Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s decision not to attend this coming Sunday’s Coptic Easter mass was entirely predictable. Morsi, after all, declined to attend Pope Tawadros II’s November investiture and, during his previous stint as chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, Morsi visited a church on Christmas but made a point of emphasizing that he exited before services started. Yet because Morsi’s decision comes on the heels of a Brotherhood fatwa prohibiting Muslims from wishing Christians a “Happy Easter,” Morsi’s coldness towards Christians reflects a central paradox of the Brotherhood’s Islamism: despite its longtime promise to “implement the sharia” upon achieving power, the Brotherhood only offers specific interpretations of Islamic legal principles when it needs to justify its most intolerant impulses.
The fatwa, authored by Brotherhood leader Abdel Rahman al-Barr, is noteworthy for its degree of analytical detail. In it, Barr quotes extensively from the Qur’an to argue that Muslims should only greet Christians on their holidays “so long as this greeting does not come at the expense of our [Islamic] religion.” In other words, Barr writes, Muslims cannot wish Christians a “Happy Easter,” because “our belief as Muslims, which makes ambiguity impossible, is that [Jesus] wasn’t killed or crucified,” though Muslims can greet Christians on Easter with the non-sectarian Arabic salutation “ kulu sana wa-entum tayyibun,” which roughly means “hope you are well this year” and is used for all sorts of occasions, including birthdays. By contrast, he adds, wishing Christians a “Merry Christmas” is permissible, because Muslims view Jesus as a human prophet and thus acknowledge his birth.