One hundred years ago, Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city that was home to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Over the past week, Alexandria has been home to an ugly hatred that spurred Muslim rioters to rampage through Christian neighbourhoods, attacking churches and shops. This in turn caused a Christian candidate in next month’s parliamentary elections to withdraw and left many Christians scared to leave their homes.
Four people died and a nun was stabbed in the worst religious violence in Egypt in five years.
The violence was supposedly in response to a play that was staged in a church in Alexandria that was offensive to Islam. It was staged two years ago. The violence followed a week of protests over the distribution of a DVD of that play.
According to the Associated Press, Islamic leaders accuse Christians of distributing the DVD and have demanded an apology. But the AP says that political leaders and security officials said Islamic extremists distributed the DVD in an effort to tarnish a Coptic Christian candidate running in next month”s elections for Alexandria’s Ghorbal constituency. He has now withdrawn.
Whomever you choose to believe, ask yourselves a few questions.
Why is that Muslims always seem to react violently to real and imagined offense?
A week before the violence in Alexandria, an independent newspaper in Egypt published a full-page report on what it said were false passages in the Bible. Why didn’t 5,000 Christians take to the streets of Cairo to attack mosques and to stab any woman wearing a veil?
Is Islam so fragile that it needs Muslims to demonstrate and riot in Alexandria to protect it? Muslims in Egypt are the majority so why are they acting as if Islam is on the
verge of collapse?
When are Egyptians going to end our self-denial and admit that there is a problem between Muslims and Christians? We pretend everything is just fine and that anyone who dares to say otherwise is a traitor or an agent from abroad sent to sow the seeds of sectarian strife in Egypt.
I am a Muslim Egyptian, which makes me part of my country’s majority. Muslims comprise 90 percent of Egypt’s population. We have been quoting this figure for years now. I am sure it needs updating but the fact that we don’t have more accurate figures for Egypt’s religious make up is a symptom of the self denial that we must confront.
As Muslims in Egypt, we happily embrace the advantages of being the majority but rarely do we embrace its responsibilities.
Those include listening to the complaints of Egypt’s Christians. I have lost count of the number of offensive jokes and remarks I have heard about Christians in Egypt. Even more seriously, discrimination at work makes it difficult for Christians to climb many career ladders, they have limited access to political power and they are subject to ancient laws that insist they gain government permission to carry out even the simplest of renovations in churches.
For example, do we have one Christian mayor in Egypt? In Britain recently, newspapers carried the happy success story of a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan who became the mayor of an English town. Christians in Egypt are not immigrants but are indigenous to Egypt – they predate Muslims certainly – and yet have not had the privilege of holding the office of mayor.
We once had Christian prime ministers in Egypt. But that was back when Alexandria was still a cosmopolitan and diverse city, not one in which Christians are afraid to leave their homes and police must stand guard outside churches.
These problems do not suddenly disappear because Egyptian television dramas and films now include a Christian character or two or because Sunday church services are broadcast live.
We can begin to solve these problems firstly by acknowledging them. Then we can tell the leaders of Egypt’s Muslims and Christians that they have failed us.
It took a week of growing violence for the heads of Egypt’s Muslims and Christians to call for calm and restraint in Alexandria.
Somebody who courageously tackled this issue was Milad Hanna, a leading Egyptian intellectual who appeared on al-Jazeera and apologized for any offense caused to Muslims by the play.
Watching him made me think how much more responsible he was than the men of both religions but I gained no satisfaction from watching a member of my country’s minority apologize to its majority for something he had not done. I know he did it out of concern for national unity. I wish those 5,000 Muslims who took to the streets of Alexandria were as equally concerned with national unity.
And where was the government in all of this?
Reviving Egypt’s once proud past of cosmopolitanism and diversity is not among its priorities. Successive governments have been all too happy to ignore religious fundamentalism – both Muslim and Christian – and too often encouraged it as a way to divert attention from government shortcomings.
One of the biggest mistakes of Egypt’s modern history was President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s expulsion of Egyptian Jews. With that act, he set into motion a shrinking tolerance for religious differences that we continue to suffer from. And we will never be cured unless our government stops ignoring differences between Muslims and Christians.
The past week’s events were painful reminders that the old Alexandria – known as the pearl of the Mediterranean – died a long time ago. It took with it a country that was once famous for its diversity and tolerance.