Before I married, I loved coconut. I loved coconut chocolate bars, coconut sprinkled over rice pudding, and coconut in basboosa, an Egyptian desert. I loved coconut.
My husband, on the other hand, couldn’t stand it. He’s the type of person that makes a disgusted face whenever a food he dislikes is mentioned. It really only took a few short months and the thought of coconut made me feel sick to my stomach.
That’s the kind of conditioning one experiences growing up in Egypt. That’s how I was conditioned to have discriminatory feelings towards Egyptian Coptic Christians.
It is time for me to tell this story. I tell it with the utmost shame. But it is a story that must be told. Unless we admit we have a problem and try to understand why we have it, we will never be able to fix it.
Growing Up Among Western Christians
I was born and grew up till the age of 15 in the United States. My American mother’s family, all of Norwegian-Swedish-Irish decent, is Christian, some of them devout. Their religion to me was always irrelevant and way below my radar. Well, except, perhaps, when I was about twelve and found I had a crush on my 11-year-old cousin Noah. (Noah, dude, sorry for telling this to the whole world before telling it to you first.) According to what I understood at the time, we could not marry because he was Christian and I was Muslim. Christians, I thought, did not allow marriages between cousins whereas Muslims did. I had no idea this had nothing to do with Christianity but rather it had everything to do with American law. In order for me to marry Noah, I concluded, he’d have to convert to Islam. That’s the only time my American side of the family’s religion ever even occurred to me.
Almost all my friends in school were not Muslim. I say not Muslim rather than Christian because again, their religion was irrelevant. They could have been Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, or atheists and I would never have known or cared. They were simply my friends.
When I was in 6th grade we moved to Buffalo, New York for a year. Living right next door to us was an Israeli family. My Egyptian father quickly instructed us not to play with their children. The Egyptian-Israeli 1973 war was still fresh in his memory. But across the street lived a Jewish-Moroccan family. Their daughter, Natalie, was in my class and I loved playing with her. She often invited me over to her house to play, watch movies late at night, and eat popcorn. I would never have known what Natalie’s religion was or where her family was originally from unless my parents had mentioned it in front of me. My father, it seems, had started becoming a bit cranky that I was spending so much time at their house. Nevertheless, my mother still let me go over and play when my father was not around. Once she gave my brother and me permission to go with Natalie’s family to get ice cream. My father came back early that day and my mother got into trouble.
But besides that little episode, I never really knew the religions of my friends in the United States.
My First Encounter with Egyptian Discrimination
I came to visit Egypt for the first time in the summer before the 4th grade. We stayed for a full month in the house of my Uncle Hassan. My brother and I quickly took to befriending a brother and sister our ages, Ashraf and Enas. They lived a few floors above my uncle’s apartment. During that month, we got to know most of the kids in the neighborhood, but Ashraf and Enas were our favorites. No particular reason why. We just all liked each other. Ashraf and Enas then took us across the street to get to know other friends of theirs who were hosting an Egyptian family that was visiting from the States. They had a boy our age who spoke perfect English! So the group of us became close pals.
But perhaps one week before we were to leave, it seems my grandfather had a talk with my father. It wasn’t all right for us Muslim kids to spend so much time with the Christians. Ashraf, Enas, and the Egyptian boy from the US were all Christians, we suddenly learned. When my brother and I were instructed to stop spending so much time with them, we were heart-broken. And the explanation sounded absolutely absurd. Why was it all right for us to play with our non-Muslim friends in the States but it was not all right for us to play with our Christian friends in Egypt? I bumped into the Egyptian-American son on the plane from Cairo to the US. The seeds of discomfort had already been sewn. I looked him in the eye and did not even say hello.
Learning the Culture of Discrimination
I finally settled in Egypt in 1986 when I started med school at Cairo University. It took only one year for my Muslim friends to teach me about what was proper in Muslim-Coptic relations in the country.
I remember befriending Mariam who had come from New York. She had the dark black hair of an Egyptian but an uncanny New Yorkan accent. It was nice to meet someone who came from a background similar to mine. Quickly my Muslim friends explained I could not befriend her. She’s Christian, I was told. So what, I asked. In Egypt, it’s not all right, was the answer.
By the end of that same year I had heard my Muslim friends say it was yucky to drink out of a cup a Copt had drank from; they explained that the way to identify a Copt was by their odd smell and their oily hair; and I saw them secretly sign to each other if someone speaking to them was a Copt by making a cross on the inside of their wrist or by whispering the word “Kuftis”, a word Egyptians use in place of Copt, stupidly thinking the Copts don’t know that’s what they mean.
I was quickly conditioned. This was the way of Egyptian culture, I thought. Different cultures have different practices and one must go with the flow, I convinced myself. And I did.
In the second half of our first year of med school, an Egyptian-Peruvian girl from the U.S. joined us. She was Muslim. When I noticed she had started befriending Mariam, I took her by the arm and started educating her in Egyptian culture. Here in Egypt, I explained, it isn’t acceptable for Muslims to befriend Copts. This girl was much smarter than I was. She maintained her friendship with Mariam and grew further away from me.
I only knew one Muslim girl in med school who had a Copt as her best friend. They went to school together all their lives and were close neighbors in Shobra, a neighborhood in Cairo where a large number of Copts reside. No matter how hard my Muslim friends tried to convince her otherwise, Howeida refused to leave the side of her best friend. My memory of them is of two girls, arms hooked, with huge smiles on their faces.
A Pervasive Culture
Since that first year in med school in Egypt, I’ve witnessed many types of discrimination against Copts.
In one of the departments at the faculty of medicine, I was told by a trusted source that a Muslim doctor was given her PhD much more quickly than normal so that her Christian colleague of the same year, who was awarded her PhD two years later, would always be subordinate to her and would never be the head of that department some 30 years later.
I’ve also continued to see parents teach their children that it’s not all right to befriend Coptic children at school.
A member of my extended family recently told me that her teenage son had a crush on a Coptic girl. This conservative family member did not really have an issue with her son expressing feelings toward a member of the opposite sex. But she was bothered by the fact she was a Copt. I asked her why? Muslim men can marry Christian women, I said. When they grow up, they can marry. Copts in Egypt are mushrikeen, she explained. They do not believe in one God. They believe in God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This belief in the Trinity disqualifies them from being able to marry a Muslim man, she told me. She had a few harsh words with her son. It’s not all right to be friends with a Coptic girl.
Also in Egypt, many Muslims will refuse to buy goods from a Copt’s shop and will go out of their way to find another.
And anywhere a church is built, the Muslims in the community will make sure – and then boast – that a much larger mosque was built exactly across the street.
I need to emphasize that not all Egyptian Muslims discriminate against Coptic Christians. But this culture that I explain is definitely pervasive throughout our country. It took a lot of growing up and conscious de-conditioning of myself before my eyes opened to what was truly happening.
It now disturbs me to the core to hear Egyptian officials say there is no fitna ta’ifiya (sectarian strife) in Egypt. It is simply not true.
I have been working hard to remove the ugliness from within me. I hope one day the ugliness is removed from Egyptian society as a whole.
Note: this article was written to be intentionally biased. I acknowledge that some problems arise as a result of actions from some Coptic Christians in the country. But as a religious minority forming less than 20 per cent of the population, they are much less to blame than the religious majority. I acknowledge that Egyptians as a whole have other racist and discriminatory tendencies. It is almost unheard of for Nubians to marry non-Nubians, for example, or for a fair Egyptian girl to marry a black man. I also acknowledge that there are some bright examples of open-hearted Muslim and Christian men and women. Though I acknowledge this, I wanted this article to put the spotlight on a real and ever-growing problem in Egypt. A real problem that is being swept under the carpet and not getting the attention it deserves. A real problem that has can lead to violent actions and the potential loss of a dear and intrinsic part of our population to mass migrations.
All the cases you’ve mentioned are true. The problem is that Muslims are not really conscious of it or that it is discriminatory. They keep hearing untrue rumours about copts and their practices and they’ve never met a single copt.
Both communities need to practically engage with each other. I’d love to stop seeing the polarized sight of a few coptic girls and boys taking their own bench in the lecture whole. It’s so sick for all of us.
Good confession Dr.Nadia =)
Thanks for writing this. This must have been a difficult exercise, but an important one, and I think we all must be even harsher with ourselves. I find echoes of this in my own experience, of being told by my parents or community of how Muslims were “dirty” or “not to be trusted.” Funny enough, one always thinks of the “other side” in those terms. Hygiene and fairness haha.
Also, God forbid I ever marry a Muslim. I think I have *never* gone out with a Hindu yet, so my parents will have great luck on that front. However, over the years, I’ve given in and now I look at people and think, Muslim, can’t marry, better not bother with him.
And your experience of taking a friend aside. I remember wanting to take this white-american-girl aside and to *warn* her about her then-boyfriend – brown-egyptian-copt i presume and telling her about “what these Egyptians want.” I’ve come to hate that trait in everyone – of wanting to intill fear and distrust in others.
Today I was at Holi and some Brit-accent behind me said, “Of course, these people don’t know how to queue.” I wanted to snap back and say, “Then go back (to wherever you’re from.) What the hell is “these people”? Whether he was referring to the Indians at the embassy where the event was hosted, or to the country he was living, it strikes me as impolite to your host and arrogant to the nth degree.
Seriously, I wish everyone would do this exercise to regularly wash their brains of filth. 🙂
Again, thanks for trying it out. 🙂 Is refreshing.
Thanks, Chitra! And thank you for relating your own experience! Happy Holi!
I keep discussing – particularly with my wife – that this kind of discrimination and abuse is intrinsic in most/all religions (because the religious “tag” is a very powerful and an all-encompassing one), but she keeps telling me that it’s not in religions, but rather in some religious majorities, and I stay convinced that there is always someone capable of using badly the power of religion.
I guess this quote from Jon Stewart sums my feeling quite well 😉 :
«Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion»
Fabio, I have no smart answer to your comment, unfortunately. All I can say is that my observation of what is happening in Egypt is that it’s more about a learned culture and not about religion. I do not think Christianity or Islam encourage discrimination. The fact that some Muslims and Christians do reflects on them and not their religions, in my opinion. At least I’d like to think that. 😉
First of all, let me make it clear oce again that I really appreciate your willingness to discuss publicly about such sensitive issues (I write it for others; I know you know… 😉 ) .
I should probably de-condition myself from smart comments, but what I mean is probably that religion IS a learned culture. God, if s/he exists, has very little to do with what men who want to influence others pretend to say and do in hir name…
Nope. Islam does encourage discrimination. Verse in the Quran below. You can argue that interpretation of this verse, requires taking context of the time it was written into consideration. However, many Muslims interpret this literally and apply its teachings to modern day. Facts are facts.
“Qur’an (5:51) – “O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.”
Thanks for posting this. It is rare for people to actually go through the effort of reconditioning themselves and their beliefs, and even rarer for them to come out and explain it.
I was lucky to be brought up in a non-discriminatory atmosphere. My parents never objected to me being friends with Copts and, for the past 13 years of my life, I’ve had a Copt bestfriend that I really wouldn’t imagine life without.
At my previous work, however, I witnessed these discriminatory remarks in alarming ways. A particular person was driving me crazy and I had unending arguments with her over some of the stuff she said. She would say that she knows shops of Copts by their smell, she is disgusted to shake hands with them, or that she wouldn’t eat of the same food (you might know who I’m talking of!)
I believe the problem in Egypt is far deeper however. We are raised in a way that ignores the rights of minorities. Yes there is a problem with Muslim-Coptic relationships, but its the same with other minorities. Egyptians are horrible in the way they treat black people for example. I was watching a sarcastic TV show on Moga TV (Egyptian satellite channel) and they were making fun of blacks and laughing about. It got to a degree that was for me too painful to continue watching. It was just disgusting. Sometimes I see the way Africans are treated in Egypt – like they were animals – and I want to scream at the authorities who actually fume these flames of hatred.
The problem is people are raised that way and there get no education from ANY source that this is unacceptable behavior. It comes to the point of “everyone else is doing it so why can’t we?”
And the problem becomes deeper. Because of the obvious discrimination towards Copts from Muslims, the Copts automatically reply back in their own ways. For example, in the building where my Copt bestfriend lives, the owners don’t sell apartments except to Christians.
The problem indeed is very serious and I think it needs everyone to start reconsidering and changing themselves. After all, life should be about that, a journey to improve ourselves and how we deal with others around it.
Dear Dr Nadia;
I am afraid my experience was totally different from yours.Also the comments here will be skewed about the truth since they reflect the views of people who speak english and have net-access and computers. I think you probably are living in a gas bubble of very observant muslims , maybe with a salafi touch,this is normal and known in Egypt’s medical communities.I grew up in the real Egyptian community, where I never went to a mosque till I was 18,learnt very little quran, did not pray,made wodo wrong till that age too.I never heard one bad word about christians till I entered the university, probably from the same type of people you encountered.I benefited alot in university islamically.
My muslim mom likes to eat pork mortadella since she was a kid, she attended Jesuit schools where they hooked her to it , my muslim dad enjoys a good drink of alcohol every now and then.Most of our friends are christian, many in our family do not fast or pray.Most smoke.We lazily neglected our prayers watching tv all day long.This is most of Egypt’s muslims,yes there are hardline muslims, but that is a small well organized community, mostly centered around the engineering and medical communities [your bubble]. In the Egypt mainstream I grew up in I have encountered ZERO anti-christian feelings or discrimination. I never even heard the word kuftis till I was in the university. I think it is exagerrated self-flagellation to say that Egypt’s muslims are so racist, this tune reminds me of the corrupt Mubarak stooge regime that tries to endear itself to its western patrons by being pro-christian and anti-muslim. Remember that in Egypt there has been 1/3 million muslim political prisoners under Mubarak and no christians.If any mosque is open after isha all will go to jail ,whilst churches are open till 3am with picnics and math lessons, the regime’s anti-islam stand is what feeds the small unfortunate anti-christian prejudice.We need freedom and democracy, that will solve all our problems.
It’s always interesting to hear descriptions of muslim discrimination… while some i have witnessed and others I trust your and others’ description of, my experience has been a bit different – raised as a religious and ethnic minority abroad – in a place far less forgiving of dark skin and muslim first names than the USA of the 1980s – I was sent to a Catholic school in Cairo, where I was, again, a religious minority, until I went to college.
My experience of discrimination was the reverse of yours… Funny.
salam awab to all ;
mohamed can you please elaborate on your reverse discrimination in Jesuit schools. thanks to lastoadri for her comment.my negative experience with christian friends in college started with how they had secret notes summarizing lectures that they shared with each other only, to a christian chairperson in the university illegaly leaking the exam to all christians in church tutor lessons, all of them got A in that subject[imtiaz]later the professor did not go to jail or be fired, just a slap on the wrist and forced to leave chair post only.
This was in Cairo University.And many other experiences.
About the muslim majority , Dr Nadia: come on you know that observant muslims are the most oppressed group in Egypt, they control nothing, the self-hating secular muslim in name only[MINO] government fights islam day and night while allowing christians more freedom than muslims.
It’s always fascinating to see how diverse the experiences of Egyptians are depending on which category of society one lives in.
One of the problems with writing in English on the Internet is that posts will only be read and understood by a certain category of Egyptians that is hardly representative of the vast majority.
I’m going to have to wholeheartedly disagree with comments such as Dr Sayed’s. I do not think the story I related in this post is that of someone living in a gas bubble. Quite the contrary. I think anyone who thinks Egyptians can be represented by secular Muslims who eat pork, drink alcohol and surround themselves by Christian friends is living in a gas bubble.
My friends throughout university were from Sayeda Zeinab, Faisal, Imbaba and the Egyptian provinces. I went to a public university; Cairo University. That experience is very different from someone who lived in Heliopolis or Maadi and went to a private university such as the American University in Cairo.
I’m also very aware that the experiences of Muslim Egyptians who went to Catholic schools in Egypt was very different than the one I related. Again, that is not the general experience and is not representative of the masses.
Since I wrote this post yesterday, I’ve also received some comments here and on Twitter about the actions of some Egyptian Christians. I expected such comments, thus my note at the end of the post. And I repeat: I acknowledge that the overall picture is more complex than the one I relate. My post is about one personal experience. I feel it is largely representative. There are many other stories. Let’s hear them. But in the end, I believe it is up to the Muslim majority in the country to take responsibility.
And Advantage of writing in English is that you can voice your opinion and thoughts to the folks who know nothing but the merely the name of your country.
Salam from Canada!
I may be like Mohamed, and have quite different experience. While I was in Islamic school, but I used to have Christian neighbors and friends.. however, once a big church was built behind our house.. suddenly all the christian boys and girls I used to know – left us (I mean by us all the kids who used to gather and play in summer, in the neighborhood).
We didn’t connect that immediately, but later on we realized they were engaged in activities in the church, while we -Muslims- stayed to play in the streets because mosques do not offer such activities,and we don’t have a common club.
When I went to college the same thing was repeated. I actually didn’t have the chance to know any Christians quite good. Usually they were standing together in the same place in college. And whenever I try to go there and talk to any of my colleagues, I can feel all the sneaking looks at the one and only veiled in the area.. So, I stopped trying to mingle..
On the contrary to you, I didn’t hear that much in college against Christians.. in fact, such talk were against the extreme Muslims, and Muslim brotherhood. My parents demanded me not to go to my college’s mosque, and not to know any of them..
They were irritating to tell u the truth. But my parents didn’t comment when they hear me talk about Mariz, Betty or who ever… they also have their Christian friends…
salam awab to all ;
thanks to lastoadri for her comment.my negative experience with christian friends in college started with how they had secret notes summarizing lectures that they shared with each other only, to a christian chairperson in the university illegaly leaking the exam to all christians in church tutor lessons, all of them got A in that subject[imtiaz]later the professor did not go to jail or be fired, just a slap on the wrist and forced to leave chair post only.
This was in Cairo University.And many other experiences.
About the muslim majority , Dr Nadia: come on you know that observant muslims are the most oppressed group in Egypt, they control nothing, the self-hating secular muslim in name only[MINO] government fights islam day and night while allowing christians more freedom than muslims.
I think Dr. Sayed and Mo-ha-med shared comments similar to what I wanted to say. My experience was different from yours.
I’m a Muslim, born and raised, and have been living in Egypt. As is the case of many Egyptian Muslims, many of my good friends are Christian, and many of their good friends are Muslim as well.
I went to the American University in Cairo, and it was not much different from your experience in Cairo University. There were Muslim groups, and there were Coptic groups. And of course, there were mixed groups like I, and most of the students, belonged to. One thing I noticed though was that Coptic students were much more “groupy” than Muslims – IMHO.
My point is – there is always this, and that. IMHO, groups in itself is not bad since it’s normal for one to want to belong to a group of peers who share similar beliefs – just like it’s normal to have all-engineering, or all-economics student groups. As long as Engineering groups don’t discriminate against Economics groups, it is perfectly fine and sometimes healthy,. I believe this was the case in my university with some exceptions from some Muslims and some Copts.
From my own personal experience, while there may be some religious discrimination in Egypt, I think it is highly exaggerated. And even if there is any, blame goes both ways.
يوجد فرق كبير بين المسيحيين الأوروبيين والأقباط المصريين وكذلك الأقباط المصريين قبل مجئ البابا شنودة كانوا على وئام تام مع إخوانهم المسلمين ولم نعهد وقوع حوادث طائفية إلا بعد ظهور الباب شنودة وإذا إجتهدت قليلا وقرأت بعض مقالات الدكتورة زينب عبد العزيز والدكتور محمد عمارة والشيخ الغزالي يرحمه الله ستعرفين ما الذي حدث .
Hisham please explain…. I was born while Pope Shenouda was Pope and Egypt was not like this up until 15 years ago. Pope Shenouda was Pope before Mubarak just so you know. Also the violence against Christians by some Muslim groups has always been there whether Pope Shenouda was there or not. Also if Pope Shenouda was the problem why isn’t it Christian groups that are causing all the problems. Coincidentally I have never heard of Christians carrying AK47s and attacking Muslims in Mosques or any other form of violence or discrimination. Next time you write something think about it and bring proof. I’m sorry but your words mean nothing without you answering the word why?
Your story was touching Dr. Nadia, but i have a whole opposite experience. I grew up in Maadi where my parents were raised, i went to an Egyptian language school and then to Cairo university.. and through all these years i never heard the work ‘kuftis’. It wasn’t until i worked in journalism that i knew some Muslims call Christians by that ugly word.
Since primary school and all the way up, i always had a Christian best friend from Mary to Marianne. We would go out together and have fun, celebrate the new year together and pass greetings in Muslim and Christian holidays. My parents never told me not to do so or to not to stay with them too long. When i went to my Christian friend’s house to spend the evening, she wouldn’t have pork on the table or if she had to (for celebrations) she’d tell me that i cant eat from this or that.
I had very few Muslim friends who didn’t like befriending Christians.. but i would always stand up for who i am and what i wanna do.. but i never lost a Muslim friend for that.
Last week, i was taking a cab to Tahrir and before i stop the taxi, a Christian woman approached me and was complaining of traffic. She was standing with a crowd waiting for an empty chair in a microbus but they were all full. I asked her where she’s going and i told her i can drop you on my way.. she was glad for that and we took the taxi. Two days later, i was getting in a cab when a Muslim woman jumped over wanting to go with me since she heard me say “Tahrir”.. it was very undecent of her standing so close that i couldn’t close the door.. so i just had to tell her i’m not going there..
When i was in Amsterdam with a group of journalists, my closest friend was an Armenian Catholic from Syria. We used to talk together about another Muslim colleague who wasn’t behaving appropriately in public. We shared the same morals and principles (the Catholic girl and myself)
It has nothing to do with religion but with being decent.. i disagree with you saying the Egyptian culture is discriminatory against Christians coz some people are, some are not..
Excellent piece, Nadia. And I can assure you that your fears are in place. When I joined the French cultural center to learn the language I had a majority of Egyptian Christians with me in class who were learning French as part of the requirements for an immigration visa to Canada. All of the ones I spoke to told me that they no longer had a place here and could no longer fathom why they should stay. Most of them already had other family members in Canada waiting for them to catch up. I’m not sure if we could draw statistics out of this, but what I saw scared me enough to really consider whether Egypt is witnessing a serious exodus of Egyptian Christians due to the increasingly deteriorating situation.
I was born and raised in the U.S but moved to Egypt at the age of 8 years old. I was enrolled in an All-girls British school in Alexandria and that’s where I learned all my ‘Egyptian’ discriminatory culture aspects.
I had very little contact with Coptics since the school decided to ‘group’ them all in one class. Very few Muslim girls were in class with these Coptics. A few African immigrants were also present and clustered in one classroom. Everyone was scared of their dark skin.
I remember befriending a girl around the 5th grade (Nadeen). We lived close by and took the same bus home. It seemed like a perfect friendship because we got to see each other all the time. The only problem was that none of my Muslim friends played with Nadeen. And when I happened to visit Nadeen’s home, I felt disgusted. My sister tagged along and they offered us food (cucumbers?) and I refused to eat anything because EWW they are Christian.
When I moved back to the U.S., I was obviously surrounded with Christian, Jews and every other religion you could think of. My prejudices were challenged and in some ways shattered. However there is always a thing about Coptics that resonates within?
We have a large Coptic community where I live now in the U.S. I’ve encountered a few and in some cases assisted them with a few things like translation, etc. In most cases I still feel the tensions and I can’t understand why?
Thank you so much for your honest comment, Organica. This the typical kind of story I know. This is the typical context that I feel no one wants to admit. I know there are positive stories out there like the ones we’ve heard from others who have commented. What has irritated me lately is that it is so rare that people like you and me who have had this experience admit to it even though we may form the majority. Perhaps we’re among the few that have had it and realize how wrong it is.
It is reality. And imagine the kind of background I come from. I was middle class, attending a pretty good school. My mom attended a French Christian school all her life. They’ve been surrounded with Christians growing up yet these subtle racist teachings seeped into our home and family.
Recently mom was in Egypt and related a disturbing story about my very educated Uncle who attended San Marc in Alexandra (i.e. Christian). She said my uncle refuses to send his wife to the private hospital near his home because the ‘COPTICS’ own it. The owner of this hospital happens to be a family friend.
you may form the majority?? what proves that? or what makes you think so?
Your question correlates to someone asking “do the Arabs have issues with the Jews?”
You will hear countless beautiful stories of Jewish Arab relations. They will create the best movies but the reality at the end of the day is that ‘yahoody’ is a bad thing 🙂
no that is different, at least thats how i c it 🙂
but i was asking Dr. Nadia coz she said you may form the majority of people.. what makes you think you form the majority?
With all due respect, how is it different?
Are you familiar with the Bahai issue a couple of years ago? Is that a separate issue that the people and government alike didn’t want to acknowledge that people exist?
The first step to peace is acknowledging the truth. I believe a group of journalist/bloggers started
Organica: Glad you raised the Bahai issue. Another one we could raise is Mubarak’s recent (supported by the 2 Abdullahs) Shi’a-baiting. I mean, who freaking cares if someone is Shi’a or Sunni or Coptic or Catholic or Jewish or Atheist or whatever? Kullina baniadmin wa bass, khalas.
First of all I would like to thank Dr. Nadia for her post, it was very insightful. I am a Coptic student at Ain Shams Faculty of medicine and of Canadian origin. I wanted to share my point of view as a Christian at Ain Shams and discuss in particular why Christians to an extent group themselves.
Before I begin I just want all the readers to know that I am not trying to bash my Muslim colleagues, from my point of view I would say around 60% of my colleagues are tolerant and half of the 60% take the next step and are willing to befriend a Christian. I’m talking about the 40% that is intolerant and 30% who are borderline.
My first year in Ain Shams I had come strait from the airport to school and I went into my anatomy lectures and I sat in a random chair and my first friend Aly was sitting there beside me and he talked with my normally and unbiased and me being innocent I thought everybody was like this. And based on my experience with Aly I was treating everybody the same until I started to notice the undertone, in some of the people’s speech and body language. (If i was to go into details I would be writing forever) It would appear as people being overly formal and polite to an uncomfortable level, in addition to the fake smiles that I got from people. If I caused people that much distress I would have rather had people not say hello to me rather than be forced to say it. In addition to the fact that half of the Muslims would say oooo Christians are our neighbors and best friends, like it was out of the ordinary in the community to have Christian neighbors and best friends. And coincidentally all the people who have said something like this have always been formal and my friendship with them never really began while my Muslim friends who didn’t really care about the fact that I was Christian never brought that subject up.
After my first couple of days at school I made my way to the lab to find the lab split in two between Mai’s (Muslim girls) and Mina’s(Christian guys). After my first couple of days of feeling different I wasn’t encouraged to befriend anybody especially the girls after getting dirty looks when I tried to shake their hands several times and had no idea that something called wodou2 existed. My lab was the perfect example of the groups of people that existed and how they can change if they are just informed of the their different backgrounds and figuring out that they are humans that joke around and laugh and cry just like them. The first couple of years were unfruitful, later on by 4th year when the lab group grew to around 200 students (around 15 guys and the rest girls) and we got to know each other quite well there were now a different percentage of people who existed. I would say around 90% of the people were tolerant of Christians, 10% who were still intolerant and 40% who were borderline. I understand there is another stigma between guys and girls in Egypt in general but I found that the girls who didn’t have much contact with guys communicated with other Christian girls. As for the guys all of us are closer to each other than ever before. As well as some of the stigma between some of Muslim girls and Christian guys had vanished. To the extent that when we had group projects we would make groups where you had both religions guys and girls working together, which actually shocked our professors.
Now why do the Christians have a tendency to group. I find that Christians do this due to the fact that they are treated with an extreme discomforting formality between them and many of their other colleagues. While in the same time when they find another Christian the Christian treats them very nicely and welcomes them with open arms and opens the door for friendship. This results in the Christian groups becoming very very closely knit and that just makes them my liable to group. These groups generally break down in my lap group were we have been together for almost 6 years and there are no more formalities and if you were to walk in you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between who is Christian and who is not.
In conclusion I would like to say that these conflicts are a fruit of ignorance and bigotry. Uprooting ignorance by knowledge and bigotry by experience will hopefully change anybody. Also even though it is disturbing to see Christians in groups it is not 100% their fault safety is found in numbers especially when many of your colleagues can’t tolerate you. And lastly I would like to commend all the Muslims who have confessed their feelings and I want all of you to know that I understand how being surrounded by an idea no matter what it is since you were young can be very difficult to get rid of. You speaking up is very brave and difficult and it is the beginning. Also I just want all of you to approach a Christian there might be some stigma in the beginning with some of them but get closer and know these people, you will find that they are very similar to you.
Thank You for reading and sorry it is this long. I could have written more but my wrist hurts now, 6 years of med school can’t be written down in one little forum.
1) I am an Egyptian medical student (Alexandria) and most of my friends are Copts. It wasn’t intentional, but it just so happens that many of the people in my group are Copts. We go out together, visit each others’ houses, and have no problems at all.
2)That crap about identifying Copts by their “oily hair” is not true. Copts are not ashamed of their identity. They proudly wear cross dangling from their necks and many have crosses tattooed on their wrists. Plus, most are identifiable by their names, just as “Mohamed” is identified as a Muslim.
3)There is nothing wrong with a Muslim man marrying a Copt, religiously and legally. Though you are right, it is frowned upon and uncommon. Neither family would approve.
4)A friend of mine once told me that I was spending too much time with my Christian friends. I told him to get lost. He didn’t mention it again, and neither did anyone else.
5)I find it funny how many people sometimes I assume I am a Christian (shows the abnormal preoccupation with religion people have) because of my name. Just for fun, I sometimes do nothing to change their misconception.
Nice article. I understand you do not intend to make generalizations, and it’s really good that you mentioned it was “intentionally biased” (nice way of putting it). My fear, though, is that your readers who are not familiar with Egypt, or those who just want to believe that Copts are being subjected to a “Holocaust” (one member of the Coptic diaspora really uses that term) will take it out of context and generalize. It wouldn’t be your fault though. You cannot be blamed for the mistakes or dishonesty of people who take what you write out of context.
Again, nice article ;).
Oh, and I’ve also been invited over for lunch at my Christian friends’ houses. None of that “can’t eat their food” crap.
That was very informative. On the other hand my own experience was totally different. As a child I grew up in a moderate muslim upper middle class family. I was never directed to befriend any one on basis of religion, in fact my dearest and closest two friends were copts., we were never at any time aware of any differences of religion . we celebrated coptic holidays with them they had iftar withus at ramadan
I am sure that this is not the case in every household on both sides . however I think its very important to oppose this growing trend of religious discrimination even on the emotional level. its the role of families to create this awarness
Very good article, and thank you for your courage. More “Zaghlulian” Egyptian Muslims like you and Egypt will become a better and fairer place.
An excellent article and one that I hope sows a seed for a new wave of acceptance and tolerance throughout, not just Egypt, but the whole Arab world … in fact the whole world. I’m from a western country and find the Arab concentration on religion difficult to understand. Religion is a personal thing. The point about “faith” is that, by definition, it can’t be enforced otherwise it is no longer faith, it’s politics! Our religious belief is and should be between ourselves and God and should have no relevance to our fellow humans. Yes, we should be able to discuss and debate religion openly but without prejudice and without embarrassment, fear or pressure to conform. In the west, generally, religion and politics are kept separate by law. That is the way it should be. I’m not saying western ways are best in everything. God knows we have our problems, but in this I believe we have it right!
Assalamualaikum.. I am a muslim from southeast asia, currently studying in USA. I came across your blog when I Google about it on ‘coptic muslim relation’, I was interested in finding out more after watching a hearing held by the US Helsinki Commission on Coptic Christian in Egypt on C-SPAN. You can find it in the link here:
I was saddened by the allegations made, i,e kidnapping of Coptic girls, forced marriages and forced conversion. To me it sounds unbelievable! This is against Islam. I hope all this report is not true.
Kudos to you, Nadia. The truth will set you free.
I love everything you said, but I have a tiny bit of criticism–constructive, I hope. I find the use of the term “sectarian strife” inaccurate, at best; infuriating, at worst. It implies that both parties are on equal footing when, in fact, this is far from the case. Copts are a persecuted minority–by and large, victims–not participants in some kind of back-and-forth battle in which both sides do equal amounts of damage.
Dear Dr Nadia, thanks for this truthful narration of what you have encountered in Egypt. Though some exceptions exist as have been stated by different comments which usually depends on the surrounding environment, neighborhood, level of living, type of education. For example, people who grow in christian neighborhood such as Shoubra have strong inter-religion relations. People who study in Catholic schools also encounter such relations due to the everyday interactions. Open minded people are usually open to all kind of communications. However, what you have learned about Coptic – Muslim relations in Egypt is widely applied amongst the majority of Muslim Egyptians. It actually comes from a long history of discrimination for 1500 years. You are free to check the history through historians like Elmakrizi. I suggest you starting by this book: http://www.waqfeya.com/book.php?bid=3959
You can check the year 755 Hegri, read all of it.
Usually, people who have the military power oppress the weak whether they are a majority or a minority. Of course minorities are even weaker.
Johnson Gad-Elkarim, PhD
What if you “muslim” fell in love with a “coptic” guy that you both end up wanting to get married? How fair is it not to do so just because your religion and culture says NO!!!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post especially since I share your cultural and religious background. I visited Egypt as a child for 2 months and subsequently lived there as an adult while attending medical school and can say that I unfortunately went through similar experiences. Growing up, I had Coptic neighbours living right across from me and we frequently played together, went to the community swimming pool all summer, and were always at each other’s houses. Our parents had and still do have an excellent relationship with one another. We still stay in touch to this today despite moving away years ago. I too only began to notice so many of the things you pointed out when I moved to Egypt which simply doesn’t exist in Western culture. I agree with your footnote expressing that the majority discriminating against the minority is of priority, however, one bad experience I went through was being refused access to an internet café on numerous occasions by a Coptic owner. The reason why this occurred multiple times is because I had no idea that I was being discriminated against due to my easily identifiable Muslim identity as a bearded male.
The majority of the discriminatory examples you provided was spot on with the exception of the final two in my opinion. Preferring to buy goods from a Muslim retailer over a Coptic one doesn’t necessarily entail a discriminatory practice. Supporting someone with whom you share something in common with is natural. Going out of your way to donate to a poor relative before donating to a stranger isn’t considered discrimination as long as you have nothing against donating to strangers. If presented with a choice between a stranger and a friend/relative, the choice is clear. A Muslim might have nothing against buying goods from Copts in Egypt, however there’s nothing wrong or discriminatory with a person travelling a short distance further in order to support and buy goods from their fellow Muslim brother provided that all other criteria is equal (e.g., customer service, product quality, etc.) which is primarily what you want to base your purchasing decisions on. Also, pointing out that a larger Mosque exists has more to do with being proud of the number of people who share your faith more so than it is about looking down upon those who don’t share your faith. Finally, I wanted to touch on the matrimonial examples mentioned in your footnote. Determining whether this is discrimination or not would certainly depend on the individual’s intentions. Are they against the concept? If so, definitely discrimination. Otherwise it’s simply a matter of personal preference of who you’re attracted and not attracted to.
On that note, your understanding as a 12-year-old child regarding American laws and Christian beliefs on marrying Noah may have been incorrect, but from an Islamic perspective, the impermissibility of it is in fact true. However, the justification by the mother that Copts being mushrikeen is grounds for her son’s potential marriage being impermissible is ridiculous and is Islamically untrue.
The existence of sectarian problems in Egypt cannot be denied and is a significant problem that should be tackled. Fortunately, the majority of Egyptian Muslims and Copts do get along peacefully with one another and that’s what I think Egyptian officials are referencing when speaking on Muslim-Coptic relations. Hopefully, the ugliness as you put it, is eventually eradicated from Egypt and the entire world one day.
One thing I’d like to add is that when you’re truly friends with someone and genuinely value them as a person that naturally you want the best for them and don’t want any harm to befall them. As a Muslim, there is nothing wrong in forming friendships with non-Muslims (e.g., Copts), however being best friends with a Copt as I’ve read in numerous replies in the comment section comes with that very understanding (wanting the best for them/not wanting harm to befall them) which can only be sincerely fulfilled by doing your best to guide them towards Islam as was Prophet Mohamed’s (pbuh) mission for all mankind. Otherwise, the friendships being described so passionately in some of these posts isn’t nearly as meaningful or genuine.
Or you could just respect their way of thinking and respect that they have their own religion and they have no interest in converting to yours.
I appreciate your bravery and honesty in covering this uncomfortable subject!