Time to nix ‘sectarian’ in Egyptian reports

At this point, I am getting very tired of the word “sectarian” in reports from the fiery streets of Cairo.

This is not, of course, a new topic here at GetReligion. In a recent post I noted:

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.” … Calling recent events in Egypt “sectarian violence” is like “referring to an Alabama 1920’s Ku Klux Klan lynching as a ‘racial clash.’ ”

“Sectarian” does imply that there are two religious groups out there and they are fighting each other. The question, in Egypt, is whether this is an accurate description of reality.

Yet, once again, the New York Times has framed the latest outbreak of bloodshed in precisely that manner — at the top of the following report (which is now out of date due to the rising death toll):

CAIRO – A demonstration by Christians angry about a recent attack on a church touched off a night of violent protests here against the military council now ruling Egypt, leaving 24 people dead and more than 200 wounded in the worst spasm of violence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

The sectarian protest appeared to catch fire because it was aimed squarely at the military council that has ruled Egypt since the revolution, at a moment when the military’s latest delay in turning over power has led to a spike in public distrust of its authority.

When the clashes broke out, some Muslims ran into the streets to help defend the Christians against the police, while others said they had come out to help the army quell the protests in the name of stability, turning what started as a march about a church into a chaotic battle over military rule and Egypt’s future.

Please pay close attention to the shift that takes place between the second and third paragraphs. To me it seems as if the word “sectarian” is now a matter of Times copy-desk style, even if the hard details of this event actually undercut the use of that term.

“Sectarian” conflict, as in Coptic Christians vs. Muslims?

If you read the story carefully, there appear to be multiple groups of Muslims involved — Muslims helping protect the Christians, Muslims issuing appeals for “honest Muslims” to come support the government forces, Muslims in gangs that appear out of nowhere, their loyalties unknown. And which of these competing groups of Muslims represents either the dominant Muslim Brotherhood or the rising Islamist tide of the Salafi parties? Who is backed by the military?

To be honest, this David Kirkpatrick report repeatedly undercuts the simplistic “sectarian” framework. Here are several examples:

Nada el-Shazly, 27, who was wearing a surgical mask to deflect the tear gas, said she came out because she heard state television urge “honest Egyptians” to turn out to protect the soldiers from Christian protesters, even though she knew some of her fellow Muslims had marched with the Christians to protest the military’s continued hold on power.

“Muslims get what is happening,” she said. The military, she said, was “trying to start a civil war.”

And later:

The protest took place against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population. Christians had joined the pro-democracy protests in large numbers, hoping for the protections of a pluralistic, democratic state, but a surge in power of Islamists has raised fears of how much tolerance majority rule will allow.

The pro-democracy protests in the Arab spring, of course, included a rather broad spectrum of Muslims, especially those who were called the young “progressives.”

There’s more:

The military and riot police, on the other hand, appeared at some points to be working in tandem with Muslims who were lashing out at the Coptic Christians. As security forces cleared the streets around 10 p.m., police officers in riot gear marched back and forth through the streets of downtown alongside a swarm of hundreds of men armed with clubs and stones chanting, “The people want to bring down the Christians,” and, later, “Islamic, Islamic.” …

By the end of the night, as clouds of tear gas floated through the dark streets and the crosses carried by the original Christian demonstrators had disappeared, it became increasingly difficult to tell who was fighting whom. At one point, groups of riot police officers were seen beating Muslim protesters, who were shouting, in Arabic, “God is Great!” while a few yards away other Muslims were breaking pavement into rocks to hurl in the direction of a group of Christians.

And finally Prime Minister Essam Sharaf directly claims:

“What’s happening is not sectarian tension,” Mr. Sharaf said in a telephone interview with state television. “It is an escalating plan for the fall and fragmentation of the state. There’s a feeling of a conspiracy theory to keep Egypt from having the elections that will lead it to democracy.” Echoing the Mubarak government’s propaganda, he added, “There are hidden hands involved and we will not leave them.”

Did you follow all of that? To make matters worse, the Times report makes it very clear that many angry voices are offering conflicting testimonies about precisely when the demonstration turned violent. So who in fact acted first, the police or the growing mob of counter-demonstrators? Who had the most to gain through this outbreak of violence?

The competing truth claims are just this stark:

State news media reported that at least three security officers had died in attacks by Christian protesters, though those accounts could not be confirmed. The protesters did not appear to be armed and they insisted they were peaceful until they were attacked.

Now, contrast that confusing New York Times story — I mean confusing in a good way, I guess, since it offers so many clashing views of what happened — with the top of the Los Angeles Times report.

In this story, the sequence of violent acts is completely different.

At least 22 people were killed in clashes between military police and Coptic Christian protesters in the latest eruption of violence highlighting Egypt’s deepening sectarian divisions since President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power in February.

In the bloodiest unrest since last winter’s uprising, authorities said, three soldiers and 19 protesters were killed Sunday when Copts threw Molotov cocktails at riot police outside the state Radio and Television Building in downtown Cairo. The chaos was further inflamed when thugs in plainclothes attacked Copts, some carrying crucifixes, as they marched along the Nile at dusk.

The violence escalated quickly and jolted what had begun as a peaceful rally by Christians to protest the recent burning by Muslims of a church in southern Egypt. Copts began hurling bottles and rocks at security forces after military vehicles plowed through demonstrators as gunshots echoed overhead and crowds scattered.

Could you follow that? So it was a two-sided clash between Coptic demonstrators and military police, yet the Copts attacked after military vehicles began running over people? And then the thugs arrived? Say what?

I genuinely sympathize with reporters on the scene who struggled to confirm basic facts in all of this chaos. Personally, I do think it is unclear who attacked first — between the mobs and the military. I do find it hard to believe that a crowd of Coptic Christians and pro-democracy Muslims, the latest mass of demonstrators to gather in this location to protest the government, first attacked a wall of military police.

But here is what I know: What happened there was not a two-sided “sectarian” battle, with Coptic believers squared off against Muslims. That image, that term, must be retired at this point. The reality on the ground is way too complex. The editors at the New York Times, for example, should try reading the facts reported by its own correspondents.

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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.

  • Julia

    Isn’t it sectarian if two kinds of Muslims (e.g. Shia and Sunni) or two kinds of Christians (Methodists and Lutherans) go at each other? Muslim vs. Christians isn’t sectarian – they are not sects of the same religion. Or has yet another long-understood term been transformed into something else?

    The LA Times story was particularly strange. How is it that the story leads with Christians throwing Molotov cocktails at the military cops, but later the story says the demonstration started out peacefully? It takes a bit of preparation to put together Molotov cocktails – with materials not normally at hand out on the street. Their use has to be intentional from the get-go. Or has “Molotov cocktail” changed meaning, too?

  • Dave

    Terry, my sympathies at the plight of your co-religionists.

    The AP has a report out that provides background and makes it clear that Copts were relegated to second-class but tolerated status under Mubarak and things have gotten progressively worse in the anarchy now bubbling up.

  • Mark Baddeley

    It feels as though the mainstream media is sacred that if they report acts of violence that appear to have some kind of Muslim faith and practice behind them in a way that straightforwardly indicates that fact, it will be tantamount to shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded room. It will inflame anti-muslim feelings in the West, and especially in the U.S.

    And so we seem to have the ball constantly dropped – any act of “violence” by Christians played up strongly (such as a small church burning some Korans) while no mention is made of the equivalent behaviour in Muslim contexts (Saudi Arabia confiscates all Bibles at customs and destroys them – and it is more than one small church).

    And where the violence occurs and involves Muslims and Christians, it is framed as though it is a simple conflict between those two sides, with no examination of the details – especially when those details would seem to suggest that the majority of the aggression comes from the side of some Muslims.

    And lost in all this is the chance to actually communicate the differences within Islam by showing clearly that when violence occurs in places like Egypt, some Muslims are sticking up for Christians even in the face of police, military, and other Muslim civilians.

    I think too many journalists and editors have lost their nerve on this, and don’t have enough confidence in the public to be able to take on board the facts as they stand – that a lot of Muslims do support violence as a part of the way of Islam. But a lot don’t. Both groups are ‘true Muslims’.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Sigh. *scared* not *sacred*. I don’t the mainstream media is sacred. No. really.

  • Roberto

    The coverage of this story reminds me of something that Golda Meir once said: “No people in the world knows collective eulogies as well as the Jews do. But we have no intention of going down in order that some should speak well of us.”

    Following the Times’ coverage of the Copts, it seems that, as long as the Copts “go down” without a struggle, the Times will portray them as victims. But if they respond in any way, then the Gray Lady pulls out the “sectarian violence” frame and makes it sounds as if they were combatants in a civil war or an armed faction.

  • R.S.Newark

    There’s nothing new here. Go back to North Ireland and understand there were Catholics and sectarians (not protestants. These terms are used to this day. The word is a weasel word isn’t it? Sociopathic is not too strong a word to use in describing, what I call, the New York Tines…. We’re all impaled are we not?

  • Julia

    AP had a pretty good article on Christians under seige in Egypt and only used the word sectarian once.


  • Sam

    I like how the secular news outlets often feature headlines about these “clashes” between Christians and Muslims. This is about as accurate as describing the pogroms as “clashes” between Russians and Jews, or the Armenian genocide as “clashes” between Turks and Armenians.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Julia–Thanks for the link. I wonder how many news outlets used even a bit of this AP story that, on the whole, was better than most.