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.
While this fatwa did little to assuage concerns regarding the Brotherhood's view of minorities, the Easter ruling's specificity strikes a sharp contrast with the Brotherhood's otherwise vacuous approach towards interpreting the sharia for crafting policy. While the Brotherhood technically embraces the jurisprudential doctrine known as istislah, in which Islamic legal principles are interpreted to achieve "societal benefits," the vagueness of this outlook has long enabled Brotherhood leaders to avoid explaining how they would "implement the sharia" once empowered. This obfuscation has persisted even since Morsi's June 2012 electoral victory.
Indeed, compare the specificity of Barr's fatwa on greeting Christians on Easter with the list of bromides that Brotherhood leader Farid Ismail threw at me during a July 2012 interview, when I asked him what policies would change once Morsi implemented sharia. "It means peace, security, equality, citizenship, freedom, and giving rights for people despite their religion or ethics or color or sex," said Ismail, declining to identify a single specific policy that would change when I pressed further. It is the type of answer that even Muslim Brothers in positions of executive authority continue to give nearly a year later. "Everything I'm doing is sharia!" Kafr el-Sheikh Governor Saad al-Husseini, a top Brotherhood figure, proclaimed to me this past February. "Justice is sharia. War against corruption is sharia. Security is sharia. ... Improving the economy is the sharia. This is the sharia. To preserve the dignity of Egyptians is the sharia. ... Day and night we are with poor before rich. This is sharia!"