22 May 2011
Is there anything new about the fatal clashes in Imbaba on 6 April, which claimed 15 lives, left 232 injured and saw damage to two churches in Imbaba? Or is it just another episode in the chapter of sectarian hatred incited by fundamentalists to undermine the spirit of Egyptian unity and peace? Young Egyptians are entitled to know all about the history of sectarian violence in modern times, starting with the heinous events of 1972 in Khanka and Zawya al-Hamra, which left hundreds dead. Indeed, young people should be reminded by the media and in school curricula of the price the nation has paid for religious fanaticism.
Imbaba: September 1991 – April 2011
In September 1991, the hatred culture spread by Islamic fundamentalists was the cause of a massacre in Imbaba similar to that of May 2011. At the time, prominent writer Hussein Ahmed Amin expressed in the weekly al-Ahaaly—the mouthpiece of the left-wing Tagammu Party—his concerns about the future of the country given the dominant culture of fanaticism. He said that his son had learnt at school that: “…Christians are apostates. On TV, the child watches the prominent telepreacher Sheikh Shaarawi warning Muslims against taking Christians as friends, and Sheikh Ghazali, another widely acclaimed preacher, claiming that Christians betrayed Egypt during foreign invasions. If this is what the child hears from well-respected religious symbols, how is he or she expected to feel when fanatics set a church ablaze and cry out they are executing the orders of God and Prophet Mohamed?” Amin concluded his article by warning that extremist sheikhs would distort the awareness of the ‘new generations’.
When Amin voiced these grim warnings, he was not exaggerating. At the time, Egyptian TV frequently hosted extremist sheikhs who would level accusations of apostasy at “the other”; even though it must be noted that it also aired opinions which called for the separation of religion and politics.
Rewarded for their crimes
Safwat Abdel-Ghani, head of the military-wing of the Jihad organisation, branded Farag Fouda—the staunch defender of secularism whose courageous stands cost him his life in 1992—an apostate. In an interview with Akher Sa’ah magazine in 1990, the late Sheikh Shaarawi said Christians were infidels who had to pay jizya. Ironically, since Egyptian revolutionaries toppled former president Mubarak last February, a number of TV channels began rebroadcasting talks given by the late sheikh.
In March 1992, as militants affiliated to Islamic Jamaat were killing dozens of policemen, Fahmi Huweidi, a columnist known for his sympathy with Islamic fundamentalism, criticised in the daily topmost Cairo paper Al-Ahram the security crackdown on militants as though they should be rewarded for their crimes. In Minya in 1997, Islamic Jamaat forced Copts to pay the jizya and killed whoever refused to submit.
It should be borne in mind that such detestable discourse knows no limits. Shaarawi and Ghazali themselves were later dubbed apostates by radical Islamists. In some occasions, accusations of apostasy were accompanied by large-scale terrorist attacks. The 1997 Luxor massacre, which left 58 tourists and four Egyptian policemen dead, represented a tragic interpretation of these concepts.
It was a positive step on the part of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to swiftly arrest suspected Imbaba culprits and refer them to court. Necessary as it may be, the security solution is by no means sufficient. Without relentless efforts to combat extremism and religious fundamentalism—both Islamic and Christian—on different fronts, major among which are the education and media fields, these heinous acts will never go away.
As far as the media is concerned, no-one can fail to notice that, following every attack against Copts, TV channels host Muslim and Christian clergy to analyse the event and offer their viewpoints. The media behaves as though the key to a quick remedy for Egypt’s sectarian disease lies with the clerics. It looks as though the media does not realise there are secularists and liberals who are able to provide a progressive discourse where sectarianism is concerned.
Adel replaced by Omar
For its part, official education has an important role to play in terms of fighting extremism. When my children were at school, they used to be taught that “Adel plays with the ball”. In the mid-1970s, “Adel” was replaced by “Omar”. This reflected a deep change, because “Adel” is a name that carries no religious overtones, while “Omar” is a name clearly associated with Islam and Arabism. In the same context, preparatory school students are taught about the “punishment of apostasy”.
The situation is much worse when it comes to investigating the curricula taught at the nation-wide al-Azhar [Islamic] schools. Following are a few examples. “Non-Muslims living in Muslim countries are outsiders who should not benefit from the natural resources of Islamic lands; Islam does not encourage the performance of prayers in markets, garbage dumps, churches or synagogues; and ‘May Allah curse the Jews and Christians for they built the places of worships on the graves of their prophets’.”
It goes without saying that the principles mentioned above imply direct agitation against Christianity. One can realise the magnitude of the problem when taking into account that the numbers of al-Azhar graduates run into the million.
Establishing a modern State requires a stress on values of national commitment side by side with the dissemination of scientific thought. If officials are convinced that we are the sons and daughters of one nation, then the educational policy has to change dramatically. Religious classes should be substituted by ones on ‘ethics’, where Muslim and Coptic pupils sit side by side to learn Qur’anic and Biblical verses that stress values of sympathy, fraternity, tolerance, commitment to the family and homeland, and suchlike. The dictums of Buddha and Confucius which stress altruism, cooperation and respect for elders need to be taught alongside religious texts.
Experiences of the past prove that dependence on the security solution alone to resolve the sectarian problem is absurd. Sayed Qutb, the father of the modern Jihadist Salafi thought, was executed more than four decades ago. Yet his ideas have managed to live and shape the mentality of many generations. If our officials are serious in their pursuit to combat extremism, they must stand up to the challenge of creating a new educational system and introducing courageous changes to the media.