The crescent and the cross

Issandr and I were both up in Alex the day before yesterday, looking into the stabbing attacks that took place there on Friday, and the sectarian riots that followed. You can read my article about it here .

One thing that didn't really make it into the story and that I find interesting is the way these sectarian tensions are tinged and perhaps exacerbated by global trends. The war on terror, the occupation of Iraq, make Muslims feel their religions is under attack; while the fact that some Christians are pro-American gives weight to theories that they are a "fifth column." Meanwhile, the Coptic community watches satellite TV shows and goes to web sites from outside Egypt that are very negative about Islam; they have contacts with expatriate and US evangelical groups, who make a habit of demonizing Islam, to help them put pressure on the Egyptian governments for greater rights. But when an American group talks about Coptic rights, most Egyptians view it as a conspiracy, foreign meddling, and again, a disturbing sign of disloyalty on the part of Copts. It's a big complicated vicious circle.
Meanwhile, you have a generation of young Copts who are increasingly militant about their religion, and tired of feeling like second class citizens. They tattoo the cross on their hand and they put out magazines with names like "The Theban Legion"--a reference to a Christian legion (of Egyptian Copts) that was martyred around 300 AD by the Emperoro Maximinian for refusing to recounce their faith.
I've always found that, despite the fact that Copts do suffer from discrimination, the Coptic church provides poor leadership on these issues, focusing on threats to increase its own influence. We talked to a priest in Alex who, the day after the attacks, told his congregations: "Don't be afraid. If they kill us, we will all go to heaven." Giving people a martyr complex doesn't help them.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.