By Nervana Mahmoud
Beni Suef– A story of romance has turned ugly and led to eruption of another round of sectarianism in Egypt. Rana El-Shazli, a 21-year-old Egyptian Muslim woman, is believed to have converted to Christianity and fled to Turkey with a Coptic Christian man.
Although interfaith relationships are common across the globe, it is a taboo in Egypt, conversion to and from Islam is always a tricky, sensitive topic in Egypt; however, in the current tense atmosphere, the situation has turned into a tragic story of exploitation. Angry Islamists attacked St George Church in Beni Suef, occasionally with Molotov cocktails, and forced Christians to close their shops for nearly eight days last month. Members of the Christian man’s family have been arrested, including his mother and father, after a prosecutor accused them of collaborating in hiding the woman.
The details of this ongoing tragedy reflect the wider ills of the Egyptian society and why sectarianism is on the rise.
First, the rumours: There are conflicting reports about the story, and whether Rana has run away with a Muslim or a Christian man. Some suggested that Rana has contacted her family to reassure them that she is safe, and she left out of her free will, and denied any pressure from any one, yet her family, together with a wider support group by some Islamist groups, has refused to accept this narrative and insists that she has been kidnapped by the church.
Second, the exploitation: Many Islamic groups have taken advantage of the anger and grief of Rana’s family to stir troubles. Leaflets were distributed across town giving the church an ultimatum; either to return the girl or face “consequences”.
Third, collective blame: To the Islamists, the church has controlled, plotted, and facilitated the kidnapping. None of them asked the simple question: why? Why would any church, after endless attacks on many Christians over the last few years, embark on such endeavours for the sake of one girl? Islamists’ irrationality has led them to demonise churches, regardless of logic or common sense.
It is worth mentioning that there is a record of Coptic girls who were converted to Islam, some out of their free well; others were “allegedly” forced to convert. Ironically, for the Islamists, it is always a one-way street; Coptic girls (single or married) are welcomed to join Islam, even after unsanctioned romance without the consent of their families, but the same rules are not accepted by the Islamists to be applied to Muslim girls. Such hypocrisy is another reason behind this tragic type of sectarianism.
Fourth, the authority: Everyone in the town knows exactly who distributed anti-Coptic leaflets, inciting violence against the Coptic Church, yet no arrest has been made. The government also decided to adopt the kidnapping narrative and informed Interpol to try to arrest the couple, despite the fact that Rana is 21, has travelled legally to Turkey and is fully responsible for her own actions.
Violence triggered by rumours, stirred by exploitation and collective blame has become the new-norm in Egypt, and it is compounded by the government’s unprofessionalism, incompetence, and even complicity.
If Rana has indeed converted to Christianity, then she is not the first Muslim to convert and will not be the last; cases of conversions to and from Islam happen frequently. The reasons behind Rana’s tragedy probably lie inside her family home. Rather than stirring the flame of sectarianism, her family should ask themselves serious questions before they start to blame others: Did they support their daughter enough? Were they willing to listen, or did they threaten and intimidate her?
Furthermore, Islamist groups must understand that only the love of God can protect Muslims against leaving Islam. If Islamists teach love, they would be rewarded with love, but teaching hate could bring desertion and vulnerability. Most Muslims who leave the Islamic faith usually have struggled with questions about their religion that most scholars forbid even discussing, and the climate of intimidation, particularly against women.
Freedom from Islam is entrenched inside Quranic teaching: “So let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve.” It is hypocritical to force anyone to be a Muslim while his/her heart is somewhere else. Individuals are responsible for their choices, and for any consequences or future regrets. Patriarchy strips people from their individual responsibility; it is about time to treat Egyptians as mature adults.
Nonetheless, the Egyptian government must also help to solve the crisis. First, it must stop the tension in Beni Suef; radical groups must understand that inciting violence is a crime that should be punished. The soft, diffident approach toward Islamists will not work. Second, the Egyptian embassy in Ankara can offer counselling services and logistic support for Rana, should she decide to return to Egypt at any time, as honour killing could easily be her fate, despite her family’s “kidnapping narrative”. This is precisely why the family also needs counselling: The bereaved parents are understandably shocked and angry, but also under the influence of many radical groups that may inspire them to blame and even murder their own daughter if she returns to Egypt.
There is already a lot of hypocrisy, confusion and anger in Egypt; let’s not add more. Egyptian women should not be used as weapons in the ongoing, dirty sectarianism. Enough is enough.
Nervana Mahmoud is a doctor, blogger and writer on Middle East issues. You can follow her on Twitter @Nervana_1