This post will be offensive. I am not sure how else to announce that more clearly than to have this as the title. If you are easily offended, then please read no further. This is the truth of my opinion at the moment, no holds barred. Deal with it.
Like many of you, I have been greatly disturbed by the Church Attacks in Imbaba, so much so that I found myself in the middle of Imbaba, at midnight, in front of the 3adrah church , as it stood there burning with people still locked inside. I wanted to see for myself who was behind this, scared shitless of course, envisioning myself arriving there to find myself attacked and surrounded by fundamentalist Islamists who will be less than friendly towards someone like me. What aided that paranoid perception was my Phone call to the Daily News Ian Lee, who-in abated breath-informed me that he was attacked by a mob when he arrived to Imbaba with a number of fellow foreign journalists, and had to escape it with his life. So, here I was, going there, with-mind you- a female activist friend, heading to what I was expecting to be a completely violent situation, in order to get the truth of what’s going on and confronting those nice violent people who did this. Total Insanity on our part, but completely necessary none-the-less.
When we arrived there, there was a huge crowd (maybe 7000 men, not a single female in sight, even though I knew Sarah Carr was there) gathered in front of the burning church, and they were visibly upset and angry. Their anger wasn’t directed towards the Christians in the area or the church, but rather at those who did this. More than one eye-witness told me the same story: That the people who attacked the church were: 1) not from that Area, 2) Not Salafists, but rather clean-shaven thugs, one even identified one of them as a paid thug that he has seen before, who threatened everybody with knives and blades, set the church on fire and escaped the moment they heard the Police were coming. The locals were busy trying to put out the fire, getting people out of the church and the adjacent building, cheering on and helping the Fire Fighters as they were putting out the fire and getting victims out. For about two hours I watched the population as they expressed their anger and frustration at those who burned the church, many of them expressing the phrase over and over “We don’t know who did this, but it can’t be from us. Egyptians were never like this!”
Those words kept circulating in my head all of the following day and yesterday. “Egyptians were never like this! Egyptians were never like this!” And the more I hear it the angrier I get, and the more I read of people’s responses on Twitter I get even angrier. It’s easy for us to be Egyptians and Proud when we don’t engage in sectarianism (or in the case of that church, have someone paid to fuel its fire), but we cannot fool ourselves or others. This is not new. Egyptians were like this for a long long time, and this is not likely to stop anytime soon either, if we are completely honest.
Actually, if we are to be brutally honest and realistic, we would have to admit that sectarianism has its roots deep in the foundation of our society, and that, in reality, as horrible as this situation is, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in the 80’s for example, when all of Imbaba was declared an Islamic state, or when churches and movie theaters used to be bombed (Now they just burn them…Progress). And if this is planned by a country that doesn’t wish to see us democratic and Independent (Saudi) and with the objective of burning the country to the ground and make Egyptians fight each other over religion, then in all reality we need to expect this not to be the last attack, but rather the harbinger of things to come in the following few months. That we should expect about another 20 church attacks and about 9000 more dead, Muslims and Christians, until every single Egyptian in this country, with unbending conviction, decides that this cannot be allowed to go on anymore. Sure, we could take steps to mitigate the damage from now, but that would require us to face a number of issues we don’t want to face, and actually do something about it instead of demanding that others do. Luckily, there is enough blame to go around for us all, so no one is walking away clean from this one: Muslims, Christians both share the blame. Let’s explain how in precisely that order, shall we?
How the Muslims are responsible for this:
It’s unfair to say that a group of fundamentalist extremists or a group of paid thugs- and thus a minority- should by their actions define the behavior of an entire population of people. True, but that doesn’t mean that the Muslim population can walk away smelling like roses from this one. Far from it. If anything, the Muslims of Egypt have created the chasm that exists today between Egyptians of different faiths through 1) Ignorance of the “Other”, 2) complete lack of interest in learning from the past and its mistakes and 3) total deficiency in self-awareness as to how they are representing themselves and their religion. If we ignore the sectarian nature of some of them, and everything else is being equal, those 3 reasons are responsible for all of the sectarian problems that remain pervasive in Egyptian society today.
Ignorance of the “Other” is where it all starts. Let’s start with a simple test: What do you know about Egypt’s Christians and the Coptic Church? How many of you know anything of the Church’s history, and the history of Muslim/Christian co-existence in Egypt, besides what government issues history books tell us, which is absolutely nothing? Are you aware that historically it is the only church in the world that can go head to head with the Catholic Church in terms of history, importance and influence on Christianity as a whole? That it has reach all the way to Ethiopia, and has directly influenced Rastafarianism at its inception? Or let’s take it on a more basic level: Are you aware that not all Christians in Egypt are orthodox Copts? Or that the Bible was not written by Jesus? I know that putting those last two questions here is offensive, if not downright condescending, to many of you, but please go and ask your friends and family members. Their answers will be incredibly amusing to say the least.
The Muslim population doesn’t seem aware that saying that Jesus was never crucified or that the Bible has been altered is offensive to Christians as a whole. They don’t seem to have a problem with a government educational system that forces Christians to read Koranic verses as part of their Arabic language education. They don’t seem to mind when on Islamic holidays, the nice lady on TV congratulates the entire country, and on their singular holiday that we recognize, the same lady wishes “our Coptic brothers & sisters” all the best on their holiday. In reality, the Christians in Egypt know more about Islam and Muslims than they ever wanted to, and the Muslim population, well, they don’t know much and almost never ask. But don’t you dare call us sectarian, because we all have a Christian friend that we have known since forever & always been “cool” with his religious orientation, despite the fact that we don’t know anything about his/her culture, except that they have weird vegetarian dietary habits most of the year, which never stops us from eating meats in front of them, regardless of how offended we get if they dare to drink water in front of us during Ramadan.
And if we can’t learn from those amongst us in the present, we definitely won’t learn about the history of Christian-Muslim relations in this country. No one wants to learn about the atrocities committed by Amr Ibn ElAss, when the Muslim army “opened” Egypt, which lead through a series of unfortunate events to the eventual assassination of Osman Ibn Affan on the hands of Abdullah ibn Abu Bakr, which in turn lead to the “War of the Camel”, the first true Islamic civil war, which also lead to Sunni-Shia divide. No one wants to know when we actually stopped making Egyptian Christians paying the “Jizzyah”, which they had to pay till the mid 19th century (only 150 years ago, which means they had to be second class citizen- by virtue of their faith- in their own country for a good 12 centuries). But, then again, no one wants to remember the 90’s or the 80’s, where Christians were attacked and killed in droves by fundamentalist Islamists , and definitely no one has learned the lesson of the new Year’s eve bombing of the Alexandria Church, which later on was proven to have been planned by the Mubarak State Security apparatus. You want to hear a funny story? When they asked Camilia Shehata on TV, if she never converted, then how did the Salafi Sheikh have her ID and marriage certificate, she said that she doesn’t know how that happened, because the people who took her papers from her were State Security. You would’ve been able to see it, but it was broadcasted on an Egyptian Christian TV channel. Oh yeah, those exist. I wonder how many Egyptian Muslims watch them, even for educational purposes.
Which brings us to the final point: How Muslims present themselves to those around them. Let’s just focus on two examples for the sake of not making this article 17 pages long: Religious sermons in Mosques, and general population behavior. Now, we all have heard Friday sermons where the Imam does nothing to talk about the evil Jews and Christians all the time, and how we have to be vigilant and other such beautiful example of hate speech that we just shrug off as normal (It’s not like we ever listen to what the Friday sermon says anyway; The guy could be reading from a phonebook for all we care!). Now, I often wondered what the reasons behind such sermons were, because they don’t reflect current reality. We live in a country where the supreme majority is Muslims, and there are maybe 100 Jews left in the entire country, and Islam is the world second major religion, & gaining more ground rapidly. Why the defensiveness and paranoia? And then I realized that the problem is very simple: the religious discourse of the Friday sermons has apparently not evolved since the days of Islam’s inception, when Muslims were a small but scrappy bunch and the entire world was against them. But now? Now Muslims are over one billion people, and their countries are rich and influential, i.e. Big Time Players in the world’s stage now. They are no longer a persecuted scrappy minority, but they still act like and see themselves as one, instead of acting with the Grace required of people in their position. Over one billion people and they are still paranoid about & scared of maybe 20 million Jews worldwide and 10 million Christians here. Imagine!
Which brings is to the general population behavior, which is a paradox of its own: the complete disconnect between piety and morality. I left the country in 1999 for college and returned in 2004 for good, but I visited the country every few months, and noticed a very peculiar thing: The Muslims were getting more and more religious, yet they are not becoming better people. They pray 5 times a day, most of the girls got veiled, almost everybody had Amr Khaled fever, and yet, they had no problems with lying , or cheating, or trying to rob you, or treating you rudely. For example: The Taxi driver would be blasting a religious sermon and then try to rob you blind on the fare, and sees no contradiction in his actions. The guys who would be late for class because they had to pray gamaa for every prayer were also the same guys that cheated off of each-other at tests. And let’s not even mention the amount of lying I’ve seen veiled girls engage in. All of that schizophrenia, dirt off their shoulders. Also dirt off their shoulders: attacks on Christians every time they wanted to build a church. Hell, some of them justified and defended such attacks by stating that the Christians were trying to provoke Muslims by building a church, & that those Muslims were simply- and I quote- “jealous for their religion”, like that’s supposed to be justification or an excuse. Never mind that it is the right of Christians and Jews to build places of worship on land that they own as they damn well please. Never mind that this behavior signifies a serious insecurity in those Muslims belief system, where they seem to believe that their religion can’t handle local competition (and its hilarious byproducts- like the unannounced but totally noticeable competition of making sure that the Minerate of any Mosque built next to a church is always taller than the church’s Tower). Never mind that Jealousy- in general- is an inferior negative emotion practiced by the immature and the senseless. But then again, Salafists Fundamentalists always claim that their actions are out of “jealousy for their religion”, so I guess the shoe fits in this specific case.
Now, for anyone paying attention, none of this is news or in any way informative, but unfortunately very few do, and even fewer attempt to address those issues. Our country has sectarian undertones, and many of which come from the Muslim Population (I will address the Christian ones in the Christian section) and its daily social practices, and therefore can be exploited. Please note that I never even touched on how Muslims find it acceptable that many companies will simply never hire Christians, or that they will never reach certain positions- no matter how good they are- because of their religion, and other such embarrassing topics, because they are not reflective or pervasive in society as a whole. But everything else, well, Muslim readers, you tell me! How comfortable was reading those last few paragraphs for you?
What they need to do now:
Well, needless to say that all three issues presented above need to be addressed by Egypt’s general Muslim Population if we are ever to be a country not divided by sectarian lines. However, since we are facing a crisis, let’s just focus on damage control for now. And here is all I will ask of you dear Muslim reader who is concerned about the unity and well-being of his country: Talk to people. Seriously.
Talk to your life-long Christian friend and ask him or her about their culture, their family, what they go through and what they don’t say in front of you. Tell them that you won’t be offended. Try to understand where they are coming from.
Talk to your family members and friends who have repeatedly said hateful or ignorant stuff in front of you and explain to them what they are doing. That they are fermenting the ground for future sectarian attacks by their rhetoric and behavior.
And finally, you know that Imam in that mosque near you that week in and week out does nothing but insult Christians and Jews in his Friday sermon? Well, bring a bunch of like-minded people from the neighborhood and talk to him. Explain to him that he embarrasses Islam & Muslims by his narrative, that because of such sermons that some people find it justifiable or acceptable that churches or Christians get attacked and that given that this is your mosque you will not allow it to be a center for spreading hatred and division amongst people from the same country. Do you realize that religious stances, radical or conservative ideas are influenced by the congregation and not by the religious leader? Well, you, by being part of the congregation, have the power to change the stance of your leader. Same goes to all the Islamic Tele-evangelists. Inform them that you won’t allow them to define you or your religion by the other religions anymore. That they should focus instead on how to bring us together by advocating the principles of tolerance that Islam preaches. Do that, and we won half of the battle right there, at least where you live. Now imagine if this spreads to the entire country.
Also, when such attacks like the Imbaba attacks happen again, please be the first one to call for a show for national Unity, and make sure that all of your Muslim friends show up. If we hope to beat this, we have to show Unity like never before, because the enemy this time doesn’t just want to scare the Christians into voting one way. The Enemy hopes to destroy any hope for us for a post-sectarian future. And we can’t allow this to happen, now more than ever.
How the Christians are responsible for this:
Now, I am not in the habit of blaming the victim for being attacked, so nothing here will be related to this attack directly. However, there are a number of things that the Egyptian Christians need to face, and there is no better time than the present. The first part is the harsh truth: Many of them are equally as sectarian as their Muslim counterparts. Sure, a lot of it is a reaction to the actions taken by the Muslim population, and yes they are not a quarter as vocal, and not even a tenth as violent, but what’s good for the goose is good for the Gander, so we will deal with their sectarianism here as well once and for all. Please note that the Christians I will discuss here are mainly the Coptic Christians, even though the other denominations share similar symptoms to various degrees.
If there are roots to The Christian sectarianism in Egypt, they come down to two main reasons: 1) victimized minority/Ghetto mentality amongst the poorest Christian social classes and 2) the role the Orthodox Coptic Church, and its leadership, plays in their lives. Let’s talk about them in that order.
The first problem is the easier to identify and explain: due to what they perceive to be a hostile antagonistic environment against them in every facet of society (in terms of rights, work opportunities, career advancement, not to mention education & entertainment), the Christian community, with notable exceptions due to intellectual or social status (i.e. this doesn’t hold true to the rich Christians), has closed its self off on the outside world and started functioning in their own little hidden ghetto society that exists all around us all over Egypt. Churches become more than simply places for worship and fellowship: they become the focal point, if not the universe, of those who attend it. Christian Boys and Girls go there and only hang out with Christian boys and girls, and then go to camps together to make them even closer, and thus ensuring that the supreme majority of the friends of those Boys and Girls are also Christians, with, as always, the random Muslim friend or two that they acquire. And even the relationship with that Muslim friend can never truly be honest, because Christians are taught not to engage their Muslim counterparts in direct discussion or express their grievances from them to them directly, because, well, how “sensitive” Muslims get and how “extremely” they will react to such a discussion. So instead they deal with the problem internally, by praying away their grievances or injustices that they face daily, by never vocalizing them out to the world if a Muslim is around, and by being internally resentful of the fact that this is the life they have to lead.
To most, it never passes the point of silent internal resentment and feeling victimized in their own country, and thus start feeling that this country, despite how much they love it, is not their country anymore. How could it be when they are afraid of, well, everything, and not without reason? So many seek to just leave the country, while others stay and accept this as their reality and try to be part of the society as much as they can, within the small parameters they allow themselves to function in. As for the rest, well, they go full-on sectarian, and start mimicking their Muslim counterparts. They engage in equal insulting of the Islamic religion on every platform they could find, and many amongst them start advocating adopting the “islamist” idea of not dealing with those “heathen Muslims” all together, because “they are filled with deceit and hatred towards us”, which is exactly what the “heathen Muslim” counterpart say about them, verbatim. But all in all, all of the groups above suffer from the same ailment: as much as they love this country and are attached to it, they don’t feel welcome here at all. Only inside their social ghetto they get to feel as if they belong to something, that they are accepted for who they are, and thus become totally invested in protecting it above all else, and anything else is irrelevant. And nowhere is that more apparent than in their demands. If you looked closely at their demands, you would notice that they are all sectarian in nature: a number of rights for Copts; not equal rights for all. And while you understand that they naturally want to address the issues that affect their livelihood as a minority, those in the end are religious sectarian demands. Fine. Noted. But besides that, if you ask what their demands as Egyptian citizens for Egypt are, they will tell you that they only have those demands, and if they get them, they are fine with whatever else happens. I was once having a conversation with a Coptic rights activist, where I was discussing how the secularists and the Christians should align themselves together against the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections, and he basically told me that if the Muslim Brotherhood give the Christian community those demands, they won’t mind them being in power, as long as they leave them alone and in peace, while “the Muslims can burn fighting with each other over this country”. I wanted to explain to him that, actually, no, because at the end of the day secular Muslims and religious Muslims are both Muslims, so they can always work something out, just like what’s happening now, which leaves the only people burning being the Christians, literally.
But this is the crux of the problem: Coptic Christians don’t exactly want a secular state, they just want a state that lets them live their lives by their own rules and that’s it. How is that different than a secular state you ask? Well, because the country has more than just Muslims and Christians: It has Shia, Baha’ais, some Jews and a whole bunch of atheists and agnostics. A secular state would give rights to all of those groups, and make everyone equal. The Christians have another thing in mind, which is nowhere more apparent than their proposed position on the infamous Article # 2 of the constitution : They don’t want it removed, they just wanted to add a sentence that basically states that Christians get to follow the laws set by the church, because it says that other religious minorities based on their religious institutions, and Egypt only recognizes Islam, Christianity and Judaism as religions, and since there are practically no Jews, this will only provide preferential treatment to the Christians and the Christians alone. I have to say that their suggestion an amendment is brilliant though, and we should all follow it: The 100 Jews should ask that they follow Jewish laws, the Baha’is can follow Baha’i laws, the secularists can demand their own laws, and I will demand that they also add my name to the article, and create laws specifically tailored for Mahmoud Salem and Mahmoud Salem alone. Let’s all just follow our own laws, like we are separate countries, despite the fact that we share the same space. Brilliant.
The thing is though, we joke about how the Coptic Christians act as if they are part of a separate parallel country that occupies the same borders as Egypt, but at this point, they are not just acting like it: they are flat-out demanding it. And why wouldn’t they opt for a secular country, where civil law would rule supreme and make everyone equal? Well, mainly because the Coptic Orthodox Church doesn’t want that. Why not? Well, because a secular state where civil law exists means that alongside religious marriage, there will be civil marriage, and thus civil divorce. And we can’t have that for Coptic Christians, cause, how else would we control them? No, it’s better to keep it this way, making the only way for orthodox Christians to get a quick and immediate divorce is through conversion to Islam, which was Camilia Shehata’s motive, in case you didn’t know. She wanted to leave her husband, couldn’t, escaped, some Muslims took her in, presented her with the idea that since we are in an Islamic country, no Christian man can marry a Muslim woman, so if she converts to Islam, she will be automatically divorced. All of those who died in the name of Camilia, they wouldn’t had there been civil divorce, but since the Coptic Church doesn’t allow divorce and would probably fight a civil marriage law as much as the Muslim Brotherhood would, we will probably be in a similar situation like Camilla’s sooner than we would ever want to be in. (And while we are on the subject of the church and Camilia, what does it mean when I read in the newspaper that the Prosecutor General Office formally called for Camilia to come in for questioning, and the Church refused? How could the Church refuse the formal request for investigation by the government for an Egyptian citizen? How? Not only did they simply deny Camilia her agency rights, they are also getting her to break the law, because if you get called in for questioning and you don’t go, well, that’s a crime right there, and one that she could end up going to Jail for. Can someone explain this to me please? I am all ears!)
And this brings us to the Coptic Orthodox church, and the role it plays in aiding this sectarianism as well, because, well, it’s good for them in terms of Power, and by them I mean Pope Shinouda and his crew. Who could deny that during his reign, which now outlasts Mubarak’s, he has managed to turn the Church into more than just the spiritual representative of Coptic Christians in Egypt, but the political representative as well? Or how he managed to turn the church almost into a parallel government, and one that negotiates with the Egyptian government on all the concerns of its subjects, usually for a Price that is usually too low? I recall during the 2005 elections reading a scan of a Coptic church newsletter that got sent to me by a Coptic friend, and its two top news bits were “Pope Shinouda declares in the name of of all Copts in Egypt support for Mubarak for President” and right next to it “President Mubarak agrees on giving permits to building 2 new churches in Egypt”. At the time there was serious uproar amongst the Coptic Christians in Egypt, who openly wondered 1) how dare he speak politically in the name of all Coptic Christians and 2) If this means they are bad Copts if they vote for someone else and 3) if their voices worth is so low that it only equals two new churches. But this Power-sharing agreement between Shinouda and Mubarak continued all the way through the Revolution, where –in case you forgot- The Pope, in the name of the church, announced his support for Mubarak throughout it, and many Christians violated his orders and went anyway. Now while it would be disrespectful to ask the Coptic Christians to hold this position against him religiously, one has to wonder why he is still their leader politically, especially after 30 year of continued political marginalization under his political leadership. One also has to wonder where the Christian politicians are. How insane is it that for 10 million Christians, I can only name Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, Naguib Sawiris, Mona Makram Ebeid and Ramy Lakah as actual politicians? Oh yeah, I forgot Nabil Louqa Babawy. My bad. But on a serious note, can someone explain to me, in the absence of independent Christian politicians, how exactly different is the Coptic Church under Shinouda from the Muslim Brotherhood? Both are religious organizations with political agendas that only aims to consolidate their powers over their respective religious sects, both provide a parallel society to its members and their children since they are very young, both employ similar social models of dealing with the outside world, and both don’t want civil law or a secular country. For all intents and purposes, both are almost identical, to the point that I sometimes wonder why they don’t just join forces.
The Point is this: the moment the only political representation you have is the religious representation you have, and all of your demands are religious and sectarian in nature, is also the moment you lose the right to complain if the other religions did that and you become equally as sectarian as you accuse them to be. Think about that!
What they need to do now:
Well, there are two concerns right now: one is immediate, which is to try to prevent more church attacks now. The other is to prevent this insane situation to continue to influence our lives.
The solution for the first concern isn’t having more security or army personnel protecting the churches, because that never really did much in the past, and especially not now, given the state of anarchy we live in. The reality of it all is, if those churches are to be protected, they have to be protected by the people in the neighborhoods that they are in. That means, the Muslims have to help protect them, and many of them are sectarian as I previously mentioned. How do we manage to swing that?
Simple really, ask them to. For real. I am not kidding. If you are a Coptic Christian and you live in a neighborhood that houses your church and you are concerned about it getting attacked, gather all the Christians in the area, divide the streets of the area between them and have them go to all the Muslims in their respective locations and tell them the following: “We are worried about the safety of our church. Not from the people of this neighborhood, but from the outsiders who are trying to destroy Egypt by engaging in such attacks, thus make us all fight and hate each other. If we ever hope to defeat those dark and evil forces, as our Lord-of-the-rings-reading-SCAF likes to call them, we have to band together, and protect the church”. I guarantee to you it will work, because even the most sectarian Egyptian will not be able to stop his nature of trying to protect his neighbors and friends, especially if they are asked to. Hell, go to the Imam of your local mosque after your conversations with the rest of the neighborhood people and take a bunch of Muslims with you, and have him call for the protection of the church during Friday Prayers. The people will form groups, be vigilant, and from that moment on it will engraved in their psyche that no one should attack that church. It’s their area’s church now, and under their protection first and foremost. Social engagement. Creating a sense of communal responsibility. This stuff works.
Now, on to the second concern: how Coptic Christians make sure that those insane situations stop. Well, the first thing they need to do is decide if they are all for inclusion in post-revolution Egypt or not. If they are not, and would rather live in this parallel universe that occupies the same space like the rest of us but not with us, that’s their right, but they have to be honest about it. And they have to let all of us know. Because the revolutionaries all want them to participate: we all want them to be part of the Egyptian society again. Not because we need their votes, because if the referendum is any indication, Coptic Christians are as voting averse as ever, but because we could use their input. Because a country divided alongside sectarian lines is not a country, and it’s definitely not what I signed up for in this revolution.
Secondly, they need to decide what they want in this country as Egyptian citizens. What is their position on the social issues? What is their position on economic policy? What is their position on freedom of speech and artistic expression? What each one of them envisions this country to be and for them to act on that vision. And then thirdly, they have to either join a party or form a new one, and partake in the process of building a new Egypt. To say that it is imperative that every single one of you that is interested joins a party or a movement is an understatement. Some of you will join the liberal parties; others will join leftist parties, while 3 will probably join the Muslim Brotherhood party. It doesn’t matter. What matters is this: have an actual and real political representation in all parties. Run for office even if you believe you will lose. Be part of this and help rebuild this society, because otherwise this rift will continue to exist and it really shouldn’t any longer. And finally: talk to your Muslim friends. Explain to them everything from your side. Trust me when I tell you that they don’t know. A lot of us got to know each other in Tahrir and in our neighborhoods people’s committees; it would be a shame if we stopped now.