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Al-Qaeda and Its Role in Fomenting Religious Strife in the Arab World: The Kamilia Shehata Affair

On July 18, 2010, a young Coptic woman from Egypt named Kamilia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest named Tadraous Sama’an, disappeared without a trace. About a week later, Egyptian security forces found her in the apartment of a relative and demanded that she explain her disappearance. Shehata told them that she had decided to run away from home because of a domestic dispute. This seemed to put an end to the affair. However, Shehata’s explanation for her mysterious disappearance and her absence from public aroused heavy suspicion that the truth was somewhat different, and generated a flurry of gossip that the reason for her disappearance was that she had converted to Islam. According to the rumors, the Egyptian security forces who had succeeded in finding her had agreed to immediately turn her over to the Coptic Church in Egypt, as the matter was an internal one which the Church wished to resolve by itself. One rumor further claimed that the Coptic Church had not taken kindly to Shehata’s conversion to Islam, and so decided to imprison her in a convent until she relented and returned to the Christian fold.

Many Muslims in Egypt interpreted the Church’s acts as defiance of the hegemony of Islam; they therefore turned out en masse to call on the Church to release Shehata and cease kidnapping Christian women who had converted to Islam. The feeble response of the Egyptian regime and the ineffectuality of Al-Azhar, perceived as being the official protector of Islam, only increased existing tensions, leading to more mass protests.

The Shehata Affair succeeded in arousing an extensive wave of public protests in Egypt, and led to a massive public relations campaign waged by Muslims through dedicated Web sites, videos uploaded to the Web, and social groups on Facebook. However, the Shehata Affair was only one more catalyst of religious tensions in Egypt.

The increase in religious tensions in Egypt played into the hands of Al-Qaeda, which wished to take advantage of it for its own ends. As will be elucidated in the document, Al-Qaeda has quickly become yet one more cause of this tension.

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