Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Arab Spring and sectarian violence

There has been a lot of talk from Syria about how the loosening of the dictatorship's effective power would lead to the kind of religious-inspired civil war that took place in Iraq after the American invasion, or the somewhat different civil war that took place in Lebanon after 1976.  The Arab Middle East, which looks so Arab from a distance, on closer inspection reveals itself to be divided between Shia and Sunni Muslims, various kinds of Christians, and non-standard Muslim groups like the Alawis (Syria) and the Druze (Lebanon).  Some of these people see violence as the short root to dominance in their region, or their only hope of self-defense.

One of the most attractive features of the Egyptian revolution (not over yet, I bet) was the way ordinary Egyptian Muslims and Coptic Christians refused to allow themselves to be divided, and literally watched each other's backs in Tahrir Square.  Now the troublemakers are at it, as we see in a meaty article by Yasmine El Rashidi in the New York Review of Books:
Even more worrying, it seems increasingly clear that a variety of groups have been encouraging the violence, in part by rekindling sectarian tensions that had disappeared during the Tahrir Square uprising, when Muslim and Coptic protesters protected one another against Mubarak’s thugs. Since then, there have been a series of attacks on Copts, and the perpetrators seem to include hardline Islamists (often referred to as Salafis), remnants of the former regime, and even, indirectly, some elements of the military now in charge, who have allowed these attacks to play out—all groups that in some way have an interest in disrupting a smooth transition to a freely elected civil government and democratic state.

On the weekend of May 7 and 8, in the Cairo district of Imbaba—an impoverished working-class neighborhood that has been a stronghold of militant Islamists in the past—a group of Salafis tried to force their way into Saint Mina Church, a local Coptic house of worship. They were demanding the release of a woman, Abeer, an alleged convert to Islam whom they claimed—without evidence—the church was holding against her will. (Christians here have long alleged that Islamists kidnap their girls, rape them, and force them to convert to Islam. In recent weeks, those allegations have grown. Now, some Salafis have been making similar charges about Copts.).

The day before, via Twitter, they had called on Muslims to come to the church to “free a Muslim sister,” and on Saturday night, a handful of Salafis and some thugs gathered outside the church, waving sticks and swords, chanting Allahu Akbar (Allah is the Greatest), provoking onlookers. A Christian man pulled out a gun and fired at them from a café nearby, and Christian residents from neighboring buildings followed suit, shooting from balconies. Before long, a battle had begun. The Muslim men and a growing crowd of hooligans brought out Molotov cocktails, rifles, handguns, bludgeons and knives. Eventually, the church was set on fire.

It was several hours before the police, fire department, and army showed up, and even then, witnesses told me, “they just stood by watching.” By the time they began firing tear-gas and dispersing the crowds, the Islamists and their now-large entourage of young men (many of whom were later revealed to be thugs with criminal records) had decided to move on. “They announced they were heading to another church to destroy it,” one eyewitness, a lawyer (and Muslim), told me, “and off they went.” The army just watched them march off, weapons in hand.

Image:  a burned church in Imbaba, guarded after the fact by Egyptian soldiers.

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