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Monday, November 17, 2003

Reciprocal Silence: Egypt’s Christians and America’s Muslims


"God who told the first killer, Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.”…To His justice, the blood of twenty Copts, which flowed on the soil of El-Kosheh, upper Egypt, cries out. … If it doesn’t receive justice on earth, it seeks justice in God alone, He is the source of all justice. The verdict that was issued in the El-Kosheh case was a source of disappointment to all Copts. It left a deep wound in their souls and a scar in their memory that time will not erase. Thus, they turn to God who has never forgotten Abel’s blood. For He establishes justice and provides comfort."

I read these words in utter amazement. The Egyptian Christian Coptic Pope Shenouda III turns to God for justice. While the rest of the world has managed to escape the Y2k bug unscathed, the operating software for the Southern Egyptian brain ran into a massive glitch on December 31, 1999. The uneasy existence, officially know as harmonious, between Egyptian Muslims and Christians erupted into an orgy of killing in the little town of El Kosheh. Some small dispute between a seller and buyer left many people dead and houses of God burnt.

The south of Egypt has had a history of feudal violence and revenge killings. During one of the years of the Al Capone era, Chicago could only be rivaled by El Menia in terms of homicides statistics. The late Egyptian playwright and novelist Tawfiq Al Hakim mentioned this piece of trivia as he told of his years as district attorney in the Egyptian countryside. Al Hakim talked of Southern Egypt and Chicago as the two extremes of criminal violence, an advanced extreme motivated by money and a backward one motivated by tribal honor.

So homicides are nothing new to the south of Egypt. Worse, murders often went unpunished by the state as no witnesses could be found, cycles of revenge continued generation after another and the dead were not mourned until avenged for. So difficult and unruly the South, or more precisely the Middle South, of Egypt can be that it took the brutal Ottoman Sultan Salim I many years to conquer it after the fall of Cairo. Before him the ruling Mamluks employed the Arab tribes of the desert to raid the Egyptian villages to help them keep a grip on their holdings.

Tough place that middle south of Egypt--its people are renowned for their generosity, loyalty, warmth but above all, their stubbornness. Akhenaton and his beautiful wife Nefertiti established a new monotheistic religion and capital in the Middle South. We don’t know if they did that to simply get away from the more established religious centers of Thebes and Memphis, to challenge the stubborn, or to seek protection from the people of the middle south. The reign of the single god Aton did not last, and the established order of Amon was soon restored. The capital of Egypt moved away from the Middle South, back to Thebes.

The fact that massive violence erupted in the South of Egypt and many people got killed is not a major shock. The Luxor tourist killings in 1997 speak clearly of that, and for the last several decades that part of Egypt continued to be very difficult and, by the relatively peaceful standards of Egypt, violent.

The murders of 21 Copts in El-Kosheh are yet to result in any serious convictions. One wonders why …is it the traditional silence awaiting vengeance for the killings? This is highly doubtful. The Copts of the Middle South are as renowned for their stubbornness as their Muslim kin. Is it likely that they would want to continue the feudal killing without getting some police officers and attorneys from Cairo or elsewhere involved? Could it be that they want to seek justice with their own hands? This is unlikely; the Copts of the middle south or for that matter throughout Egypt know that they stand little chance of gaining justice on their own. I am inclined to think that witnesses said all there is to say, or at the very least tried to.

I wonder, 21 dead, yet over 90 suspects were set free and only four were convicted, with only one receiving a sentence of over 10 years (for illegal possession of weapons, not murder). It just does not add up. Could it be the local police force had colluded with the killings and refuses to self implicate? This allegation has been made by some Coptic organizations, and several outspoken Copts in the US have accused the Egyptian police of playing a complicit role in this massacre. Some Copts say that Muslim judges and district attorneys absolutely refuse to seek or apply serious punishment on a Muslim for killing a non-Muslim. Could it be that the district attorney in charge or the panel of judges just believe that there can be no law above the Law of God, and their own interpretation of the Law of God precludes the killing of a Muslim for killing a non-Muslim? Or could it be that these very same people are concerned that the community would seek retaliation had they sought to apply the laws of Egypt and seek the death penalty for convicted killers? Could the restraint be political? Could it be that the Province or the Egyptian Government feel that hanging a dozen Muslims, or even fewer, would ignite waves of anger that could cost the lives of more people. Could it be that that the Government itself is choosing to circumvent the law in an attempt to protect life? Would any of this be right? But why are Muslim intellectuals silent?

There are indeed many possibilities and many ways to attempt to understand the lack of serious convictions. In well-publicized cases Egyptian justice is often swift; three years is an eternity. Some Copts in the US and elsewhere have suggested that the belated recognition by Egypt of the Coptic Christmas on January 7th as a national holiday is a bone thrown to the Copts in exchange for the light convictions for the accused killers of El-Kosheh. Yet the government, with relatively muted criticism, has allowed the state attorney to appeal the case to the Court of Cessation, Egypt’s highest court. This is encouraging.

In the last two weeks I came across many government-owned and opposition Egyptian newspapers. The diversity of views on many issues is impressive. I saw many different theories, including some very good insight into the Iraq war and a tremendous amount of coverage of the Palestinian daily struggle and the Road Map. I did not see one, not a single word or article, on El-Kosheh. I did not see any analysis of the possible motives for the most recent court ruling, nor have I seen any analysis on the Coptic community post-El-Kosheh in Middle Egypt. Has there been any behavioral change? Are the Copts frightened now, fully subjugated, or are they defiant?

Was El-Kosheh a massacre or simply a tragic incident? Massacres are not measured in the numbers of the dead, they are measured by their impact. Massacres instill fear in the hearts of their would be victims, to ensure compliance, subjugation, or eviction. Massacres move neutrals to action, hearts of stone flicker a bit at stories of massacres. The victims of massacres of Srebrenica and of Sabra and Shatila measured in the thousands, Deir Yassin in the hundreds, and the Boston Massacre was less than 10. In Bosnia, Srebrenica finally forced an end to the war, through an escalation at first. Sabra and Shatila forced the Israelis out of Beirut and Sharon into disgrace for well over 10 years. Deir Yassin frightened the Palestinians out of their homeland. And the Boston Massacre, with the fewest victims of all, triggered the American War of Independence. Massacres bring about change, for better or worse. When a change is needed, small numbers get killed unnoticed, the numbers keep rising, and one day we wake up to the news of Srebrenica. Then something happens, a change occurs. Let’s hope El Kosheh is recognized for what it is, a massacre that forces all Egyptians to think …and to change.

We must label El-Kosheh a massacre and set about to seek some answers. Why did it happen? Why does it continue to go under-reported, under-discussed and under-analyzed? Sheikh Muhammad Sayed El Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar and a leading Muslim spokesperson, spoke very passionately to the cameras during the latest Iraq War, issuing a religious “fatwa” or responsa, that those who die in suicide bombing against the American invasion of Iraq are martyrs. “Shahidun, shahidun, shahid!” were his exact words, meaning martyrs who will not be punished for committing suicide and will be rewarded in the after life for death in the cause of God.

While I disapprove of the war on Iraq, I am astounded by how a leader like Sheikh El Tantawi can manage to come up with an unambiguous Islamic legal ruling on suicide bombing while remaining virtually silent on the killing of his innocent non-Muslim compatriots.

The issues of the legality of the death sentence or even life imprisonment for a Muslim convicted for the killing of an innocent non-Muslim appears far less ambiguous than the issue of suicide bombing. A very clear-cut and passionate declaration by Sheikh El Tantawi affirming the position of Islamic Law on the issues related to the killing of non-Muslims by a Muslim and against obstruction of justice is sorely needed. While I have not seen a single news report from Sheikh El Tantawi on El-Kosheh, I understand that he has indeed reached out to the Coptic Community.

In a few hours or days after the first suicide bombing against the American invasion, Sheikh El Tantawi spoke to the world, very passionately. Yet, it has been over three years now since El-Kosheh; how clear has he made his position on this issue. Is he quiet because he does not wish to alienate those who believe that serious punishment is inappropriate? Or is the case so complicated, and he does not wish to interfere with Egyptian Law? Yet Sheikh El Tantawi feels free to interfere with Egyptian foreign policies both in regards to Palestine and Iraq. And his pronouncements are generally not case specific, even though they maybe issued in response to specific situations. Surely Sheikh El Tantawi can say that those who murder innocent Non-Muslims are “murderers, murderers, murderers” and should be punished. Those who stand in the way of justice are enemies, not friends, of Islam.

Sheikh El Tantawi can do more, but at least he is trying to reach out to the Coptic community. Far more worrying is the silence of Muslim intellectuals both in Egypt and in the west.

Here in the US, the silence of Muslims on cases of abuse and discrimination against non-Muslims in Muslim countries is complicit. Twenty-some Christians are gunned down in a Pakistani church, the killings of Christians in Indonesia, the complete lack of freedom of worship for Non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia …and we are silent. We don’t say much; we don’t even offer condolences or stand for one-minute silence. We just move on as if it’s irrelevant to us. Yet we are not disconnected from the interests of the Islamic world, and we rise in protest or in support of events in the Islamic world. We Muslims, in America and elsewhere in the west, have shown little interest in the treatment of minorities in the Islamic world.

With a few exceptions, such as the courage and eloquence of people likeYale’s Khaled Abou El Fadl, Muslim religious and political representative organizations remain largely silent. True, they condemn acts of violence against Americans committed under the false pretense of Islam. Indeed this is a step forward, but it will be far more powerful when this stand against violence is not connected to political gain. We must speak up against violence even when there is no gain, even where there maybe pain. Our condemnations must be tied directly to a principled religious and moral Islamic core belief, or indeed a core set of beliefs encompassing above all the sanctity of life, justice and the doing of good on earth.

9/11 has triggered much pain and uncertainty to all of America, perhaps to none more than to the Muslim, Arab American and immigrant communities. For me personally, the most painful was not the spilling out of the underlying religious and ethnic prejudices of the mainstream media, or the rubbish of the racist talking heads, or the Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell brand of hateful fundamentalism; the most painful was the reaction of other minorities. Those who are normally anti defamation at best stood silent; more often than not, they fed the fires of hate. I feel no more 9/11 pain than when I hear Egypt’s Copts in America, blinded by their own anger over the treatment of the Coptic minority in Egypt, inciting discrimination against Muslim Americans. The vast majority of Copts in the US do not take part in this hate, but as always the loud minority dictates the agenda and paints the silent or ambivalent majority with its own ugly brush.

But the Copts in the US and elsewhere in the west can do little to fan the fire of hate and anxiety; they represent no more than a hand fan aiding a jet engine when compared to the Christian Fundamentalists, Zionist Right or indeed the secular Neo-Conservatives. And I know the jet of hate and racism will eventually blow away the little hand fan too. Yet that self-destructive little hand fan causes me personally far more pain than the jet. Because the Copts know better. They know of millions of Muslims who share their values, laugh at the same jokes, sing the same songs, eat the same food and share most habits. They know most Egyptian Muslims are simple, non-hateful and peaceful people. Most Egyptian are pious, God-fearing people who pepper their speech, indeed their whole life, with “alhamdulillah, inshallah, astaghfirullah..etc,” meaning thank God, God willing, ask forgiveness of God, etc.

In the more classical sense of the word, most Egyptians are “orthodox” be they Muslim or Christian. Their religious faith, their piety, is as much an ethnic as a religious heritage, an integral part of their whole being. The vast majority of Egyptian Muslims and Christians are peaceful and believe, at their core, in coexistence. Doubtless there exists discrimination against the Copts in Egypt in many facets, doubtless the extent of the discrimination is not recognized nor accepted by the Muslim majority or the state. Yet difficult as it maybe, just as many Christian Palestinians, Lebanese, and Iraqis are in the forefront of defending and standing by the Muslim minority in America. More Copts and indeed the American Coptic organizations must speak out too and stand shoulder to shoulder with Egyptian American Muslims in the US. To do otherwise is to accept the injustice of the discrimination in Egypt and to wish its equivalent institutionalized right here in the US and elsewhere in the west.

Many of the outspoken Copts in the US come across as simply wishing revenge, and they see discrimination against Muslims in America as some sort of payback. Their claimed belief in minority rights is voided by their hate. And again the troubling silence of the majority of the Copts and of the US Coptic organizations is indeed a parallel to the equally troubling silence of the American Muslim minority and institutions about the abuse of Christian minorities in Islamic countries. A reciprocal selfish and self-destructive silence that feeds hate and undermines the rights we all aspire to for ourselves. Belief in minority rights and in religious freedom can never be selective, and to claim it for narrow selfish reasons reveals intellectual dishonesty that betrays a freedom-loving tolerant facade and reveals an ugly self-hating interior.

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