Publication Date

July 1, 2015


Current Events in Historical Context

Last February, ISIS released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya. Wide international condemnation of the murderers overshadowed a sectarian crisis that unfolded in the victims’ hometown shortly afterward. Al-‘Ur, a small village in the south of Egypt where most of the victims hailed from, was grieving. As a symbolic gesture of solidarity, the Egyptian president ordered the construction of a church in the village to commemorate its Christian “martyrs.” Over the next few weeks, a group of Muslim residents attacked the site to protest the building of the church. To contain this local sectarian crisis, the governor of the province where the village is located held an informal reconciliation session to which he invited Christian and Muslim families. Read with an eye to history, this relatively minor conflict over a future church in a small village can teach us a lot about the history of religious freedom and the legacy of empire in the contemporary Middle East.

The seeming ubiquity of sectarianism in the Middle East today has led some commentators to call for a new supranational order in the region. Most recently, Robert D. Kaplan published a much-debated article initially entitled “It's Time to Bring Imperialism Back to the Middle East,” in which he located the roots of “Middle Eastern chaos” in the region’s failure to find “a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.” Kaplan singled out Egypt as one of very few countries in the region that “have evolved sturdy forms of secular identity that have risen above ethnicity and religious sect.” This sweeping statement conceals (and misunderstands) the state of sectarianism in Egypt as well as its Ottoman lineage.

The Ottoman reforms of the mid-19th century known as the Tanzimat are often considered a rupture in the history of the region, especially in relation to religious freedom. If the pre-Tanzimat Ottoman world is remembered for being tolerant toward non-Muslims, the Tanzimat, it would seem, took that tolerance up a level. They formalized the Ottoman state's commitment to religious equality for the first time in its long history. However, the Ottomans continued to emphasize their Islamic credentials. After all, the Ottoman Empire was also the Islamic Caliphate. This balance between a state's affirmation of its religious identity and its commitment to religious freedom seems extremely appealing to some today, not least among them Islamist politicians.

Shown on this stamp is Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the current seat of the Coptic Pope, in Cairo, Egypt. It was built in 1968.The political commitment to this precarious balance is misplaced. The legal politics of church building may serve as a good example of why this is the case. The difficulty of building a church is an underreported but persistent problem in Egypt, a country that appears very often in international news media, especially since the onset of the revolutionary wave of 2011. As far as religious freedom is concerned, the news coverage is more likely to focus on shocking but usually short-lived crises relating to Egypt’s Christian population, like the aforementioned ISIS beheadings in February. Such spectacles of violence eclipse the more mundane question of the legality of building churches in the first place. In practice, the building of a non-Muslim house of worship requires a presidential decree. In other words, building a church is not simply a matter of owning land or acquiring bureaucratic approval but a political decision to be made at the level of the head of state.

In Egyptian political parlance, this complicated question is usually reduced to two words: al-Khatt al-Humayuni. For most Egyptians today, the literal meaning of these words is unknown, but they sound archaic. Their inaccessible meaning and perceived outdatedness seem consistent with their reactionary purpose—that is, to hinder the religious freedom of non-Muslims. Indeed, al-Khatt al-Humayuni is a trace of a bygone era. It is the Arabized and shortened title of the second major Ottoman imperial edict of the Tanzimat era, issued in 1856. However, a cursory reading of the actual edict would immediately contradict the negative contemporary impression of it. In the edict, the Ottoman sultan (who was also the Muslim caliph) emphasized his commitment to the freedom of all Ottoman subjects to profess and practice “all forms of religion” in the Ottoman dominions. How do we explain this apparent contradiction?

The key to understanding the implications of the Ottoman edict of 1856 is to grasp the historical contexts in which it was first issued and in which it continues to persist more than one and a half centuries later. By the first half of the 19th century, the Ottoman rulers' primary concern was preserving the integrity of the empire. To do so, they adopted a strategy to stave off European interference and ensure the loyalty of the empire's subjects, especially non-Muslims. The first visible manifestation of this strategy was articulated in the first Tanzimat edict, in 1839, which promised security of life and property to all Ottoman subjects regardless of their religious affiliation. This first edict generated much confusion. Whereas many Muslims feared losing their social prestige, non-Muslims resented the fact that their elevated legal status came at the expense of their communal autonomy. Meanwhile, the Ottomans entered the Crimean War (1853–56) partly as a result of a larger continental competition over which European power would extend its sovereignty over large Christian communities within the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman sultan, pressured by Britain and France, his allies in the Crimean War, issued a second edict in the immediate aftermath of the war, in February 1856, to qualify and augment the first Tanzimat edict of 1839. The new edict would unequivocally institute an official commitment to protecting religious freedom. Sensitive to the atmosphere of confusion that was created after the first Tanzimat edict, the second edict contained a number of measures that would allow the Ottoman government to preempt the potential eruption of sectarian tensions. Among these measures, the establishment of houses of worship in neighborhoods populated by members of different religions would require the approval of the sultan himself.

Egypt was legally an Ottoman province until World War I. Although Egypt was not always fully within the Ottoman fold politically (it was largely autonomous for most of the 19th century, and occupied by Britain from 1882 until the mid-20th century), its governors continued to uphold many Ottoman laws throughout this period. As Egypt gained independence, first as a monarchy in 1922 and then as a republic in 1953, the conscious memory of Egypt’s Ottoman heritage faded. Several constitutions were written following independence affirming the equality of Egyptian citizens before the law. However, they continued to be characterized by a tension underlying the Ottoman Tanzimat—namely, an irreconcilable commitment to both the state’s religious credentials and its commitment to equality among all citizens. Article 64 of the current Egyptian constitution addresses religious freedom in the following way: “Freedom of belief is absolute. The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places … is a right regulated by Law.”

The legal language implies universality, but the aforementioned “Law” itself is anything but universal—it is a reiteration of the Ottoman edict of 1856. Accordingly, the consecutive governing regimes of post-Ottoman Egypt have continued to recognize the head of state’s approval as a condition for the building of houses of worship. In practice, however, this condition is observed only in the case of establishing a non-Muslim house of worship. Given that Egypt’s Jewish population currently consists of a few individuals, only Christians are expected to cope with this rule.

This historical knowledge enables us to see beyond the vicious murders of last February and into their unintended repercussions. The political significance of the decision of the head of the Egyptian state to build a church in a remote village cannot be separated from the fact that, by law, he is the only person who has the right to do so. Similarly, that the local governor decided to address the ensuing sectarian tensions informally cannot be understood in isolation from the government’s ultimate political objective—namely, preempting sectarian violence rather than protecting religious freedom. The Ottoman Empire managed, for some time at any rate, to contain modern sectarian tensions through regulating the building of houses of worship. The post-Ottoman Egyptian state has been following the same script since independence. But if the Ottoman Empire ultimately collapsed without managing to resolve these tensions, nostalgia for imperial tolerance should not color contemporary policy toward the same set of issues.

Omar Y. Cheta is assistant professor of Middle Eastern and historical studies at Bard College. He tweets @omarcheta.


1517: Egypt becomes an Ottoman province.

1839: The Ottoman sultan issues the first major Tanzimat edict, extending certain rights to all Ottoman subjects regardless of their religious affiliation.

1856: The Ottoman sultan issues the second major Tanzimat edict (known in Arabic as al-Khatt al-Humayuni), granting Ottoman subjects the right to profess and practice “all forms of religion” and regulating the building of houses of worship.

1882: Britain occupies Egypt but continues to recognize it as an Ottoman province.

1914: The Ottoman Empire enters World War I on the side of the Central Powers; Britain declares Egypt a British protectorate, thus ending its four-century-long status as an Ottoman province.

1922: Britain grants Egypt independence; the Grand National Assembly of Turkey abolishes the Ottoman Sultanate.

1953: Egypt becomes a republic.

2011: A popular uprising topples long-standing president Hosni Mubarak (in office 1981–2011), brings the military to power.

2012: Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, narrowly wins the presidential elections, promises Egypt’s Christians equal rights.

2013: Following massive protests, the military launches a coup d’état that removes Morsi.

2014: A new Egyptian constitution, approved in a national referendum by 98%, reaffirms that “establishing worship places … is a right regulated by Law.”

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