Coffins of some of the victims of the explosion at Coptic Cathedral (AFP)
“Is that a church or a military fortress?” my Islamist medical school colleague asked as she gazed at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, her face reflected a mix of hatred and envy.
The carnage in which several women and children died during Sunday’s bomb explosion at the seat of Egypt’s ancient church, the Coptic Cathedral complex in Cairo, evoked many past memories for me. It took me back to my years as a medical student in Cairo’s Ain Shams University, with its Demerdash Hospital directly next door to the grand Coptic Cathedral. This was a cherished era during my youth, full of joy and success, albeit dotted with various painful observations of sectarian cruelty. Hearing negative remarks about Copts and their cathedral, like the above comment, became a familiar theme. But even in my wildest nightmare, I never would have imagined that the cathedral would witness such a heinous crime.
From day one in medical school, I encountered a palpable hatred among many Islamist students toward Copts. I once went on a day trip to Ismailia with my Coptic university friends. The cathedral had organized the trip as part of its social (non-religious program). The next day, back at school, I was grilled by various Islamist colleagues about the journey. Going out with Copts was bad, but to go on a trip organized by the cathedral was, in their eyes, an unforgivable crime. For those folks, the cathedral is not a place of worship, but the headquarters of a rich, powerful, and dangerous secretive body___ a military fortress, as my colleague suggested.
I dismissed the scornful comments from my Islamist colleagues, but the incident opened my eyes to one of the ignored pillars of Political Islam ___ its inverse minority perspective.
Islamism indoctrinates followers to behave and think as an oppressed minority, unfairly targeted by others, while portraying the real minorities, such as Copts, as powerful, privileged, well-connected groups. Despite gaining power in 2012, Islamists could not shake their twisted mindset, and they continue to behave as an oppressed minority, viewing Copts with increasing suspicion. It is worth remembering that Sunday’s bombing of the Coptic Cathedral was not the first time the cathedral has been attacked. In April 2013, during Morsi’s tenure and before his ousting, an Islamist mob launched an unprecedented, unprovoked, and frenzied assault on the cathedral.
It is easy to blame the Coptic Pope for standing against the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Morsi, but his stance should be viewed within the context of events; after April’s unprovoked attack on the cathedral, he hardly had a choice. Moreover, many Egyptians backed Sisi, regardless of their religious beliefs. The iconic photo on July 2013 of Sisi declaring that Morsi had been ousted did not just include the Coptic Pope, but pictured the Grand Imam of Alzhar and many [Muslim] political figures. Nevertheless, for Islamists, the Coptic Pope has been singled out somehow as the father of the “plot.”
Following Morsi’s ousting and during the Islamists’ Rabaa Square sit-in, Morsi’s loyal, angry followers chanted openly against the Pope and the Church, cursing him with nasty insults, while their pundits spouted anti-Copt conspiracy theories within their media outlets. Later, following August 2013’s dispersal of the sit-in, an angry Islamist mob attacked Coptic churches, schools, and charity buildings nationwide, setting them ablaze and razing some to the ground.
Furthermore, after years of anti-Coptic indoctrination, denial and conspiracy have become permanent tools in Islamists’ responses to injustices against the Copts. On the one hand, Islamists wash their hands of any embarrassing outcomes of their terror attacks and defend their innocence, while on the other hand, they suggest wild conspiracies, particularly in their Arabic statements. Following Sunday’s attack, the Brotherhood released an abhorrent Arabic statement, suggesting involvement from either Copts or state authorities, because “Muslims cannot reach a Church’s prayer place in the early hours of Sunday under strict security protection.” It is worth noting that the Al-Jazeera Arabic network, one of the main backers of the anti-coup camp, has floated the same message.
It is lazy to claim that Sisi’s repressive policies are the sole reason that led to the attack on the Coptic Cathedral. It is true the state has systematically betrayed by the Copts and failed to protect them, and has not been able to restore tolerance in a society chronically infested with hatred within all of its pillars and fabrics. It is not right, however, to spare Islamism from blame. Stuffing youth with anger and plucking the strings of hatred are as bad as bombing the cathedral. Those who incite hatred are equally complicit in Sunday’s crime; their disingenuous condemnation is not enough to wash the blood of the victims from their hands.
If Egyptian opposition figures such as El-Baradei and the anti-Sisi Western elite are right in their assertion that violence breeds violence, then many Copts, after years of discrimination, oppression, and systematic attacks, would be the first to embrace terror as a revenge tool. But they did not____ and they would not, even after burying their women and children killed in cold blood in their holiest of places ____ a place that certainly proved not to be a military fortress.