Understandably, most of the media attention in the wake of the U.S. embassy demonstrations in Cairo, Benghazi, and elsewhere in the Arab world has considered their implications for U.S.-Mideast relations. And yet, save for a few concerned voices here and there, commentary that parses the meaning of these demonstrations for the coexistence of Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt has been largely lost in the shuffle despite the corresponding religious pedigree and motives of those involved in this riotous theatre. After all, the producer of the amateurish and grotesque anti-Islamic "film" that sparked the demonstrations has been identified as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian from California. What's more, major media outlets first showed interest in this story after the Arabic-language independent daily newspaper, Al-Youm al-Saba'a, featured a brief article that warned of sectarian strife between Muslims and Copts should the film, entitled Innocence of Muslims, see the light of day.
Given the religious tenor of both the spark and tinder that ignited these demonstrations, on the minds of many Copts in Egypt are the negative repercussions of the hasty, reckless, and senselessly provocative behaviour of extremist Coptic expats living in relative comfort thousands of miles away and the equally irresponsible short-sighted intrusions by U.S. politicians trying to win an election. This is why, for instance, Mitt Romney's appeal for increased "American leadership" in the Mideast -- scary given his maladroit handling of foreign relations during his campaign so far -- and his platitudinous threat of repealing the $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt if it doesn't do more to "protect the rights of the minorities" is precisely the type of interference by the West that most Copts in Egypt roundly condemn.
Although the overall and lasting negative impact will likely be nominal and isolated, a few markers that reveal the effect of this film and ensuing demonstrations on Muslim-Coptic relations in Egypt are worth considering:
First, it is important to note that Coptic Christians and clergy have willingly participated in demonstrations in solidarity with Egyptian Muslims. For instance, a Coptic delegation from the Diocese of Giza joined members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, and Salafis in a massive protest in front of the Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque in Cairo, and the Maspero Youth Union and Coalition of Coptic Egypt held a vigil in front of the U.S. embassy to voice their condemnation of "all sorts of contempt or disdain against any religion, as well as to the sowing of sedition between people who embrace different religions." Coptic Christians expressed support for their Muslim neighbours by displaying placards in front of St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo that read, "No to Harming Religions," and chanted, "Muslims and Christians are one hand," echoing another sign held up by a 20-year-old Coptic student named Mamdouh George that read, "We defend the crescent and the cross together, peacefully." There is much reason to believe, therefore, that the display of solidarity on the ground will eventually quell any misguided notions that the disrespectful caricature of Muhammad in the anti-Islamic film represents the views of all Copts. Indeed, although there have been isolated reports of a few people taunting Coptic Christians in public spaces, it is noteworthy that most of the violence has been directed against Egyptian security protecting the U.S. embassy. As Fouad Gergis, a member of the Coptic Orthodox Lay Council, remarked confidently, "There is no doubt that Christians are fully confident that they will not be affected, as they are expressing solidarity with Muslims in their protests."
It is also notable that both Coptic and Muslim leadership in Egypt and the U.S. have been quick to condemn both the film and the ensuing violence. Moreover, that Coptic activists and bishops have focused their condemnation on the film's creators and all insults against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and Muslim leadership has directed its censure against the violence of the rioters signals a mutual respect for each another's religious traditions that can only enhance trust- and relationship-building. Indeed, as others have pointed out, the real insult to Islam is the violent reaction to the anti-Islamic film by a relative handful of misguided Muslims, a reaction that violates Muhammad's own example during Islam's fledgling early existence in Mecca and the Qur'anic injunction to "repel evil with something that is better, lovelier" (41:34) when confronted by ridicule and persecution.
What this tells us is that rather than fueled by valid religious sensitivities, more authentic peace-cultivating religious values were simply not internalized profoundly enough to prevent the rioters from shamefully resorting to violence in their attempt to express their outrage. As Tarek Farouk, a peaceful demonstrator in Tahrir Square, asks, "What do these people know of the Prophet?" prompting the rejoinder of a nearby interlocutor, "What prophet? You think any of these people care about religion? You'd think these were the most pious people on Earth, but we were here for dawn prayers and we can tell you not a single one of them stopped throwing rocks long enough to pray." Indeed, as is often the case when a mob attracts attention and extremism begets extremism, the distortion of Muslim religious ideals allows opportunism to rear its ugly head and veil its social, political, or economic agenda with the pseudo-religious justification that Innocence of Muslims has sanctioned. For instance, there are reports by prisoners and Prime Minister Hesham Qandil that several bystanders were paid by shadowy figures to clash with Egyptian security forces, and it has become evident that anti-government protesters have taken advantage of the turmoil to demonstrate against the recently elected Mohammed Morsi.
When pondering the intensification of mutual suspicion between Muslims and Copts at the onset of incendiary behaviour, it is also worthwhile to recall intra-communal Coptic diversity along class and ideological lines that the competing promotion and condemnation of this film reveals so emphatically. Although violence is often indiscriminate in its careless oversight of inescapable complexities, peace is intentional in its pursuit of healthier nonviolent ways to resolve conflict.
And so, in light of this diversity we may ask: Who are the Coptic Christians that will reflectively shape their responses to discrimination so that they build trust and relationships with their Muslim neighbours rather than exacerbate mutual suspicion and antipathy? The ideological, political, and educational composition of these thoughtful Copts needs to be re-visited from time to time, especially in the wake of the January 25 revolution, as do effective ways to spread and internalize more profoundly and ubiquitously their more irenic message so that it reaches Copts who hold extremist views or otherwise irrational mistrust of Muslims.
And it is these thoughtful Coptic Christians and religious leaders who must continue to creatively elicit homegrown methods and strategies to not only repel Muslim extremist views and resulting conduct, but also to offset radical Coptic Christian anti-Islamic narratives, especially from abroad, to ensure that theirs does not become the face of the Coptic community in Egypt. As the Christian journalist, Caroline Kamel, recently wrote in Al-Shorouk, "Am I supposed to... apologize for stupidities of others just for the mere fact that we share the same religion?"
Beyond the various ideological camps and interpretive loyalties among analysts, one's perception of Muslim-Coptic relations in Egypt generally and in light of this particular backlash against such indefensible religious provocation may boil down to whether one is a pessimist or an optimist, yet the pragmatic import of positive reinforcement and public gestures of solidarity between Muslims and Copts may designate optimism as the more sensible route.