Amid two crises – the pandemic and the national reckoning sparked by the killing of George Floyd – there have been anguished calls for Americans to come together across lines of race and partisanship. Change would come, a USA Today contributor wrote, only “when we become sensitized to the distress of our neighbors.”
Empathy born of intimacy was the prepandemic solution to the nation’s fractured political landscape. If Americans could simply get to know one another, to share stories and appreciate each other’s struggles, civic leaders argued, we would develop a sense of understanding and empathy that would extend beyond the single encounter.
Science bears out the idea that intimacy can make people more understanding of others.
A venerable tradition of social psychological research shows that people who interact with members of a stigmatized group may change their opinion of the whole group. The original research by Gordon Allport suggested that contact between members of different groups worked by giving people knowledge of the other group. But later studies found instead that it increased their empathy and willingness to take the other’s perspective.
That’s why a growing industry of professional facilitators champion carefully structured conversations as key to solving workplace conflicts, community development disputes, Americans’ political disengagement and racial division.
As partisan political divides became vitriolic, civic leaders brought ordinary people together to talk. You could join people from the left and right at a Make America Dinner Again event or a Better Angels workshop, where “you can actually become friends and colleagues with people you don’t agree with.”
Joan Blades, who created the online political advocacy group MoveOn.Org in 1997, seemed to have her finger on the pulse again when she launched Living Room Conversations in 2011. Small groups would host conversations across partisan lines.
“By the time you get to the topic you’ve chosen to discuss, you’re thinking, ‘I like this person or these people,’” Blades promised.
By the end of the 2010s, these were the terms for building unity: personal conversations in intimate settings that would produce friendship across gulfs of difference.
Commonalities and differences
The pandemic made the idea of living room conversations with anyone outside one’s household sadly unrealistic. But it may not have been the solution people were looking for in the first place.
Initiatives that bring together members of different groups, researchers have shown, are less effective in reducing prejudice when the groups participating are unequal in power and status – say, Black Americans and white ones.
Dominant group members tend to insist on talking about their commonalities with members of the disadvantaged group. That’s frustrating for the latter, who more often want to talk about their differences and, indeed, their inequalities.
Taking the perspective of someone different, moreover, works to diminish the prejudices of members of dominant groups but not those of members of disadvantaged groups. Research also shows that when people are asked to take the perspective of a person who fits a stereotype, they negatively stereotype that person even more than if they had not been asked to do so. Asking a Democrat to put herself in the shoes of a MAGA hat-wearing Republican, in other words, may backfire.
Nor does empathy always overcome political beliefs.
A recent study from the University of Houston found that people who are naturally empathetic are more likely to feel anger toward those in the opposite party and feel pleasure when they suffer. Empathy tends to be biased toward one’s own group, so it may fuel political polarization rather than counter it.
Naturally empathetic people are also more likely to suppress their feelings of compassion when those feelings conflict with their ideological views, becoming less compassionate as a result. In one study, subjects who had individualistic beliefs opposed government welfare programs even after reading a story about a man in financial need, but individualists who were naturally empathetic opposed welfare even more strongly after reading the story.
Friendship isn’t necessary
Since dialogue initiatives are voluntary, they probably attract people who are already predisposed to wanting to find connection across difference. And no one has figured out how a friendly meeting between Democratic and Republican voters, or even a hundred such meetings, can have a discernible effect on political polarization that is national in scope.
Certainly, participants who change their minds may share their new opinions with others in their circle, creating a ripple effect of goodwill. But dialogue initiatives may also crowd out ways of tackling political divisions that are likely to have wider impact.
Americans committed to living in a functioning democracy could demand that national political representatives, not ordinary citizens, sit down together to find common ground across difference. Or they could work to bring back some version of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy once endorsed both by both the conservative National Rifle Association and the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, that required television channels to air diverse points of view. Or people could rally to demand that Congress pass legislation like gun control that overwhelming majorities of Americans across the political spectrum want – working across party lines to win policy, not become friends.
Treating friendship as a prerequisite to cooperation also misses the fact that people have long worked together for the common good on the basis of relationships that do not resemble the intimacy of friends.
The protests after George Floyd’s death, for example, introduced many white Americans to the idea of allyship. Allies – whether white anti-racists and/or straight people or men – commit to listening more than talking and to taking direction from people without the privilege they enjoy. Allies don’t require intimate connection as the price for their involvement. They recognize that intimacy has often served to keep relationships unequal, and that is exactly what they want to change.
It is not just movement activists who expose the limits of intimacy for building unity. Black participants in the interracial dialogues political scientist Katherine Cramer studied were frustrated when they described what it was like to be discriminated against and white participants responded with their own stories about how they had never treated their Black friends any differently than their white ones.
But when participants ignored their facilitator’s plea to “dialogue, not debate,” and challenged each other on the evidence for their claims, the white participants, in particular, were stopped from sliding by with bromides about how “under the skin, we’re all the same.” It was the confrontational exchanges that led participants to recognize their real differences while still building a relationship.
The recent wave of protests against police brutality and systemic racism has inspired numerous comparisons with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Commentators frequently depict the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in sharp contrast with the decentralized and seemingly leaderless nature of the current movement.
Despite the efforts of activists and historians to correct this “leaderless” image, the notion persists. Such comparisons reflect the cultural memory – not the actual history – of the struggle for Black equality.
American Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., flanked by Rev. Ralph Abernathy (center left) and Nobel Prize-winning political scientist and diplomat Ralph Bunche (center right) during the third Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march for voting rights, March 21, 1965. PhotoQuest/Getty Images
Heroic struggle led by charismatic men
Through collective remembering and forgetting, societies build narratives of the past to create a shared identity – what scholars refer to as cultural memory.
The civil rights movement is remembered as a heroic struggle against injustice led by charismatic men. That is not the whole story.
King’s soaring rhetoric and Malcolm’s unflinching social critiques have supplanted recollection of the significant work performed by legions of local leaders, whose grassroots organizational style more closely resembled the efforts of Black Lives Matter activists and other contemporary social justice groups to build movements full of leaders.
These efforts, designed to cultivate white sympathy for civil rights activists, relied on conformity with patriarchal gender roles that elevated men to positions of visible leadership, confined women to the background and banished LGBTQ individuals to the closet.
Yet the movement could not have happened without the extraordinary leadership of Black women like veteran organizer Ella Baker. Baker’s model of grassroots activism and empowerment for young and marginalized people became the driving force of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, and other nonviolent protest organizations, past and present.
The decentralized structure of the current movement builds on this history of grassroots activism while working to avoid replicating the entrenched sexism and homophobia of an earlier era.
SNCC transformed lives by recognizing talent and empowering marginalized people. As Joe Martin, one of the organizers of a student walkout in McComb, Mississippi, recalled, “If you had a good idea it was accepted regardless of what your social status was.”
Endesha Ida Mae Holland, a teenage prostitute, found purpose as a SNCC field secretary, organizing and leading marches in Greenwood, Mississippi. Facing down Police Chief Curtis Lary “made me feel so proud,” she recalled, and “people start looking up into my face, into my eyes” with respect. Holland went on to become an award-winning playwright and distinguished university professor.
Black Lives Matter co-founders Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors also encourage strategies that place marginalized voices at the center.
Elevating “Black trans people, Black queer people, Black immigrants, Black incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people, Black millennials, Black women, low income Black people, and Black people with disabilities” to leadership roles, they wrote, “allows for leadership to emerge from our intersecting identities, rather than to be organized around one notion of Blackness.”
Black women and teens have played a critical role in organizing, leading and maintaining the momentum of recent protests.
Kimberly Jones captured the nation’s attention with an impassioned takedown of institutional racism and debates over appropriate forms of protest. After repeatedly breaking the social contract to keep wealth and opportunity out of reach for black communities, Jones concludes, white Americans “are lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”
Women have organized family-friendly demonstrations, including the “Black Mamas March” in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a “Black Kids Matter” protest in Hartford, Connecticut.
Six young women, aged 14 to 16, organized a peaceful protest attracting more than 10,000 people in Nashville, Tennessee, while 17-year-old Tiana Day led a march on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Full of leaders
Seventeen-year-old Tiana Day leads a march on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, June 6, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
The adaptive “low ego/high impact” leadership model, in which leaders serve as coaches helping groups build their own solutions, has become popular among current social justice organizations, but it is not new.
Baker encouraged civil rights organizations to “develop individuals” and provide “an opportunity for them to grow.” She praised SNCC for “working with indigenous people, not working for them.”
“You don’t have to worry about where your leaders are,” former SNCC organizer Robert Moses reflected. “If you go out and work with your people, then the leadership will emerge.”
Campaigns are exhausting and external recognition as a “leader” can take a heavy toll. Spreading leadership around helps to protect any one person from becoming a target for retaliation while advancing a stream of talent to rise as individual energy wanes.
Returning from a citizenship training program in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer was arrested and severely beaten, leaving her with permanent injuries. Holland’s mother died when their house in Greenwood, Mississippi, was bombed in 1965 in retaliation for her activism.
Civil rights worker Anne Moodyrecounted how the physical and psychological toll of constant harassment by white supremacists in 1963 forced her to leave a voter registration drive in Canton, Mississippi, saying “I was on the verge of a breakdown” and “would have died from lack of sleep and nervousness” had she stayed “another week.”
In a 2017 interview, Erica Garner, who became a tireless campaigner against police brutality after her father, Eric Garner, died from a New York police officer’s chokehold in 2014, echoed Moody’s comments.
“I’m struggling right now with the stress and everything. … The system beats you down to where you can’t win,” she said. Just three weeks after that interview, Erica Garner died of a heart attack at the age of 27.
Comparisons to the romanticized cultural memory of charismatic leadership in the Civil Rights Movement devalues the hard work of today’s activists – as well as those who worked hard outside of the limelight in the earlier movement. Social change – then and now – derives from a critical mass of local work throughout the nation. Those who cannot find leaders in this movement are not looking hard enough.
“If they build the first story, blow it up. If they sneak back at night and build three stories, burn it down. And if they get nine stories built, it’s yours. Take it over, and maybe we’ll let them in on the weekends.”
They were there to protest Columbia University’s construction of a gymnasium in Morningside Park, the only land separating the Ivy League university from the historic black working-class neighborhood. The gym, along with the discovery that Columbia was affiliated with the Institute for Defense Analysis – a national consortium of flagship universities and research organizations that provided strategy and weapons research to the U.S. Department of Defense – stirred students to protest for more decision-making power at their elite university.
Everything came to a head on April 23, 1968 – just weeks after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That was when members of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society hosted a rally on campus to decry the war – and, what many considered the racist gym in Morningside Park. Members of the Students’ Afro-American Society, or SAS, and Columbia varsity athletes – known as jocks – were in attendance as well. SAS followers showed up to resume an earlier fight they had with the jocks who supported the construction of the gymnasium.
Some students had been working with Harlem community groups. They saw the gym as a symbol of the university’s “power” over a defenseless and poverty-stricken black neighborhood. They joined local politicians who opposed the gym for a myriad of reasons, including its concrete footprint in a green park and the inability of the community to have access to the entire structure once built.
The situation was, of course, complex. Columbia had long been a contentious neighbor to Harlem and Morningside Heights. The campus gym was decrepit and prevented the university from competing with its Ivy peers effectively in terms of facilities and space. Regarding the park, Columbia had constructed softball fields that initially community members could use. By 1968, however, only campus affiliates could access the fields. Then, white faculty members had been mugged in the park.
The university, seeking to expand in the postwar period, purchased US$280 million of land, mortgages and residential buildings in Harlem and Morningside Heights. That resulted in the eviction of nearly 10,000 residents in a decade, 85 percent of whom were black or Puerto Rican.
Columbia acted in coordination with Morningside Heights, Inc., a confederacy of educational and religious institutions in the neighborhood that also sought to “renew” the area to serve their mostly white patrons. David Rockefeller, grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, acted as MHI’s first president. Columbia was the lead institution.
Despite being close to a black neighborhood, the university admitted few black students and employed a handful of black instructors. For instance, as I report in my book, in the 1964-1965 school year, there were only 35 black students out of 2,500 students enrolled in Columbia’s College of Arts and Sciences, and just one tenured black professor. By spring 1968, there were more than 150 black students enrolled.
On April 23, protesting students attempted to take over the administration building but were repelled by campus security. Then, they walked to the gym construction site where they tore down fencing and physically confronted police. From the park, they returned to campus where they finally succeeded in taking over a classroom building, Hamilton Hall. In doing so, they surrounded the dean of the college, Henry Coleman, who chose to stay in his office with his staff. To “protect” Coleman, several jocks stood guard outside his door.
Clashes with police
What started as a racially integrated demonstration of students took a turn in the late night when H. Rap Brown and several community activists showed up at the invitation of the Students’ Afro-American Society. The student group, Brown and the community activists agreed that black people solely should occupy Hamilton Hall and that white activists should commandeer other buildings. The white demonstrators accommodated, leaving Hamilton and taking over four other buildings. That forced Columbia officials to contend with not just a student protest but a black action on campus at that height of Black Power Movement. Incidentally, the community activists removed and replaced the jocks as sentries of the dean’s office.
To the ire of many white university administrators of the period, Stokely Carmichael of SNCC and the Black Panthers fame showed up to explain – through the press – that the university deal either with the student activists on campus or militants coming from Harlem. This insinuated the tone of the demonstrations would change drastically. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated less than three weeks before. From offices in Morningside Heights, Columbia administrators had watched Harlem burn as residents mourned and reacted to the black leader’s death. The only thing that separated the elite white institution from angry black rebels was the park in which the university was building a gymnasium against the will of many community members.
In consultation with New York Mayor John Lindsay, Columbia administrators chose to end the demonstrations by calling 1,000 New York police officers to clear the five occupied campus buildings on April 30. Chaos and brutality prevailed. As the NAACP and other Harlem community organizations stood watch, black students vacated Hamilton, which SAS had renamed Malcolm X Hall, and were arrested peacefully. In the building that national Students for a Democratic Society leader and Port Huron Statement author Tom Hayden occupied, police and demonstrators collided physically. One of the most iconic documents of the postwar period, the 1962 Port Huron Statement outlined the need for young people to be in the vanguard of the movement to eradicate racism and grind the military-industrial complex to a halt; it centered the notion of participatory democracy, which called for greater inclusion of the citizenry in decision-making. In other buildings, students found themselves on the hurt end of police batons when they resisted arrest.
In opening the door to violence, the university turned what was a local matter into an international story and radicalized moderate students and neighborhood residents. Young radicals abroad learned of “Gym Crow” and university-sponsored defense research. In solidarity, they supported the Columbia student activists’ causes and chanted “two, three, many Columbias” – a refrain that gained popularity among American student protesters.
In my view, elements of the 1968 Columbia rebellion are inspiring and instructional for today’s students, protesters and community residents. As gentrification threatens the homes of poor black people in urban areas today, activists should recall that 50 years earlier young people believed they could cut their university’s ties to war research and prevent a prestigious white American institution from expanding into black spaces at the same time. They succeeded.
Our new podcast “Heat and Light” features Prof. Bradley and Columbia University’s Michael Kazin discussing this issue in depth.
RELATED BY TRAGEDY: The death of 17-year-old Florida student Trayvon Martin (right) has sparked comparisons with the iconic death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago native who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a White woman.
I have an 18-year-old brother whom I love dearly. He’s an African American college freshman, and sometimes a knucklehead. He has all of the answers and therefore does not always listen to wise counsel. He has never been in trouble with the law, never used drugs, and has never drunk alcohol. Sometimes he leaves the house dressed in a suit. At other times, he leaves dressed in sweats. His attire doesn’t give anyone a license to kill him.
The reality is, I sometimes leave home looking both ways myself. I choose how I dress and what is appropriate for lunch with my girlfriends or a quick grocery-store run. If someone approached me at either location with an armed weapon and I feared for my life, I would do everything I could to defend myself and so would you.
HE COULD'VE BEEN MY BROTHER: Images of Trayvon Martin reminded the author of her own younger brother, pictured above. (Photos by Deronta Robinson)
My initial response to Trayvon Martin’s death was, “That could have been my brother.” As I witness the media hysteria build around the case, I have to sit back for a moment and take inventory of our culture. It would be quite easy to write a Facebook status or change my profile picture to an image of myself in a hoodie. It’s quite easy to march for a day or protest for a month. We may blog about the case, read an article, or discuss it with friends at work, or a Black preacher may shout about this injustice from the pulpit on a particular Sunday, maybe even two, but eventually, we will forget.
The danger in our current outrage is that we might turn Trayvon Martin into a symbol, when in fact he was a real teenager. Some have drawn comparisons between Trayvon and Emmett Till, the Chicago teen whose brutal murder by Mississippi racists in the 1950s helped mobilize the civil rights movement. One commentator suggests Trayvon’s death may be “our Emmett Till moment.”
Trayvon is not the modern-day Emmett Till. Our attention spans are much too short for that, and our thirst for the next trending topic is much too great. We will forget Trayvon Martin. It may not be this week, this month, or this year, but eventually we will all forget.
This is the travesty of the Trayvon Martin situation: injustices like this occur against poor and minority children every day in this country and many pretend not to know. Black-on-Black crime is still real, often effectively ending the lives of both parties. Black kids are still dropping out of school at alarming rates. Young Black men are still checking into prison at rates comparable to those who enroll in college, and too many of them are being raised in homes without fathers. They are struggling in failing public schools. Gangs are lurching around those schools and targeting our children on the streets. Every day young girls are born into welfare-type situations and growing up to repeat the cycles modeled by their mothers simply because they have not witnessed an alternative. These children lose hope long before the age of 18, and as a result they often descend into committing crimes against humanity. We are all guilty. We cut the lives of these kids short and murder them with our complacency and our silence.
Why? Because we are busy. As individuals, we have personal goals of success to pursue. We have to raise our own kids. Our churches are busy with a bunch of good programs and activities which cater to our children. We ignore large chunks of the Bible because they are disruptive to our current lifestyles. Remember the part when Jesus returns and all nations of people are gathered before him? Here is the qualification for entering God’s heavenly kingdom on that day:
“For I [Jesus] was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothe me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him ‘Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:31-40).
Then Jesus proceeds to curse and turn away those who respond in the opposite manner. In this passage, Jesus is not asking whether or not someone recited a profession of faith or was baptized. He is simply asking, “How did you live?” See, the gospel is not something to simply accept and show up for on Sunday mornings. The gospel is life — our day-to-day choices of what we are going to prioritize. Are we going to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and whether or not we are going to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves? That is the critical question that we must ask ourselves every day of our lives. The answer to that question will make all the difference.
The question marks surrounding the Trayvon Martin case may never be resolved. It’s possible that the man who shot him will never be charged. But Trayvon’s life already has been laid down. The question is: Are you willing to lay down your life for those like him?
What are you going to do, Christian? What are you going to do, Church? Are we going to turn our frustrations into something positive that has a lasting impact? Are we going to turn the tide and reclaim responsibility for our children? Are we going get into the schools and communities to teach, mentor, and tutor our young people and equip their mothers and fathers to be better parents? Are we going to continue to murder, or are we going to choose life?
FROM SPRING TO FALL: Egypt's Coptic Christians hold crosses during an October protest in Cairo following the destruction of a church in the southern province of Aswan. (Photo: Newscom)
As 2011 winds to a close, it’s clear that it has been a year of historic social upheaval around the globe. TIME magazine even chose “The Protester” as its annual “Person of the Year.” And the protests have sprung in diverse places — Great Britain, Russia, and even on Wall Street. But the most dramatic of all 2011 revolts took place in the Middle East and Northern Africa, as ordinary people who once submissively accepted their plights as second-class citizens rose up to confront the oppression of their governments, and in some cases to actually topple once seemingly indomitable regimes. As some have observed, it wasn’t a good year for dictators.
We now call those uprisings the “Arab Spring,” and marvel at how much change has transpired in such a short period of time. But despite the remarkable transformations, some say the revolutionary spring morphed into a bloody summer and now an uncertain winter.
To help put the year’s event’s into perspective, UrbanFaith asked Middle East scholar Kurt Werthmuller to break it down from his perspective. Werthmuller, who previously spoke to us back in March, is a research fellow in religion at the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. He was formerly a professor of history at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Werthmuller responded to our questions via email.
URBAN FAITH: Please talk about the origins of the “Arab Spring” and where it is today. How do you view the evolution of the movement?
KURT WERTHMULLER: As commonplace as it is to discuss the Arab Spring as a single movement, it’s important to consider it first and foremost as a series of domestic movements, each one inspired by other uprisings in the region rather than directly connected to them. In other words, the main concerns of those involved in uprisings against their governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, etc. have really been about local concerns rather than regional ones.
Having said that, the euphoria of January and February has long since passed, and the big picture has become one of a series of socio-political — and in some places military — rebellions with very different trajectories. I’ll comment more on individual countries in a minute, but I will readily admit upfront that my optimism has steadily diminished over the months since I last talked to you. While citizens of Arab countries deserve the same political and personal freedoms that most people in the West enjoy, it is clear that the pursuit of those freedoms in the course of the Arab Spring has also brought along some harsh consequences and troubling implications.
What are some of the “troubling implications,” as you see them?
FALLOUT FROM THE REVOLUTION: An Egyptian Coptic priest recites a prayer next to the coffin of a victim of clashes between Egyptian Copts and military forces in October. (Photo: Moahmed Omar/Newscom)
The big story of the late fall was the emergence of Islamist movements as the primary political beneficiaries of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In Tunisia, the Nahda (Renaissance) Party took the lead in that country’s government following a free and open election in October; the party has been quick to assuage domestic and international fears as to whether it will seek to implement conservative forms of sharia (Islamic law), but the truth is that no one will really know what this will mean until the process of actual governance moves into full swing. In Libya, the head of the National Transitional Council that successfully overthrew Qadhafi’s rule announced in late October, within days of the dictator’s capture and death, that their country would be governed by principles of sharia as well. He then immediately proceeded to announce plans to restore legal polygamy, which was banned under Qadhafi’s rule, and to institute specifically Islamic principles in the national banking industry.
Suffice it to say, at this point, as democratic initiatives have brought participatory governance to the region, the results of these initiatives are clearly reflecting the reality that Islamist parties — of a broad spectrum, to be certain, but religious conservatives nonetheless — have amassed far more legitimacy and popularity on the ground than have any liberal, secular, or other groups.
Egypt, of course, was the big success story during the initial uprisings. That country placed its former president on trial in what some viewed as a very chaotic approach to justice. And, of course, the conflict between Christian protesters and the military made headlines back in the fall. Can there be a happy ending to this story?
The democratic process has certainly had its first victories in Tunisia and Egypt, but they have been disheartening ones. I’m writing these responses shortly after the results of the first of three rounds of Egyptian parliamentary elections were made official, and Islamists of various sorts have thundered into a majority. [Editor’s Note: Second-round results were reported in early December.] The Muslim Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and its partners reached around 48 percent of the contested parliamentary seats, a result of their stellar campaign season over the last few months, and I readily admit that I deeply underestimated earlier in the year. They were working the streets, making friends, feeding poor families, and selling their political platform while most of the liberal groups failed to resonate with much of the Egyptian public at large. The Nour Party and its Salafi partners (the real hardcore fundamentalists of the bunch) won around 20 percent, while the main liberal coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, won 13 percent; this is just over half of the Salafi seats — a massive defeat for those who were optimistic regarding the chances of liberal parties to do well in this first round.
But isn’t this a good thing — the democratic process in action?
The truth is that we don’t know what an Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament will mean, and we won’t truly know until, as in Tunisia, these parties actually begin to govern. But what we do know is less than promising, as even the “moderate” FJP’s electoral platform includes disturbing, highly illiberal items such as insisting on the role of the state in “consolidating the values of chastity and modesty in the media,” declaring the freedom of the press “as long as the publication … takes account of public morality,” and other potentially oppressive implications. In the same platform, it notes that that while Christians should have the right to worship and build churches, “it is essential to find a quick and just solution to the problems of unauthorized and unlicensed churches.” This ambiguous “problem” could easily apply to any non-Muslim events outside of an official property — for example, a prayer meeting in someone’s home, a Christian-led nongovernmental organization, etc. The Western press likes to discuss the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate,” but this is really one in relative terms to the Salafis rather than by any international standard of political, social, or religious liberty.
What might this mean for the Christian churches in Egypt?
The situation for Coptic Christians has been in decline since the fall of Mubarak. Domestic security has broken down across the country, and one of the results of this has been that Salafis — puritanical Islamists who are strongly influenced by radical Wahhabi ideology — have carried out an alarming number of mob attacks on Copts, incited by their equivalent of local fire-and-brimstone preachers, and emboldened by their newfound public presence and a sense that their brand of political Islam is poised to dominate the country. Copts have felt increasingly under siege as a result, and along with the failure of the SCAF to protect them (one need only look to the army’s role in the massacre of Copts on October 9th) or to punish the perpetrators of such attacks, and of course the rise of Islamists to prominence, the future does look increasingly difficult for them.
The recent elections certainly and understandably solidified these concerns for many Copts. The concept of citizenship is the Copts’ best hope, but it is almost a meaningless term in Egypt: decades of authoritarianism crushed any sort of civic consciousness, and confessional politics (i.e., one’s religious affiliation) are instead far more powerful. The success of the Islamists will not mean a genocide of Christians as some have suggested; it is more likely that we will see gradual, more stringent restrictions placed on Copts, possibly creating more pressure on them to convert or leave. We will also likely see the stricter enforcement of apostasy and blasphemy laws that prevent Muslims from converting to Christianity, from expressing alternative Muslim viewpoints, or — in an ironic turn following the revolution — from expressing political dissent. Salafis have led a number of terrifying, localized attacks on Copts and their property in the last several months; this pattern may continue or even increase, especially if intolerant Salafi preachers and their mobs continue to be emboldened by their newfound clout and by the legal cultural of impunity for such violence throughout the country.
What can Coptic Christians do to overcome this?
As a result of these anxieties, many Copts are either actively seeking to emigrate or openly talking about the prospect. But this will not provide a long-term solution. There are 8 to 10 million Copts, after all, and the U.S., Europe, and Australia can absorb only so many of them. My colleague Samuel Tadros has called this a “Coptic Winter,” and it’s not hard to understand the appropriateness of this term.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE: Coptic Christians gathered for a candlelight vigil to mourn the people killed in clashes with soldiers in Cairo. (Photo: Mohamed Omar/Newscom)
This will amount to a difficult turn of events for Egypt’s Christians, and it will also mean a sad direction for Egyptians in general. After all, as we know from our own painful experience in American history, true democracy cannot flourish without the protection and inclusion of minorities as full and equal citizens. I understand on one level why average Egyptians have voted so widely for the Islamists, but I fear they are choosing a dangerous path into intolerance and socio-religious oppression.
Where are things going in the Syrian uprising?
Syria is quickly moving closer to a civil war than a protest movement, especially since the Assad regime is violently digging in its heels even as defectors from the military have formed their own armed rebellion (the Free Syrian Army, or FSA). It’s a brutal situation, quickly moving into a worse-scenario. Non-Muslims may suffer greatly if things continue to spiral down into more violent territory: for example, the Assad regime itself belongs to the Alawi minority (a heterodox offshoot of Shi’ism), and it relies on this community for its base of power. However, it has also traditionally fostered good relations with other non-Sunni communities to contribute to that power base, including the variety of Christian sects in the country (10 to 12 percent of the population).
The local Christian community, representing several different denominations, has been deeply fearful of relinquishing this alliance. If they support the opposition and the regime survives, they fear that their security will be devastated; if they support the opposition and the regime falls, they fear that the country will move into the Islamist camp (like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya). Either way, fear is at the center of the equation for the Christian minority.
Can you comment on the potential long-term effect of the “Arab Spring” regime changes for Israel?
Islamist organizations universally argue for armed Palestinian resistance against Israel and tend to grumble when even the Palestinians themselves sit down at the negotiating table. So, the Islamists’ official ascendance in regional politics will certainly change the status quo with Israel. Again, we just don’t know how this will practically play out. The FJP includes a number of realists, and unlike the more strident rhetoric of most Salafis, they do not seem to be in any great rush to discontinue the check for $1.3 billion that the U.S. sends Egypt every year as part of the Camp David agreement.
But we should not use this tempered realism to underestimate or whitewash the extent to which all Islamist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood and their regional offshoots, are disinterested in pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Regardless of where one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I find it quite impossible to see this as anything but dangerous.
Here in the West, we’ve been confronted lately with the weaknesses of democracy — the polarization, social disaffection, and legislative gridlock. Do you think the protesters in these Arab countries recognize democracy’s weaknesses as well as its strengths?
The concept that democracy won’t solve every problem is more of a problem for the Western media than it is for the populations directly affected by the Arab Spring. The focus of the media here in the U.S. has been on elections, elections, elections … But what are we missing as a result? Many people in Egypt, for example, more clearly understand elections as a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Almost every political party there includes a strong message of social justice and economic equality in its platform. Ideas such as “reform” and “renewal” have run throughout the Tunisian and Egyptian election seasons, evidence that people see the elections as the beginning of something new.
This is also key to understanding the success of Islamist parties, such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular ideologies and regimes have ruled most of the region for decades, and people have suffered from brutal authoritarianism, from widening economic disparity, and from crippling corruption. Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt have been brilliant in speaking precisely to these grievances, and it seems that many voters have seen them as the most likely to bring solutions, a 180-degree turn from the past. Liberal parties, most of which are led by socio-economic elites, have simply done a terrible job of convincing average people of the same. The real tragedy here is that as those same voters may have willingly exchanged one form of authoritarianism — corrupt military dictatorship — for another, in the shape of Islamist-dominated states in which women are relegated to the sidelines, free speech and free thought are restricted, and religious minorities are officially downgraded to second-class status or simply squeezed out altogether.
What do you think American Christians should keep an eye on the most? Are there particular things that should be at the top of our prayer lists when we think about the developments in the Middle East and Northern Africa?
Pray that Christians in the Middle East find the ways, means, and courage to stay, and that other countries swing their doors wide open if it comes to the point that staying is no longer an option. Iraqi Christians have fled the violence in their country literally by the hundreds of thousands over the last few years — many of them took refuge in Syria, which is now on the brink of a devastating civil war. Let’s pray that other believers in the region are not forced into similar, unbearable scenarios.
We should also pray beyond just our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, of course. In this respect we should pray earnestly that Muslim, Christian, and other citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and beyond, will come to more clearly see that following the path of the Islamists will not bring them economic prosperity, social justice, and political freedom. In my opinion, it will almost certainly lead them to greater subjugation, isolation, and misery.