Fighting Islamist Christianophobia

Hany Ghoraba
Saturday 10 Nov 2018

New ways must be found to curb the growth in hate speech towards Egypt’s Christians in the wake of last week’s bus attack in Minya

The whole Egyptian nation was shocked to see last week’s horrific attack on a bus carrying Copts on its way to a monastery near the Upper Egyptian city of Minya that left seven people killed and 19 injured, including children.

The terrorist attack was not the first of its kind but was a repetition of a similar attack that took place in Minya on another bus in May 2017.

It is believed that some Islamic State (IS) group terrorists managed to slip across the Libyan border despite security operations that have managed to eradicate 30 of these terrorists over recent weeks.

The response of the state security forces to the latest attack was very swift, and an operation was initiated in the area to capture the terrorists, resulting in the killing of 19 just two days after the attack took place.

The media’s response was lacklustre, however, as though it reported the attack it soon moved to other subjects, including the finals of the African Championship and the World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh.

The attack on the bus carrying Egyptian citizens seemed to take a back seat for many as a result.

However, while the security efforts have been commendable and have managed to uproot many terrorist cells operating in Egypt after January 2011, new strategies must be implemented to curb the growth in hate speech towards Copts from Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood members, and Islamists who are still threatening Egypt’s Coptic population.

They are spreading rumours about them, targeting their livelihoods and businesses, and labelling them as infidels or kafirs.

It is not a coincidence that in the same area where the attack took place on 2 November sectarian violence also erupted in the village of Dimshaw a month earlier that saw attacks by Islamists backed by a mob of brainwashed individuals attacking Copts gathering in a house to perform prayers.

They were stoned by a mob of extremists and some of their property was burned down. Some 25 suspects were arrested, but a few weeks later 21 were released without charge.

In similar cases of sectarian violence, the authorities usually opt to pacify or resolve the situation through “customary reconciliation” instead of by applying the regular law.

This reconciliation is organised within the village or district concerned and sees the participation of heads of families, Muslim and Christian clergymen, and security officials who try to persuade the parties to reconcile themselves with each other instead of taking matters to the courts.

It is believed that such reconciliations can help to defuse the situation.

Unfortunately, they often only work as temporary band-aids on deep and bleeding wounds. While a few of them have worked to resolve tense situations, in most cases they do not do so and simply become the prelude for future friction because the laws are not applied adequately.

There have also been efforts to curb the sectarian rhetoric by some state religious bodies such as the Ministry of Endowments. These have been noticeable in reforming religious rhetoric in mosques across the country, but the path towards attaining that goal everywhere is still very long as the ministry does not supervise all mosques.

In some cases, Islamists force imams appointed by the ministry to step down and have their own imam lead the prayers instead.

Protecting the religious institution of Al-Azhar from infiltration by Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood members has become a matter of life and death.

It is not acceptable that a cleric having prejudices against Copts or any other group in Egyptian society should still retain his position there under any pretext.

While some may find it important to fight the Islamophobic discourse in the West, a desire sometimes propagated by Islamists who are now proposing methods to counter it, it is also very important that Muslim clerics find solutions to the Christianophobia that is spreading across the country.

It is not a secret that the Islamists have an innate hatred for Christianity and Christians, and much of the time they are audacious enough to display this in public, often drawing on it in their dealings with Copts and Christians in their daily lives.

While there is no law that can prosecute hidden hate, the laws that protect Egyptian citizens of all faiths from hate must be applied. The Islamists have been getting away with the incitement to violence for decades, and it is time that this was ended.

The war on terrorism may take a while to defeat, whether in Sinai or elsewhere in Egypt, but the sectarianism and especially the Christianophobia that has been spread mostly in rural parts of the country requires a different strategy to uproot it.

It requires a mixed strategy that comprises the use of the educational curriculum, media outlets and the law.

The educational curriculum must emphasise the national identity of Egypt that holds all religions and ethnicities to be equal. At the same time, the media must be barred to those who emphasise sectarianism in any form, whether directly or indirectly.

Finally, the law must be enforced to prosecute all forms of inciting sectarianism, regardless of whether that person is a cleric, a media anchor, a writer or an ordinary citizen.

Despite the willingness of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to rectify the errors of the past towards Christians and other minorities, often addressing such matters openly in his speeches, other sectors of the state are lagging behind in their efforts to do the same.

Shameful laws such as those on “blasphemous libel” seem to be applied only to freethinkers and Copts who profess their ideas for reforms that break the status quo and are intended to preserve the social cohesion of Egypt.

Other laws fall short in their application, except on rare occasions when Islamists and self-described “moderate” clerics propagate the same rhetoric of hate but paraphrase it in different words.

The war on terrorism will be won eventually, thanks to Egypt’s gallant soldiers and police officers, but the war on jihadist rhetoric, sectarianism and Christianophobia is far from being won, especially since some in key positions seem to be unmoved by it.

The terrorist attack on the Minya bus is unlikely to be the last, as others will follow as long as the Islamists’ rhetoric recruits new radicals every day.

Accordingly, now is the moment of truth to acknowledge the problem on all levels and to act on it to save the nation from radical infestation.

The rule of law must prevail, and tribal forms of reconciliation such as “customary reconciliation”, must be abolished as they represent an incentive for sectarian rhetoric to flourish knowing that ill deeds and even crimes may go unpunished.

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Fighting Islamist Christianophobia  

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