In a single week, Arabs of the Christian and the Islamic faiths commemorate the births of their most significant religious figures. The past year has seen their faiths deployed on many an occasion for various gains – sometimes laudable ones, but often otherwise. Will 2014 see a change in how religion is used in Egypt and Syria? Will it be used to bring people together, instead of forcing them apart? Or will it merely continue to be a tool for partisanship, bigotry and violence?
Christian Arabs who follow the different Orthodox calendars rejoiced in the birth of Christ earlier this week. In Egypt, they did so under close guard, amid fears that violent opponents of the government might target Christians. Radical Islamists have promoted sectarianism in Egypt for a long time, including in this current phase where many of them believe that the Coptic Church is disproportionally responsible for the ousting of Mohammed Morsi. Certainly, religion in this context is not being used to bring people together.
In a few days time, Muslim Arabs celebrate the birth of the final Prophet of Islam during Mawlid al-Nabi (the Birthday of the Prophet). They will do so the day before the much-anticipated referendum on amendments to the country’s constitution. In the run-up to that referendum, Egyptians have seen religious functionaries deploy religious language to support a “yes” vote. Former grand muftis of the republic have issued clear statements where they encouraged a “yes” vote on the basis that this was religiously commendable. Religion in this context is also not being used to bring people together – but rather to build support for a partisan position on a legal document that is a genuine point of contention between Egyptians.
(H.A. Hellyer, Brookings Institution, Jan. 9, 2014) Read original