Manufacturing Christian-Muslim Communalism

Lede: The Egyptian state exploits the newsmedia’s penchant for spectacle and artificial impartiality to get a probable anti-Christian police pogrom played off as “sectarian strife.”

Journalists have a tough job, which is why editors who know less than they do are absolutely essential to getting a rag out on time. I know, having served stretches in both roles. Explaining a complicated event in six hundred words is an exercise in compromise; conforming to the American style of journalism, “The Inverse Pyramid,” is an exercise in propaganda for the article. Starting with the headline and “lede” (para)graf(ph) the news must be an event with an active verb rather than a snapshot of a process. “YO! READ THIS,” it says to a hurried information consumer. If the writer is lucky, a few of her readers get as far as the non-essential “context,” the insignificant tip of the pyramid, in the last third of the article, down by the pet food or dating service ads at the bottom of the print or online editions.

But what if the context was the news, and the event was a footnote? I put forward for your consideration four articles about a violent clash on Tuesday night in Manshiyet Nasr in which vaguely-identified “thugs” (baltageya, a trope in Arabic) attacked local Coptic Christians protesting state discrimination while the Army looked on, resulting in the death of nine Christians and one Muslim. I have tried to provide a range of flavor choices: The Washington Post, Reuters, Al-Jazeera English, and the local Al-Masry Al-Youm English edition. (It appears that the New York Times has removed a similar story it ran yesterday from its database; very interesting).

Despite the presumed ideological differences of these sources, they all call the event a “sectarian clash,” and proceed to analyze sectarianism’s threat to democracy. I propose that the newsmedia’s structural habit of having to make a headline with one explanatory factor is in this case doing a disservice to the truth. Yes, there is a competing, but less powerful, force besides getting readership shaping editorial choices: the truth! Sometimes the truth comes calling in the form of a libel lawsuit; this is why it is imperative to call a murder defendant “the alleged murderer” in print until convicted in a court of law. But it is harder for an entire religious minority to sue for its rights.

Simply put, because an “X vs. Y” news story seems more balanced and easier to comprehend at a distance, these major news outlets have decided to portray this violence in the well worn colonial trope of sectarianism, as if these timeless religious groups have emerged from the era of the crusades to butcher each other, rather than in reaction to very real current interests. The fact that the thugs who showed up to throw rocks at the Christian protesters were Muslim doesn’t mean that they want to throw rocks at them because they are Christian. It is just as likely that they were paid, armed and given the tactics to do it by the threatened State Security apparatus, as they were in Tahrir on February 2, but we really don’t know yet. So couldn’t the news throw a few “allegedly“s in there?

The fact of the matter is that this was plainly not a fair fight, nor has it ever been. The state security documents released after Saturday’s protester raids (Jonathan Wright has a good run-down of the leaks), are the merest tip of an iceberg of concealed systematic state discrimination against the Copts. Concealment and misinformation is key to sectarian fear staying alive. I mentioned Gyan Pandey‘s book about the construction of Hindu-Muslim communalism in my last post, and I could cite another half dozen excellent academic works analyzing specifically the politics and rhetoric of communalism in South Asia. But there are barely a half dozen academic works about the modern Coptic community itself in Egypt, precisely because the government (anecdotally) has not permitted researchers to come here and conduct ethnographaphic research about the community.

Please read feminist Hala Shukrallah in Al-Ahram (of all places, now that it’s state supervision has slackened) for a strong opinion about how the state is targeting women and Copts to mobilize counter-revolutionary sentiment. Change is terrifying, and less privileged minorities are the easiest scapegoats.

I’m not trying to deny that some extremist Muslims don’t hate Christians, or vice versa. But just as the Tea Partiers in the United States hate Obama and uppity racial and ethnic minorities but would not be a political force without extensive patronage by the wealthy far right (e.g. the Koch brothers), long-standing institutional forces and funding have given focus to this particular riot and encouraged Muslim-Christian social strife in general. And every time the media oversimplifies (either of) these political conflicts as hard facts, it reinforces and calcifies the roles its participants play — in fact manufacturing the reality it seeks to describe.

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About ericschewe

PhD, History. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
This entry was posted in Egypt, Media, Police, Protests, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Manufacturing Christian-Muslim Communalism

  1. Farrell says:

    Great analysis. I especially like the critique of the inverted pyramid. That system makes a lot of assumptions about what constitutes news, and what makes that news interesting or worthwhile. Someone should be paying you for this.

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