Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Motherland Lost - Book Review

Samuel Tadros did a superb job researching and presenting Egypt’s history from a Coptic perspective. The scope of Tadros’s coverage of the developments inside the Coptic Church was particularly enlightening. Some of the most impressive parts of this work are Tadros’s challenges to conventional wisdom: Tadros views of the inherent problems with Egyptian liberalism being fundamentally anti democratic, Egyptian liberalism that arose out of infatuation with Europe and West but turned mostly anti western. “Foreign intervention in the internal affairs of the country coincided with the birth of the constitutional movement in Egypt which would have profound effects on its future development. It would ultimately lead to love-hate relationship with the West as a source of inspiration and a model of modernity and, at the same time, the hated occupier. Egyptian liberalism would never escape this dichotomy” Tadros challenges the notion that the so-called Egypt’s “Liberal Age” was truly liberal or that it was “good” for the Copts. 

The following paragraph summarized an important thesis offered by Tadros: “The specifically Egyptian crisis of modernity, understood as a question of the compatibility of Islam with modernity, has resulted in the development of various state and intellectual approaches that have shaped the way Copts were viewed and led to their banishment from the public sphere as a community, though not as individuals. The failure of liberalism in Egypt did not result in the Copts’ current predicament. Rather, it was the very approach that liberalism took that brought about this predicament.” While I personally would have substituted the word “Islam” with “religions”, I think Tadros was clearly on to an important concept. 

Tadros cleverly captures an important trend from the Mohamed Aly era: “Egyptian liberals’ ultimate dream would be a repetition of the story of Mohamed Aly, an autocrat imposing reforms from above on a reluctant population”. 

While I highly recommend this work and rate it very highly, I have a number of criticisms for it which I will now address. 

Devotional v. historical critical study: Tadros presented much of the Coptic tradition as historical facts, starting from the story of St. Mark and his alleged role in establishing Christianity in Egypt. Modern Western studies generally challenge this view. Tadros’s admiration of St. Athanasius clearly arises out of deeply held beliefs or acceptance of the Coptic traditions, yet the vast majority of historical critical studies show Athanasius to be have been a manipulative political operator. While these aspects don’t affect the core thesis of this great work, they do detract from it. 

Apologia?: With so much discrimination against Copts over centuries of subjugation, it is refreshing to read a passionately pro Coptic work, however Tadros has a times fallen into what I’d term the genre of apologia of all things Coptic. The impassioned defense and glorification of General Yacoub who sided with French invaders along with the harsh attack against the Egyptian Conference of 1911 are examples. Labeling the Egyptian Conference of 1911 as Islamist was particularly grating and misleading. While Tadros lister the point by point demands of the preceding Coptic Conference, he failed to do the same for the Egyptian Conference, yet a simple review of these would show that Egyptian Conference adopted views that even by 21st century standards would be seen as progressive and egalitarian. 

Opinions v. Facts: Tadros presented several important ideas in the book as established facts, while in fact these often appear at best opinions or unproven theories. Lord Cromer, who was a founding member of the Society Against Women Suffrage in England was being portrayed by Tadros as a progressive liberal, with “compassion” for poor Egyptian peasants. Ahmed Lutfy El Sayed was presented by Tadros as an anti Copt agitator. Tadros failed to present sufficient facts to prove this, nor did he offer a balanced discussion that supports his conclusions. The demonization of Lutfi El Sayed was relentless, and frankly shocking. Tadros attempt at nuance when analyzing Lutfi El Sayed was limited to admitting that he and his colleagues were not “fanatics”! 

Similar but less obvious was Tadros’s dismissal of Ahmed Maher as the King’s lackey, yet at some point Tadros admitted that the King was actively trying to appeal to the Copts to counter the popularity of the Wafed Party. In the post 1952 era, Tadros suggested that Nasser came into power with an Arabist and anti Israel agenda, this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as Nasser hardly addressed either topic in his first few years. It was also ironic that Tadros blamed Nasser for the Coptic Church’s rejection of Vatican II. Tadros seemed to want to whitewash the deeply ingrained antisemitism in the Coptic traditions and history and shift the blame on to Nasser. 

Dhimmitude and 21st Century sensibilities: It was unclear which era Tadros considered was the best for Copts in Egypt other than perhaps the brief 3 year period of the French occupation at the end of the 18th & beginning of the 19th century.  Mohamed Aly and his dynasty according to Tadros were focused on their own struggles against the Turks and the Ottoman Empire and / or against the British. The British according to Tadros had no interest advancing the rights of Copts, the Liberal Egyptian movement of the first half of the 20th century didn’t either. At times it appeared that Tadros thought Copts faired best under the more traditional so called dhimi times, when according to Tadros Copts played an important role in the civil service. Tadros quoted some blatantly discriminatory and aggressive anti Copt language from a newspaper in 1908 responding to an attack from a Coptic paper on Islamic history, yet Tadros did not provide context for such language, nor did he offer any details on what the Coptic newspaper actually printed to start the episode. Contrasting some of this language with the language used by Cairo’s Rabbinical Jewish religious authorities describing Karaite Jews in 1903 "impure bastards" would show the very different sensibilities of the time. It would have been more helpful for the reader if Tadros offered more context or comparisons of the how the various minorities and sects dealt with one another at the various eras of history. 

As referenced earlier, the weaknesses and shortcomings of this work should not take away from its importance. The passion of Samuel Tadros for his church and his fellow Copts made him an outstanding advocate, but readers would definitely benefit from a more scientific approach in assessing and addressing both history and present. The challenges Egyptian Copts face are huge: discrimination, acts of violence, governments that are often complicit in discrimination or at best tolerant of it, brain drain, conflicts within the Church between reformers and traditionalists … these and more are very serious challenges and need to be addressed in an even handed fashion.