J’accuse 52

Again we have true stories to tell about the intense hatred, cruelty, and injustice inspired by religious beliefs and prejudices. One of them happened more than a hundred years ago; the second earlier this month.

In 1894, a French army officer of Alsatian Jewish descent, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of selling military secrets to Germany. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in the penal colony on Devil’s Island, where he was kept in solitary confinement.

In 1896 new evidence came to light that should have exonerated him. It identified another officer, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, as the real traitor. But the evidence was suppressed and Esterhazy was never formally indicted. Dreyfus’s conviction was confirmed after forged documents were suddenly produced, but not everyone believed he was guilty. Chief among those who claimed there had been a miscarriage of justice was the writer Emile Zola, who published an open letter in a Paris newspaper on January 13, 1898, addresssed to the President of France, headed J’accuse – I accuse.

It was a brave thing that Zola did. For accusing the government of acting out of anti-Semitism and unlawfully imprisoning Dreyfus, he himself was sentenced to a term in jail, which he escaped by fleeing to England. But his efforts helped to bring Dreyfus back eventually from Devil’s Island, to receive a pardon in 1906 for the crime he had not committed. The French army took over a hundred years to admit it had been wrong. It did, however, reinstate Dreyfus, who earned promotion, and served his country throughout the First World War. Esterhazy got away with his treason, went to live in England, and there spent the rest of his life publishing anti-Semitic fulminations.

Now another letter has appeared in a newspaper headed J’accuse. It is written by a brave Egyptian journalist accusing the Egyptian government among others in the matter of the persecution of Coptic Christians, following the bombing of one of their churches in Alexandria early in the morning of January 1. More than thirty Copts were killed, and about a hundred others were injured. The most likely perpetrators were al-Qaeda terrorists.

This is what the journalist Hani Shukrallah wrote on January 1, 2011, the day of the massacre:


Hypocrisy and good intentions will not stop the next massacre. Only a good hard look at ourselves and sufficient resolve to face up to the ugliness in our midst will do so.

We are to join in a chorus of condemnation. Jointly, Muslims and Christians, government and opposition, Church and Mosque, clerics and laypeople – all of us are going to stand up and with a single voice declare unequivocal denunciation of al-Qaeda, Islamist militants, and Muslim fanatics of every shade, hue and color; some of us will even go the extra mile to denounce Salafi Islam, Islamic fundamentalism as a whole, and the Wahabi Islam which, presumably, is a Saudi import wholly alien to our Egyptian national culture.

And once again we’re going to declare the eternal unity of “the twin elements of the nation”, and hearken back the Revolution of 1919, with its hoisted banner showing the crescent embracing the cross, and giving symbolic expression to that unbreakable bond.

Much of it will be sheer hypocrisy; a great deal of it will be variously nuanced so as keep, just below the surface, the heaps of narrow-minded prejudice, flagrant double standard and, indeed, bigotry that holds in its grip so many of the participants in the condemnations.

All of it will be to no avail. We’ve been here before; we’ve done exactly that, yet the massacres continue, each more horrible than the one before it, and the bigotry and intolerance spread deeper and wider into every nook and cranny of our society. It is not easy to empty Egypt of its Christians; they’ve been here for as long as there has been Christianity in the world. Close to a millennium and half of Muslim rule did not eradicate the nation’s Christian community, rather it maintained it sufficiently strong and sufficiently vigorous so as to play a crucial role in shaping the national, political and cultural identity of modern Egypt.

Yet now, two centuries after the birth of the modern Egyptian nation state, and as we embark on the second decade of the 21stcentury, the previously unheard of seems no longer beyond imagining: a Christian-free Egypt, one where the cross will have slipped out of the crescent’s embrace, and off the flag symbolizing our modern national identity. I hope that if and when that day comes I will have been long dead, but dead or alive, this will be an Egypt which I do not recognize and to which I have no desire to belong.

I am no Zola, but I too can accuse. And it’s not the blood thirsty criminals of al-Qaeda or whatever other gang of hoodlums involved in the horror of Alexandria that I am concerned with.

I accuse a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them.

I accuse the host of MPs and government officials who cannot help but take their own personal bigotries along to the parliament, or to the multitude of government bodies, national and local, from which they exercise unchecked, brutal yet at the same time hopelessly inept authority.

I accuse those state bodies who believe that by bolstering the Salafi trend they are undermining the Muslim Brotherhood, and who like to occasionally play to bigoted anti-Coptic sentiments, presumably as an excellent distraction from other more serious issues of government.

But most of all, I accuse the millions of supposedly moderate Muslims among us; those who’ve been growing more and more prejudiced, inclusive and narrow minded with every passing year.

I accuse those among us who would rise up in fury over a decision to halt construction of a Muslim Center near ground zero in New York, but applaud the Egyptian police when they halt the construction of a staircase in a Coptic church in the Omranya district of Greater Cairo.

I’ve been around, and I have heard you speak, in your offices, in your clubs, at your dinner parties: “The Copts must be taught a lesson,” “the Copts are growing more arrogant,” “the Copts are holding secret conversions of Muslims”, and in the same breath, “the Copts are preventing Christian women from converting to Islam, kidnapping them, and locking them up in monasteries.”

I accuse you all, because in your bigoted blindness you cannot even see the violence to logic and sheer common sense that you commit; that you dare accuse the whole world of using a double standard against us, and are, at the same time, wholly incapable of showing a minimum awareness of your own blatant double standard.

And finally, I accuse the liberal intellectuals, both Muslim and Christian who, whether complicit, afraid, or simply unwilling to do or say anything that may displease “the masses”, have stood aside, finding it sufficient to join in one futile chorus of denunciation following another, even as the massacres spread wider, and grow more horrifying.

In the remainder of the letter there are interesting indications of how Egyptians – or at least some of them – see the United States as a sort of big brother, to be appealed to for rescue when Egyptians are overwhelmed by their own political-religious conflicts:

A few years ago I wrote in the Arabic daily Al-Hayat, commenting on a columnist in one of the Egyptian papers. The columnist, whose name I’ve since forgotten, wrote lauding the patriotism of an Egyptian Copt who had himself written saying that he would rather be killed at the hands of his Muslim brethren than seek American intervention to save him.

Addressing myself to the patriotic Copt, I simply asked him the question: where does his willingness for self-sacrifice for the sake of the nation stop. Giving his own life may be quite a noble, even laudable endeavor, but is he also willing to give up the lives of his children, wife, mother? How many Egyptian Christians, I asked him, are you willing to sacrifice before you call upon outside intervention, a million, two, three, all of them?

Yet Shakrallah himself would like his people to outgrow the need to appeal to Uncle Sam:

Our options, I said then and continue to say today are not so impoverished and lacking in imagination and resolve that we are obliged to choose between having Egyptian Copts killed, individually or en masse, or run to Uncle Sam. Is it really so difficult to conceive of ourselves as rational human beings with a minimum of backbone so as to act to determine our fate, the fate of our nation?

That, indeed, is the only option we have before us, and we better grasp it, before it’s too late.

It’s a fine clarion-call of a letter. But will it change anything?