Did the title of this post get your attention? If so, that is part of the problem of journalism in general, and of the press in Egypt in particular.
Among our work at Arab West Report is the translation of articles from the Egyptian press from Arabic into English. These are then put online, but while the summaries are generally only available to subscribers, occasionally I will be able to share some full text reports.
I have selected this link today about an incident which took place in Dayrut, in Upper Egypt several hours south of Cairo. While the articles we select often, though not always, have to do with religion, they represent the whole spectrum of life in Egypt in both Muslim and Christian thought and identity. Sometimes, however, the articles have to do with conflict between the two groups, and I have chosen this story both because it affected me personally and because it illustrates some of the realities about our life and work.
Here you see illustrated the often sensationalist journalism that easily damages interreligious relationships. The author called this incident ‘a massacre’. Granted, it is a sordid story, but only two people died, though the gunfire was intense. The word ‘massacre’ however takes your attention. Indeed, I selected it first from among the thirty or forty articles we translated last week simply due to this title. The place-name in the title is also of consequence: Assiut. This is a large city in the south of Egypt with large concentrations of Christians, moderate members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and extremist Muslim splinter groups. Recent history has witnessed violent conflict in this area. Daryut is a village in proximity to Assiut, but is not even on its outskirts.
Once read, however, the author has done his job, even if the story does not measure up to the lead-in. Unfortunately, however, the title plays up the idea of sectarian conflict – Muslims ‘massacred’ Christians in ‘Assiut’. While the incident was nothing of the kind, this is the impression that is left in people’s mind, especially if they, like many of us, do not continue to get the whole story. It is a much more interesting headline than a revenge killing in some obscure village. In fact, such a story would likely not even warrant a headline.
I paid attention to this story not just because of the word ‘massacre’ but also because our work involves the difficult goal of peacemaking between communities in tension. After reading the first story my mind moved on, but then the next day this report was issued, and my heart sunk.
There is so much I do not understand. After having lived in the Arab World for some time I do understand the concept of an honor killing. The first story made sense to me, though it is a world removed from our experiences in the West. Still, certainly someone who would violate the honor of my daughter would stir within me the desire for revenge acted upon in Dayrut. This second story, however, is incomprehensible.
Why would this incident escalate to the point that it did? It was a horrible crime, an honor killing came in response, and the matter should have been settled. What did the failure to release the killer incite in the community at large? Why would they respond this way against their innocent Christian neighbors?
I realize that sectarian conflict exists, but it should not have been ignited here. In our work we strive to understand the root issues involved, doing our best to always make the worst incidents understandable in context, even if justification is impossible. We also strive to remain neutral; we do not represent the church, we do not side with the Christians, we do not proclaim persecution. In reading this story, however, I was dumbstruck. The Christian identity in me, which is true and undeniable—its cancelling is not requested in our work, either from us or from our Muslim colleagues—proposed the word ‘barbarism’. Burning houses, destroying shops – what could cause this act of rage? Or was it an act of intentionality or opportunism? Either way, it calls out for the label of ‘barbarism’; the only question is the matter of degree.
Still, there must be some qualifying factors. It was clear from the first article that the author was sensationalist in choosing the word ‘massacre’. Here, the word better applies, though thankfully no one was killed. Surely they could have been; does this suppose that this was a targeted message and not a simple act of rage? Or can we picture it in appreciation of the culture that will allow violence but stops short of the taking of life? Our own culture can learn a lesson here, even in the midst of such ‘barbarism’.
I wondered further, what does it mean that they burned houses? The picture in my head is of my parents’ home being reduced to ashes. Is that the reality? Or were the fires from smaller scale Molotov cocktails? Or of the shops which were destroyed; does this refer to rocks thrown through the windows? The reporting is full of detail, but especially as a foreigner the context is lacking. Though surely this is a regrettable occurrence, might it be the random activity of disenfranchised youth? From the article this could be the case. Or, it could be simple barbarism. Or, it is more likely something in between.
I have no picture yet of what that in between might be. This, however, is much of our work. This article succeeded in stimulating within me the type of Christian reaction which only worsens the situation. My immediate assumption was one of barbarism, and though this will not poison within me my estimation of Muslims, it may color my perception of the Muslims of Upper Egypt. But why should I allow a journalist to dictate my reactions?
Our work must move beyond our emotions to get at the true story, inasmuch as this is possible. We must look for the benefit of the doubt, but in the end, we must also call a spade a spade. Yet our work intends to go beyond good reporting, as necessary as this is. We wish to aim for peacemaking, but if we cannot without prejudice approach both sides in a spirit of understanding and in a commitment to truth, we will fail. We may fail anyway, but with spirit and truth, we may at the very least, hope.
Postcript: Since these incidents took place there has been more reporting about Dayrut. Click here for a more detailed account of the atrocities, published by a Coptic newspaper in Egypt, Watani International. (‘Watani’ means ‘my country’ or ‘my homeland’ in Arabic). Finally, click here to read a press review of several newspapers, which provides a more even-handed treatment of the issue, including the most recent information.