The scourge of sectarianism in Egypt
June 26, 2013
On Sunday evening, June 23, it was the middle of the Muslim month of “Sha’aban.” In Muslim communities around the world, this night has been given the name “Laylat-l-Bara,” or the “Night of Innocence” — a night during which the faithful exert themselves particularly in prayer and supplication. But in Giza, a small village outside of Cairo, where some gathered to do precisely that, it was hardly a night of innocence. A mob of hundreds of people, instigated and led by extreme Salafi preachers, descended upon Shiite Muslim residents and killed four Shiite Egyptians. It was a night of death — and evidence that indeed, hatred begets barbarism.
June 23 was not the first time that Egyptians have witnessed the scourge of sectarianism. Sectarianism is not a definitive element in Egyptian society — but it is part of it. Many Egyptians will deny it, which perhaps in itself is somewhat encouraging, as people often deny things they would prefer to believe are not true. But it cannot be denied. A latent sectarianism has existed vis-à-vis the Coptic Christian community (a demographic minority in Egypt, although intrinsically Egyptian) for many years, and has aggravated many a dispute between Copts and Muslims. In recent years, it has often been not simply a feature, but far more of a critical, even instigating, factor.
Sunday night was not an example of a latent sectarianism, or even an aggravation. It was the direct result of a sectarian discourse, perpetrated for solely sectarian reasons — a drumming up of hatred and bigotry, aiming at exacting blood. The Shiite families in that village, so close to the capital city of Cairo, were not involved in some sort of a more mundane dispute, in which sectarian strife was used to cover up other motives. The four people who were killed were the victims of a mob; a mob driven by the homilies of radicalism, expressing extreme identity politics, dressed up in a heterodox religious vocabulary, led by radical Salafi preachers.
There were condemnations of the violence in the aftermath, as one might expect — from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, across the political spectrum, and indeed, the official Muslim religious establishment. Al-Azhar released an official statement condemning the violence, while the Grand Mufti of Egypt warned Egyptians of being “dragged into attempts to ignite sectarian strife,” saying that “Islam does not accept such acts of slaughter and murder.” One of the more famed and respected non-Egyptian religious scholars, al-Habib Ali al-Jifri of the Tabah Foundation in Abu Dhabi said, “Whatever our [Sunni] differences with the Shi’is … what took place in the village of Abu al-Nimras is a heinous crime.”
But if what happened on Sunday night is to be taken seriously, then condemnations are increasingly irrelevant. There are five points that must be addressed, that go beyond Sunday night’s tragedy. Indeed, with June 30 fast approaching, when large scale protests against the Muslim Brotherhood and the presidency are likely to result in some sort of conflict (and probably violence), one cannot underestimate their importance. Even beyond June 30, however, these issues will not soon go away.
The first is the issue of the police — who were present during the lynching, and did not intervene. It’s highly unlikely that they did so out of complicity — but the reality is that the police force is in dire need of extreme reform in order to perform its duties appropriately in a post January 25 uprising Egypt. That was clear on Sunday night. It has also been shown in other incidents around the country. The “pillar of fear” that was present during ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s era has been removed — but nothing has replaced it, and the police, knowing that the populace no longer fears it in the way it used to (and rightly so), is reluctant to put itself in harm’s way. That kind of security force cannot do its job. But security reform will require wide-ranging political consensus, far beyond that of the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to apply appropriate pressure on the institutions involved.
The second point relates to the wider political notion of minority-majority relations in the context of Egyptian society. The Egyptian presidency has been reluctant, almost to the point of obstinacy, to use language that admits and recognizes minorities as minorities in Egypt. The point, as Morsi has elaborated upon in interviews, is to insist on the Egyptian nature of demographic minorities in Egypt — including Shiites, Coptic Christians, and others. The thinking within the presidency seems to be that if it were to mention “Shiite” or “Coptic” as a qualifier of “Egyptian,” it would recognize such communities as being less Egyptian than the Sunni Muslim majority. While that sort of thinking might be laudable from one perspective, it fails to acknowledge that, indeed, for many in the majority, these communities are not part of the majority. There are many ways to publicly recognize them as specific, distinct communities, while insisting on their intrinsic attachment to Egypt — and it is time to do that now, in order to ensure respect for them in the public sphere.
Thirdly, the night of June 23 was a barbaric one — but the barbarism was instigated and driven by hatred and bigotry. The barbarism needn’t be condemned — those that committed the barbarism need to be arrested, not condemned. But the hatred and bigotry — that needs to be condemned, and taken on directly in public and civic discourse. The strife in Syria cannot be used as an excuse to ignore, or minimize, the danger of such a discourse. When Morsi appeared recently on the same platform as radical Salafi preachers in a Syrian solidarity rally, it was incumbent upon him and his office to distance himself from and denounce the deeply sectarian speeches that took place. Ignoring such speech cannot be tolerated — not with regards to any community in Egypt, whether Muslim or Christian.
Moreover, that discourse needs to be challenged directly, and not simply deplored, at its root. Azhar has announced that its senior scholars will meet to consider the ramifications of Sunday’s tragedy; its scholars, and the religious establishment at large, must be clear and transparent about not only the results of this discourse, but the unacceptability of it at its core. The normative Muslim religious establishment cannot simply continue promoting its own religious approach — it must be very clear that approaches that go outside of the norm will be challenged on the level of ideas. Azhar was famous for its ecumenical approach, and as the Sunni institution worldwide that was most engaging with the Shiite religious establishment. Indeed, its scholars were some of the most prominent within the “Amman Message'” of 2005, which brought together hundreds of noted authorities from across the Muslim world, and from all religious denominations within it, to promote an anti-sectarian message — that message, and others like it, must be built upon.
Finally, the people who incite violence, whether using the language of religion or not, should be charged and prosecuted with the full force of the law. It is absurd indeed that activists and commentators are charged with “insulting the president,” while radical preachers are permitted to continue encouraging civil strife in Egypt — the results are clear for everyone to see.
No one should have had to wait for this tragedy to take critical steps — the signs were there before — and no one should have to wait for yet another one to take them now. Egypt’s social fabric can withstand these challenges, and overcome them — but only if the challenges are taken seriously. Now.
Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.
This article was published by Foreign Policy on June 26, 2013. Read it here.