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Very, Very Quiet Diplomacy on Religious Freedom

Nina Shea

The State Department’s very quiet, if not silent, response to the imprisonment and abuse of an American citizen now on trial for his Christian faith in Iran, described by David French on the Corner, is consistent with its sphinx-like reaction to the new Egyptian constitution, which virtually enshrines repression of basic individual freedoms. As my colleague Sam Tadros recently pointed out on Fox News, in an apparent attempt to “tone down the gravity of the problem in Egypt,“ the State Department has all but ignored how Egypt’s constitution restricts, in many and varied ways, freedom of religion, speech, and thought. 

As Tadros, an Egyptian Copt and an astute observer of the country’s political development, writes in the new issue of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, “The new constitution, which was immediately put for a referendum, represents an almost complete Salafi victory,” which he goes on to demonstrates in detail.

He concludes:

The debate over the new Egyptian constitution thus provides a revealing glimpse into intra-Islamist dynamics. While the fall of the Mubarak regime and its security apparatus has provided the Brotherhood with unprecedented opportunities to acquire power and begin implementing their vision, it has also unleashed an extraordinary challenge in the form of Salafism. Unlike the non-Islamists whom the Brotherhood have previously handled with caution but now routinely dismiss as an insignificant minority, the Salafis present a direct challenge to the Brotherhood both because of their raw numbers and street power and because of their unique ability to claim ownership of the Islamist cause and identity.    

The Salafi monster is thus unlike anything that the Brotherhood has ever dealt with in the past.  It also comes at a time of considerable ideological incoherence within the Brotherhood, which has failed to produce any original intellectual contribution since Said Qutb. Thus far, the Brotherhood has been able to throw the monster a bone or two every once in a while, but this may not be sustainable over the long run.  As Salafis become better organized, they will not be content with accepting the few pieces the Brotherhood throws at them. As the fight over Egypt’s constitution proves, the monster’s appetite is only growing and there may come a day in the future when the Salafist movement desires to eat the whole meal.

Meanwhile, in practice, Egypt is following the Iranian model in its crackdown on converts to Christianity. As Fox reported, an Egyptian court this month sentenced Nadia Mohamed Ali and her seven children to 15 years imprisonment, for publicly identifying themselves as Christians after the mother had converted from Christianity to Islam, in order to marry a Muslim, and then reverted back to Christianity following her husband’s death. The State Department has not had much to say about that either and continues its plans to give Egypt billions of dollars in aid and debt forgiveness.

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