07/27/2012 02:53 pm ET | Updated Sep 26, 2012

Grassroots Peacebuilding Will Continue to Encourage Religious Harmony in Egypt

There has been no shortage of well-intentioned rhetoric by political pundits, academics and human rights activists who have outlined the many possible ways to codify the protection of religious freedom and encourage the peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Egypt through legislative, legal and constitutional avenues. Few, however, have paused to consider whether such a top-down approach to interreligious peacebuilding is the most effective way to positively influence the masses on the ground who either harbour unhealthy prejudices against one another or, in its extreme form, engage in criminal behaviour and sectarian violence.

Although Egypt's government legislators, High Constitutional Court and Constituent Assembly have a circumscribed role to play in reducing interreligious conflict, it is more effective to address sectarian strife through coordinated efforts that include grassroots, community-based peacebuilding processes that change destructive attitudes by drawing on the storehouse of both Islamic and Christian irenic religious values. This includes activating citizen advocacy and involving NGOs, academics, religious leaders and other willing participants who have widespread and direct influence on rank-and-file members of both church and mosque.

Not only does government legislation by itself have little binding effect on politically radicalized groups and individuals on the ground -- creating instead a "cold peace" that often masks deeper issues and ignores root causes -- but the high-level promotion of minority rights is often also a mixed bag: although it can send signals and messages that reveal the country's more tolerant direction, which may serve to assuage anxieties and empower civil society to coexist peacefully, the danger lies in the power of this projected national direction to embolden militant extremists who disagree with such charitable policies.

Although reliable information and verifiable testimony are scarce, the apparent vigilantism of three Salafi men who fatally stabbed the 20-year-old university student, Ahmed Hussein Eid, as he sat with his fiancé in Suez is a case in point -- combined possibly with a sense of entitlement prompted by the rise of Islamism -- as is the purported escalating lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula fueled by a rise in arms dealing, which may have resulted in rockets fired into southern Israel and other cross-border skirmishes.

For a less hostile future between Copts and Muslims, capitalizing on post-revolutionary political reforms on the ground may yet lead to a more durable peace. Two are worth mentioning:

First, although there is still much work ahead, an increase in the freedom of the press in Egypt, including the reduction of interference by the state and decline in self-censorship that was originally intended to evade confrontation with hostile political forces, has unlocked a new avenue for all demographics, sects and movements to voice their opinion and affect change. This verbal catharsis and newfound self-determination serves to promote an open and honest forum for discussing important life-altering matters and renders more brutal methods of sending a message through violence far less attractive.

Second, the fair and open participatory democracy that the Jan. 25 revolution inaugurated similarly empowers Egyptians of all walks of life by sparking widespread involvement in decision-making and a renewed sense of dignity. Indeed, the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, the Salafi-oriented Al-Nour Party, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya's Building and Development Party, and the more recent addition of the Democratic Jihad Party exhibits the manner in which a multi-party platform and activation of a resolute citizenry has mitigated desperation after 30 years of the Mubarak regime's autocratic rule.

And yet, apropos the peaceful coexistence between Copts and Muslims in Egypt, these democratic reforms are not an end in and of themselves. Instead, they represent the favourable conditions for engaging in grassroots, community-based peacebuilding operations. A report by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center released in June of 2011 suggests that confidence in peaceful ways of correcting injustice had risen from a low of 53 percent in 2008 to almost 80 percent after the revolution and found that Egypt, more than any other country in the world at 97 percent, rejected all individual attacks on civilians for any reason.

Egyptians are primed for face-to-face encounters and nonviolent ways of resolving interreligious conflict, and the resources to focus on in this regard are the religious values and practices taught in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity that mutually affirm the peaceful coexistence of both religious traditions. As cause for motivation, following the Muslim Brotherhood's renunciation of violence in the 1970s and Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya in 2003, a faction of Islamic al-Jihad recently entered the democratic fray when one of its leaders, Sheikh Yasser Saad, claimed that "in prison, we read and learned a lot about religion, which helped transform our ideology -- hence our current, nonviolent worldview."

Through teaching and preaching, dialogues, peacebuilding exercises and unexpected placatory gestures that trigger shifts in people's perception of the religious Other, Egyptians may continue to make headway in the quest to rid the religious conscience of destructive misrepresentations and mutual suspicion. By facilitating peacetime conflict prevention from the ground up through trust- and relationship-building and the reconciliation of conflictive parties whose hostilities have taken on religious overtones, a more sustainable peace between Copts and Muslims is possible.

Andrew P. Klager teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, BC, Canada.