Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sectarian Clashes in Egypt: Bad Romance, Honor and Religion

Days after the events of May 5, 2011 in the urban enclave of Imbaba, Cairo, Egypt, the truth was hard to come by, but it eventually will come out.  

Sectarian clashes have been occurring in Egypt for a very long time.  However, with the fall of Mubarek and the general extinguishing of his dreaded police state, the security that at least kept a lid on it is now gone and the actors seem more free than ever to push the boundaries.  Which they have been doing since right before the events of January 25.  Some of those events can be read here.

As with most stories, it seems that both sides involved in Friday's events can share the blame.  The basic facts can be found here.  The rest of the story can be best related to Western readers by invoking either "Romeo and Juliet" or, better yet, "West Side Story".  Is it true?  We don't know.  The young woman in question sent a video to an Islamist website that was then sent to Egypt Today, a local newspaper, that printed the "interview" whole.  She later "phoned in" an interview to TahrirTV, the Muslim Brotherhood's new Satellite television station.  Why she has not contacted one of the other "liberal" or less biased papers or stations is unanswered at this time.

It begins with a young woman named Abeer Fahkry(arabic).  

Abeer was born into a Christian family in the enclave of Imbaba.  Imbaba, for historical and geographical purposes, is a very poor, working class neighborhood on the edge of Cairo proper in the Giza district.  It is also the site of the bread riots in the late 70's and the enclave that the Salafi trend had claimed to have pacified and owned in the late 80's and early 90's when crime was intolerably high and the government could not control it.  In fact, Imbaba may be best described as the home of Ali Baba and his forty thieves because, today, it is full of "upper Egyptians" (from the tribal areas north of Cairo), family names and clans rule the social structure, thieves, drug and gun runners mix with the working poor.  The police, they say, are afraid to enter because, as the story goes, if they go in, they will come out in body bags.  

Abeer, per her own interview, was married to a young Christian man several years ago.  As she reports it, because that is what was expected.  She became pregnant.  Her husband discovered that the child was going to be a girl and then accused her of sleeping with his brother.  Keeping in mind that these families tend to live together for long periods because they are poor and young married people cannot afford to buy their own homes.  

After a big fight, possible physical abuse, she says that her husband threw her out of the house. She went to her parent's house.  Her mother wanted to make a report to the police about the abuse.  Her father said "no" because he was afraid that the people would talk and the family's honor would be damaged.  She stayed with her family until after the birth of her daughter.  She did not return to her husband and he did not inquire after her or he child for years (this appears to be establishing some basis for a claim of abandonment and divorce).

While she was living at home, she apparently met a young Muslim man whom she wanted to marry.  Of course, for them to marry, she would have to change her faith.  In Egypt, there are very few inter-faith marriages and even fewer where each of the partners maintain their own, separate religion.  Where these occur, these often inspire insults and derogatory remarks.  People cannot imagine how one or the other can hold such beliefs without it causing confusion between them and any of their children.  What are the children then?

She started taking Islamic courses and, in September 2010, went to Al Azhar, the main Mosque in Cairo, to change her faith officially (keeping in mind that, for anyone to change their faith, they have to have their official records and their identity cards updated - a long process).  At that time, she did not go home.  She left straight away with the young man in question to a village outside of Cairo (the village where the young man was from?).  As she states, because changing her religion was a big deal and her family would have tried to stop her or change her mind.  

Of course, to add fuel to the fire, she did not call her family and tell them where she went or what she was doing.  She just disappeared.  

In March 2011, something about the Revolution had occurred, she felt freer and, of course, they were out of money (keeping in mind they were not married yet since she did not have her divorce) so she called her family.  Who came right away and took her back with them to her family's home.

Here is where it gets sketchy.  Did she go back with them because she wanted to see her family or to get the money or because they some how forced her?  The problem, of course, as we see later in the story is that she was not without some resources.  She still had her cell phone.  Even through the list of "detentions" that she goes through.  So, it sounds like she asked her family for financial assistance and even went back to stay with them, but they were immediately concerned with the fact that she had converted to Islam for this young man and staged an intervention?  Or did she participate at first to please her family?  Or was this something she cooked up with her boyfriend who did not seem to be concerned with her where abouts for several months.

She says that right away her family turned her over to the church that held her as a "prisoner" for eight days in one church then moved her to another with some "old women" (nuns?), then to a hotel with some Christian's to stand guard and then on to Imbaba where she was held in a room that was insulated with iron bars on the window so she could not get out.  She said that they were bringing a car to take her to the registrar (to officially change her religion back to Christianity).

At that point she says she called her Professor (teacher?) and asked him to bring a car to the registrar's office and that she would leave with him, even if he had to run some people over (that is a loose translation).

That did not happen.  The person she had called was her fiancee(? Yassin) and he came with a group of men to the church demanding her release.  Per Abeer's account, there was much fear inside the church so a nun came and released her from the cell.  As she was leaving, someone called her phone and said they were a detective and asked her where she was.  Instead of answering, she shut off the phone and left the building and went...?  She apparently did not call anyone or tell anyone that she was out safe because the next events took a terrible turn and Abeer does not appear until days later.

The Christian baker across the street from the church saw the group of young men angrily confronting the Father of the church, demanding the location of the woman.  When he said she was not there, they pushed and shoved him.  The baker got his gun and fired a shot into the air, dispersing the crowd.  Did he know what was going on?  No.  He simply saw the crowd and reacted.  The young men scattered, but, by then, someone had already put a message out on twitter and facebook claiming that another young converted woman was kidnapped by the church.  (Zenobia at Egyptian Chonicles, questions the timing, but has pictures and videos of the event)

Keep in mind, all of this is happening on a Friday, minutes after prayers have let out and only a few hours after Kamilla Shalata (the woman that allegedly sparked the Alexandria church bombings and shootings) had appeared on TV saying that she had not converted to Islam and that she had returned to her husband (another incident where a marital spat turned into a national tragedy).  

The twitted messages included a hash tag, #anasalaf, I am Salafi.  At this point, hundreds of young men poured out of the local mosque and marched on the church.  That does not mean that they were all Salafis, but there is a probability that there is a Salafi contingent there and that the preacher was potentially Salafi.  Also, no one has mentioned yet as to whether this was part of the sermon or if they all suddenly received a massive tweet bomb with the information.  How do hundreds of young men know to march to the Church fifteen minutes after prayers?

Someone called the church to tell them that Salafeyeen (Salafis) were marching on the church.  Hundreds of young Christian men ran to the church to defend it, most armed with sticks, knives and molotov cocktails.  When the crowd gathered outside the church, somebody started shooting.  Who, at this moment, is unknown though the baker says that he did let off the first shot to disperse the earlier smaller crowd.  

Twelve died and over 200 were injured.  Over what may or may not be a true story.  The video interview of the young woman in question has not been investigated nor her identity proven.  It came from a known Islamist organization.  Her telephone interview was on the Brotherhood's satellite channel, also Islamist, and recently joined with the Salafi contingent in a unity rally where they claim they will have the next great Islamic State and join with the rest of the Islamic States for the Great Islamic Caliphate.  

The Voice of Salaf, an organization out of Alexandria, are making claims that the bishop of the church had bought guns from Israel (!) under the guise of bicycles that he had passed out to "his Muslim brothers and sisters" for Eid al Fritr (end of Ramadan) and had, instead, armed the Christians to attack Muslims.  It also claims that, regardless of Camilla Shahata (Shalit, Shalet, etc) interview, they still consider her a captive of the church.  It goes on with some other accusations including, most importantly, that the Coptic Christians were part of the Mubarek regime and enjoyed privileges while the Salafis were suppressed.  It names members of the Mubarek government who were Copts.

Obviously, there were some Copts in the government apparatus (but, then again, what group was not represented) and they did not as a major movement support the revolution for fear of exactly what was happening although large numbers of Christian youth did go down into Tahrir Square.  So, that accusation is simply provocation.  Second, (lost original link) the sell of guns in Egypt skyrocketed after the revolution as people now believed they needed personal protection since the police and judicial system essentially collapsed.  Third, as per reports, the Christians were not the only ones armed though they may have fired first to "protect their property, persons and religious institutions".  Fourth, the weapons in question appear to be AK-47s which are not weapons produced by Israel.  Israel produces it's own models, largely knock offs or improvements over European and American weapons.

The Copts are not helping their situation by insisting they were safer under Mubarek (true, but provocative in the current atmosphere) and protesting in front of the US embassy insisting on outside protection if the Egyptian interim government cannot provide it.  The Muslim Brotherhood blames the violence on "anonymous forces" which is actually true to the extent that they were unknown individuals who are not related directly to any leadership of the Salafis movement.  However, they are being incited by extremely ridiculous conspiracy theories being spread by the same people that the brotherhood just joined hands with.

The Christians are arming themselves and are sending out flyers telling others to come and defend the churches. (via Egyptian Chronicles)  The police have arrested 190 people in relation to the event including the "mastermind" that appears to be Ms. Abeer's alleged boyfriend/husband (Yassin Anwar?).  They are forming a group to "investigate" the events, but it is difficult to say what the result will be.

It seems abundantly clear that nobody called the police at the beginning of this event because they did not expect them to respond or they did not expect any results.  This may be a fact based on some of the eyewitness interviews around (all interesting reads) the net that the police in the area were more concerned with "keeping the peace" than with enforcing the law.  That means that everyone would have been told to go home and mind their own business, even if some law had been broken.  The police, of course, said that they were called earlier on and when they went into the church, there was no young woman there.  Abeer claims it was because she had already been let out.

Unfortunately, along with the Salafis claim that the Christians are arming themselves with guns from the dreaded enemy Israel, Abeer ends her interview claiming that there are more women being held around the country in different churches trying to force them to convert back to Christianity. 

Both of which equals high provocation for continuing strife even as the revolutionaries are calling for a major unity march, reminding people that it was Christians and Muslims in Tahrir Square together.  This call comes after the relatively small march that took place on Sunday, March 9.

In the end, the problem in Egypt comes down to ideas of personal rights v. family honor, the enforcement of law to protect individuals as well as prevent criminal activity and, finally, but not the least, antiquated social and legal concepts that some how believes that religion is anybody's business but the individual.  The laws can change and enforcement of protection of individual rights for life, liberty, property and the freedom of conscience can be more quickly corrected than the social and cultural issues that can only be corrected over long term exposure to the public.  A long process.

If any part of this young woman's story is true, then it is a black eye for the Coptic Christian church.  While they may explain their concerns over conversion as a threat against the existence of their community, enforced religion is a violation of an individual's freedom.  On the other hand, you can bet that the Salafis and other Islamist organizations do not support the free conversion of a Muslim to Christianity.  In fact, a recent survey shows that a number of Muslims believe that putting an apostate to death is not only permissible, but desirable by something like 80% of those six thousand surveyed.  It is an interesting dichotomy when the majority of citizens demand that Christians be allowed to change their faith to Islam, but Muslims should be punished or die if they do the same.

Who then is a threat to the existence of whom?

If Abeer's story is not true, it will not disappear because, in Egypt, trust of authorities and media does not exist.  Conspiracy fuels all decisions.  Even those who are, to any degree, educated, fall for the same conspiracies.

Of course, nobody in America can really claim to be any better.  Birthers, UFOs, bin Laden's death a lie or some other type of conspiracy.  You name it, it floats around in the public space like a plague to the point that one wonders how anyone actually functions.  The only difference is, I suppose, the social contract and the idea that some things just aren't anybody's business.

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