Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A fluid situation in Egypt allows for simmering tensions to catch fire

A report by Al Jazeera – “Copts, Muslims clash in Cairo: At least 11 people killed in sectarian clashes after Coptic protest against the torching of a church” -- reveals how conflicted Egyptian society is after the successful uprising against Hosni Mubarak. On the one hand we have heard that Muslims protected Copts and Copts protected Muslims at different times during the uproarious demonstrations. On the other hand, in the last few days, local clashes among people indicate that the old practices of discrimination have continued. [Click on the title above to see Al Jazeera on the latest affair.]

The burning of the Shahedain church reveals that some Muslims in the city of Sol still have disdain for the Copts of their community. The source of the problem was a love affair: A Copt man wants to marry a Muslim girl. If it had been a Muslim man wanting to marry a Christian girl, that would have been less unusual and less offensive to most Muslims, because the common practice is for the woman to “become” whatever the husband is. These are social categories, not indexes of authentic worship. And viable social categories are enforced and reinforced, reiterated many times in many contexts by the way people relate to each other – by what they don’t do as well as what they do. This love affair is offensive to some folks, as it cuts across conventions firmly established by generations of social practice.

Such are these times. They are momentous because so many fundamental conventions of practice are now at stake as new opportunities are taking form and former options being foreclosed or made less feasible or unproductive. This Muslim-Copt clash is but one of what Al Jazeera calls “a string of violent protests over a variety of topics as simmering unrest continues nearly a month after [the] mass protests.” We all hope the Egyptians can constitute a viable social order in the absence of a dictator. That would indeed be something new, hugely creative in a country that has never enjoyed a ruling institution that existed by popular suffrage.

But in this story there are some encouraging details worth watching because they hint of something else that is new in the picture: the official organizations involved have seemed to take the side of the more vulnerable and to seek redress. Al Jazeera tells us that "The military intervened to prevent further clashes” and “Egypt's ruling military council vowed to have the church rebuilt and prosecute those behind the arson attack.” If the military council follows through it will be significant.

Our own country knows how difficult it is to change social conventions. The rights of Afro-Americans were not seriously protected until the state insisted on it – which pitted the federal government against some state leaders. And even then there were marches on Selma, imprisonment, continued physical abuse, interpersonal clashes that ramified into a series of interpersonal and institutional crises.

We can only hope that the process will take place with minimal pain to the Egyptian people. What we do know, however, is that the fundamental animus of the movement ofr change is not “Islamist”. This is not an “Islamist” movement. All that the radical Islamists had hoped for and risked their lives for never had this kind of penetrating impact on the fundamental structures of Egyptian society.

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