Monday 8 April 2013

The first rule of sectarianism

Reports ranged from "Mob of angry Copts are at the cathedral protesting against the Pope (while a funeral was going on, nota bene)." to "The church is to blame for the crisis, after all, they dared to have a funeral at the cathedral." to "Christians used their guns, conveniently stored in the cathedral, to fire at MOI." to "The church planned this out to be a civil war". 

There are typically four stages to a full-on sectarian crisis in Egypt. First, you have the long, hard, arduous work of actually spreading sectarian venom in society. Luckily, there is no shortage of people willing to take that noble task upon themselves. Whether it is the ruling Muslim Brotherhood or one of its offshoots, or your random, friendly, neighborhood (TV-)preacher or your regular public figure, even a presidential candidate (dubbed "moderate Islamist" by the never-naive mainstream Western media), hate speech has become common. 

There is a constant flow of rumors about the Coptic 'state-within-a-state' and the alleged vast amount of weapons stored within the churches. These rumors are not only unsubstantiated, but the ones which qualify as clear & direct incitement to the use of violence are almost never condemned, let alone punished by authorities. The Egyptian mind has often proven fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Not only Copts, but all other minorities, whether Baha'i, Shia or atheist are sometimes considered agents for foreign powers out to stifle Egypt's mindblowing democratic/economic progress. 

Photo of the attack on the Coptic Cathedral - via Ahram Online

Anyhow, after the successful spread of such rhetoric, the second stage of a sectarian crisis can begin. All it needs is a little spark, nothing big: a girl and a boy who happen to be from different religious backgrounds are rumored to be in love, a fight between two merchants, a Facebook status update, a scribble on a wall etc. Anything really is enough to be construed as proof for those who believe the Copts are out to destroy the Egyptian state with weapons stored in their churches (apparently, a meager 10% of the population with a history of sectarian violence are very likely to be plotting something like that). 

So what happens? Random mob violence is what usually happens, and collective punishment of entire communities. A small group might start the violence, but then people join in, fired up by chants and calls (or media reports) which echo in the streets as shops are set on fire, houses are looted and people are literally forced to flee for their lives. Usually there are a few dead here and there. That's pretty much it really. 

The majority of people who are involved in these attacks are arguably not paid to do so, nor ordered to so by some political figure. They are people whose minds are saturated enough with that venomous broth which has been slowly simmering in society for a long time. It is not Mubarak or Morsi who order these attacks, as some like to believe. Yes, they bear some responsibility for either leaving criminals unpunished or actively promoting sectarianism, but the fact of the matter is that sectarianism is well-founded in society so it doesn't need a top-down approach. 

So the violence happens, the third stage can commence. No sectarianism without victim-blaming. The circle is full when the incendiary rhetoric that was used in stage one is repeated again, this time to justify the violence or to claim it was the Copts themselves who are at fault (or whichever community is attacked). 

When it comes to media, one important factor in stage three is reporting about the facts as "clashes" instead of attacks. Because it just sounds better or is more politically correct, or because journalists choose to ignore facts or not do their jobs. In the end, the facts are misrepresented as clashes between two equally responsible sides. This theory can be supported if one assumes people having a funeral (of victims of another sectarian incident, nota bene) in a cathedral is somehow an attack warranting a counter-attack with various weapons. 

Finally, the fourth and most important stage of any sectarian crisis commences. It is the part in which a lovely state representative with a wide smile tells us there is no sectarianism in Egypt. He then recounts stories from his youth in which he used to have a Muslim/Christian neighbor with whom he used to play in the street, or alternatively, depending on the level of apparent tolerance needed, in whose house he used to eat during feasts and special occasions.

The first rule of sectarianism: you do not talk about sectarianism. 

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