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Liberal or sectarian?

12 October 2011

The GetReligion web site performs a quite useful service in pointing out instances of how the media often just don’t “get” religion, and sometimes produce some really weird and distorted reports. Sometimes its selections seem rather parochial for the USA, but occasionally they look further afield, and did so recently, though mainly to discuss how the American media were reporting recent incidents of the burning of Christian churches in Egypt.

GetReligion objected, quite rightly, I think, to the tendency of the US media to simplistically dismiss this as “sectarian violence”.

“Sectarian” does imply that there are two religious groups out there and they are fighting each other. The question, in Egypt, is whether this is an accurate description of reality.

Yet, once again, the New York Times has framed the latest outbreak of bloodshed in precisely that manner — at the top of the following report (which is now out of date due to the rising death toll):

CAIRO — A demonstration by Christians angry about a recent attack on a church touched off a night of violent protests here against the military council now ruling Egypt, leaving 24 people dead and more than 200 wounded in the worst spasm of violence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

The sectarian protest appeared to catch fire because it was aimed squarely at the military council that has ruled Egypt since the revolution, at a moment when the military’s latest delay in turning over power has led to a spike in public distrust of its authority.

When the clashes broke out, some Muslims ran into the streets to help defend the Christians against the police, while others said they had come out to help the army quell the protests in the name of stability, turning what started as a march about a church into a chaotic battle over military rule and Egypt’s future.

Please pay close attention to the shift that takes place between the second and third paragraphs. To me it seems as if the word “sectarian” is now a matter of Times copy-desk style, even if the hard details of this event actually undercut the use of that term.

“Sectarian” conflict, as in Coptic Christians vs. Muslims?

If you read the story carefully, there appear to be multiple groups of Muslims involved — Muslims helping protect the Christians, Muslims issuing appeals for “honest Muslims” to come support the government forces, Muslims in gangs that appear out of nowhere, their loyalties unknown. And which of these competing groups of Muslims represents either the dominant Muslim Brotherhood or the rising Islamist tide of the Salafi parties? Who is backed by the military?

But a day or two later they confused the issue in this article Define Egyptian ‘liberal’; give three examples | GetReligion

The big news here is that the word “sectarian” is missing in the latest New York Times report. The emphasis in this story is on the fervent laments and protests of Coptic Orthodox leaders — who are being supported by “liberal activists” who oppose the military’s current role in that tense and shattered nation.

So who are these “liberal activists”?

The bloodshed appeared to mark a turning point in the revolution, many here said. It comes just eight months after Egyptians celebrated their military as a savior for its refusal to use force against civilians demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Confidence in the military had already been eroded by its repeated deferrals of a handover of power to civilian rule, now set to take place perhaps as much as two years after parliamentary elections, set to begin next month.

Now political liberals as well as Copts said the brutal crackdown had finally extinguished the public’s faith in the ruling military council as the guardian of a peaceful transition to democracy.

“The credit that the military received from the people in Tahrir Square just ran out yesterday,” the party leader Ayman Nour said at a news conference of prominent parties and political leaders denouncing the military. “There is no partnership between us and the council now that the blood of our brothers stands between us.”

The word “liberal” in this case seems to imply either “secular” (whatever that means in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation) or pro-Western, in terms of support for human rights, especially for minorities. Truth is, the Times never makes that clear. Is this an interfaith coalition? A coalition led by progressive Muslims who are clashing with the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi parties?

In the first report, they want “sectarian” descriptions dropped, but in their second their chief complaint is that the report lacks sectarian descriptions — they want to know the exact religious make-up of the “political liberals”. That seems a bit like wanting to have yout cake and eat it, or, to mix the metaphor, to take a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” approach. One day they are complaining about the descriptions being to sectarian, the next they are complaining about them not being sectarian enough.

GetReligion appears to be appealing here for the use of the weasel word “pro-Western” instead of the less loaded term “political liberals”. The implication seems to be that political liberals in Egypt ought to be “pro-Western”, whatever that is supposed to mean — and it doesn’t necessarily mean support for human rights for minorities, or even for majorities. The Murbarak regime was regarded by the West as “pro-Western”, as have many even more unsavoury dictators and autocrats.

The Western media have too long been in the habit of labelling politicial leaders in other parts of the world as “pro-Western”, and hence implying that they were the “good guys”.

Of course whether you regard “political liberals” as “good guys” depends on where you stand politically, and quite a large segement of American (and even South African) society seem to regard them as the bad guys.

But “political liberal” is a non-sectarian description. It refers to people who are in favour of human rights (including freedom of religion), who are in favour of democracy and accountability of political leaders. I regard myself as a political liberal, however unfashionable it may be these days, and I was once a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party of South Africa, which was pretty non-sectarian. Its members included Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, African traditional religionists, atheists and agnostics. If there’s anyone I’ve left out, it probably included them too. It didn’t include fascists and communists, though. The point is that all these people with different religious (sectarian) affiliations managed to work together to achieve a common political goal. The more enthusiastically religious among them would no doubt have produced different theological justifications for their political goals, but their theological differences did not stop them working together politically.

And I would think that political liberals in Egypt would have similar political goals, regardless of their religious background or lack of it.

And let’s leave “pro-Western” out of it.

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