Alexandria seems to have caught on sectarian fire. This is the very Alexandria that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and is Egypt’s landmark for civilization and culture.
Last Friday, a young Egyptian man, whom Egyptian authorities had declared mentally unstable, launched a knife attack on a number of churches in Alexandria. The attack led to the death of one Egyptian Copt and the injuries of others. The attack further led to religious riots between fanatics from both sides also causing the deaths of some Muslims. The entitled fear in this regards is that these events could become “imminent and violent” confrontations. Reverend Morqos Aziz Khalil, a priest at the Mualaqa church in Egypt, warned of the “anger of the meek.” During an interview with Farag Ismail on alarabiya.net, he accused Egyptian Muslim writers of a number of state newspapers, of instigating Muslims against the Coptic Christians.
It is hard to believe the Egyptian government’s claim that the attack was an isolated one, that it does not represent a public crisis or that the real problem arose from nowhere.
The recent case of religious rioting is not the first in the contemporary history of Egypt. Problems between Muslims and Coptic Christians began in 1972 with the events of Al Khanka and Al Zawiya Al-Hamra, as well as other incidents up until the 1980s. In 1977, former president Sadat admitted that there was problem between members of both religions when a church in Fayoum was burnt down. The Coptic-Islamic confrontations continued in Egypt after the events of Al Khosheh, in the governorate of Sohag in 1999 and 2000.
Other incidents include that of Samalot, the crisis of Al Nabaa newspaper, which featured the scandalous pictures of the priest of Deir Al Muharraq Monastery, as well as the matter the conversion of a Christian woman called Wafa to Islam, who was married to a priest. More recently, Alexandria witnessed another crisis that came about following the distribution of a DVD by members of the Mari Girgis church that was deemed offensive to Muslims. The play entitled, “I was blind but now I see,” tells the story of a Christian who converted to Islam then reconverted back to Christianity based on his belief that it is the best creed. Muslims protested angrily against the play, which led to some deaths.
Such confrontations that usually take place in Upper Egypt can be explained by the fact that Upper Egypt is home to a number of extremist Salafist groups. However, for extremism to reach the city of Alexandria, Egypt’s cultural plot and most famous port since it was built by Alexander the Macedonian in 332 B.C. is an indication that all Arab societies are moving towards suicide.
Alexandria is the city that film director Yousef Shahin had celebrated and glorified, as the symbol of Egyptian unity. He used the example of Alexandria to defend Egyptians and Arabs accused of national and religious extremism in his movie ‘Alexandria-New York.’ The film tells the story of an Egyptian director, implying himself, who received an invitation to the United States but refused it due to his rejection of American foreign policy. The director finally agrees to go the United States and answers American journalists firmly presenting an image of tolerant Egyptians, with Alexandria as his model of tolerance and acceptance of different nationalities and religions. At the celebration that honors his visit, he presents three of his friends; one Muslim, one Christian and a Jew, reflecting the tolerance of diversity in Egypt.
In light of recent sectarian conflict, such images have now eroded in Alexandria, as well as in Iraq and perhaps also in Lebanon.
Back to Egypt, however, who is to bear the sins of religious and factional extremism?
Is it the state, as some would attribute civil strife to former president Sadat’s policy of flirting with fundamentalist movements? Some would support this argument, yet others believe that the issue is much more complicated and that what we are currently suffering from is a state of detachment from the national state and a realization of sectarianism and ethnicity.
I believe that the crisis of religious extremism that is widely spreading is a complicated issue. The problem, as Borhan Ghalion says, could be attributed to the fact that parties and current religious and nationalist movements before the invasion of Kuwait, had become the “alternative for mobilization.” This is mainly because the Arab republics had lost hope in the establishment of a modern political state gambling on, “the revival of established cultural ties,” to protect them.
However, why do we see, from time to time, advocates of “factional ties” whether religious, cultural, tribal or otherwise, working on increasing the solidarity of their factions at the expense of national unity? This contradiction exists even within government and political institutions. Parliament for instance, is a political institution that should reflect a sense of belonging to national identity but has simply become the defender of opposing identities.
In Egypt, the news informed us that the religious committee of the Egyptian parliament, in its meeting recently, headed by Dr. Ahmed Omar Hashim and attended by Dr. Zeinab Radwan, parliamentary representative, had unanimously agreed to cancel the accord of religious rights that was signed by some priests and the former deputy of Al Azhar mosque, Sheikh Fawzi Al Zafzaf. It was cancelled on the pretext that the treaty is suspicious and instigates apostasy and treason. But for what reason?
The treaty read, “We believe in the right of every individual to embrace any religion that they want. We believe that any individual, male or female, has a sacred right in embracing or refusing a religion without being subjected to harm from any political or religious authority.”
Thus, we see that parliament, along with the enthusiasm of an official clergyman who has close ties to state authority (Omar Hashim) seeks to counter any dedication to religious tolerance. This simply reflects that a common problem exists that brings different parties together, from politicized Islamic preachers to officials of the Arab world.
Contradiction prevails as one searches for a future source of guidance but has to look to the past to find tolerance and openness. An example would be the honorable scholar, astute politician and intelligent warrior Emir Abdel Qader Al-Jazairy who died in 1883. Abdel Qader fought French invaders in the Algerian city of Wahrane for years. Following his capture, he was exiled to Greater Syria and would interpret the Holy Quran and books by Mohyi ad-Din Ibn Arabi.
There are numerous examples of Abdel Qader’s nobleness as he protected Muslims and Christians alike and was often praised and thanked by both Muslim and Christian leaders. During the imprisonment of Imam Shamil, who led the anti-Russian resistance for over 30 years of the Caucasian people, had sent a message to Abdel Qader thanking him for defending the Christians in Greater Syria from the injustice that they faced. Abdel Qader replied, “We express our deep regret for the loss of preachers and lack of supporters for the truth. We have reached a level of ignorance to the extent that people believe that Islam is based on austerity.”
Similarly, the Algerian priest Baffy sent a letter to Abdel Qader thanking him for his good actions towards Christians. Abdel Qader replied, “Our good actions towards the Christians are simply the implementation of Islamic teachings and respect of human rights.”
It is from this last sentence that refers to respect for human rights that we realize that the civilized manners of this Sufi and modernized scholar comes from his deep faith in the philosophy of love. Abdul Qader believed that people should only be accountable to God for the choice of their religion.
Emir Abdel Qader sought to build bridges between humanity because it sought one truth. This ideology of love had long been adopted by Sheikh Ibn Arabi, whom Abdul Qader was buried next to in Damascus, and who in his poems said, “I embrace the religion of love wherever I am. Love is my religion and faith.”
Figures such as that of Abdul Qader Al-Jazairy are rare to come across in our history however; such rarity makes it the most precious.
In conclusion, from the philosophy of love and the bridge of communication, we ask Alexandria that overlooks the wide sea; have the ships of love left your seas?