Egypt’s religious divide: Breaking the stereotype
Clashed in Egypt between Muslims and Copts earlier this month have sparked fears of further sectarian violence for the Egyptian Copt minority, which makes up approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 90 million.
As a foreigner and a native Egyptian living in Cairo, we have both heard first-hand the stereotypes about faith relations in Egypt. For example, the one of us who grew up here remembers being five, in a middle-class neighborhood in Cairo, and overhearing two schoolmates whispering and pointing at another girl: “She’s Christian.” They probably didn’t even understand what that word means exactly but they knew it meant different. At the time I didn’t understand why these two girls were doing this. I only understood later. The other one of us, a foreigner, has been told exaggerated narratives on both sides: “In Egypt there is no discrimination and has never been against Copts,” or “there has always been discrimination and Copts are suffering constant abuses.”
Both of us believe that these stereotypes don’t reflect the nuances that exist in the country. Discrimination exists, but so do instances of Muslims and Christians working together to stop it. Egyptian civil society is taking matters into its own hands.
One example of this is Salafyo Costa, a group that strives to bring together Egyptians of different faiths, sects and political orientations. Salafyo Costa was originally created to show that Salafists are not the frightening “backward extremists” the media often depicts them as. Instead they are a broad group of conservative Muslims who have a literal understanding of Islam’s scriptures and seek to emulate the traditions of the earliest followers of Islam.
Copts and other Muslim groups also make up a big part of Salafyo Costa membership. In Salafyo Costa, Egyptian Muslims and Copts are working together to ease tensions between both groups, through collaborative activities geared at ending misconceptions.
A Coptic friend of ours was moved to see Muslim Salafyo Costa members taking to the streets to defend Copts during the tragic events of Maspero 2011, a march for Coptic rights that was crushed by the army.
Mohamed Tolba, the co-founder of Salafyo Costa, explains that the group is “a model for Egypt that suits us all no matter what our religion, race or political ideology is.”
For Bassem Victor, a Copt and also a co-founder of the group, the main problem causing the tension is ignorance. “Fifty percent of the Egyptian people cannot read or write. How do you expect them to know what their religious books say? They trust the local priest or sheikh, who might well look for personal or political benefits.”
Egyptian children from some Muslim families might say Christians don’t worship the same God and cannot be their friends, or that it is impure to shake their hands. These attitudes might have been influenced by the rising popularity of extremist preaching on television over the last 20 years. For their part, Copts often view Salafists as hostile to them, their religion and their presence in the country.
But the mere act of getting to know each other is often enough to put a stop to prejudices and fear. In places where such stereotypes are an issue, demonstrating harmonious collaboration between people of different religions can shift attitudes.
For example, Salafyo Costa organized a Salafist-Copt football match last year. “Participants were wary at first, but ended up as friends, thanks to football,” says Tolba.
“Now we know that it’s wrong to be afraid of each other. We lost our prejudices,” explains Victor.
Muslims — Salafists or otherwise — and Copts from Salafyo Costa also operate regular medical caravans, to provide simple medical attention in places where Salafists normally wouldn’t ask a Copt for help and where Copts wouldn’t trust a Salafist.
Together, the group provided medical supplies to a flooded village near Zagazig in the governorate of Sharqiya last January. And last Friday, Salafyo Costa went to a village with a large Coptic population in the governorate of Minya, south of Cairo, suffering from instances of inter-religious tension. “People who benefit from the help of our caravans in villages are often surprised to see Salafists and Copts working hand in hand. It is a useful image and changes their mindset,” says Tolba.
Salafyo Costa gathers people who would not normally interact. They demonstrate together in support of the revolution’s demands, to free activists held in detention, and for other common interests.
There is mistrust and fear of the other in Egypt, but beyond the prejudices there are nuances and opportunities to build an Egypt where everyone can coexist, whether Muslim or Copt.