The Cairo bombing

Sunday 18/12/2016

A week ago today, a bomb ripped through a chapel on the grounds of Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, killing 25 people and injuring nearly twice as many. The larger fallouts of this violent episode in Egypt and the region are a matter of speculation. Suffice it to say this kind of bloodshed may threaten hopes for communal peace and harmony in Egypt and the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which has traditionally lived with and celebrated glorious diversity.

The December 11th bomb blast was Egypt’s worst act of sectar­ian violence since 2011. The target was a historically and numeri­cally significant religious community: Coptic Christians make up 10-15% of Egypt’s population of 94 million. The extremist group the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack on the Copts, casting it as a strategic part of its escalating “war on polytheism”.

For Egypt and the MENA region, this could be simply disas­trous. Not only is it an attack on Egypt’s bread-and-butter indus­try — tourism — it is a bloody and brutal message to all religious minorities. ISIS and its ilk are sending a clear message by bomb­ing the seat of Egypt’s Orthodox Church and taking aim at Shias, moderate Sunnis and Yazidis in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

The extremists are trying to impose a demarcation line, one drenched with the blood that would have to be shed to impose their monochromatic vision of faith.

The entire region has a stake in rejecting this kind of vision. Last year, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi memorably told scholars at al-Azhar University to respect other religions because “God did not create the world for the ummah to be alone”.

Sisi saw fit to speak up in the fight to protect Egypt’s embattled minorities in the face of extremist movements. In this uphill battle, he spoke of a rich thread of tolerance, diversity and mutual respect for other religions that has long run through the history of Islam.

The examples abound. In seventh century Damascus, which was the capital of the Umayyad dynasty for about a hundred years, the organic shared reality of Muslim and Christian coexist­ence was deeply felt.

The Abbasid caliphate, which followed the Umayyads, further enriched this legacy. In seeking to translate Hellenic texts, it employed non-Muslim scholars to help.

Under Muslim rulers of Andalusia, in the ninth and tenth centuries, Jews held high positions in the Caliphate of Cordoba and contributed to the culture and science of the time.

These were chapters of Arab-Islamic past that modern-day extremists do not like to read. They prefer to unearth and fabri­cate arguments for barbaric bigotry.

Their faux-atavism, ultra-puritanical zeal and savagery, how­ever, repel the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Most people in MENA countries regard minority communities as an essential and cherished part of the complex social and cultural web of their existence.

The way forward is clear. MENA people and their governments must fight the good fight for the minorities in their midst. The welfare of those minorities is essentially the responsibility of the Middle East and North Africa and the war against bigotry and sectarianism is for all of its countries to wage.