Earlier this year on February 15, ISIS terrorists brutally beheaded Egyptians in Libya “because of their testimony for Jesus” (Rev. 20:4). With the name of Christ on their lips, they slipped into eternity as martyrs. Christians everywhere were horrified and struck with grief. How should Christians in the West empathize with our hurting Christian friends, our brothers and sisters in the faith?

In response to this barbarism, a female colleague at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School contacted a local Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox priest and organized a prayer meeting. Three priests and members of their congregations joined several dozen Trinity students and faculty (myself included) for prayer. There were tears, prayers, and hugs.

Later in 2015, a Wheaton College professor responded to terrorism against Christians in a much different manner.  

Perplexing Response 

In the aftermath of the November mass murder of 130 Parisians by Muslim terrorists and the recent slaying of 14 in San Bernardino by an ISIS-inspired Muslim couple, Wheaton political science professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins wanted to show solidarity with her Muslim “brothers and sisters” (her words) whom she feared were facing discrimination and hateful rhetoric in the United States. To do so she donned a hijab (a veil worn by Muslim women) for Advent after consulting with the controversial Council on American Islamic Relations to ensure she wouldn’t offend Muslims. Some Wheaton students followed her lead.

Hawkins’s aim may have been noble, but did she and her supporters consider how Middle Eastern Christians might feel about this particular gesture of solidarity with Muslims? Might it be offensive?

In recent years Christian minorities in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan have been driven from their homes and seen their businesses burned, young persons raped, and girls turned into sex slaves. Many have been shot and beheaded; some have even been crucified. In Nigeria the Christian majority is under attack from Boko Haram terrorists who recently swore allegiance to ISIS. These jihadists are responsible for the death of more than 15,000 Christians; often their murders occur in churches and schools. With such blatant persecution of Christians in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa by various Islamic jihadists, it’s perplexing that Hawkins would seek to draw attention to and identify with Muslims instead of the Christians whose suffering far surpasses any alienation Muslims might feel in America.

Middle Eastern Christians Speak Out

But how do Middle Eastern Christians feel about an American Christian publicly supporting Muslims by wearing a hijab? To understand their perspective, I contacted a number of Egyptian friends, both those in Egypt and others in the United States. Having lived and worked in Egypt for more than 20 years, I have many friends and colleagues to draw on. I was surprised that some in Egypt already knew about the Wheaton controversy. Below are some of their thoughts.

A female professor at a private Egyptian university explained that many of her Muslim friends feel pressured to wear the hijab to look like good Muslims, adding that hijab-wearing is a “sign of societal and cultural oppression” dating back to the Ottoman empire. Saudi Arabia and Iran are now pressuring the Muslim world to normalize the practice everywhere. It’s a type of religio-culture imperialism. My friend continued: “Nearly all, including the veiled women I know, acknowledge that hijab isn’t mandated in the Qur’an.” Regarding Hawkins’s hijab-wearing, the professor concluded, “I think her effort is misguided since in this particular case she’s siding with the oppressor, not the oppressed.”

Another professional woman in Egypt and her teenage daughter explained:

The hijab in the eyes of Christians, and even some moderate Muslims, is a symbol of the imprisonment of women behind the distorted image of women in Islam. . . . Wearing a hijab to show support to Muslims in the Wheaton community is not a proper way of showing social support, but rather an indication that Christians don’t have issues with Islamic faith in general and to the hijab issue in particular—something we’d have a real problem accepting.

A Coptic priest who ministers in the United States similarly opined, “Hijab is a purely Islamic practice, [one] that is even debated by Muslims themselves—whether it’s mandatory or not. So I don’t think this is a good way to show support.” His wife joined him in “total disagreement” with Hawkins.

Further, an Egyptian anthropologist who’s a professor in America said:

If [Hawkins] is concerned about the cause of the oppressed, there are many Christian and non-Christian organizations she can join that are really bringing change to people’s lives. Many such organizations are working with Middle Eastern refugees at different campsites. Our focus should be on such groups—Yazidis, Christians, Alawites, and moderate Muslims—who are experiencing genocide. My wife went to a refugee camp in Jordan this past summer to serve these groups who are literally stripped of their dignity. . . . Egyptian and Middle Eastern Christians have their own concerns and hardships. This type of gesture [wearing a hijab] is viewed as a form of empty propaganda; we call it shi‘arat in Egypt.

Middle Eastern Christians Need Encouragement 

While Hawkins’s campaign contains many complicated facets, my concern is for Middle Eastern Christians. All the Egyptians I heard from about her hijab-wearing agree they don’t want to see anyone—Muslims included—face marginalization and discrimination. And yet Christians in the Middle East have experienced far worse than that for more than 1,800 years. It began with a pogrom to eliminate Christianity in AD 202, when the Roman emperor Septimus Severas outlawed conversions. Egypt and North Africa experienced the greatest suffering.

My goal is to make sure the voices of Christians in the Middle East are heard, to draw attention to their plight, and urge Christians everywhere to help them in both symbolic and tangible ways. We must avoid naïve actions that hurt and discourage them. They often feel forgotten by Christians in the West, and American Christians donning hijabs only reinforces that belief. Those interested in helping suffering Christians in practical ways could work with organizations like Voice of the Martyrs and Open Doors.