How Islamic State has Reignited the Coptic Winter of Egypt’s Christians
In 2011 a wave of popular protests, known as the Arab Spring, swept through the Middle East and, in particular, it affected Egypt. Since the start of the protests in Egypt two governments have been overthrown, the military has moved in and out of power, economic growth has halted and for the nation’s Coptic Christian community a period of great social unrest, known as the Coptic Winter.
Now, in 2015, the Islamic State in Libya has centred their attentions on the fragile Egyptian Coptic community. 21 Christians were killed in a mass beheading by IS militants and this has triggered a new investigation into the position of Christians in the Middle East. IS called the Christians, ‘crusaders’ and with their murders the organisation clearly demonstrated their desire to eliminate all of those groups who did not adhere to their strict version of Islamic purity. It was also an attack on Egypt, a nation who maintains a strained relationship with any form of Islamist politics. For IS, regimes like the current Egyptian government, represent the greatest threat to an Islamic Caliphate; states who will allow the continued existence of non-Islamic communities.
The rise and fall of Islamist politics in the Middle East has impacted the Christian communities the hardest. When I went to Cairo to study the Coptic Christians in 2012 the country has the first Islamist government (Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood influenced government) in a generation. I found a community that was marginalised by stricter religious laws, growing increasingly isolated from political structures and suffering from more frequent religiously motivated violence. In the 1500 years that Christianity has existed in Egpyt this period marked a low point in Coptic history.
This Coptic Winter has forced the Christian community to re-evaluate their position within Egypt and many have left the Middle East in search of greater security and stability elsewhere across the world.
With the overthrow of President Morsi and the reintroduction of a secular government in Egypt the situation for Coptic Christians had strengthened. Islamic laws were repealed and the violence targeted at Copts was curbed. But this realignment of Egyptian politics coincided with the rise of Islamic State and the continued collapse of the Libyan state.
Islamic State has always maintained that its primary aim is to establish a global Islamic Caliphate that can impose universal sharia law across an Islamic community. Within their concept of an Islamic state their is no room for an alternative cultural tradition and their attacks on the Yezidi community in Iraq and now the Copts in Libya have demonstrated the groups’ commitment to a purer Islamic community.
In the collapse of any lasting political authority within Libya the Islamic State has flourished and it has managed to establish its authority over the people of Eastern Libya. Many analysts have predicted that the IS militants in Libya will become even more powerful as IS grows in strength throughout Iraq and Syria and beacuse no group can currently challenge their authority within Libya. As the threat of Islamic State grows in the region so will the pressure on the Coptic Christian minority.
Their way of life is one of the most ancient in Northern Africa but it’s struggling to survive in the face of mounting attacks by fundamental Islamist forces. The attacks in Libya this week have demonstrated that the Coptic community faces another period of political instability and the Coptic Winter, that originated in the Egyptian revolution of the Arab Spring, is once again coming to define the way this community exists in the Middle East.
By Peter Banham