16 January 2011
On the evening of 31 December, Mariam “Mariouma” Fekry, a Coptic Egyptian young woman living in Alexandria, logged into her Facebook account to express her hopes for the new year and pray to God to protect her. She wrote:
“2010 is over…..this year has the best memories of my life….really enjoyed living this year……I hope 2011 is much better…….i hav so many wishes in 2011….hope they come true…..plz god stay beside me & help make it all true. :)”
Just hours after writing this message, Mariam was killed, along with her mother, her aunt and her younger sister, Martina. They were attending a midnight mass held at the Two Saints## Coptic church in Alexandria in celebration of the new year when a huge bomb exploded outside the church door, leaving many innocent people dead and injured.
The explosion rocked the very foundation of Egyptian society, creating yet another scar in the festering wounds of Muslim-Coptic relations.
The facts of the attack are still unknown and may actually never become known. Since the incident happened, the Egyptian government has remained tight-lipped about the details as it was quick to point fingers at al-Qaida as the possible culprit.
It doesn##t really matter whether the blast was the result of a car bomb or a suicide bomber blowing themselves up. What is certain is that the Coptic question has been on the political table for decades, without the government lifting a finger to ease the tensions, content only to accuse external forces – be they al-Qaida, expatriate Copts or Israel – for fanning the flames of Coptic discontent.
The past two or three decades have witnessed a marked escalation in Muslim-Coptic tensions, with violence erupting at increasingly shorter intervals. This was not the case in earlier decades.
As a child growing up in a traditional Muslim family in the 60s, I remember quite clearly after suffering a bout of illness that conventional medicine seemed unable to cure, my mother took me to an Orthodox church in the popular district of Moharrem Bek to light a candle in honour of the Virgin Mary. As we stood together in the beautifully decorated and darkly lit church, my mother, an ordinary, middle-class woman, whispered some heartfelt prayers. She didn##t feel that she was on alien territory, nor that she was in any way betraying her faith in appealing to the Christian God to heal her daughter. This simple and spontaneous act of reverence seems sadly unthinkable in today##s Egypt.
The religious split has clearly deepened and grown more bitter since then. The Muslim-Coptic divide is now visually present on our streets and in our public spaces, not only in women##s attire but also in the large number of men wearing their beards long in an ostentatious display of their religious creed.
The rise of extremist religious views may be traced back to the 70s, when President Anwar El Sadat actively encouraged and sponsored the Islamist movement, hoping that it might devour the left, which he regarded as his most potent enemy. Although the small snake that Sadat reared in our backyard succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in virtually wiping out the left from the Egyptian political scene, it grew into a deadly cobra that eventually turned on its creator and bit off the hand that had fed it.
The Mubarak regime has inherited the cobra but has done little to seriously confront it, let alone to kill it. Instead, it often compromised, conceded and even connived, frequently using the Islamist threat to legitimise the extension of the state of emergency that has been in place for the past 30 years. The regime went out of its way to prove to its citizens that it was more Islamic than the Islamists themselves and silently watched the growing vehemence of religious intolerance.
Fanatical discourse inciting religious hatred is theoretically against the law of the land. However, hate speech has been tolerated and allowed to circulate freely. Some preachers have been making malicious statements against non-Muslims on various satellite channels, urging Muslims not to have any dealings with them. The messages of hate have been pouring as freely from their mouths as water leaking from a rain-drenched ceiling.
More seriously, an eminent Islamic thinker has lately accused Coptic churches of amassing weapons. The allegation was never verified but it has provoked negative reactions against the Coptic population. In situations such as these, the regime, unwilling to be accused of acting against Islam, quietly turns a blind eye pretending to see and hear nothing.
None of these instigators were ever prosecuted or even questioned. It is astonishing that the regime should allow hate speech to proliferate unchecked in this manner, when it is always quick to condemn and prosecute opposition leaders, journalists and writers who dare express their legitimate concerns about the government##s policies.
The symbolic significance of choosing Alexandria as the site of the attack cannot be missed. Not only is the city the papal seat of the Coptic Orthodox church, but it also has a long and richly diverse history. It has been washed by the waves of various civilisations, cultures and languages: Greek, Roman, Coptic, Arab, Ottoman Turk, French, British and many others. It has been a seat of learning and a beacon of light in ancient times. In the modern age, its name has been synonymous with tolerance and multicultural living. The attack seems to be directed as much against the Coptic population as against Alexandria##s long legacy of coexistence and tolerance.
Only last week Martina Fekry was demonstrating along with her fellow students against the decision of the education minister to change the name and character of her school, El Nasr Girls## College (EGC, formerly the English Girls## College). The students regarded the minister##s appropriation of the 75-year-old establishment as an attack on the cultural legacy of the school, which was built on liberal and staunchly secular principles fostering the spirit of multicultural values and peaceful coexistence. Its student body, especially in the 40s, 50s and 60s, was made up of a heterogeneous mixture of cultures, denominations and races.
One day before the massacre, Martina and her other EGC friends celebrated the victory of their school and its right to keep its identity after a court ruling overturned the minister##s decision. But unfortunately her moment of joy was as brief as her young life.
Mariam##s Facebook message is poignant in its simple confidence in the future. But for her and for her sister, Martina, as well as for the other innocent victims massacred in the senseless blast against the church in Alexandria, there will be no 2011.
For them, I say: you have been killed not by the explosion but by rampant hate, which is more potent and far deadlier than any weapon of mass destruction. I hope that your last screams of horror and pain will haunt the real perpetrators who have been diligently fostering fear and hate and bigotry, and nurturing the spirit of intolerance and self-righteousness. I hope that your fate, sad as it is, will serve as a reminder to everyone that any religious creed worthy of its name should help people live and not die.