Sectarianism and Its Discontents

The horrifying scene of carnage in a Coptic church in Alexandria, ending not only the passing year but also the lives of innocent people, was not just shocking to everyone in Egypt and the region, but also terrifying to some who began to postulate that this might very well usher in the end of the presence of Christians in the country, if not in the Arab world at large. The panic and dismay visited on most people have understandably led some to rush to offer dramatic scenarios for the immediate future. It strikes me as more opportune, however, especially, in these times to offer an analysis of what is unfolding that is informed not only by the past and current situation of Egypt, but also by the regional context in which this violent act was committed. Fanning the flames of panic and sectarianism will only lead to more such violence without improving the security situation nor would it bring about the sought after civic peace.

I should start perhaps historically with the advent of the modern age, which brought about European intervention in the Ottoman Empire, often under the guise of protecting the non-Muslim communities, which acted as a precursor to the later and full-scale European colonisation of the Ottoman Arab provinces. As is well known, this intervention has augured badly for the Christian communities, many of whom ended up being displaced from the very capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, while many others in the Syrian and Iraqi provinces began to immigrate to the Americas by the end of the nineteenth century through the present. This and subsequent colonial manipulation of sectarian identities by British and French colonialism brought about a number of episodes of communal violence against Arab Christians (and aided by later Zionist intervention, against Arab Jews) virtually unknown in scale and nature prior to the arrival of the European “protectors,” whether the French in Damascus (in 1840 with the French-instigated blood libel against Syrian Jews, and in 1860 with the massacre of Syrian Christians), or the British in Baghdad (in 1933 with the massacre of Iraqi Assyrians, and in 1941 the massacre of Iraqi Jews).

The sectarian nightmare that Lebanon has constituted since the mid-nineteenth century, and the role of the French and the Vatican in it, is in a class of its own. Egyptian Christians have been spared such massacres in the modern period, though not the effects of French (beginning with Napoleon) and later British manipulation of existing sectarianism in the country. Surely, the extant institutional discrimination against Egyptian Christians by the different organs of the state cannot be laid fully at the doorstep of colonialism, but the Sadat’s regime intensification of sectarian hatred and his opportunistic manipulation of Islam in the service of imperial policies along with his support of some Islamist groups against the threat of Soviet and other varieties of communism and Arab nationalism, facilitated the attacks on Egyptian Christians in the 1970s.

The policies of Sadat institutionalised a new trend in Egyptian popular culture that continues to dominate today in many corners of civil society, among Christians and Muslims alike. While sectarianism predates Sadat’s rule, his anti-Arab attitudes and his campaign to de-Arabise Egypt by removing it from the Arab fold in the late 1970s and beyond contributed to this new sectarian trend. As most Egyptians saw their identity as grounded in the region, when Sadat insisted on de-Arabising them while allying himself with Israel and the United States, the majority of Muslim Egyptians opted for Islam as the new extra-Egyptian framework for their identity. This spurred many Christian Egyptians to revert to a more parochial and local identity of Copticness, rooted exclusively within Egypt. Arabness, as a non-racial non-essentialist identity, which defines Arabs as those whose native language is Arabic, included and welcomed Egyptian Christians under its banner, even though it was not always the major political current among most Egyptian Christian intellectuals. However, the new Sadat-generated momentum of de-Arabisation and the rise of Islamism, augmented in the early 1980s by the US (and Saudi) sponsorship of pan-Islamic efforts to fight its war in Afghanistan (in which many Islamist Egyptians volunteered to participate), led to the strengthening of sectarian Christian and Muslim identities that relegated Egyptian Christians to an unfortunate localism that removed them from any regional identitarian project.

This has intensified the sense of isolation felt by many Egyptian Christians, especially in light of the sectarian anti-Christian societal discourse regnant in the post-Sadat era across the country, including but not limited to educational institutions, ranging from primary schools all the way to universities, in curricula, and among teachers and students alike. We must note though that anti-Christian institutionalised discrimination is often exaggerated by expatriate and some US-based chauvinist fanatics as “oppression” and played down by the state and its operatives as “non-existent” Assisted by actual incidents of communal violence, especially in the south of the country, the hyperbole on both sides is hardly mitigated. Yet, American and Papal pretensions to be defenders of local religious minorities, aided in the last three decades by an army of US-funded NGOs, have contributed more to this situation of sectarianism rather than –safeguarded? Christian Egyptians.

This Egyptian situation exists today in the context of horrifying sectarian violence made possible by the American invasion and occupation of Iraq which brought in its wake Al-Qaeda to the country (it does seem ironic that where the Americans go in the Arab world and outside it, they bring al-Qaeda along with them, not least in Yemen where their ongoing intervention has created a civil war in the country). While most of those killed in the American-instigated sectarian violence in Iraq have been Shiite and Sunni Muslims (notwithstanding the attacks on the tiny Palestinian community of Baghdad), Europe and America’s media characteristically feature with much fanfare the equally horrifying violence against Iraqi Christians, as if the latter are somehow specifically and solely targeted among Iraq’s sects and ethnic groups for such violence. Nonetheless, it is important to assert that it was the arrival of the Americans in Iraq that has pretty much reduced the size of Iraq’s Christians to infinitesimal levels.

How is one to read the carnage of Alexandria in this context and what would be needed to contain its effects? Those few who believe that foreign intervention in Egypt might protect the Copts are wittingly or unwittingly using the incident to bring about a wider role for US imperialism in the country — as if what the US has brought about in Egypt in the last three decades (in terms of massive enrichment of the rich and impoverishment of the poor, de-education, destruction of Egyptian agriculture, gargantuan corruption and theft of public funds, economic dependence, and diminishment of Egypt’s regional political and military role, not to mention the US hand in the ongoing sectarianism) has not been sufficient, and as if the Americans have ever intervened anywhere in the world to help the oppressed or the discriminated against, unless one considers dethroned dictators or a business class, whose powers to pillage were curtailed by a nationalist government, “oppressed groups.” Had the US been a protector, those in our part of the world who are oppressed (and this includes millions of people of all shades and colors) would not only have been saved by US intervention, but their very suffering would not continue to be underwritten by US policies, as is most often the case. So much then for the US as a protector of the lives of Arab, including Egyptian, Christians.

It strikes me that calls for state reform and putting an end to discriminatory policies are essential, but so are calls for reform in the religious institutions that claim to speak for Muslim and Christian Egyptians, and for the kind of sectarian discourse they churn out. This is not to suggest that the demographic differences between a majority of Muslim Egyptians and a minority of Christian Egyptians should be elided nor that the state’s identifying “its” religion as the same as that of the majority of its population is irrelevant (something Sadat, under American aegis, did much to institutionalise and consecrate) when analysing the power of these religious institutions, but rather that at the level of sectarian discourse they can be seen often as mirroring one another. To say that the Egyptian state has had a hand in sectarian manipulation is to state the obvious, but this discourse now has an independent momentum and will have to be deconstructed by the anti-sectarian civil society forces in the country, not only in the political sphere, but also and especially in the cultural and social spheres (it is rather unsurprising that the sphere of wealth is the only sphere where no discrimination against rich Christian Egyptians can be said to exist).

And this should be done not by strategies of manifesting a special “admiration” for the Christians as a separate sect (as a secular Marxist Palestinian intellectual of Muslim background recently averred to me at a private gathering) and exaggerating the sectarian identity of “their” contribution to Egyptian and Arab history (a cause dear to Arab neoliberals and their Western sponsors). Rather we must understand how Europe and the United States, in claiming to “sponsor” and “protect” the local Christian communities and make it de rigueur to “admire” them and identify “their” contributions to the modern Arab world in sectarian terms, will bring about the very same exclusion of these communities in the countries where they live and belong as those hateful fanatics, who target them for violence and who claim them to be foreign to the body politic, want to do. Zionism sought to create an exclusive Jewish state and empty the world of Jews who would all flock to the Jewish colonial settlement to live in a racist intolerant state. Similarly, these international forces are intent on transforming Arab and Muslim countries into Israeli-style exclusive enclaves of “intoleran” Muslims whom the (“Judeo-Christian”) world must not tolerateon account of their own alleged intolerance.

In this vein, I should mention that one week before the terrorist attack in Alexandria, the Egyptian authorities uncovered a major Israeli spy ring in the country. Given the history of Mossad bombings of Egyptian post offices, cinemas, cultural centers, and train stations in the 1950s, and Mossad bombing operations across the Arab world that have never ceased to the present (the Mossad has always had a flair for car bombings), it would be important to investigate possible or even potential links between the Mossad operatives and the church bombers.

The irony remains, however, that it is the intolerant Americans, Europeans, and the Israelis and their extremist intolerant, though at times unwitting, local allies, namely the violent minority of sectarians among Islamists, who stand to benefit most from the Alexandria tragedy. Unless intellectuals in Egypt and the Arab world, Muslim and Christian, religious and secular, resist joining this international alliance of the intolerant, they may very well help them achieve their goals.

JOSEPH MASSAD is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York.