RELIGION AND THE STRUGGLE OVER PUBLIC SPACE
According to Muslim accounts, the dispute was over a piece of land that was owned by the government and was designated to build a mosque for the workers of the Animal Feed Factory. Part of this land was utilized by a Christian man, ‘Aziz, to store construction-related material that he sold in his nearby shop. After years of using the land, ‘Aziz tried to register it in his name. Muslim informants emphasize that he bribed a local official who issued him a fake deed (some say that ‘Aziz was only given a promise but never received any documents to support his claims) confirming his ownership.
When Muslims opposed ‘Aziz's attempts to take over the land, he tried to mobilize Christians by announcing that he would donate it to build a church, something that was supported by many Christians inside and outside al-Zawiya. It is worth mentioning here that the construction of a church or even the renewal of an existing one requires a permit from the Ministry of the Interior (Hanna 1993). Restrictions on the building of churches are based on Ottoman laws that go back to 1856 (Hanna 1993). Until recently, a presidential decree was needed not only to build a new church but also to fix and maintain existing churches (Hanna 1997). These restrictions have been the source of conflict between Muslims and Christians in different parts of Egypt since the early 1970s. They have been utilized by Islamic extremists to destroy and burn churches constructed without permits (Waterbury 1983; Hanna 1997). According to one writer,
When Muslim activists saw a sign declaring the land as a site of a church, they countered the next night by posting a sign with the name of the mosque they intended to build. This started a “war of signs,” as described by one Muslim man. Christian activists would post a sign in the night stating the name of the church they planned to build, and the next night Muslim activists would replace it with another sign stating the name of the mosque to be constructed there. On one of these nights, Christians used paint to write the name of the church on the same sign that was used by Muslims the night before. Some Islamic activists took the sign to the police station and explained the situation to an officer there. They removed the paint used to write the name of the church so that the officer could see the name of the mosque. The officer decided that “the situation should remain as it is” (yutrak al-hal ‘ala ma hua ‘alih), meaning that the status of the land should not be altered. Muslims interpreted this decision as legitimizing the idea of building a mosque on the disputed land. Al-Sunniyin mobilized men and women who cleaned the land, built a fence around it, erected tents, and placed blankets on the ground for prayer. Christians felt that the police had sided with Muslims and denied them the right to build a church.
Tension escalated between the two sides when leaflets were distributed in other areas of Cairo calling on both Muslims and Christians to support their co-religionists in al-Zawiya al-Hamra. According to written sources, the National Democratic Party (NDP) played a strong role in intensifying the conflict (Hanna 1993; Ansari 1984). A leaflet was signed by the NDP secretary general, two representatives in the People's Assembly, and local committee members. This leaflet stated that the security forces had inspected in cooperation with officials from the NDP the claims of the Christian family and had found these claims groundless (Ansari 1984). The situation exploded when ‘Aziz, outraged by the scene of Muslims praying on the disputed land, opened fire on them. The incident reconfirmed the fear of many Muslims who believed that Christians invested their money in buying weapons that they stored in their churches to be used in the future against them. These fears were nurtured by Sadat's pronouncements that Copts were fighting along the Phalangists in Lebanon and that they were trying to change the Islamic character of Egypt (Ansari 1984). In addition, Muslims felt that Copts were becoming
The Central Security Forces (al-Amn al-Markizi) interfered, using tear gas and implementing a curfew lasting for two months in order to maintain peace in the area. Clashes between the two sides led to the death of 17 people, the injury of 112, and the detention of 266 (Ansari 1984: 411). In addition, 171 shops and public places were destroyed (411). But above all, these clashes created a deep split between Muslims and Christians. The name of the grand mosque constructed on the disputed piece of land manifests this split. The name al-Nazir (as pronounced by people) given to the mosque is derived from the verb anthara, which means to warn. This name not only signifies the victory of Muslims, but, as explained by one informant, continues to warn Copts against any attempt to challenge Muslims. It is a sign that, as described by one Muslim woman, provokes grief (hasra) in the hearts of Christians. For Muslims, al-Nazir is now a highly regarded mosque that attracts worshipers from different parts of al-Zawiya. It has a section for after-school classes and medical clinics with labs catering to many low-income families in the area. People pride themselves on the fact that most of the construction was conducted by private local efforts. Muslim men, women, and children helped in the collection of the money, the cleaning of the land, and the construction of al-Nazir. Stories are also told about divine help in the control of the land. One man recalled seeing a “very beautiful woman, who was not from this world, helping with her delicate hands in cleaning the location of the mosque.” While reinforcing the distinction between Muslims and Christians, al-Nazir stands as a reminder of the solidarity and collective identity of Muslims who participated in the control of the land and the construction of the mosque.
The 1981 clashes have been seen by several writers as the beginning of Sadat's end. Sadat perceived these clashes as an attempt by Christian and Muslim leaders to “embarrass him” before his visit to the United States and to “ruin his external policies” (Ibrahim 1992: 38). He especially resented the reactions of Copts who protested in the international media before and during his visit to the United States (Abdel Fattah 1995). In the few months (especially early September) after the clashes (which took
Rather than arguing that relocation caused the sectarian conflict, I suggest that relocation took place amidst growing tension between Muslims and Christians, not only in al-Zawiya but in other parts of Egypt, and that the 1981 clashes shaped the group's identity and how it has been situated in al-Zawiya. These clashes left a deep split in the neighborhood between Muslims and Christians. Since their arrival, Bulaqis have felt the tension of the polarized religious identities in the area. According to Early (1993), who conducted field research in Bulaq during the 1970s, relationships between Muslims and Christians were “excellent.” She stated that Muslims and Copts in Bulaq “exchange social calls during each other's feasts, and visit and fulfill vows at each other's shrines” (Early 1993: 118). There are strong indications from the people that refer to how their relations with Copts were altered after relocation. A fifty-year-old woman, Um Hani, used to have close Christian friends in Bulaq. When she started going to the mosque in al-Zawiya, Um Hani heard about “the horrible things that Jews and Christians did to the Prophet.” This left her with strong feelings that now prevent her from visiting with her Christian
Both Muslims and Christians are active in inscribing messages on the inside and outside walls of their houses that identify the religions of the residents. Muslims display their identity through inscribing Allahu Akbar on outer walls and decorating their shops and houses with images of mosques, pictures of Mecca and Medina, and Quranic verses. Similarly, Christians decorate their houses and stores with crosses and pictures of Jesus, Pope Shenoudaha (the Coptic Patriarch), and the Virgin Mary. Stickers in Arabic and English such as “Jesus is leading me” and “God loves you” are used to decorate cars and privately owned buses. Space, private and public, becomes a vehicle for showing and reinforcing religious identities. The body is also a space where religious identities are visibly inscribed. Muslims naturalize religious differences by emphasizing that Christians can be distinguished by their features and gestures but most importantly by the cross that is tattooed on the inner wrist of the right hand. I also came across a few old women who had tattooed the cross on their chins. Muslim women distinguish themselves by wearing the hijab (a scarf that covers the hair), which can be also worn by old Christian women. Recently more Muslim women are shifting to the kihmar (a garment that covers the hair, the shoulders, the breasts, and the back), which is seen as the “real Islamic dress that Christian women would never wear.”
Unlike the tension between Muslim groups (those who live in el masaakin versus those who live in el-ahali or those from Bulaq versus older residents in al-Zawiya), friction between Muslims and Christians is supported by the belief of the former that the latter are economically superior. They own houses, run flourishing businesses, and operate many shops and stores in the area. While marriages between Muslims who live in el-ahali and el-masaakin are being facilitated by the mosque, marriages between Copts and Muslims are very rare. In the few cases where such marriages took place, the Christian partner had to convert to Islam. The opposition between Muslims and Copts is also marked by purity rituals.
Compared with stereotypes circulated about other groups, the opposition between Muslims and Christians is manifested not only in daily interaction but also in the popular imagination. This can be illustrated by people's construction of the ‘afriit (demon) that can yalbis (wear or possess) a person. The identity of the ‘afriit varies, but two kinds are clearly distinguished. One is a good ‘afriit who is identified as a Muslim because he or she reads the Quran and asks for simple things like a glass of lemonade or some water. This is a harmless ‘afriit who can be easily disposed of by sending him or her to pray in Mecca. The other ‘afriit is evil and can cause harm and sickness. He or she is hard to get rid of even through beating the possessed body. This ‘afriit is often identified as a Christian priest, as manifested in his or her name and the fact that he or she cannot recite the Quran. Compared with the simple things that the Muslim good ‘afriit asks for, the Christian one demands costly things such as expensive foods and new music tapes.
The growing hegemony of religious identity is manifested in the increasing questioning and redefining of “traditions.” Rather than being “Egyptian,” traditions are being redefined in terms of their relationship to Islam. Shamm in-nisiim is, for instance, a celebration of the spring that both Muslims and Christians usually observe but that is increasingly becoming defined as “Christian.” Muslims debate whether they should honor this occasion. In one session, women discussed the roots of the celebration, and one of them emphasized that she had heard on television that this celebration was “Egyptian” and not “Christian” because the Pharaohs used to celebrate it. Another woman, who was identified as knowledgeable in religion and who attended the mosque on a regular basis, countered by stating that the sheikh in the local mosque said that Shamm in-nisiim was Christian and that the fact that it was observed by the Pharaohs did not make it a “Muslim” celebration. She silenced the first woman by asking her: “Do you believe what you hear on television or what the sheikh says in the mosque?” Some Muslims even reinterpret the meaning of Shamm in-nisiim (take a breath of breeze): after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, they argue, Christians were very happy and expressed their relief (shamu nafashum, which literally means “they caught their breath”) in this celebration. More Muslim families have stopped celebrating shamm in-nisiim, and some even do not leave the