Saturday, April 15, 2006

Sectarian Violence in Alexandria

Yesterday, in what seems to be another tragic expression of Muslim-Christian tension in Egypt, one man died and several others were injured in knife attacks in Alexandria.
The direct motives or the identity of the attackers isn't yet clear, although Alexandria seems to be remaining calm, in contrast to events surrounding the DVD scandal in October 2005.
This latest event comes amid an apparent atmosphere of general low-level antagonism between the two faith communities in the country. Coptic Christians, who are adherents to a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, form about 8-10% of Egypt's 70 million In 2000, sectarian violence killed and injured 60 people in al Kosheh, Upper Egypt after a dispute between a Christian and a Muslim in a shop in the town. In 2004, angry protests took place in Cairo after allegations that the wife of a disabled Coptic priest had been abducted and forced to convert to Islam.

In Alexandria last October, three died (including a Nun) and over 140 were injured following riots at the Saint George church in Muharram Bek. The violence flared in response to rumours of the distribution of a DVD showing an amateur dramatic performance in the church which was allegedly offensive to Muslims. The play, entitled "I was blind but now I can see" (From John 9:25) dealt with the sensitive topic of conversion from Christianity to Islam (and back again). It seems as if there was little in the play itself that could be considered 'offensive to Islam', which of course is a shorthand for offensive to Muslims, and is not quite the same thing.

These previous eruptions of violence all hinged around a supposed provocation, whether it was the argument between a shopkeeper and customer, or the offence caused by a play most people had never seen. The casus belli, in most of these cases, is almost absurdly minor. In Alexandria last October, initially peaceful protests about the Saint George play were ratcheted up into something violent after a young man took it upon himself to stab a nun, in a premonition of yesterday's attacks. The tilt-switch between civilised protest and murder seems to be exceptionally delicate in Egypt at this time.

So why is it so delicate? Why does such seemingly minor provocation so often result in people being butchered in the streets by their former neighbours? Can it really be, as one glib government official in Minya Governate told Al Ahram after the riots in al Kosheh that "In the south, people are hot-tempered, and small things can end up with someone being killed"?

Plenty of sociologists and political analysts in Egypt and abroad have pointed to social deprivation, political stagnation, lack of education, and so on as the root causes of such a willingness to turn offence into a reason for violence. It is likely that all of these in part are true. Nevertheless, it still doesn't explain the psychological process of being 'upset' at the actions or words of someone that do not directly impact upon the self, and then converting that into the will to murder or destroy property.

The psychology of the situation is indeed complex. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, the psychology is also unfortunately familiar to me. The truth is that in a situation where there is social deprivation, political stagnation etc, ie where the avenues of social change are closed, and where people are angry and discontented at their lot, people are all too willing take the time, and make the effort, to be offended. These are the fruits of the psychological condition known as the persecution complex.

In Egypt, the persecution complex is present in both christian and muslim communities, and the straightjacket of Egyptian public life affects everyone to a greater or lesser degree. Muslims, rightly or wrongly, are part of a global perception of being picked on by the 'christian' west. The fallacy or otherwise of this perception isn't really at issue here, but it is certain that it does exist. And Egyptian Christians publicly and privately complain of widespread and systematic discrimination. Many have countered that Coptic complaints are routinely exaggerated.

Unfortunately, the operation of the persecution complex, where supposed offence gives rise to demonstration and discontent has a kind of snowball effect – where minor provocation turns into very serious provocation very quickly. Whatever the immediate reasons for yesterday's attacks in Alexandria, they constitue a very serious development in the relations between the two faith communities here. A knife attack isn't a scandalous play, or a scurrilous rumour, or even a shop-front dispute; it's murder and it is a very real escalation of an already bloody conflict.

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