Sunday, July 02, 2006

Co-existence In Egypt.

By Ammar Ali Hassan.

Despite recent sectarian tensions it must be stressed that the situation in Egypt remains much better than in most other Arab states. Iraq and Somalia both face the prospects of fragmentation, Lebanon and Syria are rife with constant friction, in North Africa there are tensions between the Arabs and Amazigh, and in Sudan between the north and south, the east and west.
Yet until now Egyptians have remained capable of burying limiting sectarian conflict. Incidents in Al-Kishh, for example, did not lead to confrontations in Cairo or Alexandria. Nor did the recent clashes in Alexandria spread to other neighbourhoods.
Yet leaving matters as they are, depending on a history of tolerance, is no longer an option. The problem has reached the wider public, previously the exemplar of respectful, shared living.
In the past Christian complaints fell into two categories. First there were objections about the lack of equality, the fact that they were barred from holding some public posts, and discriminated against by the bureaucracy. Then there was a fear of extremist Islamist organisations, some of which attacked Christian interests during the period of tense confrontation between the regime and Islamist groups between 1988 and 1997.
Now, though, incendiary actions are being undertaken by members of the public. The protests that followed the conversion of a priests' wife, Wafaa Costantine, to Islam, are one case in point. Then there was the distribution of a CD of a play deemed offensive to Muslims, which ended with the church in which the play had been staged being besieged. Most recently confrontation broke out between the general public on both sides after a person the government described as mad attacked three churches in Alexandria.
For such outbursts to be prevented a number of basic conditions must pertain.
First, "political" and "religious" groups must be clearly demarcated. Rights and duties in everything related to politics must be equal, while religion should be dealt with on the basis of the golden rule that "religion is for the Judge". The relationship between the two sides should be based on the principle, formulated during the 1919 Revolution, that "religion is for God and the homeland for everyone".
Second, the debate between Muslims and Christians in Egypt must not be transposed onto the past but focus on the present. Christians should not talk excessively of the persecution they suffered following the Islamic conquest of Egypt, and Muslims should not brag to Christians about saving them from the oppression and harsh persecution of the Byzantines.
Third, Muslims must admit that among them are those who view Christians as infidels, while Christians must admit that their ranks contain extremists who view Muslims as heretics. Such an acknowledgement is necessary to begin along the path of co-existence.
There is also a dire need to respond to misinterpretations of texts in the Quran and Bible. The texts of both holy books espouse values sufficient to build mutual respect between Muslims and Christians.
It is also essential to separate religion from politics. The church should not attempt to play a political role, and Islamic organisations and groups should not continue to politicise religion. We might, though, consider "religicising" politics, giving it the moral framework that is essential if corruption and despotism are to be confronted.
Many intellectuals and members of the political and social elite, Muslim and Christian, hold that solving the problems of Egypt's Christians is possible only within the framework of comprehensive political reform, and a civil, democratic state based on citizenship and the rotation of power. This would open the door to freedom of expression and the formation of political parties that would not depend on their primary affiliations of religion, tribe and geographic location.
Any problems between Muslims and Christians in Egypt must, of course, be solved within an Egyptian agenda, and through the mediation of Egyptians. Summoning foreign powers will lead to disaster, and it will impact on Christians before Muslims.
Co-existence depends on balanced dialogue between all concerned parties, whether as individuals or groups. Dialogue and mutual understanding must be raised above zealotry and there must be a readiness to deal tolerantly with others, and accept opposing opinions. Tolerance must not be viewed as a relationship in which one party is stronger than the other, but as a necessity of civilised life.
It is also essential that wealth and opportunities be evenly divided. And the Egyptian people must better understand that differences between people in terms of language, religion, ethnicity, colour and culture should not be turned into an obstacle blocking co-existence between different groups.
There is no point in focussing excessively on abstract theories about the concept of co-existence. Rather, it is essential to steadily work at determining the mechanisms of conciliation. This can be done by activating dialogue and raising the values of tolerance, not as stammered slogans but as something that informs our daily lives. Fear of transgression must be removed, and the particularity of the culture of others recognised.
The Egyptian government must eliminate all factors that threaten the idea of co-existence and end all discrimination on the basis of religion, language, ethnicity and colour. It must be courageous in dealing with misinterpreted religious teachings that fuel religious extremism.
While there are opportunities for co- existence, we must admit that problems exist that, if exacerbated, may come to undermine that very goal. Among these we must count the behaviour of some security officials and employees in the bureaucracy, as well as extremist Islamist groups that produce rhetoric inciting hatred against Christians, and extremist Christians who call for all Muslims to leave Egypt.
Whatever the problems facing co- existence in Egypt they have yet to coalesce into a major threat. Egyptians are one of the most cohesive peoples in the world in terms of their ethnic characteristics and physical measurements, and one with the most similar in terms of appearance and features. This cohesion covers psychology as much as biology. Anba Shenouda expressed this clearly when he stated, "the unity of Egypt and the Egyptians is one of the secrets of this eternal country... Is it geography? Is it the inhabitants?... We have suffered great tragedies throughout history, and yet our unity has survived."
Demography is certainly a factor. Christians are found in almost all of Egypt's villages and cities. They do not live in a specific region as is the case with the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. This matter creates daily interactions between Egypt's Muslims and Christians, and increases the interlocking of mutual interests.

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