• Copts
  • January 13, 2010
  • 11 minutes read

Op-ed: Egypt’s ugly sectarianism face

Op-ed: Egypt’s ugly sectarianism face

 Sectarianism has struck again in Egypt; in the most gruesome attack in a long time, when six Copts and a Muslim policeman were killed outside a church in the southern town of Nag Hammadi on Coptic Christmas eve, following Christmas Mass. Such an attack has not only wounded the Coptic community, but all of Egypt. More than any other incident, this heinous crime once again raises the thorny issue of sectarianism in Egypt.

Copts were quick to label the attack as a “sectarian” one, while many Muslims were quick to dismiss it as just another personal revenge attack, which are quite common among the Saidis (southerners) of Egypt. Many explained it (without justifying) as a revenge attack for the rape of a Muslim girl by a Copt last November in nearby Farshout.

It is important to analyze the circumstances of such attacks, especially for those not familiar with the revenge culture of Upper Egypt. If a rape takes place and both perpetrator and victim are Muslim, the victim’s family will just as eagerly kill the perpetrator and attack his home. When such crimes take place and one participant happens to be a Christian, the media is quick to label the incident as “sectarian.” Last year, a Christian boy allegedly distributed a CD containing images damaging a Muslim girl’s reputation. His father was killed in retaliation. Once again, this is an honor crime, and not a sectarian one.

The events of Nag Hammadi appear to be different. Firstly, the perpetrators were not the family of the raped girl. They have denied receiving any money from her family in exchange for carrying out the attack. When Saidis exact their revenge, they do not hire someone to do the killing for them. They do it with their own hands, and this revenge culture creates family feuds that can last for generations.

Second, the victims of this crime did not just happen to be Christians. They were attacked while leaving church and killed along with the policeman on duty. Obviously, Christians were a target.

Strange enough, one of the suspects, Mohamed al Kamuni, is an ex-convict who has been previously arrested five times for attacks on both Muslims and Christians. He also killed two people two years ago and was subsequently released. Doesn’t exactly fit the picture of an “Islamist” terrorist. Either he didn’t really do it or was paid to. Who stands to benefit from this attack? Muslims certainly don’t, and neither does the Egyptian government. Nor do the peace loving Copts of Egypt who want to coexist peacefully have anything to gain.

Regardless of the motives, Egyptians have to admit that there is a sectarian problem in Egypt, because while many personal revenge attacks are wrongly labeled “sectarian”, this one is clearly not a revenge attack. Inevitable accusations of “blowing into the sectarian horn” and “pouring fuel to the sectarian fire” will follow, but when a problem is ignored, it grows. What are Christian parents in Qena telling their children this very moment? What are young Coptic school pupils being taught in their religious studies sessions about their fellow Muslims? If we don’t nip this in the bud, it’ll only get worse. Diagnosis is half the cure, so let’s stop ignoring the illness afflicting our society before it disseminates into a full blown disease.

Ignoring this problem, coupled with a media that thrives on controversy and division will lead to two unfavorable conclusions. The Muslims will accuse the Copts of exaggerating and the Copts will be encouraged to think of themselves as a separate, distinct entity from the rest of Egyptians. Neither is beneficial, for this country belongs to all Egyptians, whether Muslims or Christians.

The international media has not done Egypt any favors by magnifying this tragic incident into a genocide of Copts. Regrettable and heinous as the attack was, it in no way reflects the sentiments of almost 70 million Muslims towards their Coptic brothers. Demonstrations have followed in a number of major cities. The Los Angeles Times reported a demonstration in West LA, where protesters claimed that “there is no protection for Christians in Egypt” and that “The Egyptian government isn’t doing anything for them.”

Similar protests took place in Rome, against what the protesters called the “persecution of Copts”, even going so far as to accuse the Egyptian government of “terrorism”. Even the Vatican has called on all Christians to “unite to oppose oppression.”

Such claims are unfair to Egypt and its people. Yes, there is a problem that must be confronted. But to go so far as to accuse the millions of Egyptian Muslims and the government of “oppression” and “terrorism” is unfair and betrays a terrible ignorance of Egypt and its circumstances. It is not like the millions of Muslims are not “oppressed”, if we must use that word. Muslim Brotherhood members are routinely harassed and imprisoned, and the perpetrators of crimes against Muslims can just as well go unpunished if the police cannot find them. It is preposterous to claim that the Egyptian government deliberately ignores Christians.

Calls for intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs are not helping either. Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini practically called for foreign intervention when he said “The international community cannot merely stand by in the presence of such events, nor can it ever lower its guard against religious intolerance, which is a serious violation of the fundamental human rights.”

Religious intolerance does not exist to the extent portrayed by such statements, as millions of Christians and Muslims who coexist peacefully will testify. Just like the call to prayer is heard, so are the church bells. The actions of three barbarians do not speak for millions of tolerant, peaceful Egyptians.

Prominent Coptic lawyer Morris Sadek, known for his hate inciting statements, took it even further when he called on the US to “intervene to save the Copts of Egypt”. He has previously accused the Muslims of committing a “Holocaust” against the Copts. The Coptic Canadian Association did not hesitate to accuse the government and security forces of “participating in the events, as they leave the Christians being killed and burned without any intervention to protect them”.

These foreign voices are not helping Egypt. They give Egypt and Muslims a bad name and encourage the Copts to think of themselves in separate terms.

All Egyptians, Muslims and Copts, should admit there is a problem, and sit down and solve it, instead of waiting for foreign voices to offer their “solutions.” Consider the simple analogy of two school pupils quarreling. If they don’t solve their problems alone, the tattletale who loves to cause trouble will take it to the principal and both will end up being suspended.

Let’s ban sheikhs and priests who continue to incite hatred and division among Egyptians; whether they are in churches, mosques or on satellite TV. Let’s stop focusing on religious studies in schools and instead, incorporate ethics into the curricula. Let’s encourage Egypt’s children to love, respect and accept one another. Egypt belongs to all Egyptians, who are all Egyptians first and foremost. This is the kind of sentiment that must be instilled in the nation’s children. The unity of Egyptians after Egypt’s football team beat Algeria on November 14th is how it should always be.