Sunday, May 08, 2011

Appalling Manipulation

Last night a group of Salafists came to a church in Imababa looking for a Muslim woman called Abeer who was supposedly being held in the church. Oddly enough, this event occurred very shortly after a television program was broadcast during which a woman called Kamilia Shehata spoke denying that she had changed her faith from Islam to Christianity. Kamilia had been a rallying point for months for Salafists who claimed that she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Christianity. During the television program Kamelia Shehata announced that she had not converted to Christianity and apologised to everyone for the problems caused. Zeinobia in her blog Chronicles of Egypt provides a timeline and some analysis of this bizarre event, the subsequent attack on an Imbaba church.

I was following the initial reports of the events in Imbaba before I went to bed last night and I turned in thinking that while it looked unpleasant, probably things would be ok in the morning. I couldn't have been more wrong. This morning when I sleepily booted up the laptop and checked Twitter I found that the situation had escalated to a major incident in which over 200 people were injured, about 8 were killed, and almost 200 people were finally arrested. We don't need this and I have to wonder just why this is happening now. I've done a bit of research online to learn more about the Salafis as to be honest I hadn't heard of these people before about March. I can abbreviate some of the considerable information in a couple of places such as Wikipedia and a blog called The Middle Ground. I plan to read more over the next few days.

Salafis are basically to the right of the Wahhabis, the ultra-strict sect of Islam practiced by the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, although according to other sources, they are supposed to be less strict than the Wahhabis. They disapprove of the Wahhabis as being much too liberal and not adhering to a sufficiently strict version of Islam, being a seriously strict fundamentalist group themselves, while according to the other sources previoiusly noted, the Wahhabis feel much the same about the Salafis. Many of the Egyptian Salafis found themselves locked up by the Mubarak regime for involvement in various outlawed Islamic organisations. Quite a few of them were released during the revolution, and the exact fashion in which they were released is in question to a large degree. Since the end of the revolution the Salafis have been identified as being responsible for the destruction of or damage to a number of Sufi tombs and shrines, claiming that they are idolatrous. Sufis are roughly the other wing of Islam and are primarily known for their belief in a personal relationship with God and being fairly relaxed on a social level. Islam is a huge and complicated religion with as many schools of belief as there are versions of Christianity.

Like many people here, however, I find issues of timing and the types of confrontations to be puzzling and suggestive. There aren't that many Salafis in Egypt, but they are taking up a rather large portion of the news coverage (which is still strongly influenced by the old regime) and they are seriously aggressive on many occasions. I can't recall any previous "Salafist" events at all, so this is a change that has happened after the military council took power when Mubarak stepped down. The non-issue of Kamilia Shehata, whose interview was broadcast on a Christian television channel, has been allowed to be blown out of all proportion. I find it fascinating that the mysterious Abeer should suddenly appear as a new "victim" at just the moment Kamilia Shehata retired. Almost as if they needed a new cause to justify their trouble making. And what are they accomplishing with all this? The main thing is to keep everyone off balance and create or magnify sectarian issues. And who would benefit from this action? The only people I can see benefiting from the discord within Egyptian society would be the military, since they have ruled Egypt since the change from a monarchy in the 1950's, and I'm very sure that they are not all that thrilled at the prospect of answering to the public, which could become the situation if there really are free elections in the fall. They plead inexperience in ruling the country, but the fact is the military, in the persons of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, have been ruling Egypt for about seventy years. One of the main problems facing the revolution is the fact that much really has not changed in the running of the country. As I was writing this post, Al Jazeera covered a story from Tunis that noted that Tunisians are extremely worried that the military might take control of the country should an Islamist group win in elections. Gee, that rings a bit of a bell for me at least.

None of us are really clear what happened last night although there are a few eyewitness reports. Sarah Carr, who spent quite a lot of time in Tahrir and is well-acquainted with Egypt's security service staff noted the presence of quite a few on the scene...and they did not seem to be concerned with calming the situation down. There are also other blog posts that acknowledge the lack of personal information but stress the importance of looking at the issues closely to remedy the problems. There have indeed been stressful relationships between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, although it is quite questionable as to what extent these were manufactured or exacerbated by the Mubarak regime. I was pleased to note that a multicultural multireligious event will be held next week in Maadi despite today's events. I'm sure that it's been planned for ages, but they could decide to postpone or simply forget about it.

People often wonder why people in the Middle East seem to be prone to conspiracy theories. If we have learned anything from the revolution this year, it is probably the fact that little here is as it seems. We are well aware that previous regimes have found it easier to run Egypt if the Egyptians are not unified as one people as they were during the revolution, and I suspect that the military council would also find this to be true. I'm quite sure that the army and what is supposed to be national security could protect churches against Salafist groups if they really wanted to. But do they?

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani