Muslim-Christian Relations in Egypt

"We Are One People"

Relations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt are strained these days. Violent disputes are frequent. Now a film has come out that puts a satirical spin on the religious fanaticism and provides a glimmer of hope for peaceful coexistence. Jürgen Styriak reports from Cairo on "Hassan and Morcos"

​​ The most recent outbreak of violence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, on November 23rd in the 'Ain Sham district of Cairo, was reminiscent of earlier incidents. Hundreds of mostly young men battered away at each other, two cars were set alight, stones flew threw through the air. Eight men were arrested, five of them Muslims, three of them Coptic Christians. The only unusual thing about this violence was that the reason for the clashes seems genuinely to have been religion.

The Copts had bought an empty factory building, located directly opposite the largest mosque in the district, and intended to turn it into a Christian place of prayer. Evidently, that caused anger among the local Muslims. The protests were carried out with an unusual brutality. The independent Egyptian newspaper, "Al-Masri Al-Youm" reported that the protesters poured boiling water from windows on to the police as they approached.

Conversions, misunderstandings, and killings

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, EIPR, the number of such incidents has risen substantially in the recent past. Between July and September of this year alone, they have recorded eight clashes between Copts and Muslims in Egypt. Mostly they have been due to conflicts over such issues as land or family honour, which have only taken on a religious character as they have developed.

An Egyptian Coptic protester is beaten as he is taken away by plain-clothes and uniformed policemen outside the St. Maximus Church in Alexandria, Egypt (photo: AP)
Tensions between Copts and Muslims are high. But the conflicts, say critics, are not religious in nature but have underlying economic, political and social causes

​​ For example, in early October, a 25-year-old Copt, Rami Khella, and a relative forced their way into the apartment of Ahmed Saleh and his wife Miriam. The two men opened fire, killing Ahmed, who was Muslim, and injuring his wife and the couple's daughter. The crime was essentially an "honour killing": Miriam was Rami's sister and was a Coptic Christian, until she converted to Islam out of love for Ahmed. She was rejected by her Coptic family, and the killing was intended to restore "family honour."

Three months earlier, in the village of Al-Nazla in the semi-oasis of Al-Fayoun, several hundred angry Muslims threw stones at the houses of Copts. They rioted and destroyed Coptic shops. In this case, the reason for the unrest was the disappearance of Dalia Mohamed. She too had been a Copt and had converted to Islam two years earlier. She had married a Muslim against the will of her family. When no-one could find her one afternoon, the rumour went around that she had been kidnapped by her Coptic family. The rumour turned out not to have been true, but by then, the Muslims had already gone on the rampage.

Disarming fun of religion

The mood between the religious groups is tense, and conflicts increasingly turn into violence. The film Hassan and Morcos concerns itself with these tensions. The film was released in summer, but it's still running in some cinemas: it deals with a difficult subject, it has a well-known cast and it's very funny - enough reasons for its success.

The Egyptian star comedian Adel Imam plays a Copt. The former Hollywood actor Omar Sharif plays a Muslim spice trader. Both of them are threatened by extremists. The government decides to protect them with an unusual measure. The two of them, together with their families, are given new identities: the Copt becomes the Muslim Hassan, and the Muslim spice trader becomes the Coptic Christian Morcos.

In a style which is reminiscent of classic farces like "Some Like it Hot," the film exploits all the possible misunderstandings and mix-ups which such a plot offers. Never before has an Egyptian film made such disarming fun of religion – or, more precisely, with what people make out of religion in their daily lives.

A caricature of typical everyday piety

In one of the most grotesque scenes, representatives of the Muslim and Coptic communities come to visit their apparent fellow-believers at their homes. Both of them have recently moved with their families to new apartments on the same floor of the same building. The religious representatives make their visits at the same time, in order to welcome them to the district.

The one side is wearing black Coptic tunics, the other, white Muslim robes. The Copts swing their incense, both sides read from their holy books, the Muslims pray. The Copts have brought a tambourine – the Muslim voices grow more passionate as they recite the Koran. The competitive worship gets loud enough to reach the street below, and passers-by stare and wonder whether all that incense coming out of the window doesn't mean the house is burning down.

The film repeatedly caricatures typical everyday piety. It portrays a kind of craziness which has ceased to be unusual - a craziness which arises when people pursue their religion with increasing obsession. The film doesn't attempt to name the reasons for the tension between Christians and Muslims. But according to the political writer and Coptic Christian Sameh Fawzi, the conflicts have nothing to do with religion:

"Every one of these incidents has its own causes," he says. "Religious tension, which does exist, turns every normal argument into a religious conflict as soon as those involved are Copts and Muslims. We must rip off this religious mask, and then we will recognise the economic, political and social causes and see that the conflicts have nothing to do with religion."

"The religious factor often comes along later"

​​ This is also the view of the Dutch sociologist Cornelis Hulsmann of the Centre for Arab-West Understanding in Cairo. He's been living in the city since 1994, and he has researched hundreds of cases of discrimination. He's come to the conclusion that conflicts of interest usually have more complicated causes than those described in the media. The religious factor often comes along later.

Sameh Fawzi believes that people in Egypt suffer rather from the fact that they are deprived of elementary civil rights, than from their religious commitment. "The Christians in Egypt will not be able to live in peace and harmony as long as all the people in the country are oppressed," he says. The poster for the film Hassan wa Morqos makes the same point in a symbolic way: it shows the Muslim Hassan and the Christian Morcos bound to each other with handcuffs.

Coptic-Muslim alliance

The film itself doesn't consider the matter that deeply. Instead it calls straightforwardly for people to live together peacefully as brothers and sisters. It's reminiscent of agit-prop theatre, with its simple, unambiguous statements. It does not deal intellectually with what is a controversial topic. That's not much of a fault: the film is directed at a mass audience, at the same average Egyptian who is the target of the huge number of - mainly Muslim - video sermons which incite the religious groups against each other.

In the end Hassan wa Morcos shows Muslims and Christians rioting on the streets. The two men's common house is set alight. The Christian rescues the wife and daughter of the Muslim from the fire. When that happens, the audience in the cinema applauds, as they often do when, during the closing titles, the two families link arms and, in an inter-religious alliance, make their way together decisively through the violence around them.

A young Muslim wearing a headscarf says at the end of a showing of the film in a downtown cinema in Cairo, "The film shows that Muslims and Christians love each other, and that those who try to incite us are neither real Muslims nor real Christians." A 20-year-old man nods: "It's a very good film," he says. "It teaches us that we are one people, and that there are no differences between Christians and Muslims."

Jürgen Stryjak

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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