Christian-Muslim Relations in Egypt: Politics, Society and Interfaith Encounters, by Henrik Lindberg Hansen
I.B. Tauris: London, 2015. 304 pp. $99.
Reviewed by Raymond Ibrahim
Middle East Quarterly
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 fifty pages closely examine a number of sociopolitical and psychological theories and then regularly invoke them as paradigms for understanding Christian-Muslim relations. Moreover, while Hansen gives fair warning that “this book is addressed to Western academia,” the result is a work that incorporates one of the key deficiencies of such scholars: the failure to factor in religion, particularly Islamic doctrine, when analyzing societal issues.
Thus, while noting Egyptian Christians’ marginalized position, he also portrays them as “clannish and mistrusting” in what seems a strained effort to appear objective. When declaring that “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,” he trivializes and thus dismisses the topic of Islam’s doctrines. One does not need to characterize a faith as evil to examine its actual tenets and their practical repercussions.
For example, while discussing the social, political, and psychological aspects that make it difficult to build or repair churches, Hansen never informs the reader that Shari’a bans the building and reparation of such houses of worship and that this is precisely what Muslims cite when they protest and attack churches. Nor does he mention how Muslim authorities use the conceit of “defamation of religions” to harass and imprison Christians (most recently of youths who mocked ISIS).
By not scrutinizing Islamic teaching, Hansen offers strange or naïve assertions: “Salafi with an inclusive attitude towards religious minorities” supposedly exist, and it is still “debatable” whether the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which Hansen acknowledges incited violence against Christians, was “democratically-minded or just politically opportunistic.” There are even hints that the Christian Copts brought violence on themselves by supporting the anti-Muslim Brotherhood revolution.
The book offers a comprehensive and sometimes insightful look into its topic, albeit through the secular lenses of sociopolitical and psychological theory. However, because it strictly avoids religion—specifically Islamic doctrines concerning non-Muslims—it offers a seriously incomplete analysis.