Who Will Defend the Copts?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Let us stipulate that the film that allegedly ignited the violence against our embassies abroad was irresponsible. We don’t doubt that it was. Let’s lay aside the fact that the First Amendment was put in our Constitution precisely to protect the irresponsible press (the responsible press didn’t need protection), a point that a former chairman of the Wall Street Journal, Warren Phillips, always stressed.* Let us stipulate that whoever made and circulated the film — who did it remains unclear — was animated by base motives. If one stipulates all that, who is going to take up the cause of the Coptic Christians whose oppression is a topic of the film?
It won’t be the American State Department, that’s for sure. Not under Secretary Clinton. She is being quoted by the Washington Post as saying that not only is the film “disgusting and reprehensible” but also that “[w]e absolutely reject its content and messages.” It’s true that the State Department from time to time has put out reports tut-tutting over the treatment of the Coptic Christians, who make up 10% or more of Egypt’s population but whose churches are routinely burned and whose religious practitioners are attacked and sometimes killed. Never, though, has the State Department recommended making an issue of it by, say, cutting off aid or merely conditioning aid to a halt to the persecution.
Nor has the press been out front on this issue. It’s not that there haven’t been some fine dispatches, and in many of the major papers. We’ve savored them in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Denver Post, and in the Wall Street Journal, among others. But we’re not aware of any major paper that has made the cause of persecuted Christians, whether in Egypt or elsewhere in the Islamic world, its cause the way, say, the New York Tribune made a cause of the anti-slavery settlers in Bleeding Kansas, or the old New York Sun free Cuba, or the New York Times the admitting of women to the Augusta National Golf Club, Newsweek racial discrimination in the South, or the Washington Post Watergate.
Yet what a story is the marauding, burnings, and killings that have been unleashed against the Christians at Egypt. Our own contributing editor, Youssef Ibrahim, has been writing about the catastrophe. Just before Easter this year, CNN.com’s religion blog issued an item quoting the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom as reporting that on the escalation of violence against Christians in Egypt that has followed the Arab Spring. “Nearly 100 Coptic Christians were killed in 2011 because of more than 40 sectarian incidents,” it reported. “This number surpassed the death toll of the previous 10 years combined.”
Just in January of this year, 21 Copts were killed in a church bombing at Alexandria. CNN quoted the report as saying that “[v]iolence targeting Coptic Orthodox Christians increased significantly during the reporting period” and charging that the “transitional government has failed to protect religious minorities from violent attacks at a time when minority communities have been increasingly vulnerable.” This was one of the points of the film that is being cited as enflaming the latest riots. One part of it that was circulating on the Web crudely depicts actors as a mob attacking a woman, who is beaten to the ground and shown with blood running over the silver cross she was wearing.
Google, according to several reports now up on the World Wide Web, is now blocking access to the trailer of the film. So much for Madisonian principles.** If inept, tasteless, and inciteful movies about the persecution of the Copts are to be denounced and even blocked, we return to our question. Who is going to take up the cause of the Coptic Christians? Which candidate for president or vice president is going to step before the American voters and address this question? If no one speaks up when the mob comes for the Christians, who is going to speak up when the mob comes for the rest of us, as the events this week — make no mistake about it — portend they will?
* Mr. Phillips makes this point again in his new book, “Newspaperman,” in which he says: “When the Founding Fathers provided for a free press, when Jefferson and before him, John Milton, and later, John Stuart Mill argued for press freedom, they certainly never assumed the press would always perform well and act responsibly, would always know the truth and tell the truth. In light of the low-quality sheets of their day, they assumed we would have to suffer a goodly share of fools and rogues in the press.”
** “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press. It has accordingly been decided … that it is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigor of those yielding the proper fruits,” Mr. Phillips quotes Madison as writing.