Al-Ahram Weekly | Joseph Massad | Sectarianism and its discontents
I should start perhaps historically with the advent of the modern age, which brought about European intervention in the Ottoman Empire, often under the guise of protecting the non-Muslim communities, which acted as a precursor to the later and full-scale European colonisation of the Ottoman Arab provinces. As is well known, this intervention has augured badly for the Christian communities, many of whom ended up being displaced from the very capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, while many others in the Syrian and Iraqi provinces began to immigrate to the Americas by the end of the nineteenth century through the present. This and subsequent colonial manipulation of sectarian identities by British and French colonialism brought about a number of episodes of communal violence against Arab Christians (and aided by later Zionist intervention, against Arab Jews) virtually unknown in scale and nature prior to the arrival of the European “protectors,” whether the French in Damascus (in 1840 with the French-instigated blood libel against Syrian Jews, and in 1860 with the massacre of Syrian Christians), or the British in Baghdad (in 1933 with the massacre of Iraqi Assyrians, and in 1941 the massacre of Iraqi Jews).
The sectarian nightmare that Lebanon has constituted since the mid-nineteenth century, and the role of the French and the Vatican in it, is in a class of its own. Egyptian Christians have been spared such massacres in the modern period, though not the effects of French (beginning with Napoleon) and later British manipulation of existing sectarianism in the country. Surely, the extant institutional discrimination against Egyptian Christians by the different organs of the state cannot be laid fully at the doorstep of colonialism, but the Sadat’s regime intensification of sectarian hatred and his opportunistic manipulation of Islam in the service of imperial policies along with his support of some Islamist groups against the threat of Soviet and other varieties of communism and Arab nationalism, facilitated the attacks on Egyptian Christians in the 1970s.