The sickening violence inflicted on Coptic Christian demonstrators in Cairo on Oct. 9 shocked Egyptians, and may have ended for good whatever remaining faith democracy activists had in the country's interim military government, which appears to have orchestrated the violence. But Copts have been suffering attacks with growing regularity over the last several years, and this latest outburst only increased the fears among them that their status in Egypt, and possibly even their survival as a community, is now in jeopardy.
This is not only an Egyptian story. Just as rising intolerance drove vast numbers of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East in the 1950s and '60s, so Christians, the one large remaining minority in the region, are now feeling the heat. In the wake of a campaign of murder and forced displacement, at least 400,000 Christians have fled Iraq since the fall of Saddam. Christians in neighboring Syria have clung to the increasingly precarious regime of Bashar al-Assad out of fear that the same fate could befall them should Syria's Sunni majority take control. (Druze, Kurds, and other minorities seem to be making the same calculation.)
We tend to forget that it was the Middle East that taught the world how the three Abrahamic faiths could get along with one another. In his masterful new book, The Great Sea, historian David Abulafia recounts how a polyglot Mediterranean culture of Jews, Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Catholics arose in the coastal cities of Constantinople, Salonika, Tunis, Jaffa, and Alexandria. This last, in the 1920s, had 25,000 Jews in a population of about 500,000, as well as Greeks, Italians, Maltese, and others. Abulafia writes that Omar Toussoon, a leading member of the Egyptian royal family, patronized all these groups equally while working hard to improve the economic fortunes of the city's Muslim masses.
Virtually the entire region now experiencing the convulsion of the Arab Spring lived inside the very large tent of the Ottoman Empire until World War I. Ottoman rulers welcomed the Jews who fled the Inquisition. In great Ottoman capitals like Aleppo, in modern Syria, Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Sunni Muslims lived in the same neighborhoods. "Inter-communal residential mixing" was the norm across the Ottoman empire, according to Donald Quataert, a scholar of the Ottoman period. If it all unraveled in the 20th century, Quataert writes, it is not because of "inherent animosities of an alleged racial or ethnic nature."
Quataert argues that the collapse of pluralism was not an inevitable consequence of seething inter-group resentment, but rather the work of nationalists who agitated for the creation of states, whether in Turkey, Bulgaria, or the Maghreb, and who then exploited and encouraged nationalist sentiment in order to consolidate power. Political choices, in other words, poisoned the atmosphere of pluralism -- as they later would in the Balkans, the Ottoman heartland, as well. Populist rulers can accommodate diversity, as they have largely done in today's Turkey, or they can unleash the forces of sectarianism, as they have in Iraq, where Shiites and Sunnis kill one another and both kill Christians. Older Iraqis will tell you that no one ever spoke of "Sunni" and "Shiite" when they were young; but whether in Bosnia or Iraq, sectarianism, once provoked, has a very long half life. There is no more volatile substance in the modern nation-state.