FORTY-TWO MEN APPEAR in two rows stretching across the Libyan coastline. Half of them wear Guantanamo Bay–style orange jumpsuits, their heads down and hands bound. Each of these “infidels” — 20 Egyptian Coptic Christian migrant workers, plus one Ghanaian Christian — kneel in the sand while paired with an ISIS executioner standing a knife’s length behind.
“The sea you have hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in,” one of the masked militants remarks, in a direct address to the video camera (to the world’s superpower), “we swear to Allah, we will mix it with your blood.”
Less than a year earlier, in late June 2014, a splinter group of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda had proclaimed the establishment of an Islamic “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, vowing to end the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, or the colonial carve-up of the Middle East by Britain and France after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. By the blades of their knives, the barrels of their guns, and the will of their God, they foretold that the group’s “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would be the “leader of Muslims everywhere.”
In early January 2015, a month before ISIS broadcasted the mass beheading of the said 21 men by its Libya affiliates, Cairo-based photojournalist Hamada Elrasam was on assignment in the Upper Egypt village of al-Our, home to 13 of the then-ISIS-held hostages. There, he met with several anguished families.
“Abanub couldn’t find any work here,” 60-year-old Ayad sighed, referring to his 20-year-old son. “His mother and I were so worried after he left, but we had nothing to give.” That year, according to Egypt’s state-run statistics agency and UNICEF, the national poverty rate — $61 USD monthly (now roughly $27 USD) — was almost 28 percent, with the rural areas of Upper Egypt exceeding 50 percent. Today, factoring in the country’s population boom in combination with its ailing economy, skyrocketing debts, and splashy military spending, plus the construction of a new administrative capital, a.k.a. the president’s “dream city,” those figures have doubtlessly deepened.
As Ayad spoke with Elrasam, 19-year-old Magda held a weathered portrait of her brother Abanub standing alongside their cousins, 24-year-old Yousef and 23-year-old Milad, both of whom were in ISIS’s clutches, too. Wearing neutral-hued galabiyas and relaxed smiles, the young men posed against a surrealistic backdrop of their angelic facsimiles, which had ascended into the clouds of a brilliant sky.
“I’ve feared violence against them,” Magda told the photojournalist, indicating her family’s preexisting internalized terror — i.e., Egypt’s brutal legacy of radical Islamist sectarianism against Copts, who constitute about 10 percent of the country’s nearly 100 million people, as well as the largest religious minority and Christian group in the Middle East. (Last December, the group’s plight was highlighted in “The Vanishing,” Harper’s final cover story of the year.)
With its manifold layers of emotional and sociopolitical complexities and conflicts, Magda’s portrait would launch Elrasam’s four-year-long visual investigation into the weaponization of religion across Egypt. How, with God’s alleged blessings, wars are waged (e.g., “God bless America,” then deploy Hellfire), massacres committed (e.g., “We swear to Allah,” then decapitate so-called infidels), and communities terrorized. In sum, how political ideologues and terror propagandists wield religious faith, as the journalist Mehdi Hasan has pointed out, “to try and legitimize their violence.”
“Look, we’re watching very carefully, with the fall of Raqqa and Mosul, what the enemy will do,” General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in late October 2017, following the killing of four US Army Green Berets and five Nigerien soldiers during an ISIS ambush in the West African country of Niger.
“One of the places that we know ISIS has aspirations to establish a larger presence is in Africa,” the now-outgoing chairman had added. “We know how important Libya and the Sinai have been to the Islamic State.” Nearly one month later, the deadliest terror attack and sectarian incident in modern Egyptian history happened with the massacre of 311 worshippers at North Sinai’s Sufi-affiliated Rawda mosque. The mental image of dozens of gunmen besieging the site and brandishing the black Islamic State flag as bloodied “heretics” fell, evokes a striking precedent. In recent years, Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who the local ISIS branch call “our first target and favorite prey,” have faced periodic bombings and ambushes, as well as beheadings.
In early November, for example, an ISIS-claimed ambush in Upper Egypt’s Minya Governorate, which is home to the largest Christian population in the country, left seven Copts dead and 19 wounded. “The reality is that the Islamic State has successfully executed an attack on the same road, next to the same monastery, one year apart,” Timothy E. Kaldas, an analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told The New York Times in the aftermath of the bloodbath. “That really calls into question the quality of government efforts to enhance security, particularly in Minya, where the Christian minority has been targeted relentlessly.”
A few weeks later, on last November’s first anniversary of the Rawda mosque attack, Elrasam recalled his coverage of anti-Christian violence across the mainland, from the martyrs of al-Our to the December 2016 ISIS-claimed suicide attack on Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral.
“Terror doesn’t rest,” the photojournalist told me. “No, it comes in a sequence. Egyptians are waiting for the next attack on Copts … And now, perhaps on Sufis, too.”
Against that backdrop, he added that state terrorism figures strongly. The Rawda attack in North Sinai saw the greatest loss of life in a single incident on Egyptian soil since Cairo’s 2013 Rabaa massacre, a.k.a. “Egypt’s Tiananmen,” which was presided over by then–defense minister and current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who’s been called “the most repressive dictator in modern Egyptian history.” Like the ousted despot Hosni Mubarak before him, Sisi’s regime reaps the second-largest amount of US foreign aid (after Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu), the vast majority of which is devoted to military assistance.
Meanwhile, ISIS, which has exported its gruesome sectarian schema to Egypt and the African continent, is in part blowback of the US-led Operation Iraqi Freedom. That is, as Barack “The Drone King” Obama admitted in March 2015, some 10 months after he launched Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS, “[the group] is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our  invasion, which is an example of unintended consequences.” According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, America’s post-9/11 wars have — between Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan — directly claimed the lives of over 244,000 civilians, plus millions more on an indirect basis. On top of that, these wars have cost the United States $5.9 trillion. In morbid contrast, Afghanistan, which was already one of the poorest countries in the world before the 2001 US invasion, endured its “bloodiest [year] on record” in 2018 while over half the population lived (and still do) on less than a dollar a day.
In response to the permanent carnage, the visual investigation that Elrasam launched back in January 2015, entitled “God Is Mutual Love,” pays simultaneous tribute to Egypt’s menaced Coptic and Sufi communities, as well as to the targets — both anguished and perished — of politically motivated religious violence and terrorism across the region and around the world. In essence, his series honors they who are and have been, as Obama insinuated, on the receiving end of so-called unintended consequences: they, the human cost of war and conflict.
Accordingly, Elrasam elected to superimpose scenes of Copts in celebration and prayer with those of Muslims, all of whom he photographed either this past summer or over the last three years. From the Virgin Mary moulid (birthday) near the Upper Egypt city of Assiut, which sees tens of thousands of worshippers at the major annual observance, to the “poor man’s Hajj” in the Eastern Desert’s remote Humaithara Valley, where hundreds of thousands of worshippers congregate each year for the moulid of the 13th-century Sufi Sheikh and Islamic scholar Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadhili, the photojournalist beheld a comparable love for God that far transcends the deadly, propagandistic labels of “infidel” and “heretic.”
From that angle, his collection of double exposures amount to an underreported perspective on the sacred flows behind the death tolls. That is, at a time when the Islamic State is still the world’s deadliest terrorist organization and its “attractivity has barely decreased despite the loss of territory” — not to mention, in a country where strongman Sisi’s US-backed war on terror (their “hidden war”) rages — “God Is Mutual Love” delves deeper than the often literal take on the journalistic adage that seems to turbocharge the global 24/7 news cycle: if it bleeds, it leads. Or, as Elrasam has scathingly mused, “If Egyptians bleed, Egypt might lead.”
On last November’s first anniversary of the attack on the Sufi-affiliated Rawda mosque, Elrasam found himself flashing back to the decisive moment of his investigation — an antidote, if you will, to “terror doesn’t rest.”
In August 2016, almost two years after he had captured Magda’s portrait, the photojournalist was on assignment at Assiut’s Virgin Mary Monastery while the moulid celebrations were underway. Camera in hand, he visited a candlelit shrine that featured a painting of the Holy Mother posing alongside baby Jesus. A woman wearing a black hijab and cradling her newborn appeared in the soft light.
“You know, Mary is an icon for us Muslims, too,” she told Elrasam, before adding her interpretation of a biblical-dictum-turned-popular-Egyptian-expression: “God is mutual love.”
He nodded, replying, “One worshipper is not superior to another.”
Cover image: (1) Worshippers celebrate the Virgin Mary moulid in Assiut, August 2018. (2) A worshipper touches the shrine of Sufi Sheikh Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadhili in Humaithara Valley, August 2018. © Hamada Elrasam.