Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 June 2008
Issue No. 901
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Doorstep strife

By Salama A Salama

As children, we read a story about a grocer who had a container full of sugar. The container was always getting infested with ants and the grocer tried everything to stop them and couldn't. In the end, he hit upon a brilliant idea. He decided to label the container "salt" instead of sugar.

Recent reports about sectarian strife in Minya reminded me of this grocer. When jewellery shops were attacked, then a monastery was shot at, everyone started discussing whether the acts were just criminal or had a sectarian aspect. It may be admittedly hard to distinguish the two, since most sectarian incidents are borne out of mundane quarrels. And yet once they develop into sectarian incidents, we cannot just downplay them by referring to their criminal aspects. The fact that certain people -- usually people who are economically disadvantaged, culturally stunted, and politically repressed -- are so easily overcome by sectarian hatred is not to be taken lightly. And the fact that the culprits may have imagined that their sectarian identity would protect them is reprehensible.

It is in the nature of sectarian and criminal violence to overlap and we cannot keep splitting hairs on whether they are mostly sectarian or criminal in motive. Nor can we seek solace in perfunctory reconciliation sessions that fool no one. And forget about the tidal wave of assurances that tend to come in the wake of such incidents. There is no use recalling that we're all equal citizens living in one country and under one constitution that is creed-blind. The public doesn't buy these assertions, and top government officials make a mockery of them on a daily basis.

We have a serious case of religious fanaticism and sectarian prejudice in this country, as this goes for Muslims as well as Christians. The problem may have international and regional context, but this doesn't make our responsibility any less relevant. Signs of sectarianism are palpable in work places, markets, and in many daily transactions. Signs of sectarianism exist within the family, the school and the media, satellite broadcasts included. We have developed a lack of tolerance that undermines our civil and social rights and poisons our rapport with those of a different faith.

Persistent economic difficulties are not helping. Corruption in the management of state-owned property is not helping. When land disputes are tainted by tribal affiliations, religious sympathies and individual interests, and when courts cannot resolve these disputes promptly, anything can happen. Our city planning is so messy that buildings seem to sprout everywhere beyond control, and that's not helping either.

I blame the lack of public involvement in politics for this sorry situation. People have given up on politics. They did so because they know that the authorities discourage competition and frown upon power sharing. We have ended up with a one-party system, complete with a government that sends in the police to settle its political scores. No wonder that little problems get bigger. No wonder that small grudges turn into feuds. No wonder that people are ganging up along sectarian lines.

In most disputes that surfaced in pubic life over the past few years, civil and social aspects were systematically ignored. Instead of facing the true causes of problems, the government opts for heavy-handed means to silence its critics. Under such circumstances, dialogue has receded from public life. And the tolerance for which Egyptians have been known throughout their history is evaporating. It doesn't matter what we call a certain incident. It doesn't matter what portion of a certain attack is criminal and what portion is sectarian. What matters is our ability to understand what's going on and act accordingly.

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