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Tip of the iceberg
Tip of the icebergJailan Halawi seeks clues amongst political analysts about why last week’s incidents occurred, and what they might foretell  A play performed two years ago at a church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria has somehow sparked a riot that ended with three dead, scores injured, and -- most ominously -- a tangible rise in the tension between Muslims and Ch
Friday, October 28,2005 00:00
by Ikhwan web

Tip of the iceberg
Jailan Halawi seeks clues amongst political analysts about why last week’s incidents occurred, and what they might foretell

 
A play performed two years ago at a church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria has somehow sparked a riot that ended with three dead, scores injured, and -- most ominously -- a tangible rise in the tension between Muslims and Christians throughout the country. Political experts and observers interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly agreed that the tension, which has been building up over the years, is the result of an array of factors, the most prominent of which is the politicising of religion. Analysts warned that unless the root causes of such a recurring phenomenon are "wisely and thoroughly" dealt with, the repercussions would be "disastrous".

This particular incident began when CDs featuring a performance of the play -- which allegedly included offensive material about Islam and the Prophet Mohamed -- ended up being leaked to the press. According to Nahdet Masr, an independent daily newspaper, sources close to the Saint George Church in Alexandria’s Muharrem Bek neighbourhood indicated that the church was carrying out a ’secret investigation’ in an attempt to find out why a CD of a play that was performed so long ago suddenly found its way to the press.

Other press reports quote church officials and local residents speculating about the CDs being distributed in the lead-up to the upcoming parliamentary elections, where "aggravated sectarian tension could help certain candidates." Security officials are suggesting that Islamist fundamentalists distributed the CDs to stoke up sectarian tension as a way of tipping the balance in the upcoming electoral contest between Coptic nominee Maher Khellah and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed El-Badrashini, both of whom are running for a seat in the same Ghorbal district in Alexandria where the tension erupted.

The Brotherhood’s intention was to sully Khellah’s reputation, they said. Immediately following the ruckus, Khellah announced his intention to withdraw from the race, in order, he said, to avoid "more bloodshed". On Tuesday, the National Democratic Party said it had refused Khellah’s offer to withdraw.

El-Badrashini, meanwhile, denied the accusations against him, pointing instead to "a foreign conspiracy" as the catalyst behind the tragic events. He further urged the Coptic Orthodox Church to clarify its position on the play, and blamed the security apparatus for mishandling the situation, thus leading to increased damage rather than the necessary containment.

Mohamed Habib, the deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Al-Ahram Weekly that blaming the Brotherhood for the conflict is "baseless, deceptive and abhorrent, a case of people fishing in murky waters. Tampering with national unity has never been one of our strategies. When these kinds of conflicts erupt, everyone is doomed, and no one is safe. Instigating such events is like playing with fire. "

Since the play was only shown in the church to a Copts- only audience, Habib said, "it is only normal that they are the ones who have access and control over the CDs". Nearly certain that Copts sparked the incident, Habib remained unsure about whether the Coptic community at home, or abroad, had orchestrated the crisis. "Or was it a joint effort?" he asked.

In any case, Habib blamed the escalation of the crisis on expatriate Copts, "who strive to incite sectarian conflicts" so they can use them as a manipulative tool to pressure the Egyptian government and obtain political gains."

A similar view is voiced by chief editor of Al-Fajr newspaper Adel Hammouda, who also holds the church responsible for the incident, accusing it of sparking the conflict’s first flare by "failing to issue an explanation or an apology for what happened, as a token of respect for Muslims’ feelings." Hammouda said the Muslim community had demanded an apology and explanation upon first hearing of the play, but that "the Church not only abstained [from apologising], it turned the tables and played the victim."

Hammouda recalled a previous incident involving an opposition newspaper -- Al-Nabaa -- publishing an article that was seen as offensive to Copts; its chief editor was tried and sentenced, and later died in jail; the incident was also marked by numerous official apologies. "Why couldn’t they reciprocate?" Hammouda asks.

In fact, on Sunday, Youssef Sidhom -- the editor-in-chief of the weekly Coptic newspaper Watani -- penned an article entitled "An apology for every Muslim." "Even with the investigations still ongoing," he wrote, "and even if the church did not make a mistake, I still apologise to every Muslim in respect for their feelings."

Hammouda also blames the Muslim Brotherhood, along with other clandestine organisations and political groups seeking to make gains as the elections near. These groups, he said, "fanned the flames of the strife sparked by the Copts, turning it into a blaze by manipulating Muslims into believing they should rise up in defense of their faith against the Coptic enemy seeking to defame it."

This tragedy, in Hammouda’s view, reflects "a political crisis", and not "a criminal act", with everyone to blame: those who instigated the incident; took part in it; and those who remained silent. "In the wake of sectarian strife, all segments of society are victims burnt by the blaze that does not differentiate between Muslims and Copts, religious or non-religious," Hammouda said.

Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies Deputy Director Nabil Abdel-Fattah -- the managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt report -- believes that the timing of the incident coincides with an increasing tendency for Egyptians to integrate religion into politics. All political parties include religion on their agenda, he said, "be it the NDP, opposition, and surely the Brotherhood as well -- all to serve their own interests and achieve certain gains."

Some say the Alexandria crisis was an attempt to steer Copts away from political participation; others called it an oppositional reaction to the Coptic Pope’s clear support for President Mubarak during the just-completed presidential elections. "It could be both," noted Abdel Fattah, "but my own take on it is that all the parties are attempting to make maximum gains at any cost, and the victims are the public and the nation alike. We need to be aware of this, and exert all efforts to handle an already grave situation."

Abdel-Fattah was critical of the way some opposition party candidates use mosques to seek mass grassroots support. "Whether Copt or Muslim, religion should remain far removed from politics, and should not be politicised."

Coptic writer and publisher Nazih Gergis, speaking to the Weekly, also blames the conflict on what he describes "the hysteria over religion in Egypt on both sides, Muslims and Copts". Gergis -- a Copt -- directed his criticism at the church for failing to contain the situation; he also holds Pope Shenouda responsible for his continuing tendency to involve himself in politics, and thus become party to its conflicts. "Who is Pope Shenouda on the political scene to tell me whom to elect?" he asked, referring to the Pope’s declaring his support for President Mubarak in last month’s presidential elections and urging the Coptic community to follow suit. "It remains inexplicable why a religious man would claim a political role unless he was seeking certain [political] gains."

At this point in time, he noted, "we don’t need more mosques or churches, but rather schools to teach our children how to accept the other and develop our country -- since this kind of strife was only stirred by the lack of culture and proper education." Raising culturally oriented children and teaching them to appreciate art and beauty, Gergis suggested, would surely prevent them from extremism. "Have you ever seen a terrorist artist or musician?" he asked.

Gergis also urged the expatriate Coptic community to stop crying "persecution, a term that was used at the time of Hitler and the Jews -- but do we see Copts burnt in infernos or hung on trees in the streets?" Gergis said "expatriate Copts should let Egyptians solve their problems on their own. They talk too much about this issue, and the more they talk, the more fuel is added to the fire. We should just let people be themselves." As a three-time winner of the Suzanne Mubarak award for children’s literature -- for which all the members of the selection committee were Muslims -- Gergis refuted "allegations" of any discrimination against Copts.

Others would tend to disagree. In a statement posted on the Internet, lawyer Mamdouh Nakhla -- the head of the Word Centre for Human Rights -- backed an expatriate Coptic proposal that more US intervention was needed to push Egypt into resolving some of its Coptic issues. This stance was strongly condemned by Coptic intellectual and writer Gamal Assad, who described the proposal as "politically motivated", rather than centred on Coptic interests. Assad suggested that the expatriate Coptic community had an anti-Arab, anti-nationalism and anti-Islam oriented political agenda, for the sake of which they "are willing to be the US’s tool in stirring conflicts in the region to provide a pretext for [US] intervention".

While political experts and activists of different affiliations might differ on who to blame for last week’s tension, nearly all agreed on the necessity of forming a committee to study the root causes of the phenomenon, and come up with drastic solutions based on a wise and thorough understanding of the nation’s needs. "The state needs to get out of the classic frame of holding reconciliation meetings between Copts and Muslims -- for that is just the tip of the iceberg," Habib said.


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