Monday, January 05, 2004

Of Fish and Sharks 

By Hadia Mostafa

Muslim-Christian tensions run deeper than duelling fish and shark bumper stickers

BUMPER STICKERS ARE one of my pet peeves. Why anyone would desecrate a car with fatuous little remarks is beyond me. But to the delight of bumper sticker manufacturers world wide, not everyone feels the same as I do. People actually pay money for these things - so much so that there are bumper sticker fads. Ages ago, there were the "I ??" stickers, then came the "Baby on Board" variety and so on.

Just recalling them is annoying.

Now, Egypt is in the grip of its own bumper sticker fad. Outlines of a simple fish - imagine asking your preschooler to draw a fish - began showing up on cars a little over a year ago. At first, they went unnoticed. Like many, I dismissed them as branding for a car dealership or some other irrelevant gimmick related to scuba diving or the Red Sea.

Then, one day, I was stuck in traffic with a friend one day who bluntly asked, "What's up with the Jesus fish?"

"The what?!" I had no idea what she was talking about.

"That," she pointed to the car in front of us.

"The sticker right there. It's a Jesus fish. You've lived abroad - don't you know what it stands for?"

I was ignorant about the fish and skeptical of my friend's claim. But her remark made me conscious of the growing number of cars that were displaying the sticker, which seemed to be multiplying by the day. Most of them were discreet, just an outline of a fish, but a few had a cross within the outline, which substantiated her allegation that the sticker did indeed have something to do with Christianity.

I dug a little deeper and discovered the fish was an ancient symbol of Christ. It was originally used by Christians who were being persecuted by the Romans as a method of identifying one another. The fish sticker is an American import and can be found on cars of faithful Christians worldwide, but its rapid spread among Christians in Egypt is interesting.

More and more people began to take notice, but the phenomenon didn't really become disturbing though until a new take on the "Jesus Fish" appeared late last summer. The new sticker was a shark with part of the Muslim shahadah (There is no God but Allah) written inside its body. I remember staring in disbelief the first time I saw it. I wasn't sure if it was just this one person who had a special sticker made or whether the things were being mass-produced.

My question was soon answered as Cairo's streets began teeming with hungry "Muslim" sharks chasing "Christian" fish through the capital's traffic jams. Although the Jesus fish is an innocuous, if hardly subtle, symbol of faith, a handful of conspiracy theorists are having a field day pontificating about the "deeper meaning" of the "Jesus fish."

There's nothing subtle about the shark, though: It's either an openly antagonistic attack on the fish or an opportunist's idea of a really bad joke - and one that has caught on like wildfire. The fish-shark phenomenon is just the latest example of how superficial religion has become in our society. Both Muslims and Christians are turning with increasing frequency to external displays of piety that have nothing to do with inner faith. As the veils get longer and the crosses bigger, we're undermining our own belief systems - both of which call for tolerance, humility and understanding.

Aren't the fish and sharks going through exactly the same things? Aren't they stuck in the same traffic jams? Suffering in the same economy? Inhaling the same polluted air as their owners struggle to raise their children and make ends meet in exactly the same way?

In the not terribly distant past, Egypt was a society free of sectarianism. Muslims and Christians (even Jews, once upon a time) coexisted harmoniously - celebrating one another's most important holidays - without the slightest insecurity. In most cases, they still do. But the more we turn to external displays of religiosity, the more we categorize ourselves. We've created a latent tension that has led us to a new "Us vs. Them" attitude.

The divide is even apparent at the nation's most liberal private schools, where young children who shouldn't be conscious of such things now routinely ask each other, "Are you Christian or Muslim?" Echoing the Interior Ministry's decadeold (but hardly enforced) ban on bumper stickers, the Ministry of Education intervened last year by introducing a new interfaith ethics class. Through short stories where characters with names like Mohammed, Mahmoud and Morcos join each other in community endeavors, the class aims to teach children that we are all essentially the same. That message will be completely lost if children are taught one thing and bear witness to another. Their innate belief that we are all the same is eroding as they are bombarded with external messages to the contrary. It's both puzzling and scary when I think about how to explain to a child why a shark, of all things, declares "La illaha illa Allah."

What kind of values is that child going to grow up with? How will he transfer those values to other impressionable children?

It's time to take sectarian tensions seriously.

The alternative is too terrible to contemplate: Beirut. et


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