Inside the strange Hollywood scam that spread chaos across the Middle East

The Guardian has confirmed that the filmmakers are closely affiliated with Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. (h/t: Jai)

Inside the strange Hollywood scam that spread chaos across the Middle East

by Max Blumenthal (The Guardian)

Did an inflammatory anti-Muslim film trailer that appeared spontaneously on YouTube prompt the attack that left four US diplomats dead, including US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens? American officials have suggested that the assault was pre-planned, allegedly by of one of the Jihadist groups that emerged since the Nato-led overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi regime. So even though the deadly scene in Benghazi may not have resulted directly from the angry reaction to the Islamophobic video, the violence has helped realize the apocalyptic visions of the film’s backers.

Produced and promoted by a strange collection of rightwing Christian evangelicals and exiled Egyptian Copts, the trailer was created with the intention of both destabilizing post-Mubarak Egypt and roiling the US presidential election. As a consultant for the film named Steve Klein said: “We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen.”

The Associated Press’s initial report on the trailer – an amateurish, practically unwatchable production called The Innocence of Muslims – identified a mysterious character, “Sam Bacile”, as its producer. Bacile told the Associated Press that he was a Jewish Israeli real estate developer living in California. He said that he raised $5m for the production of the film from “100 Jewish donors”, an unusual claim echoing Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style fantasies. Unfortunately, the extensive history of Israeli and ultra-Zionist funding and promotion of Islamophobic propaganda in the United States provided Bacile’s remarkable statement with the ring of truth.

Who was Bacile? The Israeli government could not confirm his citizenship, and for a full day, no journalist was able to determine whether he existed or not. After being duped by Bacile, AP traced his address to the home of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a militant Coptic separatist and felon convicted of check fraud. On September 13, US law enforcement officials confirmed that “Sam Bacile” was an alias Nakoula used to advance his various scams, which apparently included the production of The Innocence of Muslims.

According to an actor in the film, the all-volunteer cast was deceived into believing they were acting in a benign biblical epic about “how things were 2,000 years ago”. The script was titled Desert Warrior, and its contents made no mention of Muhammad – his name was dubbed into the film during post-production. On the set, a gray-haired Egyptian man who identified himself only as “Sam” (Nakoula) chatted aimlessly in Arabic with a group of friends while posing as the director. A casting notice for Desert Warrior listed the film’s real director as “Alan Roberts”. This could likewise be a pseudonym, although there is a veteran Hollywood hand responsible for such masterpieces as The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood and The Sexpert who goes by the same name.

Before Nakoula was unmasked, the only person to publicly claim any role in the film was Klein, an insurance salesman and Vietnam veteran from Hemet, California, who emerged from the same Islamophobic movement that produced the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. Styling themselves as “counter-Jihadists”, anti-Muslim crusaders like Klein took their cues from top propagandists like Pamela Geller, the blogger who once suggested that Barack Obama was the lovechild of Malcolm X, and Robert Spencer, a pseudo-academic expert on Muslim radicalization who claimed that Islam was no more than “a developed doctrine and tradition of warfare against unbelievers”. Both Geller and Spencer were labeled hate group leaders by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Klein is an enthusiastic commenter on Geller’s website, Atlas Shrugged, where he recently complained about Mitt Romney’s “support for a Muslim state in Israel’s heartland”. In July 2011, Spencer’s website, Jihad Watch, promoted a rally Klein organized to demand the firing of Los Angeles County sheriff Lee Baca, whom he painted as a dupe for the Muslim Brotherhood.

On his personal Facebook page, Altar or Abolish, Klein obsesses over the Muslim Brotherhood, describing the organization as “a global network of Muslims attacking to convert the world’s 6 billion people to Islam or kill them”. Klein urges a violent response to the perceived threat of Islam in the United States, posting an image to his website depicting a middle-American family with a mock tank turret strapped to the roof of their car. “Can you direct us to the nearest mosque?” read a caption Klein added to the photo.

In 2011, during his campaign to oust Sheriff Baca, Klein forged an alliance with Joseph Nasrallah, an extremist Coptic broadcaster who shared his fear and resentment of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasrallah appeared from out of nowhere at a boisterous rally against the construction of an Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2010, warning a few hundred riled-up Tea Party types that Muslims “came and conquered our country the same way they want to conquer America”.

Organized by Geller and Spencer, the rally was carefully timed to coincide with the peak of the midterm congressional election campaign, in which many rightwing Republicans hoped to leverage rising anti-Muslim sentiment into resentment against the presidency of Obama.

Through his friendship with Nasrallah, Klein encountered another radical Coptic separatist named Morris Sadek. Sadek has been banned from returning to his Egypt, where he is widely hated for his outrageous anti-Muslim displays. On the day of the Ground Zero rally, for instance, Sadek was seen parading around the streets of Washington, DC, on September 11, 2010, with a crucifix in one hand and a Bible implanted with the American flag in the other. “Islam is evil!” he shouted. “Islam is a cult religion!”

With another US election approaching, and the Egyptian government suddenly under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, Klein and Sadek joined Nakoula in preparing what would be their greatest propaganda stunt to date: the Innocence of Muslims. As soon as the film appeared on YouTube, Sadek promoted it on his website, transforming the obscure clip into a viral source of outrage in the Middle East. And like clockwork, on September 11, crowds of Muslim protesters stormed the walls of the US embassy in Cairo, demanding retribution for the insult to the prophet Muhammad. The demonstrations ricocheted into Libya, where the deadly attack that may have been only peripherally related to the film occurred.

For Sadek, the chaos was an encouraging development. He and his allies had been steadfastly opposed to the Egyptian revolution, fearing that it would usher in the Muslim Brotherhood as the country’s new leaders. Now that their worst fears were realized, Coptic extremists and other pro-Mubarak dead-enders were resorting to subterfuge to undermine the ruling party, while pointing to the destabilizing impact of their efforts as proof of the government’s bankruptcy. As Sadek said,“the violence that [the film] caused in Egypt is further evidence of how violent the religion and people”.

For far-right Christian right activists like Klein, the attacks on American interests abroad seemed likely to advance their ambitions back in the US. With Americans confronted with shocking images of violent Muslims in Egypt and Libya on the evening news, their already negative attitudes toward their Muslim neighbors were likely to harden. In turn, the presidential candidates, Obama and Romney, would be forced to compete for who could take the hardest line against Islamic “terror”.

A patrician moderate constantly on the defensive against his own right flank, Romney fell for the bait, baselessly accusing Obama of “sympathiz[ing] with those who waged the attacks” and of issuing “an apology for America’s values”. The clumsy broadside backfired in dramatic fashion, opening Romney to strident criticism from across the spectrum, including from embarrassed Republican members of Congress. Obama wasted no time in authorizing a round of drone strikes on targets across Libya, which are likely to deepen regional hostility to the US.

A group of fringe extremists had proven that with a little bit of money and an unbelievably cynical scam, they could shape history to fit their apocalyptic vision. But in the end, they were not immune to the violence they incited.

According to Copts Today, an Arabic news outlet focusing on Coptic affairs, Sadek was seen taking a leisurely stroll down Washington’s M Street on September 11, soaking in the sun on a perfect autumn day. All of a sudden, he found himself surrounded by four angry Coptic women. Berating Sadek for fueling the flames of sectarian violence, the women took off their heels and began beating him over the head.

“If anything happens to a Christian in Egypt,” one of them shouted at him, “you’ll be the reason!”

Frontpage Muslim-bashing Authority Can’t Do a Two Second Google Search

(via. Loonwatch)

Behold the erroneous misinformation factory at Front Page Mag, the online place where Islamophobes go to find spurious arguments that make them feel better about being intolerant of Muslims. Today’s gem comes from Raymond Ibrahim, a skilled harvester of Islamophobic cash cows, a particularly spite-filled individual with an obsession for essentializing Islam as a religion of war, slavery, and sexual misconduct.

Where before have I heard similar claims about a similar religion? Oh yeah. Every anti-Semitic website on the internet. The strong parallel between the claims, rhetoric, and methodologies of Anti-Semites and Islamophobes have been discussed many times before, so there is no need to repeat those arguments here.

Today, I will comment on Mr. Ibrahim’s unprincipled “research” which has as an a priori(beforehand) conclusion that Muslims are never victims, only perpetrators. What perturbed me is that Front Page praises Mr. Ibrahim as a “widely recognized authority on Islam” who can translate “important Arabic news that never reaches the West.”

You see, according to David Horowitz, anti-Muslim ideological commitment makes someone a “widely recognized authority” on Islam; not rigorous academic training, as those foolish liberals believe, with their pesky “facts,” their elitist “research methodologies,” and their vexatious love of “balance.”

o the matter at hand. You may have heard the recent story about two Egyptian Christian girls who were allegedly abducted by Muslims. Raymond pens an anti-Muslim hit piece entitled “Egypt: Christian Girls Kidnapped and ‘Sold’.” Ready for some bombshell evidence of Islam’s collective depravity? Won’t find it here. Raymond is upset that the Egyptian Newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, didn’t report on this story with an acceptable level of anti-Muslim bias:

At the end of the Al-Masry Al-Youm report, we get a trailing sentence alluding to “claims” that two Christian girls “were abducted by Muslims and forced to convert to Islam” as the reason why Copts were demonstrating and clashing with the police in the first place.

This is the “claim” that Mr. Ibrahim wants to advance, the claim of the Christian protestors, i.e. the girls were kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam, and this sort of thing happens all the time because of the tenets of Islam. (Sigh). It should go without saying that mainstream Islam explicitly teaches againstforced conversions. Several Quranic verses can be produced to support this:

Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you [Prophet] compel people to believe? (10:99)

If your Lord had pleased, He would have made all people a single community, but they continue to have their differences… (11:118)

If you find rejection by the disbelievers so hard to bear, then seek a tunnel into the ground or a ladder into the sky, if you can, and bring them a sign: God could bring them all to guidance if it were His will, so do not join the ignorant. (6:35)

The messenger’s only duty is to give clear warning. (29:18)

We know best what the disbelievers say. You [Prophet] are not there to force them, so remind, with this Quran, those who fear My warning. (50:45)

There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false gods and believes in God has grasped the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break. God is all hearing and all knowing. (2:256)

Say, ‘Obey God; obey the Messenger. If you turn away, [know that] he is responsible for the duty placed upon him, and you are responsible for the duty placed upon you. If you obey him, you will be rightly guided, but the Messenger’s duty is only to deliver the message clearly.’ (24:54)

Note that the last two verses were revealed in Medina, just in case anyone wants to bring up the tired, old canard that everything wise and peaceful in the Quran was abrogated. In fact, Al-Azhar University’s Commission for Embracing Islam may “spend several days making sure that the person wants to convert to Islam voluntarily and as a result of their own desire.”

Therefore, if it is true that the girls were kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, this would be an obvious breach of normative, mainstream Islamic teachings, not to mention Egyptian civil law. This would make it a case of criminal behavior, not normal religion. Whoever forces someone to be a Muslim is not behaving like a Muslim. Period.

However, as we shall see, we have strong reason to doubt these girls were kidnapped in the first place.

What are Mr. Ibrahim’s sources for claiming the two girls were in fact kidnapped and forced into Islam? A dubious Arabic website entitled “Free Christian Nation.” No possibility of bias there (sarcasm intended). Mr. Ibrahim boasts about his expert Arabic translation skills:

One must again turn to Arabic sources for the telling details. I have put together the following narrative and quotes based on these two Arabic reports:

The two girls, Christine Azat (aged 16) and Nancy Magdi (aged 14) were on their way to church Sunday, June 12, when they were seized. Their abductors demanded $200,000 Egyptian pounds for their release. The people of the region quickly put their savings together and came up with the ransom money; but when they tried to give it to the kidnappers, they rejected it, saying they had already “sold” the girls off to another group which requires $12 million Egyptian pounds to return them.

Two unsourced reports in Arabic? From which news agency? There are no authors or publishers listed on the reports. If you can read Arabic, seriously, check it out. So your ability to translate from some random anonymous Arabic websites is why you are a “widely recognized authority on Islam”?

But what our “widely recognized authority on Islam” failed to mention is that other mainstream newspapers (even in English, accessible to non-scholars, no translation necessary) have published reports contrary to his central claim. Mr. Ibrahim tells us about his scholarly research methods:

I tried to find this story in English-language media and, as expected, found nothing…

Oh really? I did a two-second Google search and found some. For example, Al-Ahram reported that:

During recent weeks, the two girls, who are cousins, have uploaded videos on YouTube announcing their conversion to Islam and that they were not kidnapped by ‎anyone. This came in response to the father of one of the girls reporting their‎disappearance. ‎

According to this report, the girls willfully converted to Islam, so Mr. Ibrahim tries to explain this away:

Some have tried to pass the usual rumor that the girls “willingly” ran off and converted to Islam, but even Egyptian officials reject this, saying that Al Azhar, which is the institution that formally recognizes conversions to Islam, has not acknowledged the conversion of underage minors.

This “rumor” happens to be based upon the Youtube testimony of the girls themselves, which would make it more than a rumor. The fact that Al-Azhar University did not announce their conversions is not proof that the girls didn’t willfully convert because, as Al-Ahram reports, Al-Azhar “does not accredit ‎conversion to Islam from anyone younger than 18.”‎ Minor details!

The point here is not whether the girls converted or not. I won’t get into “he said, she said” arguments about a pending legal case. The point is that Raymond, as usual, obviously didn’t research and balance his reporting, which means the only reason he brought it up at all is because it is useful ideological propaganda. His readers don’t read Arabic. They won’t double check his work. These blatant mistakes will get swept under rug, again as usual, to be replaced by the next propaganda item, the next blog post, the next hit piece. The erroneous misinformation factory marches on.

Does Raymond really want to help the Christian community in Egypt? Coptic Christians, whom Raymond pretends to defend, have rejected these kind of tactics and propaganda that divide Egypt along religious lines. Bishop Markos of Shubra al-Kheima told Al-Masry Al-Youm that:

Copts fall under the protection of the Egyptian state, and Muslims and Christians in Egypt fall under the protection of God, who mentioned Egypt and its people in the Quran and the Bible.

So don’t be fooled into thinking Raymond cares about these girls or even Egyptian Christians. He’s just using them and their story to whip up anti-Muslim populism, to use as a religio-political wedge issue in the campaign against Obama and liberals.

Undoubtedly, the guys at Front Page would not campaign for the human rights of these two girls if they had really converted to Islam. If their conversion to Islam was genuine, would Mr. Ibrahim and Horowitz support their religious freedom?

I ask these questions because, contrary to the 24-hour hate-on-Islam-a-thon at Front Page, Egyptian Christians who convert to Islam have also faced persecution. This certainly wouldn’t be the first case. As Al-Ahram reported:

This is not the first story of Muslim converts that has been a source of public debate and ‎concern. Camilia Shehata, who disappeared from her house in July 2010, was‎alleged to have converted to Islam only to be held in church after conversion to prevent ‎her from practicing her new religion.

Of course, stories about Muslims being denied religious freedom by Christians don’t quite fit into the Islam-is-all-evil-all-the-time-RSS-feed at Front Page Mag.

I’m not expecting an honest answer from Raymond.

Spencer Distorts Egyptian Society; Spreads Interfaith Bigotry

Egypt’s majority Muslim population spoke loudly against extremism and terrorism when they served as “human shields” in protection of their Christian neighbors on Christmas eve. “We either live together, or we die together,” was the slogan of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon. Indeed, it was a teachable moment: a ray of hope in a sectarian torn world. But fake scholar Robert Spencer is determined to squander any chance at peaceful interfaith coexistence.

Spencer notes that Al-Azhar University condemned the recent attacks on Egyptian Churches:

Al-Azhar is the foremost authority in Sunni Islam, and a case can be made from the Qur’an for what they say: “For had it not been for Allah’s repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down.” — Qur’an 22:40

Of course, the citation of Quran 22:40 is black-and-white proof that Islam does not sanction attacks on houses of worship. However, Spencer as usual turns the Quran upside down:

Thus Muslims should not be among those who “pull down” churches, right? So why, then, would any jihadists target a church, given that they consistently proclaim themselves to be the true and pure Muslims, following scrupulously everything commanded in the Qur’an and Sunnah? Or have they really “hijacked” Islam, as is endlessly claimed?

Well, it is worth noting that ‘Umdat al-Salik (Reliance of the Traveller), a manual of Islamic law that Al-Azhar certifies as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community,” contains a section (o9.10-o.9.15) entitled “Rules of Warfare” that says nothing about any prohibition on attacking a non-Muslim house of worship. And Islamic law generally takes a negative view of non-Muslim houses of worship, forbidding non-Muslims in Islamic states from building new houses of worship or repairing old ones.

Suggesting the Quran doesn’t mean what it says, Spencer cites as proof his favorite piece of evidence: Umdat al-Salik, a 14th century medieval Muslim law manual. Spencer assumes the certification of the translation into English by Al-Azhar means that Muslim legal thinking hasn’t moved beyond the 14th century. What he fails to disclose is that these manuals are studied in their historical contexts. Serious Egyptian religious intellectuals do not take the rules of warfare from Umdat al-Salik but from the Geneva Conventions and U.N. treaties, as stated clearly by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Dr. Ali Gomaa:

“Fight in the way of God against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression – for, verily, God does not love aggressors,” (Quran, 2:190)

This verse summarizes everything that has been agreed upon concerning guidelines of warfare, including the first and second Geneva Conventions.

Nonetheless, reading in translation (since we know he is not proficient in Arabic), Spencer doesn’t find any suggestion in Umdat Al-Salik that houses of worship should be protected; therefore, he concludes Islamic law in its totality must not have any precedent about protecting houses of worship. What he failed to mention, even in the very piece of evidence he cited, is this:

09:11 It is unlawful to kill a non-Muslim to whom a Muslim has given his guarantee of protection.

[Ibn, al-Naqīb A. L, and Noah H. M. Keller. Reliance of the Traveller: The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law ʻumdat Al-Salik. Beltsville, MD, U.S.A: Amana Publications, 1999. P. 603]

Most Muslims reinterpret such clauses in the modern sense of citizenship. The Christians are Egyptian citizens and therefore deserve the protection of the government. Hence, the overwhelming demonstration by Muslims in support of the Christian community. Of course, even in a time of warfare, Islamic law laid down strict rules of combat. Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, told his armies:

“I advise you ten things: Do not kill women or children or an aged, infirm person. Do not cut down fruit-bearing trees. Do not destroy an inhabited place. Do not slaughter sheep or camels except for food. Do not burn bees and do not scatter them. Do not steal from the booty, and do not be cowardly.”

[Muwatta, Book 21, Number 21.3.10:]

“Inhabited places” include houses of worship. But the Egyptian Christians aren’t combatants; they’re citizens. They’re even more deserving of scrupulous protection. In this regard, Muhammad himself sanctified the lives of those who made peace treaties with Muslims:

Narrated ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr: The Prophet said, “Whoever killed a Mu’ahid (a person who is granted the pledge of protection by the Muslims) shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise though its fragrance can be smelt at a distance of forty years (of traveling).”

[Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 83, Number 49]

Apparently, Spencer feels no need to check any Islamic sources other than Umdat al-Salik before he makes sweeping claims about Islamic law. In any case, Spencer would like us to think that Al-Qaeda, who bombs houses of worship, is acting in accordance with Islamic law better than the majority of Egyptian Muslims. He gives us his “expert” interpretation:

Also, it is likely that al-Qaeda understands Qur’an 22:40 as referring to churches that teach the true Christianity of Jesus the Muslim prophet as he is depicted in the Qur’an. Those Christians who consider Jesus divine — that is, virtually all of them — are “unbelievers” according to the Qur’an (5:17, 5:72), and the Qur’an commands Muslims to make war against those who associate partners with Allah (9:5), which Christians are explicitly accused of doing by proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God (9:30). Thus they would likely believe that Qur’an 22:40 just doesn’t have anything to do with “pulling down” the assemblies of renegades such as those who were gathered in the church in Alexandria last night.

Notice that Spencer thinks it is “likely” al-Qaeda understand the verse exactly the way he does, although he can produce no such evidence. Maybe because he’s not too good at translating Arabic documents? He then cites his favorite handful of verses (out of context); for example, citing:

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)… (Quran 9:5)

But without citing the following verses (interpreted in Tafsir Jalalayn as follows):

“How can polytheists [that were treacherous and violated their treaties] have a covenant with Allah and His Messenger? Except for those with whom you entered covenants [i.e., the polytheists who did not break them and hence were not treacherous] in the Sacred Mosque. So as long as they are true to you [with their covenants and do not breach them] then be true to them [by also fulfilling your covenants]; verily, Allah loves those who fear Him [i.e., He loves those who fulfill covenants, since whoever fears Allah will fulfill his covenants, and the Prophet kept his word and upheld his side of the treaty until his enemies broke theirs].”

[Tafsir Jalalayn, Quran 9:7]

Spencer takes verses that refer specifically to a handful of Arab tribes who broke their peace treaties with Muhammad and extrapolates them out to apply to all Jews, Christians, and people everywhere. Spencer ignores key verses of the Quran that make clear distinctions between those who war against Muslims and those who make peace:

Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loves those who are just. Allah only forbids you, with regard to those who fight you for (your) Faith, and drive you out of your homes, and support (others) in driving you out, from turning to them (for friendship and protection). It is such as turn to them (in these circumstances), that do wrong. (Quran 60:8-9)

Finally, Spencer ends by repeating his keynote fallacy:

If Al-Azhar backs up this statement with consistent calls on Egyptian authorities to protect Egypt’s Christians, and consistent teaching against the Islamic texts and teachings that provide justification for attacks against them, we will be making real progress.

Spencer thinks we’ll “make progress” when Al-Azhar teaches against Islamic texts and teachings, while we have shown here that Al-Azhar’s condemnation of Al-Qaeda is not against Islamic texts and teachings, but is perfectly in line with them. Spencer pretends that only his spurious self-serving interpretation of Islam is correct and therefore Islam is the problem, rather than extremism fostered by military occupations. Would Spencer find it sensible for me to likewise demand Christians speak out against the Christian texts and teachings that justify terrorism?

As our country starts debating the violent political rhetoric in our nation’s discourse, let people know that fraudsters like Robert Spencer add fuel to the fire by pushing communities apart, dividing nations along religious lines, and hindering any hope of interfaith understanding. His anti-Muslim bigotry and rejection of Muslim/Christian harmony is poisonous to the best of American traditions: E pluribus unum.

Ahmed Rehab: A Silver Lining in Egypt’s Dark Cloud

Robert Spencer has been steadily attempting to portray a situation in Egypt that does not reflect reality. Articles such as the following by Ahmed Rehab will never appear on JihadWatch because Spencer is vested in a Clash of Civilizations ideology.

An inspiring and heartening post by Ahmed Rehab on the bombing of the Coptic church. We were alerted to this late but this is certainly thus far one of the best posts on the subject. (hat tip: Ivan)

A Silver Lining to Egypt’s Dark Cloud

by Ahmed Rehab

The recent bombing outside a Coptic church in the Egyptian seaport of Alexandria that claimed 21 lives and 96 injuries sent shockwaves throughout Egypt and made headlines around the world.

Much of the global media has limited its interest in the story to the bombing itself and the subsequent angry street protests by Coptic youth; more savvy journalists included some discussion of government negligence and the context of sectarian strife that plagues Egypt today.

Still, an integral part of the story remains untold outside of Egypt: the strong response of everyday Egyptians – Muslims and Copts.

A popular storm of anger, defiance, and national unity is sweeping the country expressed by political leaders, members of the clergy, movie stars, students, and men and women on the street all reiterating one resounding theme: this is an attack against Egypt and all Egyptians.

While sectarian strife – even violence – is a serious problem in this mostly Muslim nation with a sizable Coptic population, Muslims and Copts generally live in peace side by side and have for many centuries.

Ali GomaaEgyptians of all stripes seem to concur that the Alexandria bombing – the most serious act of terrorism in a decade – is an attack on the Egyptian way of life with the intent to drive a wedge between faith communities and push the nation into turmoil.

“This is not just an attack on Copts, this is an attack on me and you and all Egyptians, on Egypt and its history and its symbols, by terrorists who know no God, no patriotism, and no humanity,” said Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt.

Khaled El Gendy“This cannot be classified as religious extremism, this can only be classified as religious apostasy,” said sheikh Khaled El Gendy a popular Muslim TV personality. “I do not offer my condolences to Christians, but to all Egyptians and to Egypt, All Copts are Egyptian and all Egyptians are Copts; their places of worship are national places of worship, a bomb that targets them bleeds us all.” A high ranking member of the Coptic clergy who sat beside him echoed his words.

“An act like this is wholly condemnable in Islam. Muslims are not only obligated not to harm Christians, but to protect and defend them and their places of worship,” said Imam Ahmed Al Tayeb the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s seat of Orthodoxy.

Adel Imam“Let us hang black flags from our homes and black ribbons on our cars to mourn this cowardly attack against our brothers and sisters, let us send a symbolic message of defiance against those who are trying to divide us”, said a visibly enraged Adel Imam, Egypt’s most popular living actor, a Muslim, and a long time advocate for Coptic rights.

The message was not much different on Egypt’s most watched talk shows that were abuzz with Muslim and Coptic guests in the studios and on the streets, expressing their solidarity with each other and defiance against what they see as a common enemy trying to drive a wedge between Egyptians.

Muslim college students in Alexandria and Cairo have vowed to join Copts at their upcoming Christmas celebrations (January 7th for the Coptic Church). “We will be there with signs bearing the Crescent and the Cross, celebrating with them, standing with them, and falling with them if necessary,” said a young, veiled student leader surrounded by her colleagues.

As an Egyptian, I am as invigorated by the current mood in Egypt as I am distraught by the bombing. However, I pray that this welcome surge of unity and camaraderie is seized and eternalized. I hope that it becomes ingrained into our societal fabric and that it is leveraged to induce long needed reforms.

I agree that an attack such as this has the bearings of Al Qaeda and its imitation groups therefore taking us outside the realm of common sectarian strife and into one of national security; nonetheless, Egyptians should see the current atmosphere of empathy as an opportunity to address Coptic grievances and strive towards a more equal society.

We can no longer deny that since the rise of Muslim extremist ideology in the 1970′s, Egypt’s once exemplary Muslim-Coptic relations has deteriorated significantly.

My father tells me that growing up in the 50′s, he often did not know if one of his friends was a Muslim or Copt except by sheer coincidence, and then when he did it mattered little. This was not my experience growing up in Egypt where my religion teacher made sure to warn me against the “treachery” of my Coptic colleagues.

Naguib El RihanyIn the 40′s, no one seemed to care that Naguib El Rihany, Egypt’s then greatest comedian and a national treasure, was a Copt; he was simply Egyptian. Likewise, Copts did not bat an eyelid when Omar Sharif, a Christian, converted to Islam in the 50′s, at the height of his celebrity, a far cry from today’s intense reactions against conversions.

As far back as the 12th century, Egyptian Muslims and Copts fought side by side against the Crusaders, viewed then as a national security threat and not a religious war. Together, they stood tall against British colonialism – a lasting image of the period depicts Muslim sheikhs and Coptic priests marching together side by side and chanting “long live the crescent and the cross!”

One needs not look farther than the Alexandria Church itself to gain a glimpse of the sort of religious cohabitation that is uniquely Egyptian: the church is brightly lit up by flood lights perched up on a Mosque, only 30 feet across the street.

Egyptians are asking today privately and publicly, where has all this gone?

But we need to do more than ask and lament. We need to act.

The post-Alexandria solidarity between Muslims and Copts – the likes of which Egypt has not witnessed in decades – represents a silver lining in Egypt’s dark cloud of sectarian strife and mistrust.

We would be wrong not to acknowledge and applaud it, but equally wrong to settle for it; a silver lining never made for a brighter day.

We need to carry the momentum forward into the realm of real change:

When extremist religious discourse at Mosques (and in Coptic circles) is regularly and unequivocally condemned and countered with a proactive and effective discourse of respectful coexistence, it will be a brighter day.

When Egyptians no longer have to list their faith affiliation on their official government ID’s, it will be a brighter day.

When Copts no longer need a special government decree to build churches (or fix bathrooms in their churches), it will be a brighter day.

When I see talented young Coptic men playing on the Egyptian football national team at a rate proportional to the Coptic talent in my 6th grade class in Cairo, it will be a brighter day.

When the glass ceiling barring Copts from reaching the highest levels of government is shattered, it will be a brighter day.

When Egyptian law, prosecutors, officers, and judges treat Muslims and Copts as merely Egyptians – that is as equal citizens – with merit being the only qualifier, it will be a brighter day.

Given the candid conversations happening all over Egypt today, I believe that a brighter day is within reach. It is up to us “to change this tragedy into an opportunity,” to borrow the words of Sheikh Ali Gomaa.

Clearly, the immediate priority is security, but that must be followed – if not paralleled – with addressing Coptic civic grievances. For this to stand a realistic chance of success, the Coptic cause must become a national cause led and fought for by Muslims under a program of comprehensive civil rights reform.

Ahmed Rehab is a board member of the Egyptian American Society and a co-author and signatory of the Chicago Declaration, a practical document calling for equal treatment of Copts under the law, submitted to the Egyptian government in 2005.

Two missing Coptic women Abused by Priest Husbands, What if they were Muslim?

Robert Spencer was all on this issue before, painting it in a simplified form directly taking the side of ultra right-wing Coptic apologists who hate Islam with a passion. Don’t expect any retractions from Spencer on this one.

Two missing Coptic women had been abused by priest husbands

(StlToday)

CAIRO, Egypt • The wives of two Egyptian Coptic priests, forbidden by the church from divorcing their abusive husbands, desperately sought another way out by converting to Islam. When their intentions were discovered, police handed them over to the church, and their whereabouts since have been unknown.

The cases caused a furor at home that spilled over the borders and turned deadly when al-Qaida in Iraq cited the women as the reason behind the worst attack ever on Christians in Iraq — a siege of a church in October that left 68 people dead.

It was a stark example of the schism between Christians and Muslims that runs through the Middle East and periodically erupts into violence.

“Amid the current sectarian discord, the timing is perfect for al-Qaida to show it is defending Islam and to exploit the situation to rally extremists against the churches,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, an expert in Islamic movements.

Both Wafaa Constantine, 53, and Camilla Shehata, 25, lived in remote rural towns and enjoyed prestige as devoted and pious wives of conservative Coptic priests. But behind that veneer, a lawyer and a church official said, the women were trapped in abusive relationships.

Both tried to seek a divorce through church channels but hit a dead end because the Coptic Orthodox Church forbids divorce — a rule enforced even more strictly against the wives of priests. And they decided to rebel, not only against their husbands but against the whole religion.

They sought to convert to Islam, something viewed as a disgrace in their community. The Coptic Church considers those who convert to other religions dead, making the marriage contract invalid.

Though Egyptian religious authorities say the women never succeeded in converting, the controversy in both cases escalated with protests by Egyptian Christians, who accused Muslims of abducting the women and forcing them to convert.

That riled Muslim extremists in Egypt who protested and accused the church of holding them against their will and forcing them to convert back to Christianity.

Al-Qaida in Iraq turned it into a cause celebre when it cited the women as the reason behind the Baghdad church siege. The group followed with more threats against Iraq’s Christian minority, generating such fear that most Christmas celebrations in the country were canceled.