‘National unity’ has long been a part of Egyptian political discourse. Spun positively, it celebrates the equal contributions of Muslims and Christians as one people in the national fabric. Spun negatively, it is crass propaganda used by the ruling class to demonize Islamists and scare both Copts and international observers into supporting the status quo.
Experienced positively, national unity represents the normal everyday life of Muslim and Christian neighbors interacting with each other as people, with nary a thought of religious differences. Experienced negatively, national unity is little more than the hugs and kisses exchanged by top religious leaders covering over a potent sectarianism that too often lashes out at the religious other.
But until recently, national unity was only an idea, of which the substance or emptiness was determined by the speaker. In Egypt today this is beginning to change; national unity is becoming an institution.
The idea was born following the horrific October 31, 2010 attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, in which 58 people were killed and threats issued also against Egyptian Copts. The Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib interpreted this al-Qaeda sponsored atrocity within larger efforts he believed were meant to damage the religious unity of the whole region. He proposed to then-Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda to create an Egyptian antidote called the Bayt al-Eila or ‘Family House’, the necessity of which was further demonstrated following the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria in the first hours of January 1, 2011.
The Egyptian Family House was formally created as an independent national institution by cabinet decree in 2011, but the ongoing instability created by the January 25, 2011 revolution meant that little was initially done to develop it. But from the beginning the Family House was meant not to be a place of religious dialogue, said Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq, the secretary-general, but of dialogue between the common people to strengthen their general relations. They will not discuss the differences of doctrine, nor seek primarily to solve any outbreak of sectarian strife. Rather, it is a comprehensive effort to reduce the causes of such strife, so as to revive the popular slogan of the 1920s national movement against British colonialism: Religion is for God and the nation is for everyone.
This article is based on an interview with Dr. Hamdi Zaqzouq and his secretary Muhammad al-Banna, on October 12, 2014. Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.