The Crescent and the Cross

On New Year’s Day, a bomb exploded outside a Coptic church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, killing 21 people and injuring 79 more. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Egypt in nearly 5 years. But it’s not the first time Coptic Christians have been targeted. On Christmas Eve a year ago—the Copts use a different calendar than Western Christians and celebrate Christmas in January—6 Copts were killed in a drive-by shooting as they left a midnight mass in the southern city of Nag Hammadi.


The attack in Alexandria is widely presumed to be the work of Al Qaeda. In November, Al Qaeda in Iraq threatened to target Christians after accusing the Coptic Church of holding against their will two women who had converted to Islam. But the longstanding tension between Egyptian Muslims and Egypt’s sizable Coptic minority—although it is fanned by groups like Al Qaeda that seek to exploit it—is hardly new and has been building in recent years.

At first glance, Islamist attacks on Christians in the Middle East seem like more evidence for the enduring idea—first put forward by Samuel Huntington in 1993—that we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations” between the Western and Islamic worlds. But the Copts—who represent a distinct, non-Western Christian tradition as old as Catholicism—defy easy classification into any broad “civilization.” As I have argued before, part of the problem with the idea of a clash of civilizations is that it is difficult to divide the world neatly into different civilizations. Real conflicts have complex historical origins that don’t necessarily fit with the simple story of clashing cultural identities. And fundamentalist violence in the Middle East is probably as much a product of the failure of Middle Eastern states as it is of any clash of fundamental worldviews.

There is, in any case, another side to tragedy in Alexandria. Amid concerns that there could be more attacks on Christmas Eve this year, thousands of Egyptian Muslims—including President Hosni Mubarak’s two sons—attended Christmas Eve masses to ward off attacks by acting as “human shields.” Egyptians across Facebook changed their profile to the image of a cross within a crescent, an old symbol of religious unity in Egypt. It is a useful reminder that fundamentalists do not speak for everyone and that, in spite of their differences, people with different religious and cultural backgrounds can come together in solidarity. “This is not about us and them,” Dalia Mustafa told Al-Ahram. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

Related Articles

Human skeletal stem cells isolated in breakthrough discovery

It's a development that could one day lead to much better treatments for osteoporosis, joint damage, and bone fractures.

Image: Nissim Benvenisty
Surprising Science
  • Scientists have isolated skeletal stem cells in adult and fetal bones for the first time.
  • These cells could one day help treat damaged bone and cartilage.
  • The team was able to grow skeletal stem cells from cells found within liposuctioned fat.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise helps your gut bacteria

Gut bacteria play an important role in how you feel and think and how well your body fights off disease. New research shows that exercise can give your gut bacteria a boost.

National Institutes of Health
Surprising Science
  • Two studies from the University of Illinois show that gut bacteria can be changed by exercise alone.
  • Our understanding of how gut bacteria impacts our overall health is an emerging field, and this research sheds light on the many different ways exercise affects your body.
  • Exercising to improve your gut bacteria will prevent diseases and encourage brain health.
Keep reading Show less

Giving octopuses ecstasy reveals surprising link to humans

A groundbreaking new study shows that octopuses seemed to exhibit uncharacteristically social behavior when given MDMA, the psychedelic drug commonly known as ecstasy.

Image: damn_unique via Flickr
Surprising Science
  • Octopuses, like humans, have genes that seem to code for serotonin transporters.
  • Scientists gave MDMA to octopuses to see whether those genes translated into a binding site for serotonin, which regulates emotions and behavior in humans
  • Octopuses, which are typically asocial creatures, seem to get friendlier while on MDMA, suggesting humans have more in common with the strange invertebrates than previously thought
Keep reading Show less