H.A. Hellyer, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. and the Royal United Services Institute in London, is the author of Muslims of Europe: The 'Other' Europeans
Palm Sunday is one of the most important festivals in Orthodox Christianity – and no less so among the Coptic Orthodox faithful in Egypt. Palm Sunday this year was particularly painful for the people of that confession, and Egyptians more generally – several attacks were apparently planned, and two were regrettably successful. The death toll, at the time of publication, approached 50, with well over 100 injured. The attack took place after Christians had been singled out by Islamic State propaganda materials earlier this year – and a few hours after the attacks, IS indeed took responsibility for the reprehensible carnage.
There is much we do not yet know. Here is what we do know:
The first is that this is not the first time there has been a radical Islamist attack against Christian Egyptians. Only a few months ago, a church was attacked in another atrocity claimed by IS. The sectarian crimes watchdog, "Eshhad," notes many more instances of sectarianism against Christians, going back years. The deadliness of the attacks; the focus of IS on Christians, over and above other sectors of Egyptian society IS deems as legitimate targets; these things may be shifts. But they do not come out of nowhere.
The second is that the issue of security breaches will come to the fore. In Tanta, where the first attack took place, it is currently being reported that a bomb was found in the same church a week ago. Following the bombing earlier today, the head of security for the entire governorate was dismissed – at the very least, that would seem to indicate the state itself is questioning the efficacy of current security procedures in Tanta.
At the same time, let there be no illusion. Security breaches will happen, unless all movement everywhere is closed down. We in the West could not defend against a security breach in Westminster last month; nor in Stockholm last week; nor in many other countries around the world. In Alexandria, where the second attack took place, a number of Egyptian security officials gave their lives to defend against these attacks. It was secured – partly because it was a church on Palm Sunday, and partly because the Coptic Pope was leading a service in the church. And still, an attack happened – because the harsh reality is, there is no absolute method to defend completely and totally against terrorism. We can only try to minimize.
Here is something else we know. The primary targets of the attacks today were Christian – their Christian identity is what singled them out for the attackers, and they paid for that identity with their lives. No one should be under any delusion in this regard – IS propaganda spoke specifically about Christians, and Christians were specifically targeted. This deadly sectarianism has to be identified as what it is – hateful, bigoted, and murderous.
But blood doesn't know those boundaries. Among the dead today, Egyptians shared pictures of Muslims who died in the blasts – more than half a dozen Muslims, men and women, who died in the course of their duty, as police officers, protecting the security of their Christian compatriots. Had they not fulfilled their duty, many more in Alexandria would likely have paid the ultimate price. Their being Muslim did not immunize them from the crimes of the attackers. It wouldn't.
Indeed, it is also being reported that the Egyptian security services dismantled a bomb in a mosque in Tanta today – a mosque that is known particularly for an adherence to Sufism, which is part of normative Sunni Islam, historically. But the likes of IS, informed as they are by an extremist form of Wahabism which rejects much of normative Sunni Islam in the first place, may have targeted the mosque anyway.
There will be those from the majority Muslim community who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their Christian compatriots. There will be those who marched on the church to show solidarity with their Christian compatriots, which likewise happened in Tanta by imams. It's one type of model. It's a model which, regrettably if ironically, is rejected by anti-Muslim bigots in the West, many of whom took the opportunity today to further Islamophobia. Hatred, it seems, also loves company.
But there will also be those who will deceitfully condemn the murders on the one hand – and create the conditions for the sectarianism that inspired it on the other. Sectarian incitement has been an issue that far too few have been willing to tackle head-on when it comes to the pro-Islamist universe – and that includes the Muslim Brotherhood. For years, anti-Christian populist sentiment is a currency that too many in these movements traffic in – and too little attention is given to confronting it.
It would be wrong and inappropriate to associate the entirety of the Islamist camp with the radicalism of the likes of IS – but likewise, it would be the height of naiveté and an utter fallacy to assume that sectarianism is only a problem in the pro-IS faction. It goes far beyond that. Condemning the attacks, for example, in English, while propagating conspiracies and "false flag" theories about them in Arabic, only means that the mood music for sectarian incitement is left unchecked even further.
To avoid further tragedy, we need to recognize that sectarianism and radical extremism remain crucial problems to resolve.