How The Arab Spring Can Bring Christians and Muslims Together

Headlines about Muslim-Coptic violence hide a more hopeful narrative emerging in the new Egypt: Islam and Christianity can live and build together

  • Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

    A villager in Sol looks over a Coptic church that Muslims helped rebuild after it was destroyed in May by extremists

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    After the funerals, a crowd of Muslims went looking for the Christian man, who they heard had sought refuge in the church. When word spread that someone found evidence that black magic was being performed on Muslims inside the church, the crowd set the building ablaze. It was exactly the sort of violence Mubarak had warned about for years: Keep me in power or sectarian divisions will rip apart the country.

    Only this time, just as quickly as this situation flared, something unexpected happened. A group of young Muslim and Christian leaders in Cairo who had worked together during the revolution swept into Sol to address the situation. The group was building on the spirit of Muslim-Christian partnership that had developed in Tahrir Square. Day after day during the revolution, Christians locked arms to protect Muslims during prayers. Muslims did the same for Christians during Mass.

    On occasion, Muslims and Christians linked arms to protect Cairo's historic synagogue. The protesters even adopted an interlocking crescent and cross as their symbol of a new Egypt. Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which tracks sectarian strife, says that "during the revolution, the moral threshold shifted. Suddenly everyone, including the Muslim Brotherhood, was saying, 'Of course Egypt is for all Egyptians. Of course there should be no discrimination.'"

    Sol offered a test of this harmony, and the results were striking. Within 24 hours, Hany Hanna Aziz Hanna, a conservator with the Department of Antiquities who became one of the leading Copts during the revolution, helped organize a delegation to visit the town. Members included Muslim Brotherhood political head Mohamed el-Beltagy, Salafi sheik Mohamed Hassan and various military leaders. The delegation hosted reconciliation talks in a local dignitary's house, then held a unity rally outdoors. As popular televangelist Amr Khaled, often called "Islam's Billy Graham," told the crowd, "My message here today for Muslims and Christians is, Let's be one hand."

    The military promised to rebuild the church. When I visited a few weeks later, the four-story facility and adjoining community center were already abuzz with activity. As armored personnel carriers protected the narrow road, dozens of men--of all ages, social classes and faiths--were busy laying bricks, stretching electrical wire and hammering studs. It was the visible manifestation of an evolving Middle East. "I think we can be an example to other countries where Muslims and Christians live side by side," Hanna told me.

    A similar outpouring followed the recent attacks in Cairo. Egypt's most respected Muslim religious authority, the Sheik of al-Azhar, denounced the violence, as did the Muslim Brotherhood. Youth organizers called a unity rally for Tahrir Square. And most telling of all, Prime Minister Sharaf canceled a trip abroad to summon an emergency Cabinet meeting, the military council arrested 190 people and subsequently announced it would put 48 on trial, and the government issued a ban on demonstrations in front of houses of worship. Reaction, counterreaction. It was a struggle for the future of faith.

    So how should we in the West respond to all of this? First, we should be reminded once again that Islam itself is not the problem. Sure, the Qur'an, like the Bible, can be exploited for political purposes. Sure, a conservative form of Islam is still popular in the Middle East. But so is a more centrist, sensible version that denounces violence and rejects extremism. A poll taken in April, after the events in Sol, showed that 84% of Egyptians thought Copts and other minorities should be able to practice their religion freely.

    Second, we should remember that the chief battle in the Middle East right now is for the hearts and minds of young people--not the Arab street, as we've been wrongly branding them, but the Arab schoolhouse. These young Muslims are actively involved in shaping events, and they are willing to take on entrenched forces, including religious ones.

    Third, we should recognize that young people now have two competing narratives from which to choose: the jihadists' call for orthodoxy, violence and terrorism, or the path, which the youth helped create this year, of coexistence, ballot boxes and job opportunities. Our role in the West should be to help cultivate this new narrative, to hear in its messy, pluralist totality the voice of moderate Islam we have been claiming we want to hear since Sept. 11. And to look past the headlines of church burnings and recognize the miracles of Imbaba and Sol.

    Adapted from Generation Freedom by Bruce Feiler, © 2011. Published by Harper Perennial

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