Monday, May 9, 2011

Let's Talk about Sects, Baby...

The emergent alleged sectarian violence has sparked intense dialogue and attention once again on the relationship between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt. According to Al Jazeera English the supposedly rising Salafi movement is at the heart of these tensions, "In the months after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, there has been a sharp rise in sectarian tensions, fueled in part by a newly active ultraconservative Muslim movement, known as the Salafis". The representation of the Salafi movement portrays individuals as being extremist and fundamentalist, but pays little attention to the larger political economy connected to this rising movement. Additionally, no interpretation or analysis of the recent clashes has looked beyond or in any direction other than the binary divisions between Muslims and Christians for explanations of these clashes. The clashes have also been viewed as a testament to the failure of the military in asserting its control, but have rarely been thought in terms what these clashes succeed in achieving. This post will offer some questions that may serve as guidelines to allow a deeper analysis of the supposedly Muslim and Christian strife in Egypt.

It is practically indisputable that since Mubarak was deposed, the Salafis a group one had rarely heard of have been accused of orchestrating and fueling the recent tensions between Muslims and Christians. They are represented as a threat to Egypt's modernity and progress and conjure images of a Taliban style take over in everyone's mind. They are portrayed as a rising army of ignorant volatile extremists that will devour the rest of the peace loving Egyptians. Now, there is no denying that the Salafi inclination is a rising trend, yet I would argue that there is not enough evidence to indicate that they are truly representing a threat. While all the focus has been on the Salafis as overly zealous religious individuals there has been very little done to question the relationship between capital and this rising movement. Salafis are thought of as ascetics living for El Akhira, which often stops us from thinking about money, profit and the circulation of capital that surrounds the movement. I'm not talking about arms trading or sketchy foreign funding channeled towards underground terrorist cells. I'm really talking about the mundane day-to-day purchases, T.V. shows people are watching and advertising that revolves around this movement. There's money to be made from the Salafis and we often forgot this point. Salafis like most consumers have created specialized market niches that be targeted with a huge array of commodities and services. By ignoring this important relationship between capital and the Salafi movement we separate Salafi completely from society. They become a disconnected group that we do not understand and instead of us viewing them as consumers of a certain specialized commodity they become our number one public enemy. We then become willing to give up our freedoms in return for protection against them.

I have watched the representations of the Salafi threat sway even critics of the army's military trails of civilians towards a desire for the firmer fist of military rule. As evidenced by Al Jazeera's question in the same article I referenced earlier,"The question being asked is, Why is the country's new military leadership not doing enough to deter these attacks that have been repeating since the revolution? And why is the military not doing enough to address the root causes of this tension?". Now is this the right question to ask? Because the only answer such a question allows is one where the military leadership needs to detain more people, restrict more freedom and you use more violence. The different question I believe should be posed to this situation is not how the army is failing, but how is the army succeeding? What is the army, the old and current regime achieving through the framing of acts of sectarian violence?

The second question is not how the Salafis are creating Muslim/Christian tension, but rather what have the mechanisms over the last 40 years that separated Muslims and Christians have caused a segregation between the two? At a very young age, Christian students are removed from the classroom to attend their religion lessons. Even at a private international school there was a shroud of mystery and secrecy. The Christian religion teacher would come in and quietly signal the Christian students to leave the classroom. They would silently gather their things and leave. I think the crucial point here is that the very structure of the system unquestionably required a handful of students to leave. It wasn't that we all went to different classrooms for our religion class. It was that we remained in our classroom while they had to LEAVE. This is just one small example of the everyday institutional practices that are constantly separating between Muslims and Christians. Other things, such religion on our identity cards and the differences in zoning policies between mosques and churches. In fact it is these very practices that produce a sense of entitlement in Muslims and a sense of marginalization in Coptic Christians. Who puts these practices into action and how do these daily practices come into being? who are the winners and who are the losers, and for a truly nuanced perspective we must not limit our winner and losers to a polar Muslim/Christian discussion?

Many random and unrelated events are highlighted as sectarian conflict and are interpreted in a way to produce sectarian conflict. For instance somewhere in Egypt a Muslim girl is supposed to get married to her Muslim cousin, but instead would much rather marry her Muslim neighbor and runs away with him. What would the expected outcome of this situation be? Now to be clear this is not class specific I have known of upper-middle class women who have been 'promised' to their cousins from their father's side and when they decided to marry others their cousins have showed up at the Ma'zun with shotguns ready to blow the husband-to-be's brains all over the marriage certificate. Or how many Muslim women have we heard of or seen being forced to cover their heads by their families whether or not they want to, yet somehow once a Muslim woman or Christian woman has anything to do with anything from the opposite religion, it become transformed into this huge sectarian ordeal and we seem to forget that this has little to do with religion as much as it has to do with women and their right to make their own choices. So by highlighting the difference of religion of people in conflict are we denying that these conflicts constantly happen outside a sectarian context? Are we asking the right questions when we make it about Muslims and Christians or are we just producing sectarian conflict by virtue of focusing on religion? Isn't it more of a question about women being able to choose who they want to be with and what religion they want to follow, much rather than a sectarian division? So why are we hell-bent on ignoring this line of questioning and only willing to focus on this idea of a suppressed civil war?

I hope that this post sheds light a line on a missing line of questioning that may provide us with certain answers that may prove to be fruitful in understanding and dealing with what may or may not be a sectarian conflict.

This post was theoretically inspired by James Ferguson and the content of this post was inspired by conversations with @yasminb @sumayaholdijk