Meditation: Moral equivalency in Egypt (updated)

Once again, we head back into my stash of GetReligion guilt, that hefty folder of stories that I know I need to address but I am not sure what I need to say. In this case, I am talking about one of the early “what is this all about” stories linked to the rising violence in Egypt.

I should stress that the coverage of this story has evolved quite a bit since the New York Times published the following piece of news or, I would argue, news analysis. This is especially true with the extensive coverage given to the dramatic movement among some Egyptian Muslims to serve as “human shields” to protect Coptic Christians during the recent rites on Christmas Eve (on the ancient Orthodox calendar).

Nevertheless, this early Times story remains important, especially since the Gray Lady plays such an important role in influence the coverage offered by other newsrooms.

So here is the top of the story, which ran under the headline, “Blast Awakens Egyptians to Threat From Religious Strife.”

CAIRO – A deadly suicide bomb attack outside a Christian church in Alexandria … has forced the government and religious leaders here to acknowledge that Egypt is increasingly plagued by a sectarian divide that could undermine the stability that has been a hallmark of President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly three decades in power.

As Egypt’s Christians headed to church under heavy security … to observe Coptic Christmas Eve, the nation was struggling to come to terms with a blast that killed at least 21 people, highlighted a long list of public grievances with the government and prompted concerns that national cohesion was being threatened by the spread of religious extremism among Muslims and Christians.

“I have heard this a lot, that this type of incident might be the first in a series, turning Egypt into another Iraq — that is the fear now,” said Ibrahim Negm, the chief spokesman for Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the nation’s highest religious official. “There is a paradigm shift here that says we have to do something about the sectarian issue.”

As you can see, the problem in Egypt is caused by extremism — of equal strength and danger, it seems — among Coptic Christians and Muslims.

Here is how a GetReligion reader at Harvard University described the intellectual frame that shapes this story. After citing a list of specifics in the story (please read the article for yourself), this reader noted:

The impression is that there is plenty of blame to go around for the violence in recent years, and that no single group deserves more blame than another. … The problem is national cohesion, not violence against Christians, and the culprits are extremists of all stripes, not Muslim extremists (despite the obvious evidence).

The problem is that the “balanced” labels given to Egypt’s problem do not match up with the evidence cited in the article. On the Muslim side, the article cites the recent suicide bombing (21 dead, about 100 wounded), an attack last year on Nag Hammadi (7 dead, 10 wounded), and a nation of “moderate Islam” shifting towards “fundamentalism” (forehead smack). On the Christian side, the article cites rioting in response to the recent attack (it is unclear whether the article is trying to equate the Christian riots with the Muslim attacks as examples of violent extremism, but that is the impression given by the framing), a quote from a Christian upset about government discrimination against Christians, and a quote from a Christian politician warning of “conservative religious discourse”. The latter quote is actually quite interesting and should have been followed up (what is the nature of “conservative discourse” in the Egyptian Coptic community? Does it parallel talk in the Muslim camp, or is it different? Is it on the rise in response to recent violence?).

In any case, I thought the story was just badly framed. We’ve got a country to run here, people. Muslims, we all need to work together to be more moderate, and you Christians need to quit being such extremists. You know who you are!

To which I can only add: What he said.

We are dealing with ancient and modern problems here and issues of national and religious identity are at the heart of these events. It is also crucial to know that the Egyptian government is caught in a vise, when it comes to the public pressures being applied by competing factions among the 90-plus percent of the population that Muslim (whether the government helped create the vise is another issue). There are “moderate” or “secular” Muslims who want to do more to stop persecution against religious minority groups, especially when they are willing to stay quiet (and not build new churches and monasteries). There are some Muslims who want to kill the infidels, even if the faith of the infidels has been in Egypt longer than Islam.

Which brings us to those tattoos on the wrists of Coptic Christians, tattoos that make it harder to kidnap young people and children and force them to convert. This tradition is not new and it exists for a reason.

So journalists, when dealing with this conflict it is essential to stick to the facts as much as possible. Cite the number of attacks in the past and present. Note who attacked who. List the numbers, when it comes to fatalities and injuries. Offer as many details as possible on the beliefs and actions of those on both sides (while remembering that there are multiple camps on the Muslim side).

This is how journalists handle other clashes between ruling majorities and the religious minorities who attempt to live (and worship) in these kinds of cultures. Read the history. Read the official reports and those of respected human-rights advocates. Then tell the story.

UPDATE: A journalist and friend of this blog just sent in a URL for a background piece on the history of the Coptic tattoo tradition. Click here. Like I said, this is NOT a modern phenomenon.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stoo

    Maybe the piece is playing down the part extremist islam has in Egypt’s problems. But I’m not seeing this claim that we have “balanced” dangers from christian and muslim extremism?

  • Ryan

    Yes I would agree that it is completely impossible to write about Christian extremism without giving some specifics.

    Even the protests that the Christians conducted after their church being blown up did not result in the deaths of any Muslims. BTW, I am wondering how protesting would NOT be the appropriate response to people blowing up your place of worship, it actually seems very rational and reasonable.

    Also, the author should include some detail about what extremism means for a Christian in this context. We know on the Muslim side it means blowing up churches, but it would be helpful to know for the other.

  • Roberto

    A year ago, I wrote about AP’s attempt to draw an equivalency between the Copts and their oppressors. Link

  • Bill R.


    True, there is no sentence in the article that reads “there is equal danger of violence from Christian and Muslim extremists”.
    However, when the article leads with a warning about “the spread of religious extremism among Muslims and Christians” (emphasis added), and then follows with a list of examples on both sides, giving no quantitative data for readers to evaluate, what are readers supposed to come away with? By framing the evidence that way, the article sets readers up to expect a balance between Christian and Muslim extremism, and then it omits important information that readers would need in order to decide for themselves whether or not there is such a balance. Although it is probably unintentional, the article comes off sounding like “trust us, readers, the Christian extremists are just as much of a problem as the Muslim ones”.

  • tioedong

    the problem is not just that too many articles don’t explain who is bombing/killing whom (try finding it out is worse in Nigerian articles).

    Too many articles ignore when terrorists hit minority Islamic sites in the name of religion, such as the bombings of Sufi shrines in Pakistan.

    What is needed is to “delink” the terrorists from the mainstream in reports. It might take an extra sentence or two, but it might be worth it.