Just the other day, I was meeting with a Christian friend at a cafeteria on the top of a building, and he was afraid the place would fall down if a terrorist bomb targeted it. He was reacting—rightly it seems—to what had just happened in Stockholm. Now look what’s happened here: two churches were targeted on Palm Sunday, with scores dead and wounded in Alexandria and Tanta.
It’s fair to say this is all political, meant to embarrass President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in the US and kill off any chances for Egypt to rebuild its ailing tourist industry. But that doesn’t exonerate the rest of us for not doing enough to combat extremism. It is worth noting that this brand of fanatic likes to attack shrines and mortuaries, such as the shameless ransacking of the remains of the Prophet Yunus (PBUH) in Iraq. Following Sunday’s terrorist attacks, former Grand Mufti Dr. Ali Gomaa was talking about these fanatics and how they’d attacked the mortuary of Imam Al-Nawawi in Syria. I can relate a personal experience in this regard. I once got fired from a place, without naming names, with no “clear” explanation as to why. But, curiously enough, something that came up in the complaints from the administration was that I had the audacity to use a book by Wasif Boutrous Ghali in class. I don’t think the specific book I used was the issue, but just the fact that I was using a book written by a Copt.
Wouldn’t you know it, shrines and mortuaries—by pure coincidence—are characteristic of Christianity also? We’re back to the debate about iconoclasm and how extremist groups in religious history—everybody’s religions—have attacked holy places and symbols to rupture the ability of these religious institutions to pass on their beliefs to the next generation. I don’t know for a fact that ISIS is behind the Alexandria and Tanta attacks, but I can believe it.
It’s their style. They’re feeling the pinch in Iraq and Syria, so they’re lashing out elsewhere, in the not-so-far-off theatres in Egypt and Libya. And this analysis gives us an indicator as to what precisely we should be doing to combat this way of thinking. We have to expose iconoclasm for what it really is—a ploy—and settle once and for all the place of works of art and physical locations in religious practice and divinations. To cite Dr. Ali Gomaa again, one means of combating these groups is Sufism, a favourite target of Salafism and Wahabism. He quoted a religious saying calling on Muslims to withdraw themselves from the political scene in the event of the absence of an imam (meaning leader here), because taking the law in your own hands inevitably leads to bloodshed and charges of apostasy.
In those circumstances, it is better to live like a monk and focus on prayer and good deeds. I can add that good old-fashioned art is another strategic weapon we need to deploy, particularly the visual variety castigated by Salafis and Wahabis. Here’s why: I watched an Iranian movie some time ago called Son of Maryam (1998). It was a children’s movie about interfaith dialogue, telling the story of a young Muslim boy whose best friend is an old, old priest—the vicar of their village. The reason the boy loves him so much is that the priest knew the boy’s mother, who died in childbirth. He asks the priest if his mother was as pretty as the Virgin Mary, so the old man replies that all mothers are like the Virgin Mary.
The boy repeatedly goes into the church and looks at the paintings and statues. When his father objects, it’s not because he’s afraid the boy will be “seduced” by Christianity, but because he thinks the boy is wasting his time and should be working with his father, training to be a blacksmith. (It’s notable that the father makes weapons—daggers, swords, helmets.) The boy also takes care of the church when the priest has an accident, and he even heads off to town in search of the old man’s brother, a priest who got fed up of village life and went to the big city where the larger congregations were. (The boy’s village is so small, it doesn’t even have a hospital, hence his mother’s death and his desire to become a doctor, not a blacksmith like his father.)
While in the big city, the boy befriends a Christian boy who helps him out. When the hero shows the Christian boy a picture of the Kaaba, telling him it’s the house of God, the Christian boy replies that his father told him that churches were the houses of God. So what does the hero do? He says that God is everywhere. The boy hero’s name, not coincidentally, is Abdel Rahman—servant of the All-Merciful God. The upshot of all this, apart from portraying Christians as fellow believers, is self-confidence, particularly in the face of statues and images. You constantly witness scenes where Abdel Rahman takes care of himself, buying a silk scarf to pray on (a Shiite practice), buying popcorn for himself, asking for directions, etc. The boy, moreover, is a mu’azzin (one who makes the call to prayer) and has a blind Muslim friend named Dawoud (after the Prophet David, PBUH), and he takes him into the church at one point too, describing to him what he sees.
Dawoud even insists on touching the face of the Virgin Mary to see how pretty and pure she is for himself, and Abdel Rahman obliges him. Could you imagine an Egyptian movie depicting such things? People here are terrified of everything—their own shadows even—as evidenced by the re-emergence of the hubbub over Devil-worshipping heavy metal cults and “Emos”, and the Baha’is and Shiites before them, not to forget the Sufis and any odd Egyptian movie that has something good to say about them—again without naming names. People forget, or have been made to forget, that the Fatimid’s ruled Egypt for four centuries, but they failed to remake the country on a Shiite mould.
It was the Fatimids who were eventually forced to reaffirm the Sunni adhan (call to prayer) and the Sunni jurisprudential schools (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Hanbali, and Malaki), with Al-Azhar—a Fatimid creation—itself becoming a bastion of Sunni learning. So there’s nothing to be afraid of. If you look at that Iranian movie again, you find hints of dissatisfaction with the sectarian divide also, since the hero has to look for the priest’s brother at both the local Catholic and Orthodox churches. He never knew there were different kinds of Christianity.
Religious problems and antagonisms always start off as internal, and then wash up onto the doorstep of another religion. Oh, and that goes for the Americans too. They’re more responsible for this than anybody, invading and then dismembering Iraq so that George W. Bush could be a self-professed “crusader”.
So, everybody’s to blame, but that still doesn’t exonerate us from setting our own house in order first. If we wait for the Americans to mend the error of their ways, hell will freeze over in the meantime!
Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and has taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo, the British University in Egypt, and the Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at the Egyptian Gazette and Egyptian Mail and most recently as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas.