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Stubborn Ideologies and Uncertain Details

In the wake of the Nag Hamadi killings prevailing Egyptian sentiment has asserted the essential unity between Muslim and Christian, presenting the Christmas massacre as an aberration of the norm. The dominating idea is that Egypt is a country with two religions, but one culture. Muslims and Christians have studied and worked, suffered and prospered, and lived and died as one people, sharing in communal bonds of fraternity, celebrating jointly their religious feasts. Though this is an idealized presentation, it is also largely the truth, and the promotion thereof can be a powerful reminder to all sides as they reel from the weight of this tragedy. Easily the Christian can now see himself under attack; easily the Muslim can see his religion being hijacked. If the idea of ‘two religions but one culture’ can take hold of the popular consciousness it can prove to keep these communities united in the face of sectarian dissent or denial, as will be seen below. The ideologies of the two communities, however, may prove a stubborn barrier. 

Popular unity can only be celebrated if it is believed, and many Coptic sentiments lament its absence. For these, the events of Nag Hamadi are simply further confirmation of the deteriorating state of Coptic acceptance in society. They see a culture and governance which is increasingly Islamic, and picture themselves outside of it. They believe the cries of national unity to be hollow, uttered by politicians worried more about preserving the national image than preserving the safety and rights of its Coptic citizens.

Indicative of this ideological stranglehold is a conversation recently conducted with a prominent Coptic intellectual. This is a fine man with interreligious friendships and respect for his government. In discussing the Nag Hamadi incident, however, he was adamant about this being an example of persecution against Christians by militant Islamist elements within his country. He is careful not to label the action ‘Islamic’, for he esteems the Muslim interpretation of faith offered by his colleagues, which he admits is known as ‘liberal’. Whereas many have seen the aggression instead as an expression of tribal sentiment in reaction to the shame incurred from the rape of a 12 year old girl in a nearby village, he rejects this explanation. He has heard it said—and from a Muslim source—that it was not a rape but consensual relations, and not with a minor, but a legal adult. He has heard this; he has no confirmation. Nevertheless the ‘refutation’ of the claim of rape takes away the possibility of tribal honor killing. The only possible scenario remaining is that of religious extremism. Inasmuch as the killing took place at a church on the holiest of holidays, the subtleties of the rape account are easily brushed aside in the preservation of a prevailing ideology. 

While many Muslims have a real belief in their essential unity with Christians in the fabric of their country, they have other issues to confront. Namely, how could such a crime be committed by Muslims, with that religious identification emphasized over the epithet ‘Egyptian’ as the attack was upon a church, during Christmas? The external appearance of the incident is entirely sectarian; having moved through a period of active and admitted Islamic violence in the previous decades, the average Muslim is loathe to witness its reappearance. They believe their religion to be essentially peaceful and such aggression to be against the faith. Acts such as Nag Hamadi, if understood in sectarian light, could provoke a crisis of faith.

Indicative of this ideological stranglehold is a conversation recently conducted with an average but pious Muslim young woman. This is a fine woman with interreligious friendships and respect for the Christian religion. In editing a text from the Coptic intellectual I asked her to help me supply some of his missing references to Qur’anic verses. The author had identified several verses which encourage Muslims toward peace and coexistence, for which he had supplied the references, but also spoke of other messages which some extremists utilize to preach violence. Here he gave no references, and the process of editing required they be supplied. 

My colleague became very reluctant. Rightfully claiming that she was not a scholar, she was slow to state what verses might be intended, lest a wrong understanding be given of her religion. “Of course,” I said, “we just need references, you know, the verse that says ….” “But that verse does not mean violence,” she defended, “the Prophet said …” “It is not our viewpoint, we are only editing,” I replied, “we carry the voices of everyone, no matter what their opinion.” She continued to demur, wondering if in doing this work we would be aiding the writer in this wrong interpretation of Islam. She did see enough of the writer’s text to admit that he was being balanced and only describing the views of certain Muslims, but the simple motion toward anything which might attach violence to Islam was nearly paralyzing.

This attitude can be seen specifically in the popular rush to identify the attack at Nag Hamadi with the rape of the 12 year old girl. If such a heinous crime can be attributed to distant tribal customs then Islam bears no responsibility, only the Muslim—if he can be called that—who perpetrated it. The general, peaceful Muslim then can carry on in the conviction that his religion is peaceful without having to be disturbed by an act of violence that carries all the markings of sectarianism. This is not to say that Islam supports violence, it only suggests the complications in the text for crafting one’s internal theology. As concerns the attack on the church and motivations involved, the subtleties of the crime can be easily brushed aside in the preservation of a prevailing ideology. 

The facts of Nag Hamadi are not clear. The motivations of those involved are less so. The facts of the rape in the nearby village are not clear. The connections to the killings in Nag Hamadi are less so. This scenario has not stopped pundits, commentators, lawyers, human rights activists, expatriate Copts, politicians, journalists, priests, and foreign media from pronouncing their opinion. This chorus has been joined by others who issue statements without sources, and others still who labor to report only the facts. This is normal in such a tense and explosive atmosphere; it will take time to sort through the chaff to get to the wheat. Even then, among many the official pronouncements will lack credibility, sending the issue back into the morass of presuppositions and rumors.

Who among us does not hold to an ideology through which he or she interprets reality? The reader is invited to critique the ideology which has informed this article. Nevertheless, in an issue as charged and vital to Egyptian peace as Nag Hamadi, it proves difficult for even the best of humanity to set aside an ideology before the facts are in place. Instead, indications and deductions, however logical, cement the established viewpoint and establish the discourse of each community. Egypt is a country of two religions; the analysis of reactions of both demonstrates that it is also a country of one culture.

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