Church at­tack in Egypt re­quires a de­ter­mined re­sponse from civil so­ci­ety

The National - News - - OPINION - HA HELLYER Dr H A Hellyer is a se­nior non­res­i­dent fel­low at the At­lantic Coun­cil in Wash­ing­ton, DC and the Royal United Ser­vices In­sti­tute in Lon­don

For many Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties of the West, Christ­mas has come and gone. For Chris­tian Egyp­tian com­mu­ni­ties, the sea­son is only be­gin­ning, as the Cop­tic Or­tho­dox cal­en­dar marks Christ­mas on Jan­uary 7. Alas, the pe­riod has al­ready been marred. On Fri­day, a church of the com­mu­nity was at­tacked by rad­i­cals, re­sult­ing in around a dozen fa­tal­i­ties. The scourge of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence re­mains in Egypt and it must be ad­dressed.

ISIL has claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the vile at­tack, which took place upon Chris­tians as they were at their place of prayer and upon Mus­lim se­cu­rity of­fi­cials who gave their lives to pro­tect their com­pa­tri­ots. The modus operandi bears the hall­marks of ISIL mil­i­tants, who have tar­geted Chris­tian Egyp­tians in their dis­course as well as their acts. It is a com­mon strat­egy of ISIL – the at­tempt to en­gen­der civil strife in or­der to pro­voke an in­ternecine war be­tween com­mu­ni­ties in Egypt. It is in such up­heaval that ISIL and its co­horts hope to make gains, and thus they have tar­geted Chris­tians and Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties that they deem to have strayed from Is­lam. The atro­cious at­tack on a mosque linked to a Sufi or­der in the north of Si­nai last month was prob­a­bly one ex­am­ple of the lat­ter, though ISIL has yet to pub­licly take re­spon­si­bil­ity for it.

But it would be folly to limit re­spon­si­bil­ity for sec­tar­ian dis­course to ISIL alone. At­tacks like these pre­date the group. Sec­tar­ian in­cite­ment against Chris­tians is all too com­mon­place in Egypt – rad­i­cal and ex­trem­ist Is­lamist co­horts dab­ble in it. It is a strange and vile dis­course, one that in­cites against Chris­tians, claim­ing they are col­lec­tively party to op­pres­sion in Egypt. And then, when at­tacks take place, the dis­course de­nies cul­pa­bil­ity. In­deed, it in­vari­ably claims that such at­tacks are false flags, im­ply­ing that murky el­e­ments in the state ap­pa­ra­tus are re­spon­si­ble.

That is one el­e­ment in the dis­cus­sion that should be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion and when non-ISIL web­sites pro­mote such in­cite­ment and sec­tar­i­an­ism, they can­not be deemed to be re­motely ac­cept­able.

But there is more to be con­sid­ered here. The Egyp­tian state can­not stop all ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity in Egypt, any more than any other gov­ern­ment can be ex­pected to – such mil­i­tant at­tacks are im­pos­si­ble to fully pre­vent – but ac­tions can be taken, none­the­less, be­yond a se­cu­rity re­sponse. That re­sponse has to up­hold the high­est stan­dards, be it in Egypt, Europe or else­where, and where it does not, fail­ings ought to be an­a­lysed and so­lu­tions im­ple­mented.

Sec­tar­ian acts and dis­course are another linked mat­ter. Chris­tian groups have com­plained for years that in the af­ter­math of sec­tar­ian strife that is not car­ried out by mil­i­tant groups like ISIL, ac­count­abil­ity is in­suf­fi­ciently pur­sued. In­fa­mous so-called rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ac­tiv­i­ties are pur­sued, which are not only lack­ing in trans­parency, but cease to pro­vide Chris­tian Egyp­tians un­der threat with suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tion. Such a flawed ap­proach em­bold­ens im­punity and en­gen­ders an at­mos­phere where Chris­tians jus­ti­fi­ably feel vul­ner­a­ble.

Clearly, there are struc­tural is­sues here that, of­fi­cially, even the Egyp­tian state it­self says ought to be ad­dressed. In a re­cent in­ter­view, a se­nior Egyp­tian of­fi­cial sug­gested a law crim­i­nal­is­ing “re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion and the es­tab­lish­ment of a na­tional com­mis­sion for com­bat­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion”. Yet, other Egyp­tian fig­ures in the par­lia­ment rep­ri­manded the US Congress for rais­ing the is­sue of Chris­tian Egyp­tians.

All too of­ten the is­sue of Chris­tian Egyp­tians is raised in­ter­na­tion­ally in a splin­tered man­ner, rather than in the pro­mo­tion of cit­i­zen­ship and rights for all Egyp­tians. The former is not an ap­proach that helps the long-term ben­e­fit of Chris­tians in par­tic­u­lar and Egyp­tians in gen­eral. The lat­ter is far more prefer­able.

At the same time, it has to be recog­nised that Chris­tian Egyp­tians face par­tic­u­lar and dis­tinct chal­lenges – and the de­nial of that spe­cific type of vul­ner­a­bil­ity comes with a cost. At a time when ex­trem­ist sec­tar­ian dis­course is pro­moted by dif­fer­ent non-state ac­tors with vi­o­lent con­se­quences, any type of de­nial of sec­tar­i­an­ism en­cour­ages its per­pet­u­a­tion, and holds back the ad­dress­ing of it with due se­ri­ous­ness.

The temp­ta­tion is to crit­i­cise the Mus­lim re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment in Egypt for not do­ing enough to com­bat sec­tar­i­an­ism, thus im­ply­ing that the re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment im­plic­itly sup­ports sec­tar­i­an­ism. That kind of fram­ing is in­cor­rect. The key prob­lem in Egypt is not that the re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment sup­ports sec­tar­i­an­ism, it is that the es­tab­lish­ment is ille­quipped. The higher lead­er­ship of the Azhar, for ex­am­ple, is very sym­pa­thetic to Su­fism, as a main­stream re­li­gious sci­ence – but has been un­able to stamp out the no­tion that Su­fism is hereti­cal. Em­pow­er­ing the re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment to put for­ward a more in­clu­sive, main­stream ap­proach is thus es­sen­tial – but it would mean em­pow­er­ing its in­de­pen­dence as well, which would mean the author­i­ties more gen­er­ally would be­come sub­jects of crit­i­cism as well. All of that is nec­es­sary to en­sure that the cur­ric­ula of the re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment is raised in terms of qual­ity and stan­dard. To carry out the al­ter­na­tive, which some are call­ing for, of sim­ply dic­tat­ing what the re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment says, would sim­ply de­stroy its cred­i­bil­ity even fur­ther, leav­ing more prob­lems than ex­ist at present.

Af­ter at­tacks such as these, the in­stinct is to fo­cus solely on se­cu­rity so­lu­tions. Se­cu­rity so­lu­tions are, of course, im­por­tant – the at­tack­ers are vi­o­lent ex­trem­ists – but there are wider is­sues that ought to be ad­dressed. The dis­course re­quires a wider re­sponse, from an em­pow­ered civil so­ci­ety. The se­ri­ous­ness of the scourge of sec­tar­i­an­ism must be a top pri­or­ity, as its im­por­tance can­not be over­stated.

The Egyp­tian state can­not stop all ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity in the coun­try, any more than any other gov­ern­ment can be ex­pected to

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