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Alexander Goerlach

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Is Atheism the Solution to Religious Persecution in Egypt?

Posted: 10/18/2011 9:18 am

Violence against Christians is the latest sign of the precarious state of the Arab Spring. Unless moderate liberals can modernize Islam, atheism is the only option for Egypt.

Being Christian can be a bloody business. Today, we are the world's most persecuted religion, especially in Muslim countries. Radical Islamists are waging a war against Christian minorities, the violent wing of Islam's radical fringe is rearing its ugly head. All this despite the firm conviction -- articulated by many Islamic scholars -- that religious violence is by itself a violation of God's will. This has been made blatantly clear by the recent violence against Christians in Egypt and the unrest that resulted from it.

On the far side of the Mediterranean, an impressive struggle for freedom has unfolded over the past nine months. Yet it has also created a power vacuum that is now being exploited by a wide range of groups. Among those who have been empowered are Islamist groups who believe that Islam alone can provide the rules and norms according to which society must be organized. As a reminder: This is the exact opposite of the words of Pope Benedict XVI. before the German parliament. He demanded the retreat of the Church from the political sphere. Christianity never pretends to provide the faithful believer with a comprehensive list of laws according to which one ought to live in the world.

It should be self-evident that a state grounded in the doctrine of a particular religion does not afford general freedom of religion, nor will it accept many other liberties that have been at the core of modern societies: freedom of science, freedom of the press and others. Because Islamists are active in many countries -- and because the conservative Salafist movement can count on financial support from Saudi-Arabia -- politicians, activists and organizations in the West must make it their priority to curb the influence of Islam on the emerging civil societies in the Middle East as far as possible.

The exodus of Christians from the Muslim world is the best indicator for the ruthlessness and intolerance of extremists. Christians have been driven out of Iraq. And when they arrived in Germany as refugees, they had to listen to arguments from the Left that demanded a proportional share of asylum seekers from other persecuted minorities. Yet, Egypt is a special case in relation to its Christian population.

Coptic Christians constitute around 10 percent of the Egyptian population. Exact numbers are not published, for fear or persecution. The Christian minority is relatively large and relatively affluent, and thus becoming a prime target for discrimination and attacks. If the cowardly Islamists succeed in driving Christians out of Egypt, the consequences will be felt around the world. The exodus of Egyptian Christians would mark the triumph of radical political Islam. The stakes are higher in Egypt than in the rest of the Arab world, and Islamists are well aware of that fact.

Christians have had to endure a long history of discrimination in Egypt. Under Mubarak, they were persecuted. They have long been exposed to religious violence. In the West, we tend to forget that religion plays a central role in many Middle Eastern societies. We have secularized our ethics, Islam has not. Religion is regarded as unquestioned truth. It is the driving force behind the construction of identity and the demarcation from the rest of the world: against Americans, against Jews, against the West.

The only way to combat that unfortunate reality is to invest in education (and take education away from Quran schools). The Middle East is reliving a central development of European history: More education leads to less religiosity. In Europe, Christianity was able to adapt its complex theology and philosophy to modernity before sliding into oblivion. Today, moderate Islamic scholars and Muslim liberals are confronted with the same task. Unless they can modernize Islam, atheism is the only option for a country like Egypt. I am convinced that Allah prefers non-beliefers to those who murder in his name.