LIBERAL EGYPTIANS OUGHT TO STOP TALKING ABOUT “SECTARIAN CONFLICT BETWEEN MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS” IN EGYPT, AND START TALKING ABOUT “SECTARIAN VIOLENCE ON COPTS BY MUSLIMS”
Egyptian Christians touch a blood-splattered mural at the Coptic church in Alexandria, where at least 21 people were killed in the 2011 new year terrorist bombing (Photograph: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
Right now, the Copts of Alexandria are being under attack from Muslims. This is of course not news – Copts in Alexandria as in all other places in Egypt, whether town or village, have been under attack by Muslims on a fairly regular pattern since the Arab Conquest in 640 AD.[i] This is a fact that history bears witness to, even though many Muslim Egyptians, careful to protect the reputation of Islam, are still in denial about. Those in Egypt who would say with Aristotle, “Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth,” are rare.
Denial of attacks on the Copts represents the extreme reaction. It also represents the extreme insult to the victims. If you think the denial is only about past incidents, which are long hidden in history books, you will be mistaken – the Egyptian government, and its propaganda machine, has often denied attacks on the Copts in our modern day. The reports of human rights organisations speak of such repeated behaviour: the Maspero Massacre of the 9th October 2011 when Egyptian army personnel murdered 27 Copts is a recent example in demonstration.[ii] We are accustomed to these denials, and we are aware that the drive behind them is a trial to cover up crimes or a defence of one’s personal, regime’s or religion’s reputation.
There is, however, another reaction by the Muslims of Egypt, and it is widespread. Even some liberal Muslims fall victims to it. Attacks on Copts are often reported as “sectarian strife فتنة طائفية/fitna ta’ifiyya”. al–fitna is an Arabic word which means “the differing in opinion between people and what occurs between them in way of fighting”.[iii] In historical context, it is often used for the First Civil War in Islam (656 – 661 AD) after the assassination of Caliph Uthman, which is often referred to as the “Great Fitna”. Those involved in that fitna are widely condemned and seen as faulty in whatever camp they stood.[iv] When applied to the Coptic situation, it is used to both misinform and mislead – Copts who are being attacked by Muslims are apportioned equal blame, and the violent attacks are represented as clashes between Copts and Muslims where both use violence against the other. In this way, it portrays the victim Copts as culprits and condemns them as sectarian offenders on equal basis to their attackers. Egyptian media have often used this characterisation. The latest attack on the Copts of al-A’amiriyya district in Alexandria, which are still on going, and in which Coptic houses, businesses and properties have been set on fire by Muslims, has been, for instance, described by Al-masry Al-youm newspaper as “sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians”.[v]
The victim Copts are not only represented as partners in the “troubles”, but an excuse is always put in the media to justify the attacks by the Muslims. Common pathetic pretexts are such as a Copt “making” a relationship with a Muslim girl (as in this case and other cases),[vi] the Copts converting an unlicensed property to a church to pray in, a Copt making religious cartoons on Muhammad, a Copt wearing a crucifix in class, Copts playing a drama that is “insulting to Islam”, etc.
As long as Egypt continues its denials of Coptic cases of persecution and oppression, or try to represent them as bilateral clashes between Christians and Muslims, or attempts to justify them, these religionist attacks on the Copts will continue. Egypt’s liberals, in the least, ought to stop talking about “sectarian conflict between Muslims and Christians” in Egypt, and start talking about “sectarian attacks on Copts by Muslims”. It has always been the case. Liberal Muslims must say it as it is – that is of course if they really want to stop the persecution and oppression, and win us over.
[i] The author does not suppose that all Muslims attacked or attack Copts. There has always been good Muslims. This the author has repeated several times in various places.
[ii] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, Egypt: Don’t Cover Up Military Killing of Copt Protesters Official Denials Suggest Investigation Will be Flawed (October 24, 2011).
[iii] almonjid fil lu’gha wal a’alam (Beirut; Dar el-Maschreq Sarl Publishers; 1998).
[iv] For the First Civil War in Islam, read Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History (Oxford; Oxford University Press; 2002).