Friday, 11 February 2011

Tahrir Square

Depending solely on the media coverage means that we probably do not have a full understanding of events taking place in Egypt at the moment. The initial protests were met with a fierce attempt at suppression by the police, since when Tahrir Square has seen mass protests, violence as pro-Mubarak forces attacked the anti-Mubarak protestors in the Square, and the Friday prayers of protestors. At least one BBC report suggests that there has been a very significant collaboration between Christians and Muslims in the anti-Mubarak protests:
Scrawled on the concrete pillar of a flyover was the symbol of a Muslim crescent embracing the Christian cross and the words: "We are all against the regime". During the big "Day of Departure" protest in Tahrir Square last Friday, Coptic Christian protesters made a human chain around their Muslim brothers and sisters as they performed the noon prayers..... The sign of the crescent embracing the cross was everywhere: From the careful calligraphy of the handmade placards, to slogans picked out in stones on the floor.

In history, Tahrir Square will, I suspect, become an icon not just for the people of Egypt but for people throughout the world. But an icon of what?

The human aspiration for freedom. For the secularised, developed nations, that an aspiration for freedom can be so clearly pursued within the practice of Islam is going to take some understanding.

An appeal for a secular state, and not for a theocracy. We have to be careful about this - and this is why I think the images of the Friday prayers in Tahrir Square are important. The appeal for a secular state does not mean the absence of religious practice and belief from society; quite the contrary. What it does mean is that appropriate autonomy of the political sphere from one religious authority, something about which Pope Benedict has spoken on many occasions and to which he referred during his visit to the United Kingdom. This has been one of the clear points emerging from the coverage of events in Tahrir Square, and it explains why Christian and Muslim can pray side by side in the square. It is interesting to see this being advocated from a Muslim perspective as well as a Christian perspective.

Sadly, also of the violence with which a repressive regime, essentially what we would call a "police state", can suppress its people. The violence perpetrated against the demonstrators reminds us of the suppression of opposition by the Communist regimes of a now-past era in Eastern Europe. The fundamental principle - violence used to suppress freedom - appears to be much the same.

A sense of Egyptian nationhood. Some of the images from Tahrir Square show demonstrators waving Egyptian flags or painting their faces in the national colours. Where, before the protests began, Egyptian nationhood would have been seen as being expressed in the person of the President, now that sense of nationhood is seen to rest with the demonstrators. There is an interesting reflection to be had with regard to what it is that constitutes nationhood for the people of Egypt. One implication seems to be the potential to build unity between those of the majority Muslim population and the minority Christian community. For a country like the United Kingdom, where the sense of national identities and its connection to the idea of a state is long established, the question of nationhood (expressed most recently in the discussion of multiculturalism) is prompted by the arrival among us of peoples of different cultures and beliefs. Perhaps we have something to learn from the Egyptian model. A key feature of that model has been the practice of religious faith by those involved in the protests. Perhaps a restoration of religious life and practice, yes, with an appropriate secularity of the state with regard to any one religion, is a key element to successful nationhood?

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