Egypt's Christian-Muslim divide 

Mona Eltahawy International Herald Tribune




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 border.


But we're way beyond polite conversation.


When an 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 talk.


When thousands 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.


When Christians 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 talk.


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.


In Egypt, 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.


Successive 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.


Our biggest 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.


To appreciate 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 vigil.


Minority rights 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.


Muslim-majority 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.)