A Conversation with The OIC Secretary General About Egypt and Islam

Editor’s Note: Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu of Turkey is the first by-vote-elected secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the second largest international body after the United Nations. Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, recently caught up with him in Cairo to discuss Egypt and religion.

H.A. Hellyer: On the religious minorities of Egypt, they live now in the midst of a region where religious identity politics is on the rise, and the uprisings have delivered movements like the Muslim Brotherhood to a political status they did not have before. Particularly the Copts of Egypt, who are the largest Christian community of the Arab world. What is your perspective on this?

Secretary General Ihsanoglu: Since the very advent of Islam into this country, all through Egypt’s history in that period until recently, there were not huge issues between Muslim Egyptians and Coptic Egyptians. One could speak of a working modus vivendi between Muslims and Copts. Unfortunately, when people are subjected to unjust decisions overseen by a non-democratic regime, they often tend to take such decisions as a direct attack against their identity, if they are from a minority group in society. In the last days of the former regime, significant problems took place for the Copts of Egypt, and we still do not quite know how. There remains a veil over this, and we need to fully uncover that veil and see what is responsible, comprehensively.

I should say though, in the midst of this last period of Coptic history, the former pope, Pope Shenouda III, showed great leadership. I met him on a number of occasions, and I considered it a pleasure and an honor to talk with him. He was a man of wisdom, of learning, and an Egyptian patriot. With regards to many of the regional issues of the Arab world, he was on the same wavelength as popular Muslim opinion. It is my hope that the new pope will carry on the former pope’s legacy of wisdom and patriotism.

Hellyer: We’ve seen in the last couple of years a trend in different countries like Libya and Mali, where radical Salafis have engaged in destroying Sufi mausoleums and other Islamic monuments in different countries. What is your perspective on this?

Ihsanoglu: We are all disturbed by this phenomenon of the destruction of the ancient monuments of our Muslim past. It is particularly bizarre in a place like Egypt – a country that had the companions of the Prophet himself walk upon its land. From their time until now, the non-Muslim, non-Islamic monuments were kept and valued, serving as a reminder to Muslims. What can we say, then, of the Muslim ones, in Egypt and the rest of the Muslim world? These have always been appreciated and valued. These monuments have existed, and remained, without objections, in the great cities of the Muslim world: In Cairo, in Istanbul, in Jerusalem, in Sarajevo – and they have always been valued and preserved. Now, suddenly, after 14 centuries, it is all forbidden and against the sharia? So we have been wrong all this time, and now suddenly, we’ve just woken up? No – this is against the tenets of Islam, and no-one can accept this.