Egypt's Christian-Muslim divide
International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2005
CAIRO Of the many things one
should not mention in polite company in Egypt,
friction between Muslims and Christians is near the top of the list. Try
mentioning that Christians in Egypt
are discriminated against and you might as well stand atop the Giza pyramids waving white flags
festooned with "Invade Now" at the imaginary American tanks at the
But we're way
beyond polite conversation.
Egyptian nun coming out of a prayer service at St.
George's Church in
Alexandria is stabbed by a Muslim
man in his 20s shouting the requisite "God is great," we need to
of Muslims attack seven churches in two Alexandria neighborhoods after someone
distributes a DVD of a play deemed offensive to Islam (a play that was staged
two years ago), and when three Muslims die and dozens are injured after riot
police fire tear gas and use batons to dispel 5,000 protestors outside St.
George's, we need to talk.
in Alexandria, once a cosmopolitan
home to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, are afraid to leave their homes and
when women remove crucifixes out of fear of violence and insult, we need to
I could go on,
but you get my drift.
As a Muslim
Egyptian, I am stunned by October's riots in Alexandria.
Why are Muslims in Egypt
full of the arrogance of a majority that demands an apology for a two-year-old
play but none of the confidence to brush off offense at such a small matter? Is
Islam so fragile that Muslims need to riot to protect it?
As the fabric
of religious tolerance has grown thin in Egypt,
more often than not it is the Christian minority that bears the brunt.
Christian Copts, who make up between 5 and 10 percent of the population, can
count no mayors, no public university presidents or deans, and there are few
Christians in the upper ranks of the security services and armed forces. There
are only two or three Christian ministers at any given time, and Christians are
underrepresented in Parliament. President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party nominated just two
Christians to run in this week's parliamentary elections. One pulled out after
the Alexandria riots.
governments have been all too happy to sit back and watch the growing
fundamentalism and politicization of religion that has shadowed both Egypt's
Muslims and Christians over the past few decades, too often encouraging it as a
way to divert attention from their own shortcomings. The violence born of such
growing extremism will consume us all.
hope is a burgeoning opposition movement launched late last year by Muslims and
Christians who lead street protests in Cairo
as Egyptians first and foremost. Minority rights in Egypt
are central to the debate on reform and democracy that Egypt
has been having since those protestors took to the streets in 2004.
If efforts to secure
those rights happen to coincide with similar calls from the Bush administration
or anyone else, so be it. We cannot brush minorities under the mat of denial
that governments across the Arab world have rolled out simply because the United
States claims it is paying more attention to
how they treat their citizens.
the geopolitical dimensions of this issue, consider a Christian's phone call to
a recent Egyptian talk show on sectarian relations. The man said he would
rather be killed by Muslim extremists than have America
come to save him. Muslim guests on the show jumped to assure him they'd defend
him tooth and nail against extremists. Just a few weeks later, the riots broke
out in front of the church in Alexandria,
and I have yet to hear that Muslims, other than the police, offered to keep
in Egypt also
belong to the debate about Iraq
and its new ethnic and sectarian power structures. Iraq's
Sunni Muslim minority, long used to privilege under Saddam Hussein, is now
struggling to adjust to its newly reduced status, often with violent results.
As Arab Sunni governments, including Egypt's,
call on Iraq's Shia- and Kurdish-dominated government to respect Sunni
minority rights, they would do well to look to their own minorities lest stones
shatter their own decrepit glass houses.
countries must also be more sensitive to minority rights not just because it is
the morally correct thing to do but also because the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and others since have
thrust Muslim minorities in the West onto an uncomfortable stage of permanent
suspicion. To defend the rights of those Muslim minorities and not appear at
best hypocritical, we must treat our own minorities with respect.
It is time to
brush aside the canard of sectarian harmony in Egypt.
I will be accused, no doubt, of providing ammunition for Egypt's
"enemies." But my criticism is aimed not at my beloved Egypt
but at injustice and violence born of religion and politics.
As a Muslim Egyptian
who has lived in the United States
for the past five years, I have learned to move between majority and minority.
And I know there's a lot to talk about.
(Mona Eltahawy is a columnist for the Pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.)