Home > Commentary, History > Belated reflection on a scene from Cairo

Belated reflection on a scene from Cairo


I’ve always been a sucker for a good team-up. I have this innate aversion to the human tendency to divide and categorize ourselves, like among like; the flip side of that is a soft spot for seeing those divisions transcended. Whether in real life (e.g., the “Christmas Truce” in the early months of World War I) or in fiction (like the countless iterations of the X-Men joining forces with Magneto’s brotherhood), a story of rivals making common cause, however fleetingly, always strikes a chord with me. The power of these moments lies the paradox: noble unity made possible because ignoble divisions exist in the first place.

 No doubt that’s why, of all the staggering, inspiring images and tales to come out of the Egyptian revolution, the one that I keep turning over in my brain is that of Christians forming a human wall to shield praying Muslims from police. (I’m coming at this a bit late, because it’s taken a while for me to translate my gut response into something rational-ish.) Their solidarity mirrored the courage shown several weeks earlier by Muslims who attended Coptic Christmas masses to defy and guard against threats of anti-Christian violence made by fundamentalists.

I’ve been startled and perplexed by how deeply these images have resonated with me, because they’re rooted in something to which I can’t at all relate: religious identity. I’ve long harbored a knee-jerk antipathy for organized religion, precisely because of its tendency to divide people along non-negotiable lines. Yet here were two groups of people not just coming together in spite of their separate religious identities; the form their unity took would not have been possible without those separate identities. It’s only because the Christians did not observe the same rite as the Muslims that the former group was able to stand guard for the latter. The protesters were able to fulfill their duties to both God and country, in a way that’s inconceivable had they been composed of only one faith.

I have to admit, it’s knocked this committed agnostic off balance. I’ve grown too used to a cultural climate in which the most vocal Christians (by no means all or even most, just the ones who know how to grab headlines) have devoted boundless energy to demonizing Islam, whether out of crass political calculation or sheer bigotry. I never would have expected a scene from the Middle East to remind me of the virtues of religious plurarlism. That either makes me too naive or too cynical, and either way it’s refreshing to learn that such a disposition can still be challenged.

Categories: Commentary, History
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