The sectarian attacks in Imbaba on May 7-8 have been widely written about and criticized. Indeed, it was a horrible blemish on Egypt that reeled the nation. Consensus seems to say that the action was planned and executed by Salafi Muslims at the behest of some interest outside of Imbaba. That is, the attack and burning of the church did not spring from neighborhood issues. How far outside of Imbaba is debated, but though the spark came from elsewhere, the fire burned internally. Amidst the condemnations, it is necessary to note it consumed also local Muslim efforts at peace.
These observations were taken from a thorough investigation conducted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. This organization has often written about sectarian tensions; in this case, their chief criticism falls on the security forces for failing to get involved to stop the fighting. Yet the testimony they assemble is enlightening. Their report (Arabic only) can be found here.
The basic story is that a group of Salafi Muslims assembled at the St. Mina Church in Imbaba, responding to a request from a spurned Muslim husband that his wife, a Coptic convert to Islam, was being held inside. They demanded to search the premises, Copts began assembling to defend the church, and eventually more and more Muslims filed in, causing multiple deaths and over two hundred injuries. The woman in question did indeed flee from her Muslim husband, was a convert to Islam, but was not present in the church. The episode was a lie propagated to launch an attack on the Christian landmarks of Imbaba.
That the episode was a lie was an early discovery, not of the church or the security forces, but of a Salafi Muslim imam of Imbaba. He heard the story from the belligerent Salafi crowd which originated from outside the area, but announced it to the ordinary people gathering as a falsehood. In what seems to be an unfortunate coincidence, as he was declaring his opinion gunshots were fired, perhaps from the Christian side, if only in the air to dismiss the crowds. Quickly things began to spiral out of control.
Yet not before several other attempts were made to quiet the situation. Local youths banded together and began chanting, ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’ while a woman fully covered in niqab shouted, ‘What is happening to Egyptians? Weren’t we all united in Tahrir?’ Yet a group of Salafis broke into their ranks and scattered them, shouting, ‘There is no god but God, and the Christians are the enemies of God!’
Meanwhile, another bearded resident of Imbaba began shouting at them, quoting from the Qur’an, ‘Fitna (spreading religious strife) is worse than killing.’ He continued, ‘Whoever spreads fitna will go to Hell!’, and began to chant, ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’
Yet the Salafi group urged the local population otherwise. ‘The Christians have gotten too big for their britches; how can you allow the minority to rule over the majority?’ ‘Muslims, why are you silent? Thirty or forty Muslims have died, and you are silent as the Christians beat us?’
Within the tumult these voices triumphed. By this time Christian families had taken to defend the church and their homes by climbing their roofs and throwing down objects on the attackers. It was probably easy for the ordinary Muslims of Imbaba to get swept up in the rapidly boiling sectarian conflict.
This is not an apology for them. They are guilty for allowing rumor and propaganda to tilt their hearts against their Christian neighbors. This post is only to highlight that there were brave Muslim voices who tried to speak up for the unity of their community. Had this been only a local altercation perhaps they would have succeeded. That it came from outside, from Salafis bent on igniting fitna, it quickly overran and silenced the local voice of reason and tolerance.
In this light, careful encouragement of restraint on the part of the Christians does not exactly hit the mark. If someone is insistent on causing trouble, perhaps there is little that can be done. Yet another aspect of the EIPR report shows how Christians did respond in ways to defend other areas of Imbaba.
Before too long news of the attacks were broadcast on the Christian satellite channel, al-Tariq (The Way). Christians were informed of the efforts to attack all the churches of Imbaba, and urged to assemble in them for their defense. Thousands did, some even coming from other areas. They witnessed small groups of Salafi Muslims driving around in Jeeps, yet when they saw the churches full of people, they passed by. At one location where Salafis still tried to enter and cause damage, they apprehended two and turned them over to the military police. Yet at another location, the Salafis found no Christian crowd, only two church workers behind locked doors. As described in an earlier report, after shooting off the lock, they killed one, another was saved through intervention of a local Muslim, and then they burned the church.
What can one say in retrospect that could have staved off disaster? As EIPR highlighted, the failures of the security forces gave open hand to the assailants. Yet if Christians had not been so quick to fight back, might the Salafi imam’s pronouncement of a lie had been heard? Or would the damage suffered by their community been even greater?
Yet if it is true that outside forces are stimulating conflict in areas more likely to suffer outbreak, how can citizens, both Muslim and Christian, be better prepared should it happen again, elsewhere? Many Christians say privately that Islam in the heart of a Muslim will have him always side against the Christian when conflict arises. This was one of the calls of the Salafi assailants: ‘Muslims, defend your Islam!’ In a crisis situation with limited information, can the ordinary members of a neighborhood resist such a call? Many will rally in the open squares after a tragedy, condemning it and proclaiming, ‘Muslim, Christian, one hand!’ Yet for those, as in Imbaba, who proclaim it into the face of a developing tragedy, can they prove it true and prevent the horrors?
I cannot speak well for what is necessary on the Muslim side. Should I have opportunity to speak with the Salafi sheikh in Imbaba who proclaimed the lie, I will ask him. Yet Christians must overcome their privately confessed fears, and begin public assertions of trust. They must get into their neighborhoods, make relationships, and win friends. All voices in Imbaba have stated that previously relations in Imbaba between Muslims and Christians were fine. I’m sure this is true, but they were not ‘fine’ enough.
Maybe Christians will say they have tried, and it doesn’t help. Perhaps. But it should be remembered, there are thousands of villages and neighborhoods in Egypt that have not ignited in sectarian strife. From fear of Imbaba, knowledgeable that outside forces are at work, ‘fine’ must become ‘strong’, and ‘mutually respectful’. It may not be enough, if some are bent on sowing seeds of fitna. But the effort at resistance cannot be any less than this.