Cairo ___ many years ago, my primary school teacher took me aside and gave me a stern ultimatum. Either cut my links with one of my friends, “C,” or my school performance would be affected. In my teacher’s view, “C” was a bad influence, and was distracting me away from my studies. “You have to fulfill your mother’s aspirations, there is a world ahead of you, so do not let this girl ruin it for you.”
“C” was a Coptic girl and my first-ever close friend. Many in my school were surprised that we even got on with each other. I was loud and bubbly; she was shy and diffident. But what we shared was hard for outsiders to understand___ empathy. Both of us were daughters of widows who were hard-working single mothers. We pined for our lost fathers, and felt a huge sense of responsibility to make progress at school. We wanted to at least please our respective mothers and reward them for their hard work. Our joined daily journey to and from school was a chance for both of us to share our fears, anxieties, and hopes for the future. What we shared transcended religions with their differences and taught me how rituals should not override human bonds.
Although I do not remember my teacher’s exact words, I remember how I was left without a doubt in my mind, that the main problem with “C” was her faith, which my teacher somehow saw as a threat. To my surprise and dismay, just few days after my teacher’s ultimatum, my friend told me with a grim face, how she would stay away “to avoid causing me any trouble.” I will never forget her sad look. We did not say much. No questions, no explanation, and just hugged each other for one last time. The next day, for the first time, we stood apart at the morning assembly. It was simply painful. Later, I started to hear from other Muslim girls that Christians are bad and their holy book was “fabricated” years after Christ.
In secondary school, wary of my traumatic past experience, my new teachers pleasantly surprised me. All of them were fair to students regardless of faith. Furthermore, it was also a great relief to see several other mixed friendships between Muslims and Christian girls, without interference from any of the teachers. Nonetheless, I noticed another disturbing trend, but this time from students. Some Muslim girls actually liked their Christian friends, to such a degree that they wanted them to abandon Christianity. It did not work and instead intense debates erupted about whether Jesus is just a prophet or the Son of God. All debates were short-term and ended indecisively, but this had long-term impacts. It pushed Christian girls slowly away from mixed friendships with Muslims, to more Christian-only friendships.
At medical school, the default lines became clearer. Islamist groups had started to appear, and they actively encouraged Muslim students to cut their friendships with Christians. Christians also congregated together. Islamists were firmly in control of the university’s mosque, openly bullying Muslim girls not wearing the Hijab, or warnings of “God’s punishment” for having Christian friends. There were exceptions of course, in particular among students of the elite. Islamist groups considered students from a modest background as a safe bet, and deliberately ignored the rich elite, possibly because of their powerful links inside and outside the university. In other words, during those times Islamists focused on expanding horizontally within society, rather than vertically to the upper echelons.
At a formal level, Christians never scored top in exams, even the most brilliant among them were not allowed to be at the top in their rankings. Subtle sectarianism haunted me even in simple administrative tasks. I once went with my Christian friend to get formal copies of our graduation certificate. The lady officer looked at both of us with contempt that she struggled to hide. She gave me a delivery date in two days, then sneered at my friend while telling her to come back in two weeks. It was embarrassing to say the least, and even awkward when my friend was the one comforting me, and telling me that she did not mind waiting.
Sectarian tension did not stay soft and subtle. Occasional episodes of violence flared up and many lost their lives. During Mubarak’s tenure, Egyptian authorities did not put any effort into tackling the deep roots of sectarianism in Egypt. It wanted instead to manage the crisis, rather than cure the illness. At the end of the day, it failed to do either, and the hatred continued to yield more violence and more ugliness. This was happening not just among Muslims, but a few Christians also who similarly fueled the hatred and bigotry.
Thus far, very few in Egypt are willing to acknowledge how sectarianism is deeply embedded in the society. A prevailing view among pundits and Egypt’s observers suggests that sectarianism is linked to authoritarianism. This is only partly true. Hatred of Copts is older than the current Pope. This existed before his support of Sisi and the ousting of Morsi.
There is a deeper resistance within society to even the minor efforts by authorities to be fair to Copts. In May 2015, Egyptian President al-Sisi’s decision to build a church bearing the names of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were beheaded by the Islamic State in Libya, was not being well received by members of the local community. Clashes erupted between Muslims and Christians in a dispute over building the church, resulting in 12 wounded and seven arrested.
Clinging to political reasons sometimes is used to deliberately obscure the deep social and cultural roots that have fomented sectarian hatred for decades, a cocktail of reasons from deep ignorance of the Christian faith, to rejecting early 20th century multicultural Egypt, with its equality and diversity.
Changing mindsets, attitudes and behaviors needs courage, intellectuality, and devotion. There are some smart attempts. Director Amr Salama’s film,“Excuse my French” brought tears to my eyes. His story of sectarianism in schools resurrected my childhood memories, albeit with a different story. It was cleverly produced to address sectarianism in a creative way and was different than other dull, insincere, shallow productions ___ but more efforts are needed. Fighting sectarianism needs extensive social reforms and contribution from everyone.
Egypt’s sectarianism may look mild in a region where beheading and medieval barbarism are widely practiced. Nonetheless, what initiated in Egypt in the later part of the 20th century has set the foundation for the brutal versions of sectarianism that have erupted in the region. It is about time for Egypt to reverse what it started and spread a more positive approach. It is imperative to create a better era for our kids so that they can have friendships without prejudice or bigotry.
President Sisi’s visit to the Coptic Cathedral and addressing of the attendees was a nice gesture, but his mention of diversity and the need to accept other religions and customs is more crucial. It is important for him to put his words into actions and initiate more positive social changes in Egypt. Egyptians should not just accept diversity, but should also come to see it as something positive.
Wow ! What memories of your childhood. When i read in our press about shameful right wing movements in our society today in 2016 it’s still nothing compared to what you experienced when you were at school .
Even when i was at school in the 1970’s there was racial comments being made in the playground but i never heard comments about religion and segregation – that was more of the Irish problem of that time.
It makes me wonder what could have influenced or Brainwashed teachers to dismiss tolerance of other religions so much in one country compared to another ?
This is still going on today i know, especially islamic teaching in British schools there is no interest shown to other religions. ( I have a Family member who is a teacher in one Birmingham school who says this)
Obviously today there are good people like yourself who can see through the barriers of intolerance just like you and others did when you were at school.
And long may that continue ….
Good read Nervana. …
Many thanks Nigel. it was not easy for me to write it. I also omitted other details out of respect to many people who still live in Cairo. Agree with you about Islamic schools. They have zero interest in diversity or other religions, which is very wrong and dangerous.
Good piece. I only disagree with use of “sectarianism.” This is not the right word here.This issue is mostly caused by one-side. Not both sides doing equal damage to each other. This is simply Sunni supremacy.It’s also incorrect to bring up that video of Abouna Zakaria simply speaking his mind about theology and history, as if that in its self is an issue. Speaking words is not the problem. The violent response from Sunni Supremacists to mere words is the problem.
Muslim Clerics like Abu Islam have said much worse, about Christian women in particular https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOhEfbw5fdY and Copts do not violently respond to words. I want to be clear again. Words and speech is absolutely not the problem. Violence is.
The issue is Muslims are being educated either from parents, religious leaders or others to hate Copts.The question is where is the source?Their values. What’s one of their values? Their interpretation of Islam.To some, the mere presence of the unbeliever is enough to consider Copts as enemies of allah and that alone justifies their hatred of Copts.
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Very well written and down to earth. I agree with what you wrote and would like to emphasise the importance of admitting the existence of the disease in order to be able to cure it.
The Wahabi influence with its Petro-dollars has infiltrated many of the clerics of the most prestigious Islamic authority worldwide, Al Azhar. With hundreds of thousands of Egyptians returning home from Arabia under the influence of Wahabi extremist ideology and a regime that ignored the problem, it is not surprising where we are now.
Many thanks Tarek, couldn’t agree more!
I feel such pain reading this ..for during my time we never thought of such problem..Muslim and Christians.. Till today school friends from both religions in contact as we were duirng school. I feel sorry that you went through this and shame on that teacher who doesnt deserve the honor of being one to put you in such situation.
Reblogged this on Mark Geoffrey Kirshner.
Nervana, touching account…. Evolution of Islamism couldn’t have been explained better.
This is the kind of exclusivism and intolerance that ultimately led to the advent of terror infested anti India kashmirJihad that saw aboriginal Kashmiris ( rendered minuscule minority over centuries of persecution under invading Islamists’ occupation) the Kashmiri Hindus’ (the Kashmiri Pandits) genocide in 1989-90.
Similar, ‘hate’ is becoming increasingly visible in many Muslim dominated districts in other states in rest of India. Muslim intellectuals’ continued silence and prevailing perfidious secular electoral expediency only fuels further the undercurrents.
World might debate the “clash of civilisations theory” today but it cannot be denied that the epicenter of global Jihad Pakistan was carved out of India in the name of Islam ( first and the only ,possibly till date..???) on the basis of faith led Two Nation Theory authored by the original Islamist of the contemporary world Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.
Egypt and India both boast great civilsational heritage and ethos,it’s sad both are vulnerable to panislamism inspired medieval pursuits. But there is hope…
Demis Roussoss and Omar Sherrif remain global icons and characterise Egyptian civilsational ethos……..
Many thanks Lalit. Completely agree with you!
Reblogged this on Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News and commented:
Sad that humans need to get over fears and biases of “other” time after time, after time. The writer’s experience between Muslim Conservatives and Coptic Christians, I have seen and experienced between various Protestant Sects, between Baptists and Catholics, Hispanics and Anglos, Black and White, Asian and Anglo. Let’s grow up!
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Thanks for the interesting write-up
Many thanks for sharing your childhood experience Nirvana. So enlightening and interesting reading. Obviously religion shouldn’t have links to the social conventions and much less to the hatred, Quite the contrary It should links to the spirituality, respect, empathy and universal love to be better people. It must be very hard to see how the educational system promotes the problem instead of eradicate it.
Many thanks Pedro. Glad that you read and liked my piece. It is indeed a hard,chronic, and painful problem.