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Nag Hammadi: minorities, violence and the state

By Farid Farid - posted Monday, 18 January 2010

In his mainstream best seller The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown fuses fact and fiction in a panoply of adventure riddled conversations and quasi mythical fabulations. However, he correctly - albeit fleetingly - mentions the small town of Nag Hammadi about 65km from Luxor in Egypt as the site where the Gnostic Gospels were discovered.

Brown within the narrative of the novel reveals that these “lost gospels” compiled allegedly by St Thomas ultimately hold the clues to Christianity’s aversion to the feminine divine. Ultimately, the hero of the novel reconciles western Christianity with its own fragility by addressing the Freudian sexual ghosts present in its formation as a world religion. However, Brown’s western-centric beef with the Catholic Church ends up ignoring the continuous indigenous history of Coptic Christianity in Nag Hammadi present since Mark the Apostle’s arrival in Egypt and other repressed ghosts lurking behind religion and politics.

Nag Hammadi was the same site that just recently witnessed the brutal and gruesome murder of eight Coptic youth and a security official in a drive by shooting by extremist Muslim gunmen after they had just celebrated the midnight Orthodox Christmas Eve mass (January 6).


Government officials suspect that the attack, where gunmen haphazardly started shooting at innocent crowds injuring many, was in retaliation to the rape of a young Muslim girl aged 12 by a Coptic man in the town in November.

The spill over from the attacks has resulted in riots that have engulfed Christian and Muslim communities in a wave of sectarian passions with tens of arrests by the police. In recent years, these aggressive acts in poor rural towns in southern Egypt have been common and the ferocity of sectarian violence has recently escalated in larger metropolises such as in Alexandria last year. However, these latest attacks need to be contextualised beyond the facile claims of sectarian carnage only.

Coptic Christians are the indigenous peoples of Egypt and have been maintaining their traditions, rites and customs since the first century despite centuries of repression under Roman and Muslims rulers. They currently represent around 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million population and generally have co-existed along with their Muslim compatriots in an atmosphere of tense yet liveable amicability.

Yet, with the decades of governmental oppression and quashing of civil liberties since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser and extending to the current policies of president Hosni Mubarak and corruption on local levels, cadres of Islamic extremists have sprung up in order to retaliate and restore a more equitable social order via a brutal mix of lethality and religious misinterpretations.

The victims, in most cases of these hostilities, have been Coptic Christians due to a combination of reasons. Coptic Christians are a minority and within the psyche of the state they remain problematic in terms of citizenship because of their religious status as the largest non-Sunni Muslim minority along with other discriminated minorities such as Bahai’s, Yezidis, Catholics and so on.

Moreover, within daily Egyptian popular representations Copts are stereotypically seen as elitist and bourgeois because of their economic leverage through entrepreneurial successes of Coptic businessmen such as Naguib Sawires - the founder of Orascom, the biggest telecommunications network in the Middle East and Africa. Also, the fundamentalist voices of some Copts in diaspora, especially the United States and Canada, pressuring western governments to interfere in Egyptian domestic politics leads to a scenario where Copts in Egypt are seen as western colluders and in turn bear the brunt of disgruntled local elements as well as blatant institutional discrimination.


Nonetheless, these depictions do not fully explain why these violent incidents persist. As renowned anthropologist Arjun Appadaurai succinctly explains in his book, The Fear of Small Numbers, “the existence of even the smallest minority within national boundaries is seen as an intolerable deficit in the purity of the national whole ... Minorities being a reminder of this small but frustrating deficit, thus unleash the urge to purify”.

The predominantly rural south of Egypt has historically languished through mismanaged policies of economic advancement of various governments and has been depicted as racially and technologically backwards in Egyptian and western popular imaginations. The demographic make-up of towns such as Nag Hammadi have large minorities pitted against each other where Christians and Muslims roughly represent the same number of inhabitants but political power resides with corrupt local authorities intent on subverting any notion of justice.

The climate of economic disenfranchisement in these towns plus the venomous diatribes of some extremist religiously untrained Muslim clerics presents a fertile ground for young Muslims - especially men - to express their rage in violent ways.

The Egyptian government is complicit in trying to present a harmonious picture of religious tranquillity, in order to allay western fears of human right violations, but the ugliness and fissures of these local disputes dispel the cosmetic attempts of a cowardly government dealing with its domestic politics and its international image especially in relation to Gaza.

In an interview broadcast a few hours before this fateful incident by the head of the Coptic Church on Egyptian national TV, Pope Shenouda III urged a return to the ideals of the 1919 Revolution against British colonial occupation. He implored Egyptians to a secularist ethics of citizenship based on mutual respect for difference beyond the dead-end of religious labelling. It is these wise words that must be heeded now more than ever for Nag Hammadi not to continue being a site where ghosts continue to dwell among the living and the dead.

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First published in The Age online on January 13, 2010.

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About the Author

Farid Farid is a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Sydney. His research deals with the politics of exile, race and religion.

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