Al-Ahram Weekly Online 

Fanning the flames

Why are clashes between Muslims and Copts becoming a fixture of newspaper headlines? Mohamed El-Sayed examines a worrying phenomenon.

Living together is not always easy, though for the best part of 14 centuries Egypt's Muslim and Coptic communities have co-habitated peacefully enough. Yet in recent years the fabric of tolerance that allows for peaceful co-existence seems to have developed a growing number of holes.

The routine flash of cameras taking photographs of senior Muslim and Coptic clerics embracing one another on major religious occasions can no longer hide the less convivial reality, one in which attempts to build a church, the staging of a play about Muslim extremism by a Coptic youth group, the publication of improper photographs of a Coptic cleric, can all lead to violent clashes leaving tens of people injured and damage costing hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Last month's clashes in the Giza village of Bamha -- ostensibly over plans to build a church -- have been followed by three more outbreaks of violence. Earlier this month a church was attacked in Al-Gaish Street, Alexandria, by a group of angry Muslims. The incident is reported to have been sparked when a group of Coptic boys insulted the son of a local imam.

Just a few days later clashes occurred in the village of Saft Maidoum in Beni Sweif which left four people injured and resulted in the arrest of 35 people. The incident was triggered by an accident. A Copt, Nasser Guirguis, crashed into a Muslim girl while riding his bicycle. The girl fainted, her family thought she was dead and then began to attack the home of the Coptic family. State security officials tackled the situation by holding a customary session in which the two families were urged to reconcile.

A third clash occurred in Luxor on Saturday. The violence, which left seven Copts and six Muslims injured, and resulted in 20 people being detained, was sparked by a court ruling over land tenancy. The authorities again attempted to defuse the situation through conciliatory meetings.

Nabil Abdel-Fattah, assistant director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and the editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt report, sees the growing number of clashes as evidence of a "significant increase in the number of Muslims who embrace the Wahhabi doctrine, be they clerics or ordinary citizens". Many clergymen, he says, have adopted "this anti-Christian doctrine in an attempt to court popularity among Muslims. Sheikhs might go as far as scorning Copts."

Hardly surprising, says Abdel-Fattah, that such attitudes should provoke an equally adversarial discourse within the Coptic community, or that the "two discourses have had a negative impact on the behaviour of the followers of both religions".

Abdel-Fattah also points to the demonstrative, but hollow, shows of piety that have become common among many Muslims. "You even hear recorded verses of the Holy Quran coming out of microphones fixed in elevators in buildings that are also inhabited by Christians," he says, pointing out that in response, "many Copts now hold on to their crosses". Such showing off, the empty flaunting of religion, is, he says, "tearing apart relations between Coptic and Muslims families".

Munir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, a leading member of the liberal Wafd Party and a Copt, blames the occurrence of clashes between Muslims and Copts on the "wrong culture taking root in the minds of both communities". Addressing a gathering of young Copts at the Orthodox Cathedral earlier this week, Abdel-Nour said that, "the education syllabus, as well as extremist religious discourse on both sides, lies behind the spread of a culture that makes a Muslim look at his fellow Christian as a stranger, and think the building of a church is a transgression against Islam."

Abdel-Fattah also points to the current structure of Egypt's political regime as fanning the flames of sectarian conflict. "The structure of the political regime effectively holds no space for Copts. Coptic political representation began to diminish at the end of the 1940s and with the coming of the 1952 Revolution almost disappeared."

Abdel-Nour agrees. "The regime adopts a harsh approach towards the Copts in an attempt to excuse its aggression towards the Muslim Brotherhood. It doesn't seem to take into consideration the fact that the Brotherhood is a political group while the Copts are ordinary citizens."

"What Copts suffer from is a form of discrimination, not oppression," he says. It is something that should be tackled within a legal framework, and Abdel-Nour despairs of the authorities' habitual resort to mediation sessions.

While Abdel-Nour calls upon Copts to follow in his footsteps and play a part in public life, Abdel-Fattah believes "the non-democratic nature of institutions, especially political parties, continues to exclude Copts on the pretext that they lack enough popularity to win elections."

The only way to avoid repeated clashes between the two communities, argues Abdel-Nour, is to alter the prevailing mindset, and that requires an overhaul of educational curricula so they emphasise "the principles of citizenship and human rights." The Muslim community, says Abdel-Fattah, must somehow learn to be more tolerant and accepting of the other. "The responsibility always lies with the majority -- i.e. the Muslim community."

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