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Faith in the Arab Spring

8 minute read
Bruce Feiler

When President Obama stepped into the State Department on May 19 to deliver his long-awaited speech on the Middle East, he did so amid fears that the Arab Spring was devolving into a Summer of Discontent. Egypt was sagging under a weakening economy and escalating crime; NATO’s efforts in Libya were stuck in neutral; the Syrian government was boasting that its rebellion was over. Sectarian tensions were roiling Bahrain and Syria, and a wave of church burnings in Cairo had spawned a week of deadly violence between Muslims and Christians.

In his speech, Obama confronted these religious struggles head-on. “In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation,” he said. “For this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.”

(See “Obama Struggles to Keep Pace with the Middle East Mess.”)

Beyond their political implications, the religious dimensions of the Middle East uprisings have always been central, particularly to the West. Ever since 9/11, the West and Islam have been locked in a chilly standoff. The relationship was captured by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s lightning-rod phrase “the Clash of Civilizations.” Huntington’s thesis, which was roundly trashed when it was published as an article in 1993 but became a best seller in book form following Sept. 11, was that Islam taught Muslims to be hostile to freedom, pluralism and individualism.

At first blush, the Arab Spring seemed to render Huntington’s idea deader than ever. In up to 20 Islamic countries, Muslims marched in the face of bullets, tanks and water cannons, demanding the exact human dignities that parades of commentators had assured the American public Muslims didn’t want. If anything, the uprisings of 2011, coupled with the death of Osama bin Laden, raised the tantalizing possibility that the West and Islam, which came to the brink of a Holy War in the past decade, might finally be able to build a Holy Peace. Could the Clash of Civilizations be giving way at last to the Convergence of Civilizations?

In recent weeks, the news from Egypt has suggested the answer is no. The downfall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak seems to have unleashed all kinds of pent-up religious hatreds. The latest explosion of violence began in the dusty Cairo slum of Imbaba on May 7. Rumors circulated that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam to marry a Muslim man had been kidnapped and was being held captive in the St. Mina Church. Muslims, many from the ultra-conservative Salafi sect, began marching on the facility. Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the country, hurried to defend the church. Thousands gathered, brandishing makeshift weapons and hurling insults. Street fighting broke out, and by the time the melee ended the following morning, 15 people had been killed and more than 200 wounded, and three Coptic churches were in flames.

(See “Why Obama’s Mideast Speech is For Domestic, Not Arab Consumption.”)

Episodes like this one, reported around the world, fit into a narrative of extremist Muslim aggression and intolerance that has dominated American public discourse since Sept. 11. But what this story line misses is that a powerful new narrative has emerged from the Middle East in recent months that, for the first time in a generation, poses a serious threat to the fundamentalists’ appeal. And that narrative can also be told from the recent sectarian events in Egypt. It is a story of the rise of a moderate coalition and its counter-attack against extremism.

The best example of that story unfolded two hours south of Cairo in the tiny village of Sol, in Helwan governate. A place of dirt-lined streets on the border of the desert, Sol was the site of the first church burning in the days after Mubarak’s fall. Rumors played a large part in this conflict too: a Christian man had been in a romantic relationship with a Muslim woman, a domestic dispute broke out within the woman’s family over her actions, and two people were killed, including her father.

After the funerals, a crowd of Muslims went looking for the Christian man, who they heard had sought refuge in the church. When word spread that someone found evidence that black magic was being performed on Muslims inside the church, the crowd set the building ablaze. It was exactly the sort of violence Mubarak had warned about for years: Keep me in power or sectarian divisions will rip apart the country.

See how the Arab Spring could finish al-Qaeda.

See TIME’s complete coverage of “The Middle East in Revolt.”

Only this time, just as quickly as this situation flared, something unexpected happened. A group of young Muslim and Christian leaders in Cairo who had worked together during the revolution swept into Sol to address the situation. The group was building on the spirit of Muslim-Christian partnership that had developed in Tahrir Square. Day after day during the revolution, Christians locked arms to protect Muslims during prayers. Muslims did the same for Christians during Mass. On occasion, Muslims and Christians linked arms to protect Cairo’s historic synagogue. The protesters even adopted an interlocking crescent and cross as their symbol of a new Egypt. Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which tracks sectarian strife, says that “during the revolution, the moral threshold shifted. Suddenly everyone, including the Muslim Brotherhood, was saying, ‘Of course Egypt is for all Egyptians. Of course there should be no discrimination.'”

Sol offered a test of this harmony, and the results were striking. Within 24 hours, Hany Hanna Aziz Hanna, a conservator with the Department of Antiquities who became one of the leading Copts during the revolution, helped organize a delegation to visit the town. Members included Muslim Brotherhood political head Mohamed el-Beltagy, Salafi sheik Mohamed Hassan and various military leaders. The delegation hosted reconciliation talks in a local dignitary’s house, then held a unity rally outdoors. As popular televangelist Amr Khaled, often called “Islam’s Billy Graham,” told the crowd, “My message here today for Muslims and Christians is, Let’s be one hand.”

(See pictures of demonstrations across the Middle East in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation.)

The military promised to rebuild the church. When I visited a few weeks later, the five-story facility and adjoining community center were already abuzz with activity. As armored personnel carriers protected the narrow road, dozens of men — of all ages, social classes and faiths — were busy laying bricks, stretching electrical wire and hammering studs. It was the visible manifestation of an evolving Middle East.

“I think we can be an example to other countries where Muslims and Christians live side by side,” Hanna told me.

A similar outpouring followed the recent attacks in Cairo. Egypt’s most respected Muslim religious authority, the Sheik of al-Azhar, denounced the violence, as did the Muslim Brotherhood. Youth organizers called a unity rally for Tahrir Square. And most telling of all, the interim Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, canceled a trip abroad to summon an emergency Cabinet meeting, the military council arrested 190 people and vowed to put them on trial, and the government issued a ban on demonstrations in front of houses of worship. Reaction, counterreaction. It was a struggle for the future of faith.

So how should we in the West respond to all of this? First, we should be reminded once again that Islam itself is not the problem. Sure, the Qur’an, like the Bible, can be exploited for political purposes. Sure, a conservative form of Islam is still popular in the Middle East. But so is a more centrist, sensible version that denounces violence and rejects extremism. A poll taken in April, after the events in Sol, showed that 84% of Egyptians thought Copts and other minorities should be able to practice their religion freely.

(See photos of a night in Tahrir Square.)

Second, we should remember that the chief battle in the Middle East right now is for the hearts and minds of young people — not the Arab street, as we’ve been wrongly branding them, but the Arab schoolhouse. These young Muslims are actively involved in shaping events, and they are willing to take on entrenched forces, including religious ones.

Third, we should recognize that young people now have two competing narratives from which to choose: the jihadists’ call for orthodoxy, violence and terrorism, and the path, which they helped create this year, of coexistence, ballot boxes and job opportunities. Our role in the West should be to help cultivate this new narrative, to hear in its messy, pluralist totality the voice of moderate Islam we have been claiming we want to hear since Sept. 11. And to look past the headlines of church burnings and recognize the miracle of Sol.

Adapted from Generation Freedom by Bruce Feiler, © 2011. Published by Harper Perennial

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