‘Sectarian’ clash between Copts and mob?

Journalists must keep the following fact in mind while covering the ongoing tensions and occasional violent clashes in Egypt — the Muslim community is not monolithic. As we keep saying here at GetReligion, there is no one Islam.

This is especially true when covering stories linked to clashes between the Muslim majority and the nation’s vital religious minorities — such as the Coptic Orthodox Christians and their ancient church. Just because Egypt is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation does not mean that all Muslims believe the same thing or are acting in the same way, when it comes to issues of tolerance and even religious freedom for minorities.

This came up the other day in a post I wrote about a distressingly shallow little Associated Press story. You may recall that this report started like this:

CAIRO (AP) – Egyptian security officials say Christian and Muslim families have clashed south of Cairo in a dispute over a romance between children from the two families. The fathers from both families have been killed and a crowd of Muslims has torched a church.

I noted that this was phrased in a way suggesting that Muslims killed the Christian father and that Christians then killed the Muslim father. As it turns out, it appears that the Muslim father was killed by a relative, backed by a Muslim mob, infuriated that he refused to kill his own daughter to restore the honor of the family and the community. The reality on the ground was so much more complex than the moral equivalency template of the AP report.

With that in mind, read the top of this Washington Post report on that incidence and other clashes since then:

CAIRO — On the banks of the Nile, in the middle of a roiling protest … by hundreds of chanting Christians, a man raised a Koran in one hand and a wooden cross in the other. “I came here because we don’t want sectarian strife,” said Ahmed Moustafa, a 37-year-old Muslim. “Muslims and Christians are united.”

But such idealism might be waning as Egyptians confront the worst outbreak of religious violence since Hosni Mubarak was swept out of power Feb. 11. The deaths of 13 people in clashes in Cairo between Muslims and Christians … have prompted calls for religious tolerance and raised the prospect of a deepening sectarian divide after a post-revolution honeymoon period.

Street battles broke out after Coptic Christians set up roadblocks in major arteries to protest the destruction of one of their churches.

So, once again, we have a template in which there are two groups of people that are fighting each other — Muslims on one side and Copts on the other. Believers on both sides are threatening this “honeymoon period.” Why can’t they just get along?

But what if there are, once again, three or four different groups of people involved in this clash? Read enough overseas news reports about these scenes and you will become convinced that there are (1) Coptic protesters, (2) mobs of Muslims who are attacking the Copts, (3) Muslim police and soldiers who are simply watching all of this happen and (4) Muslims who are either trying to defend their own homes from the mobs or actively working to defend — in words and deeds — the Copts.

Can this kind of scene accurately be defined as mere “sectarian violence”?

A friend of mine — a religious-liberty scholar — wrote me an email and said that he is convinced that it is time for journalists to ban the term “sectarian violence” in coverage of these stories. Calling recent events in Egypt “sectarian violence” is like “referring to an Alabama 1920′s Ku Klux Klan lynching as a ‘racial clash.’ … Are there any mosques that have been burned down?”

Back to the Post story.

Some witnesses said the Egyptian army had stood by for as long as four hours without intervening in the fighting. Officials said that all of those who were killed died of gunshot wounds and that 140 others were injured. Copts said that all of the victims were Christian adherents, but other reports said that as many as five Muslims were killed.

Once again, a blunt question must be asked: Five Muslims killed by whom?

You see, the story makes no attempt to clarify that there are some — repeat SOME — Muslims who are attacking the Copts and then there are Muslims who are not. So, these five Muslims killed in the melee, where they members of the mob shot by police? Were they Muslims killed by the mob because they were defending the Copts or active in efforts to keep the mob out of their neighborhoods? Were they killed by Copts returning fire?

While we are asking questions, how about this one: Were the Copts killed by government issued bullets, as in bullets issued to police or soldiers?

I realize that it may be hard to answer these questions. However, there are journalists who are trying to do so. Consider this report from the English edition of the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.

I realize that it uses the term “sectarian” over and over. However, it also describes a scene that is much more complex than the simplistic Muslims vs. Copts template that is shaping coverage in American media. For those who have visited Egypt, it also helps to know that these mob attacks took place in the famous neighborhood of Mokatam, more popularly known as “Garbage City” — the home of the giant Church of St. Samaan (Simon) the Tanner, which is known around the world as the “cave cathedral.”

It would be impossible to name a location that would be more symbolic to Christian believers who remain living in the Middle East. Was this why the mob attacked his location?

PHOTO: Outside the cave cathedral, which holds 10,000 people. It was carved into the mountain, since the Copts could not obtain a government permit to build a conventional church.

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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.

  • Jerry

    Besides all of this, we need to always keep in mind and hopefully see reflected in news stories a historical perspective. Actually I’m thinking of starting to keep track of how often I think or write “where is the historical perspective” because I think it’s one of my hot buttons.

    And it’s also important as you tirelessly point out that stories such as these need the “some” perspective.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    “Sectarian” here is still not as reprehensible as its application to clashes between Irish nationalists and unionist, where there was an incessant refrain of “religious conflict” from journalists who presumably think that there would never have been an “Irish Question” if Henry VIII had stayed loyal to Rome.

    Or, for that matter, all those “Muslims and ethnic Serbs” to mean “Moslem and Eastern Orthodox [ethnic] Serbs”. (Not Serbians.)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Instead of just “fly-by” reporting on the sporadic violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt, it would be interesting to read some in-depth accounts of the everyday problems Christian Copts have in Moslem Egypt–such as not being able to get a permit for a conventional church as explained in the photo here. Or Coptic monks having to build walls around their monasteries to protect themselves from violence.

  • Philip M.McGhee

    One point of information. Copts have always had the prestigious position of being the garbage collectors of Egypt. Yes, in Egypt,unlike our society,being a sanitation engineer is highly regarded. Perhaps the ultimate solution is separate areas for Copts and Muslims.

  • Bain Wellington

    If I may point out a few holes in your caption to the photo (Mokattam is a story all in itself – I am with Jerry: the necessary historical, demographic and topographical background is generally missing from reports involving the Coptic minorities in Egypt) . . .

    First, it would seem not to be a cathedral.

    Next, it is a complex of pre-existing caves in a limestone quarry which were accidentally discovered in the 1970′s and have since been adapted (and further excavated, in part) for liturgical, educational and social use.

    Third, there is no one cave accommodating 10,000 people, although it is possible the entire complex might hold that many. The biggest, church (dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Simon the Tanner) is said to hold 5,000. Another space (St. Simon’s hall) holds 2,000. Beneath the hall is the church of St. Mark, and elsewhere there is the chapel of St. Bola. There is also provision for a kindergarten, a school for the deaf and dumb, adult literacy projects, and so on.

    This information comes from the text and photos here

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Bain–thanks for the link. I only hope the complex there doesn’t someday meet the fate of the great statue of Buddha in the Far East.
    Someone should give the writer of the article a spelling lesson though. The altar was spelled “alter” repeatedly.

  • http://faithvictoria.wordpress.com/ steve weatherbe

    For a detailed and balanced report on this incident, here is I found on a Muslim site, interestingly, though the ultimate source is a US religious freedom foundation.