Thursday, January 13, 2011
The World Out There (1)
An Egyptian Christian hugs a white cloth smeared with blood from victims of a car bombing outside the Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria (h/t to David)
I have not commented on the latest atrocities against Egypt's Coptic Christians as I have done in the past. Attacks have become so commonplace that they have become something of an ongoing news item, at least in European outlets. We now know that attending Christmas services at an Egyptian Coptic church can very well target you for assassination, as witnessed by the recent tragedy in Alexandria. Now we learn that boarding a train can be just as dangerous. A 23-year old man boarded a train car and then opened fire. A 71-year old Coptic man was killed and his wife and 4 other women wounded. The young man was no "terrorist," but an off-duty policeman. The AP report carried this innocuous statement:
It was not immediately clear whether the gunman knew his targets were Christians. But four of the five wounded were Christian women who stand out in the conservative south as they would probably not have been wearing headscarves as most Muslim women do.
Seriously? Of course the gunman knew they were Christians.
I recently came across an interview in Spiegel with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former General Secretary of the United Nations, now age 88. I had forgotten that he was a Coptic Christian. When questioned whether relations had soured between Egyptian Muslims and Copts, Boutros-Ghali did not stray far from the government line.
Copts and Muslims have lived together in Egypt for 14 centuries. There have always been highs and lows between the religious groups, but never collective hate toward one another. I'm actually far more inclined to believe that the massacre in Alexandria will strengthen our bonds....There is fear and anger, but they are not directed toward Islam or Christianity.
Incredulously, Boutros-Ghali denies that the attacks have any religious motivation at all, that Copts are targeted, or that they are part of a broader persecution of Christians in the Middle East. He maintains that the attacks are strictly meant to destabilize the Egyptian government, and are attributable to demographic trends in the nation. Among other things, he says:
Egypt is different. Here, these two major ethnic groups are far too deeply rooted in our country and connected to its history. Egypt will never experience a civil war.
In any case, this act was aimed not only at Copts, but also at the Egyptian government. If we now start talking about a religious conflict, the terrorists will have achieved their goal.
The attack in Alexandria was meant to foment unrest; it was meant to destabilize Egypt....Let's also not forget that an attack in this country is not the same as a suicide attack in Pakistan, Somalia or Iraq, which the global community has almost gotten used to. But when a bomb goes off in Egypt, a country that is still relatively stable, the world is scared.
That primarily has to do with demographic developments. Egypt's economy isn't growing as rapidly as the population -- which results in poverty, polarization and frustration. The rich Arab Gulf states have stepped in to fill these gaps, not only by donating money, but also by exporting their very own fundamentalist version of Islam. In this way, they've already changed large parts of the Muslim world.
No, Islam is a private matter. For that reason alone -- and since 10 percent of Egyptians aren't Muslims -- it can't be the solution to every political problem. What we need is a law that provides true equality to Muslims, Christians and all other religious groups, such as the Bahais.
The most important thing is that Europe shouldn't conjure up a religious war in Egypt. Instead, it should concentrate on gaining a detailed understanding of what's really going wrong in our country. What we need are plans for addressing poverty, overpopulation and underdevelopment. What we don't need are well-meant but ultimately counterproductive words that only serve to divide our society.
I find Boutros-Ghali's responses to be a bit obtuse. There will never be a law that provides "true equalilty" to Christians and others in Egpyt. No one denies the demographic time bomb--a burgeoning, educated, youthful populace, but under a repressive government with little prospects for economic betterment. But his dismissal of a "civil war" is simply a straw man. Of course, there will be no civil war in Egypt, and that is not what the press is claiming. Conflicts where the sides are divided 90%/10% are usually categorized as ethnic cleansing rather than civil wars. Also, I doubt his contention that Egypt is different from suicide attacks elsewhere, because the country is "relatively stable." Yes Egypt is historically "different" (and for that reason, these attacks are even worse), but one has to laugh at his pretense that the country is stable. Egypt is a tinderbox, under the thumb of an aging autocrat and the army. We've seen how other such scenarios play out.
Maybe Boutros Boutros-Ghali was in the diplomatic corps for too long. I agree, inflammatory language does nothing to relieve the plight of the Coptic Christians. And there indeed is a time for diplomacy. But there is also a time to call things what they are.