Understanding anti-Christian terrorism and sectarian discourse in Egypt

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid
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While there was no need for more proof that terrorism in Egypt is taking a sharp sectarian turn, the latest attack that targeted a bus heading towards a monastery in the city of Minya in Upper Egypt and claimed the lives of 29 Copts enlightened many about a long-overlooked discourse that not only incites violence against Christians but also condones such attacks.

When ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, it dawned on many that their language is not very different from that used by a large number of extremists and at times, average citizens who adopt a similar ideology.

Eric Trager, researcher at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, holds the Muslim Brotherhood partially accountable not through taking part in the attacks, but through fueling hatred against Christians.

“To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood isn't directly responsible for these attacks. But the Brotherhood's anti-Christian incitement contributes to an environment that legitimizes them,” he wrote. “Indeed, Brotherhood leaders routinely portray Christians not as victims of violence, but as beneficiaries of an Egyptian government that has brutally repressed the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.”

According to Trager, members of the Muslim Brotherhood always portray Christians in Egypt as the enemy who are out to undermine Islam, thus influencing a considerable number of Egyptians who are swayed by arguments that use religion and impacting their empathy for Christians when they become victims of terrorist attacks. Trager added that Islamists in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular always promote the idea that “Christians are primarily responsible for the July 2013 overthrow of Egypt's first elected president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and for the severe repression of the Brotherhood that followed.”

Such discourse was particularly demonstrated in a statement posted by Muslim Brotherhood member Ahgmed al-Moghir right after the bus attack and in which he expressed his surprise at what he called “the Christian hysteria” that followed the terrorist operation and called Egyptian Christians “stupid” for thinking they’d get away with supporting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“Christians allied with Sisi hoping that he would not only eliminate Islamists but Islam itself and he is already doing this through giving more powers to the Egyptian church,” he wrote. “The regime also needs Christians in order to curry favor with Christian countries in the West.”

According to Moghir, Egyptian Christians have been committing a series of crimes such as engaging in missionary activities using “money, sex, or coercion,” deriding the Islamic faith, unlawfully building monasteries on state land, and training “Christian militias” to threaten Muslims. “Now, they are paying for their crimes as well as for their diabolic alliance with the Egyptian regime. If they don’t reconsider their position and make peace with Muslim, they will keep paying the price.”

Journalist Hanan Hammad argued that anti-Christian discourse is comprised of several components, all of which contribute to the crimes committed against Christians. “These include preachers who insult Christians in the media and people who believe them and the state that doesn’t do anything about it,” she wrote, adding that propagators of hate speech always enjoy some form of immunity that encourage more to emerge and eventually trigger physical violence.

“It is wrong to believe that only a minority of Egyptians subscribe to this discourse because now they are increasing. In fact, the majority of Egyptian Muslims adopt a supremacist attitude towards Christians and which is manifested in day-to-day matters whether in the street, the work-space, public transportation, government offices… etc.” Hammad also cited examples of several incidents that demonstrated discrimination against Christians in Egyptian schools. “Teachers deride Christians in front of students while other cut Christian girls’ hair and thugs harass Christian girls. Meanwhile, an entire village can be emptied of its Christians because of a dispute with a Muslim under the nose of security institutions.” Hammad dismissed all the ceremonial gestures that follow every attack and which aim to show that relations between Muslims and Christians are amicable. “We don’t care about seeing a sheikh hugging a priest and we don’t want to hear clichés about how tolerant Egyptians are. We better stop to see where we all went wrong because we are all responsible.”

Writer Fatma Naoot had a similar view as she argued that members of ISIS are not only the militants who took part in the terrorist attack, but rather everyone who promoted or subscribed to the ideology on which such attacks are based. “These include everyone who turns the people against Christians through religious edicts whether by official religious figures, mosque imams, or TV preachers, everyone who gloats on social media when a terrorist attack targets Christians, and everyone who remains silent while all this happens,” she wrote.

MP and representative of the Solidarity Committee at the House of Representatives Mohamed Abu Hamed submitted a draft law against hate crimes in response to the recent attacks against Christians and which he believes are a result of a sectarian discourse that portrayed Christians as infidels and second-class citizens.

According to article 6 of the law, “hate speech is punished by minimum jail sentence of 5 years and/ or minimum fine of LE 100,000,” while article 7 states that “inflaming sectarian sentiments among individuals or groups” is punishable by a minimum jail sentence of 6 months and/ or a minimum fine of LE 30,000. According to article 8, the jail sentence increases to minimum 7 years and the fine to minimum LE 100,000 if those offences are committed by religious figures or civil servants or when they take place in places of worship. In article 9, “accusing people of apostasy is punishable by life in jails and amounts to the death sentence if this accusation involves incitement to kill that actually leads to a murder.”

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