Crucifixion and Liberation in Cairo

Hisham Rizk
Hisham Rizk

Last summer the body of Hisham Rizk turned up in a Cairo morgue. The 19 year old graffiti activist had been missing for a week, and the official autopsy labeled him as having drowned in the Nile River.

No further information was given on the English language Ahram Online. But withholding comment only fuels speculation – rampant among many revolutionary activists – that the security apparatus is coming after them. Orchestrated to begin on Police Day, the January 25 revolution humiliated them but now is the time for payback. So goes the theory.

Rizk was a member of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street Graffiti Union, whose images are among the few to remain prominently displayed in Cairo. They are at the site of terrible clashes in November 2011, between protestors and police on a side-street off Tahrir. They contributed also to the rift between revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood, who did not participate in defense of the square.

The Brotherhood has since suffered its own terrible losses at the hand of police. Though these groups share a common enemy, there is little sympathy offered. During their year in power the Brotherhood marred revolutionary icons and dismissed the ongoing struggle with the military and security apparatus, with whom these activists say they readily accommodated.

News of Rizk’s death reminded me of my last visit to Mohamed Mahmoud Street, several weeks earlier. President Sisi was not yet elected, though his victory seemed inevitable. An interview subject postponed our meeting two hours, so I had lunch in McDonalds facing the ubiquitous graffiti.

To pass the time I alternated between reflecting on the images and reading ‘A Theology of Liberation,’ tucked away in by bag to read on the metro. It was written by Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Latin American priest who demanded that Christianity pursue justice for the poor, as reflected in the character of God. For Gutiérrez, the cross of Christ represented the total involvement of God in the suffering of mankind. As such, Jesus identified with all victims, and his resurrection presages their own, toward which his followers must strive.

Consider then the following picture, as seen behind the bars of McDonalds, while eating French fries and a cheeseburger from the Egyptian equivalent of the dollar menu:

Here is the image in question:

McDonalds GraffitiThe three crucified pairs of legs are covered by a belt bearing the name ‘Central Security,’ the revolutionary activists’ archenemy. What is not clear to me is what the symbolism means. Are these the victims of police, mocked and tagged with state insignia? Or have the police themselves been stripped, hung, and crucified? Does the image commemorate, or anticipate?

If the former, it is a remarkable statement of the power of Christian imagery within a revolutionary struggle of Muslim majority. Islam rejects the cross of Christ, believing instead God saved Jesus from the humiliation of crucifixion at the hands of his enemies. But the clashes and aftermath of Mohamed Mahmoud represent a losing moment for these activists. To depict their suffering they drew a cross.

To my knowledge there is no revolutionary graffiti of an empty tomb. They can hardly be blamed; they have had no victory. Initially pleased with the military removal of the Muslim Brotherhood, many now see in President Sisi the restoration of the security state. But some Christian revolutionaries have spoken of how they comforted their Muslim colleagues with tales of Jesus. Struggle involves suffering, they said, and perhaps even death. But victory comes as God resurrects.

This is how most non-revolutionary Egyptian Christians view the emergence of President Sisi. They, with millions of Muslims beside, project upon him the image of savior. He is the answer to their prayers, the remover of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And now it is the Brotherhood which is now being crucified, though this particular image is not found on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Their opponents might cite a different Biblical parallel in the story of Esther. Following the failure of his plot to exterminate the Jews, Haman was hanged on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai.

Crucifixion GraffitiInstead, the graffiti interpretation is possible that it is security which receives its comeuppance. A triumphant revolutionary movement finally secures the reins of power and holds the police accountable for its crimes. Their execution is in order. Perhaps the picture draws on Islamic imagery: Crucifixion is among the punishments commanded for those who sow discord in the land.

Liberation theology anticipates such a grand reversal. Salvation is not simply from personal sin, but from the corruption of society which binds the poor in their place. Certain strands of this theology call for participation in the necessarily violent struggle to overthrow the powers-that-be.

Certainly those who fear God should be involved in the pursuit of justice. The question is how best to interpret justice, and where on the spectrum of participation a red line should be drawn.

But the alternate interpretations of the graffiti – whether identifying the Brotherhood or the security on the cross – should not be tolerated. Neither is consistent with the Jesus who cried out, ‘Father forgive them,’ according to the Biblical account. Jesus intended his crucifiers also to be beneficiaries of the liberation he offered.

For according to Christian theology, his crucifixion was the wisdom of God to put right the universe. This is not the case for Hisham Rizk, even if he drowned a martyr. It is not the case for any of the revolutionaries who have died for their cause. They represent a tragedy, a reminder of a world not yet put right. Whether one fights nobly, foolishly, or not at all, death is still the reality for everyone amid extensive injustice.

But to put it right, God expects his followers to work for justice in the face of death, unafraid. Such is the glory of a martyr, who will receive God’s compensation in reward of uncompromising faith. Many revolutionaries have been motivated by this promise.

The hope of liberation theology is that the promise is greater still. It is that through crucifixion resurrection comes. This is certainly true of personal Christian theology. It is only through death to self and identification with Christ on the cross that God’s life can inhabit an individual, in this world and the next. But is it true for society as well?

Here, liberation theology appears to be of two minds. For one, the answer is yes: We struggle on behalf of the poor and oppressed and whether or not we die, we await God who will put right all things through our sacrifices.

For another, the answer is no: It is obvious our idealistic struggles fail, so we must in a sense crucify the other and wrest power from him. Then we can put right all things in view of what God has commanded.

The first is of faith, perhaps naïve. The second is of pragmatism, perhaps ungodly. Where in this analysis is Egypt?

Perhaps Sisi has put all things right. Perhaps he is struggling to do so. Perhaps he only pretends, putting all things wrong.

Let each Egyptian judge, mindful of the following: Faith must be lived in the world, but the ways of the world must not sideline the convictions of faith. Countenance no manipulation, and avoid no crucifixion.

Securing the first assures God’s blessing; enduring the second enables God’s liberation. Such is the hope of faith.

Even as I type I am filled with dread should such hope prove empty. If Hisham Rizk died an inopportune death, where is the liberation to follow? Is it found in his enduring images on Mohamed Mahmoud Street? Is there some collective cosmic tally to which he contributes?

Perhaps. Paul wrote that his sufferings filled up what was lacking in the suffering of Christ. Jesus said his followers would do even greater works than himself. An earlier prophet summed up all requirements: Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly.

The world will not be put right until God puts it right. But God desires us to put it right in the meanwhile, flawed and incomplete our efforts will inevitably be.

Wherever Egypt is along the path of progress, she has not yet arrived. Blessings to all Egyptians who seek to move her forward.

Current Events

Did the Muslim Brotherhood Crucify its Opponents?

Alleged Crucifixion Victim

In the past few weeks the story has circulated in conservative news circles that the Muslim Brotherhood has crucified its opponents outside the presidential palace. This story is almost certainly a hoax.

I have been able to draw from elements in the media on both sides of this issues, combining all evidence I could find in a report. For the full text of this report, please click here to access it on Arab West Report. Here, however, are some excerpts:

A primary circulator of the story in the English press is WorldNetDaily, which published an exclusive report on August 17. The article in entitled: ‘Arab Spring Runs Amok: ‘Brotherhood’ Starts Crucifixions. It states ‘Middle East media confirm…’ and then links to a website called The Algemeiner.

Published on August 16, the website published a story written by Raymond Ibrahim, a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. It is entitled: ‘Muslim Brotherhood Crucifies Opponents, Attacks Secular Media’.  It states, ‘Several Arabic websites … (listing four) … reported that people were being crucified.’

These websites are Arab News, Al Khabar News, Dostor Watany, and Egypt Now.

As I describe in the report, however, these sources do not ‘report’, but rather carry a single news outlet’s report, which it later retracted. Those holding to the truth of the story, however, are quick to point to evidence in the Quran and sharia law.

Websites supporting the accuracy of the story also give as corroborating evidence verse 5:33 of the Qur’an, which states:

Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment.

They also quote Egyptians, including a parliamentarian Adel Azzazy from the Salafi-oriented Nour Party and a Salafi sheikh , who called for the crucifixion penalty to be applied in Egyptian law.

The evidence again this actually taking place is in the report, but the mere mention of crucifixion suggests the most horrific of pictures. Yet this is not the reality at all and, though those who circulate the story admit this, they play readily on the popular imagery. From the conclusion:

It should be noted that ‘crucifixion’ conjures notions of Jesus upon the cross in standard presentation, nailed to two perpendicular pieces of wood. What is alleged is simply that people were strung up upon a tree. Could it be they may have been only minimally tied to the trunk?

If there was an altercation that evening in front of the presidential palace, however, there are no names of victims provided. Furthermore, all that would be known was that the alleged attack would have been the work of ‘thugs’, as has been common during Egypt’s traditional period. It would be impossible to tie these thugs to the Muslim Brotherhood, or establish they were doing its bidding, except through due process of law.

In light of the assembled evidence, however partial, the best conclusion is that the stories circulated by Algemeiner and WorldNetDaily, and popularized by the Shoebats and others, are meant as propaganda pieces against the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is insufficient evidence to establish that crucifixions took place at all. While it appears there may have been an altercation, even imagining a possible victim tied to a tree, it is a far, far jump to label this as Muslim Brotherhood crucifixions.

While the Qur’an does contain of verse about crucifying a brand of criminal, and marginal Egyptian forces have called for its implementation, the linking of this possible event with these sources is a clear effort to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force. Even if someone was strung upon a tree, these websites know full well the image of crucifixion in the Western mind is of Jesus and his horrific killing, along the lines of the film ‘The Passion of the Christ’.

This is irresponsible and dangerous journalism. Such verses of the Qur’an deserve rational questioning. The quotations of Salafi politicians and preachers are unnerving. The agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood is under suspicion. But the websites in question have not simply failed to properly investigate a likely hoax; they have aided and abetted it.

Please click here to read the whole article. And, if you have come across this story in the media or from otherwise well meaning friends, please share this to help suppress a campaign of misinformation. Thank you.

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