coptic families from Kafr Darwish, a village located in the Beni Suef governorate, approximately 100 kilometers south of Cairo. The village consists of close to five hundred Muslim and three hundred Christian families, or somewhere close to 4,000 people. Those displaced were all relatives of Ayman Youssef Tawfiq, a twenty-eight year old Egyptian who allegedly posted offensive material related to the Prophet Muhammad on his Facebook account. Ayman works and resides in Jordan and was present there for the initial incident, about which accounts varied according to Egyptian media reports and our personal interviews. In a brief conversation with Ayman’s wife conducted in the neighboring village of al-Fant, she explained that Ayman was illiterate and therefore unable to use Facebook in this way. Others Copts from the area mentioned the possibility that Ayman’s mobile phone was stolen and that he was framed. There were also conflicting views on whether Ayman had posted offensive material once or multiple occasions over a longer period of time.
The most extensive account of what followed was provided to our team in a lengthy interview with Father Hathur Bishry, the priest in charge of the Coptic church in Kafr Darwish. Amid heightening tensions over the incident, a village council was called on Friday, May 22nd to address the crisis. Sometimes referred to as “customary courts” or “reconciliation sessions,” these councils are organic in nature and typically consist of leading personalities from the area, whether religious, political, or related to the Egyptian security apparatus, who are expected to adjudicate controversies in rural parts of Egypt. Ayman’s seventy-four year old father, Youssef Tawfiq, was informed by the council that his family would be required to pay 50,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately, 6,300 USD) as recompense for his son’s actions. Although Tawfiq agreed to the settlement, according to Father Hathur, more extreme elements in the village remained agitated, protesting that the honor of Islam could not be sold for a price. On the night of the council, an individual telephoned Youssef and demanded that he also give over his burial shroud as a part of the settlement, a highly symbolic gesture. Over the next forty-eight hours, the village witnessed several acts of violence against Coptic homes, including groups hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails. By Sunday, Ayman’s wife had left the village. On Monday, Youssef Tawfiq was informed through the mayor, Ahmed Mayer, that he and several members of his extended family, eighteen in total, would need to leave the village immediately that evening. According to Father Hathur’s testimony, the violence against Coptic properties actually increased after the departure of the family. Over the next week, seven houses were at least partially burned, along with several agricultural properties, while eighteen homes in total were somehow damaged. Coptic witnesses reported that local Egyptian security was either apathetic to their plight or, in a few cases, actively complicit in the violence. Over the next week, a flood of Egyptian media reports prompted a national outcry, along with the intervention of the quasi-governmental agency, Bayt al-A’ilah (“The House of the Family”), an interfaith body consisting of leading Muslims and Christians in Egypt. The Coptic families were permitted to return to the village on June 2nd .
An informed Muslim source from Kafr Darwish, who requested to remain anonymous, provided a somewhat different narrative of events. He emphasized that the violence and property damage was considerably less than what was widely reported in the media, and that no houses were actually destroyed. Rather, according to our source, there were only huts or sheds out in several of the Coptic agricultural fields that were torched. He also stated that the perpetrators were misguided youth under the influence of village outsiders, who acted late at night and therefore could not be easily identified. Regarding the expulsion of the Coptic families, he explained that this was always temporary, and that the village government had decided to do this for their safety rather than as some kind of punishment. It should be noted that both our primary Muslim source and Father Hathur concurred that the majority of Muslims in Kafr Darwish were sympathetic to the Coptic families and eager to see them well-received back into the village.
Security challenges comprised one of the primary difficulties faced by our team during the course of the trip. Access to the villages of upper Egypt for foreigners, especially those from Western countries, is generally restricted and visits must be coordinated with Egyptian security officials. Even with this permission, it proved impossible during our trip in early July to actually enter Kafr Darwish itself, making it necessary to conduct interviews in the villages surrounding it. There were fears that the appearance of a foreigner in Kafr Darwish could incite further problems or lead to accusations of foreign intervention. This made it impossible, for example, to actually investigate the variant reports of physical damage to Coptic properties, a central aspect of the incident. On our third day in the neighboring village of Qufada, directly before a planned interview with Youssef Tawfiq, we were greeted in the morning outside of our apartment by an armed, plain-clothes Egyptian security official, a sign that it was time for us to return to Cairo.
As my doctoral research explores Islamic blasphemy law, I attempted throughout the trip to pay close attention to how the concept of blasphemy was understood and approached by Muslims and Christians in the villages we visited. Among Muslims that our team interviewed, we discovered a common insistence that there is a significant difference between what they considered to be formal criticism of the Islamic religion and speech or imagery (e.g. cartoons) intended to ridicule their faith. The former many deemed permissible, while the latter was to be treated as a crime. This distinction was wholeheartedly affirmed by several senior Islamic clerics that I interviewed in Cairo. Unexpectedly, I found that at least some Copts also believe that blasphemy, whether against Islam or Christianity, is a crime punishable by law. Two Coptic priests we interviewed were explicit that it was indeed a crime if Ayman had actually posted offensive material on Facebook against the Prophet Muhammad. This will perhaps come as a surprise to those under the impression that all Christians in Egypt hold views on free expression or religious freedom that are identical to those of modern American liberalism. In any case, the nuances of these views on blasphemy, whether Muslim or Coptic, will need to be appreciated and grappled with as we work towards a more promising future for religious freedom in Egypt and the broader region.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: My sincere thanks to Drs. Cornelius Huslman and Khaled Zakaria of the Center for Arab-West Understanding for their companionship, analysis, and translation skills during the trip. More information about the unique work of the center can be found at www.cawu.org. I am indebted also to Father Yoannis of Qufada, who graciously hosted us and provided many valuable insights.
Matthew Anderson is a doctoral student in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University.
This piece was originally authored on January 14, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.