Egypt’s sectarian playing field | by Asef Bayat

by Oct 13, 2011Middle East

Many no doubt wondered what had happened to the celebrated revolution of civility, to the Tahrir of sacrifice and solidarity, as they watched the violent collisions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt over the past few weeks. Disturbing certainly, but they were neither unexpected nor as out-of-control as some may portray them. In the “natural” life of revolutions, moments of exceptional unity and selflessness do not last long. Once the common enemy is gone, unity gives way to the reassertion of differences and sectarian interests; old coalitions collapse, new solidarities emerge, and ideological demarcations sharpen.
At such times, the challenge, of course, is how to handle the old demarcations and emerging differences. In Egypt today, the key responsibility to ensure sectarian peace lies with the country’s elite (politicians, the intelligentsia, Islamists, and Coptic leaders) minimising provocations while addressing genuine grievances. “Ordinary” Muslims and Christians have, by and large, lived their lives in calm and cohabitation – and this has not simply been because of their goodwill; rather it is shaped by unique historical and cultural affinities between these religious communities.

Coptic Christians remain intrinsic elements in Egyptian history and culture, who nonetheless express an increasing disquiet over their “minority” status. Egyptian Christianity, of course, predates Islam – which was brought by the Arab conquest of Egypt in 639 AD, and became the majority religion. Some Egyptians embraced Islam voluntarily for its promise of justice, many did so to avoid karaaj or jizya taxes, while still others to acquire equal social and political status with Muslims.

By the 10th century, Muslims outnumbered the Christian population, and Arabic replaced the Coptic language as the official governmental language. In the 12th century, the church adopted Arabic as the official working language. Under Muslim rule, Copts became a dimmi (non-Muslim) minority – denied the option of serving in the army, or serving in high political positions, and were subject to a special tax, in exchange for their protection. Only in the mid-19th Century did this status change, when Muhammed Ali issued the “Hamayouni Decree” in 1856.

This decree established Coptic personal status laws, allowed them into the military, removed the jizya tax, and promised freedom of religion, equality in employment, and removal of discriminatory terms and symbols -though the construction of churches remains a contested issue to this day.  The “liberal age” (1919-1952), was the hallmark of Coptic public presence and citizenship. Elite Copts and Muslims developed almost identical liberal lifestyles and tastes – set by French Enlightenment and English liberal trends.

Copts occupied high political offices, through the Wafd – the party of independence – but things began to change with the Nasser Revolution of 1952. Being much richer than Muslims, Coptic Christians lost more to Nasser’s nationalisation policies – some 75 per cent of their work and property was nationalised. Following the dissolution of political parties, their presence in politics and parliament drastically declined.

Thus began the first wave of Coptic emigration to Canada, USA, and Australia in the 1960s and 1970s. The continuing outflow of educated Copts, together with the rise of Islamist militancy in Egypt since the 1970s has cemented a strong identity politics among the vocal Coptic community in exile – and to a lesser degree among Copts living in Egypt. Hardline Copts, in exile and at home, consider themselves a distinct ethnicity – with a unique ancestry, religion and way of life – that are now being treated as a second class population. Copts suggest instead that they are in fact the “true, original Egyptians”.

Interestingly, ultra-conservative Muslims in Egypt likewise attributed a distinct ethnic character to Coptic Christians, albeit not as an oppressed minority, but as the stooges of crusaders and western interests who should have no place in Islamic Egypt. In contrast, most Coptic intellectuals and the church leaders, as well as Muslim counterparts inside Egypt, view Muslim-Coptic relations in a unique fashion which does not resemble any other inter-ethnic or inter-religious dynamics.

Such Coptic figures as Samir Mosrcos, Hani Labib, Ghali Shukri, Milad Hanna – together with such Muslim counterparts as Tariq el Bishri, Salim el Awa or Gamal Badawi – view Egyptian Christian Copts not as a sociological minority, but as partners in the unique Egyptian-Arab-Islamic civilisation. The Coptic population is seen as an integral element in the category of the “Egyptian people”, on par with their Muslim counterparts; while Egypt is seen as a unique entity, a land of inherent pluralism and melange – owing to its pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic heritage.

In fact, Egypt is made partly of Muslim Copts and partly of Christian Copts, considering that the word “Copt” actually means “Egyptian”.

Notwithstanding claims about the unique historic affinity between Egypt’s Christians and Muslims, evidence of episodic sectarian conflict and clashes abound. In modern times, three episodes of sectarian clashes stand out: the British colonial period, the presidency of Anwar Sadat, and the Islamist era since the late 1980s. During its colonial rule, Britain deployed the usual divide and conquer strategy to separate Copts from the national movement. Encouraged by British support, groups of Copts, notably from wealthy families, pursed a sectarian line, to the dismay of Muslims.

Yet the majority of Copts seemed to disapprove of the British emphasis on Coptic distinctiveness, desiring for themselves not a minority status, but citizenship. Indeed, the liberal era through the 1960s during Nasser somehow fulfilled that desire as Christians and Muslims exhibited a good measure of national unity and cooperation at societal and governmental levels, up until the 1970s.

The presidency of Anwar Sadat in 1971 marked a turning point in Muslim-Copt relations. Sadat wanted to take Egypt out of the Nasserist system associated with socialism, populism and nationalism; he wished to open up to the west, foreign capital and market forces. To undermine Nasserists and communists, Sadat gave a free hand to the growing Islamist movement. He opted for sharia as the main source of law, and al-Azhar – the foremost centre of Islamic jurisprudence in the country – called for laws that would implement Hodoud (Islamic penal codes) which would have brought Christians under Islamic law.

In 1978, in the upper Egyptian towns of Menya and Assiut, priests were attacked and churches were set on fire, while officials renewed their threat to implement apostasy laws in an attempt to silence the church. With the Coptic Pope retreating to the desert as a gesture of protest, the Coptic church and Sadat’s regime careened into a head-on collision. Concurrent with violent sectarian clashes in June 1981, the regime arrested 22 priests and bishops and deposed Pope Shenouda, as part of a large scale crackdown on the internal dissent that arose following Sadat’s peace deal with Israel and his new Open Door economic policy.

President Sadat was ironically gunned down by an Islamist group to which he had given lip service. His successor, President Mubarak, tried to mend relations with the Christian community and the church, but could not stop sectarian conflict. On the contrary, the 1980s and early 1990s, during the peak of the Islamist movement’s activity in the country, witnessed the most frequent sectarian violence in Egypt’s history.

In 1987, Islamist groups instigated youths to burn down a church in the southern city of Sohag, destroy Coptic shops in Assiut and ruin a Christian party in Menya. In the next two years, churches and shops were assaulted in Cairo’s Rowd al-Farag, a wedding party was attacked in Masara, and more skirmishes ensued in Menya and Assiut. Violence, largely against Coptic Christians, continued into the early 1990s in Bani Sweif, Menya, and in Cairo’s Ain al Shams, Zeitoun and Shubra. In 1992 alone dozens of shops were destroyed, 22 people were killed, and homes and places of worship attacked. For every one Muslim killed, two Copts were murdered.

The most dramatic sectarian violence took place in the southern village of al Kosheh in January 2000, in which at least 16 people died.

The conflicts did not remain isolated acts of sabotage by militants. They left permanent marks on communal sentiment. With the growing Islamic movement, the two groups polarised – Muslims became “more Muslim” and Copts became “more Christian”. Muslims grew beards, put on veils, attended mosques “religiously”, and chose more and more Islamic names for their children. Similarly, Copts showed off their crosses, displayed Christian icons, participated in more church activities, and named their children after Christian saints.

As they felt increasingly threatened, Coptic Christians isolated themselves from the Muslims, proving to themselves they were the oppressed minority. At the same time, an absence of collective actions had earned them the description of a “passive minority”. Thus, when thousands of angry middle-class Christian youths took to the streets of Cairo in June 2001 to express outrage against a slanderous report published in a newspaper against the Coptic church (referring to a defrocked priest allegedly having sex with a woman within the premises a church) – the political elite were shocked at the action.

Similar collective outrage was expressed only a year later after the screening of the film entitled Bahib al Sima [“I Love Movies”], made by a Copt, which had allegedly misrepresented the Christian way of life in Cairo. What do these incidents tell us about the nature of inter-religious relations in Egypt? Violent clashes seem to occur under particular political conditions – such as the reign of President Sadat and the rise of Islamism. They originate less from the community’s lay members than from elites or militants.

Also, most of the incidents took place in rural areas and provincial towns in southern Egypt, rather than in large cities, such as Cairo. More importantly, these stories of violence, similar to those of the last few weeks, which get mass media attention, tell us little about how Copts and Muslims have also managed to share life and live together in peace. These stories obscure how these communities interact peacefully for the majority of the time and how, on a daily basis, their identities merge and diverge.

An extended stay in the Cairo district of Shubra, unique for its cosmopolitan history and high concentration of Coptic Christians (currently over 30 per cent) reveals a different side to Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt. It would show how much these two communities are intertwined and share in their history, everyday life, institutions and attitudes. For Muslim passersby, Shubra’s small churches are not unfamiliar places; they look remarkably like Muslim zawayas – small single-room spaces with simple structures where recitation of the holy book is broadcast on rooftop loudspeakers.

The large churches often act as community centres, places of prayer, recreation, and spaces of communal identity. Both male and female Copts attend large churches but, just as in mosques, they pray or attend religious classes in segregated halls. Similarly, the informality that characterises Coptic churches resembles that of mosques. During Muslim festivals and Ramadan, Shubra churches are illuminated with colorful green lights to express solidarity with mosques.

Coptic and Muslim children attend the same government schools, where they experience almost identical childhoods. There are plenty of stories about Muslims who attended Christian schools, or Copts who joined Islamic owqaf schools. Educated Copts from the older generations took courses at al-Azhar; the poet Wahbi Tadross studied the Quran, and Francis al-Eter attended classes by Muhammed Abdu, who decried sectarian divide and saw nationalism as the cooperation of all citizens – irrespective of religion.

On the local level, Muslims and Christians build non-sectarian organisations such as community groups to improve their neighbourhood. Coptic and Muslim businesses and shops are invariably inserted next to one another, with almost no way for an outsider to know which belongs to whom, except by the religious names of their owners. There is no indication suggesting that Christians frequent only Christian businesses and Muslims only to Muslim businesses.

The structure of residences typically consists of three or four story apartment buildings, where Muslim or Christian families live next door to one another. For residents who share this communal life, apartment doors do not remain closed. Umm Yahya may enter into Abla Mary’s flat just across the hall without knocking her door, and engage in hours-long small talk. Neighbours are likely to assist each other in times of sickness or crisis. In fact, there is little that distinguishes a Christian home, in terms of internal designs and decorations, from a Muslim one. So, a Christian entering a Muslim home would not find it foreign, but familiar.

Neighbourly relations widely involve the customary practice of borrowing things from each other – money, tools or more frequently a cup of oil, sugar, rice or beans. The tradition also means that food culture in both communities is essentially similar. Muslim and Christian male neighbours may get together in the evening to socialise, play tawla, and talk; while the women serve them tea and sweets. This interaction also reflects how gender relations in the two communities are remarkably similar.

The Orthodox church stipulates that it is the man’s duty to house, feed, clothe and shelter his wife who, in return, is obliged to obey husbands and not to leave home without their permission. Women are denied the right to make major decisions in the church, or to become deacons or priests; though they may be involved in charity and service work. Just as in mosques, men and women sit separately in churches during the prayer. Early marriage is condoned and female circumcision is practiced in both communities. Christians share more or less similar piety and moral codes as Muslims in terms of family relations, respect for elders, sexuality and marriage.

“Conservatism is not just a Muslim thing”, a Coptic resident told me. “The church is also saying TV or films are haram.”

What really determines the cultural and behavioural patterns in Egypt is not religion, but class. Muslim and Coptic middle classes share far more than poor and middle class Copts. The growth of veiling among Muslim women is a very recent phenomenon, largely since the 1980s. It is mainly the religious names (such as Mohammed or George) that distinguish between a Christian and a Muslim. Yet with the growing use of neutral names (such as Farid or Mona) this identity marker has drastically diminished.

Followers of both faiths invariably stress deep, inter-faith friendships, in particular among the youths of the same sex. Beyond the schools where peer groups are formed, neighbourhoods and apartment buildings are places where youths establish deep affinities for one another and form friendships out on the street corners or in coffee shops. Young females, both Muslim and Christians, are more likely to meet together in the privacy of homes to build close friendships.

It is true that intermarriage is rare, but cross-religious love is not. Every novel and film in Shubra has stories about love affairs between Christian and Muslim youths – highlighting the secret romances that occur between neighbouring teens. Yet such tales of inter-faith love often have unhappy endings, with the sad realisation that legal union is almost impossible.

Venturing through Shubra neighbourhoods on Friday at midday, one cannot escape the reverberating sound of Quran recitation and adhan [call to prayer] from the bustling mosques. The mosques are soon packed with young and old men, with the worshippers lined up, soon extending into the surrounding alleyways and streets. In western mainstream media, the group of bending, praying men represents the most eye-catching marker of Islam (just note the images in books on Islam or daily papers), representing a clear religious pointer that separates “us” from “them”.

For the Christians of Shubra, however, the scene is neither novel nor an issue, expect perhaps for the traffic congestion they might cause. Otherwise, that’s just how things are in the neighbourhood. People simply do not see them as something “different”. Indeed, the lack of awareness about many identity markers, which readily stand out for an outsider, is remarkable.

For over a month, I lived in a Shubra neighbourhood. I remember being awakened often abruptly by the thundering noise of morning adhans which would blast from the loud speakers hooked on to the front door of neighbourhood mosques. Almost every night I would wonder how the Christian neighbours feel about such piercing sound in the middle of the night.

“We don’t hear them”, they usually respond.

They seem to be used to the sound. This discourse of “not seeing, not hearing, or not noticing”, in sense, points to a state of unconsciousness about “difference” in Shubra daily life, indicating the dissipation of boundaries in many domains of social and cultural life among Muslims and Christians. This is not to present a romantic picture of harmonious sectarian relations in Cairo.

What good does such sharing do if it suddenly turns into episodes of killing and burning in the name of religious difference? What if these members do not remember the overwhelming similarities between them when a sudden image of communal divide hunts them?  We have seen how violent conflicts can erupt in Egypt. Yet we also know that they have taken place during particular political episodes, instigated primarily by militant members (including agents provocateur), and have occurred largely in villages or provincial towns where close-knit communal ties remain stronger. They happen less in large cities where Copts are dispersed in diverse mix of residential and work settings.

But the decline of interpersonal and face-to-face community does not end the communal bond. The modern city with its expansive network of media and communication can facilitate the rapid spread of news, rumours and hearsay. It can solidify strong communal identities when members imagine the sufferings of their distant and abstract brothers or sisters. This has the potential for sectarian strife; for community members are able to construct a highly generalised image of “the other” as an object of hatred. An editorial insult or a provocative remark can spark broad communal rage, especially if efforts to level entitlements are frustrated by persistent discrimination.

Copts, in general, speak of how they are under-represented in academia and professional unions; are deprived of state support for Coptic studies; have no Coptic mayors, governors, college deans, school head teachers; and are absent from high-ranking military positions, the judiciary, intelligence, presidential offices. When the Salafi or the old guards of the Muslim Brotherhood (against the wishes of their youths) declare that a Copt should not become the head of the state, this can only be read as a lack of trust in Coptic Egyptians.

The truth is, ordinary Muslims and Christians have lived together admirably, beyond the religious divide, in their daily lives. It is up to the political elites to build on such grassroots co-habitation, and to refrain from fueling mistrust by recognising claims.

A democratic Egypt is one where the religious minorities become full citizens. 

Asef Bayat is Professor of Sociology and Middle East Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His latest book is Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010).

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