On January 6, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi became the first Egyptian president ever to visit the St. Mark Cathedral during Coptic Christmas Eve Mass and offer his good wishes to the nation's Christian minority.
Because Islamic law bans wishing non-Muslims well on their religious celebrations, all previous presidents -- Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and of course Morsi -- had never attended Coptic Christmas mass.
As expected, the greetings el-Sisi received from the hundreds of Christians present were jubilant. His address was often interrupted by applause, clapping, and cheers of "We love you!" and "Hand in hand" -- phrases he reciprocated. He said, among other things:
Egypt has brought a humanistic and civilizing message to the world for millennia and we are here today to confirm that we are capable of doing so again. Yes, a humanistic and civilizing message should once more emanate from Egypt. This is why we must not call ourselves anything other than "Egyptians." This is what we must be -- Egyptians, just Egyptians, Egyptians indeed! I just want to tell you that -- Allah willing, Allah willing -- we shall build our nation together, accommodate each other, make room for each other, and we shall like each other—love each other, love each other in earnest, so that people may see... So let me tell you once again, Happy New Year, Happy New Year to you all, Happy New Year to all Egyptians!
Egypt's President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi became the first Egyptian president ever to visit the St. Mark Cathedral during Coptic Christmas Eve Mass. (Image source: YouTube video screenshot)
While this speech may seem commonplace to the average Western observer, in the context of Egypt, it is very controversial. Consider what other Muslim Egyptians said in the days before Coptic Christmas.
On loudspeakers, an imam at the Abu Hamda mosque in Kafr al-Dawwar near Alexandria condemned the very notion of congratulating Christians, not just on their own holidays, but even general holidays. He said Christians are "miscreants" and "polytheists," that they are "unclean," and that, accordingly, they should never be wished a Happy New Year, or a good year ahead, because "goodness" can only exist in a monotheistic perspective, whereas Christians hold that God had a son, making them infidels and polytheists.
He further quoted Koran 9:28, which says "O you who have believed, indeed the polytheists are unclean." Most Muslims listening to him were likely familiar with the follow up verse, 9:29, which calls on believers to war against the People of the Book—Christians and Jews—until they are utterly subjugated.
Being disgusted by "unclean" Christians is not an uncommon theme among Egyptian Islamists. In this video, for example, of Dr. Abdullah Badr -- an Egyptian Muslim scholar, graduate of Al Azhar and professor of Islamic exegesis, who spent ten years in prison under Mubarak and was released under Morsi -- explains how "disgusted" he is by Christians, to the point that, if a Copt were to touch his cup, he would not drink from it:
I get grossed out. Get that? Disgust, I get grossed out man, I cannot stand their smell or ... I don't like them, it's my choice. And they gross me out; their smell, their look, everything. I feel disgusted, disgusted.
Of course, many will dismiss these imams and clerics as on the "fringe extremist" movement. What, then, of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi -- one of the most influential Islamic clerics in the world, author of over 100 books on Muslim doctrine, and head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, members of which have had meetings in the White House? This man also condemns the act of congratulating Christians during Christmas (but supports the death penalty for apostasy and maintains that the prophet's injunctions must be obeyed at all times -- even if they require one to murder).
Days before Christmas, the elderly Qaradawi appeared in a video condemning any Muslim who somehow participates in Christmas, which he called a "sin, shameful, and indecent," as well as a product of "stupidity" and "ignorance of Islam's commandments":
Did you see all the celebrations that are taking place in Doha's streets [Qatar] and commercial centers for the birth of Christ, or "Christmas," as they call it?... How can we celebrate Christmas when we don't even celebrate our Prophet's birthday? It is a sin, shameful and indecent. It also shows stupidity in the way we deal with others, and ignorance of Islam's commandments."
Meanwhile, Georgetown University professor John Esposito has hailed Qaradawi for engaging in a "reformist interpretation of Islam and its relationship to democracy, pluralism, and human rights."
If condemning Muslim participation in Christmas festivities is not limited to extremists and Islamists, it is also not limited to Egypt. It appears every year throughout the entire Islamic world, including in non-Arab nations.
Thus, in Turkey, as Burak Bekdil reports, "The final week of the year featured the usual scenes in Turkey: A man dressed as a janissary [Ottoman warrior] chasing another dressed as Santa Claus in order to give him a good beating... Provincial education directors warning pupils against "Christmas and New Year celebrations..."
In Indonesia, the Islamic Defenders Front, according to Temo, "asked President Joko Widodo not to wish the country's Christians a merry Christmas," as "the president would be deemed an apostate should he opt to do so," meaning he would deserve the death penalty.
The reason for all this resistance to greetings "infidels" is clear: Based on Koranic verses and hadiths [the sayings and acts of Muhammad), there is consensus among Islam's ulema [religious scholars] that Muslims are not to greet or congratulate non-Muslims on their holy days and celebrations, as doing so implies non-Muslim beliefs -- which contradict Islam's -- are valid (see The Al Qaeda Reader, pgs. 89-91, for textual citations).
However the Indonesian president may have responded to Islamist threats, we know Egyptian President el-Sisi did the unprecedented on Coptic Christmas Eve and congratulated Egypt's Christian minority in their cathedral -- a small but courageous step on the long road of what el-Sisi calls Egypt's "religious revolution."