Archive for the ‘ Religion ’ Category

فرحتك بقتله

ماعنديش شك أن الأخوان وسياستهم في الحكم هي السبب الرئيسي للإحنا فيه دلوقتي، سياسة قائمة على الأقصاء والتعالي ومبدأ موتو بغيظكم عزلتهم عن جزء كبير من الشارع ومنعتهم انهم يقدروا حجم المشاكل صح، وزودت حالة الاستقطاب.

 الرهان على الموائمات مع النظام (وبالاخص الشرطة و الجيش) على حساب قطاع كبير من الشعب و معسكر الثورة اثبت انه رهان خاطيء وقاتل. عدم اصلاح و هيكلة الداخلية اثاره امتدت اكتر من مجرد التضحية بمبدأ العدالة واستمرار التعذيب في الاقسام، للتأثير بصفة اكبر على مستوى الأمن في الشارع. عدم قيام الشرطة بواجبها و اختفائها بصفة كبيرة من مناطق كثيرة خلى اهالي قرى كثير ياخدوا  حقهم بايديهم. السكوت عن حالات سحل وقتل حرامية على يد الأهالي شجع على انتشار ظاهرة ابتدت اصلاً كرد فعل لعدم وجود قانون.

 العنف المجتمعي بان اثاره مع ازدياد حدة الخطاب الطائفي والذي تم بمباركة النظام و تشجيعه احيانا (مؤتمر سوريا و تصوير المعارضة على انهم “النصارى اعداء الدين” كما قالي احد متظاهري رابعة). هجوم الشرطة على الكتدرائية مع الأهالي (أو البلطجية) في ابريل تزامن مع تزايد الهجوم على الاقباط، وفي الأسبوع السابق ل30 يونيو كان الضربة القاضية في سحل و قتل اربعة من الشيعة في قرية زاوية ابو مسلم. الحادثة جسدت معظم مشاكل البلد قبل و تحت حكم محمد مرسي: خطاب طائفي مدعوم من الدولة (او مسكوت عنه على اضعف الإيمان)، انعدام فكرة العدالة والمحاسبة، زيادة حدة العنف المجتمعي البعيد عن السياسة، ومباركة قطاع كبير من الشعب لفكرة العنف (المفرط) لو فيه “تبرير مناسب”.

الحادث كان مؤلم و صعب في تغطيته. بعد يوم في المشرحة مع الأهالي و الجنازة و الدفنة، قعدت مع بعض الصحفيين الذين غطوا الحدث ساعة او بعد وقوعه مباشرة في القرية. حديثنا كان سبب رئيسي في عدولي عن الذهاب للقرية تاني يوم: لما سألت عن اهل القرية كان الاجابة ان الغالبية فرحانة باللي حصل، الناس كانت فخورة بمشاركتها في قتل الاربع ضحايا و الهجوم على بيت جيرانهم. الموضوع كان اكثر من محبط. الطائفية عامة من اكتر المواضيع التي بلاقي صعوبة في تغطيتها.

المشكلة ان الكلام ماكنش مقتصر على اهل القرية. بعيد ان الفقر و الجهل واللي ممكن لومهم على حال زاوية ابو مسلم واهلها، كان في موجة تأييد وتهليل للحادث. البعد الطائفي هو الاساس، لكن معاه تبرير مخيف لقتل شخص مخالف في الرأي أو العقيدة. كان احسن مثال هو ماكتبه شخص على فيس بوك بيلوم على الناس المصدومة في الحادث، ومستغرب غضب البعض من وحشية القتل بدل الفرحة بمقتل شيعة.

استخدامه للفظ “فرحتك بقتله” كان صادم،  مش لمجرد المنطلق ا لطائفي لكن لربط القتل والدم بالفرحة. وصول مجتمع للدرجة ديه كان هو شهادة وفاة نظام مرسي ومن ساهم في هذا قبله.

المشكلة أن المبدأ استمر بعد خلع مرسي، وبيستخدمه كثير من ثار ضده. في شيك على بياض بيتكتب للشرطة والجيش علشان يعملوا اللي عايزينه مع الاسلاميين وفي الخلفية صدى فكرة “فرحتك بقتله” بيتردد في خطاب اعلامي وعلى عزومات الفطار في رمضان وفي الميادين لتبرير وتشجيع القتل والعنف وانتقاد من يتكلم ضده.

جرافيتي على احدى حوائط القاهرة من يوليو 2011 - تصوير حسام الحملاوي

جرافيتي على احدى حوائط القاهرة من يوليو 2011 – تصوير حسام الحملاوي

Travelogue 2: The etiquette of the hijabi smile

Walking down the street in a foreign country — maybe tired after a long day, sometimes lost and usually cold — it’s always refreshing to find a stranger smiling at me. It’s a fleeting moment, long enough to be noticed in, but not to be noted by, the unsuspecting crowd.

For me, it happens quite often. Actually, every other day while I’m traveling I encounter one of those brief moments.

The initial relief, or maybe even elation, is undeniable; it’s strangers smiling at me for no reason or benefit to them. It’s people who, like me, believe that everyone should be smiling at each other. Utopia.

But of course, there is a reason; one that was baffling to me at the beginning.

See, all these strangers, also like me, were women wearing the Islamic headscarf, the veil, the hijab.

First, I couldn’t understand whether this smile is sort of a secret handshake for the country’s Muslim minority. Is it ‘We both know something the rest doesn’t have the privilege to know’?  Or ‘Hang in there sister, we are in it together’?

It always reminded me of an editor I worked with who thought that I knew every hijab-clad woman that either worked in the same field or went to the same university. To his benefit, I did recognize every name he brought up, but that’s for different reasons. I always joked that he might think that we have a secret Hijabi club, where we meet regularly to share contacts and notes and scheme to take over the world. Again an exaggeration (and he didn’t really think that, I think), but joke or not, the idea of secret society that I was coerced into joining was there, exactly like those smiling strangers.

It could be just a customary acknowledgment of existence, from one religious minority member to another. Maybe as part of the rare species mentioned here. It couldn’t be, however, just a customary acknowledgment of existence; you don’t see a fair-skin, tall redhead smiling at another, or a bearded man with a pierced eyebrow smiling to his fellow beard-donning, body-piercing flaunting citizens.

They could be just being nice, but why?

To this moment, I can’t come up with a concrete answer to this three-letter question. (Suggested answers are welcomed and encouraged here). Yet, after I got over my bafflement and curiosity and the associated rejection of doing something I don’t understand, I thought maybe it’s rude not to smile back. I’m after all a cheerful person (I like to think so) and pro walking around with a smile plastered on everyone’s face.

So, I smiled back, to every hijabi sister in sight. Secret Society or Sisterhood Support, I didn’t understand and I didn’t care. I was smiling back with abandon and I liked it.

Gradually, I started to get ready for my smile whenever I saw a veiled woman approaching: face muscles ready to stretch to a fleeting grin to respond to the customary smile. Just remember, not to flash a lot of teeth; keep it casual. But eventually it happened, anticipation got the better of me and I started smiling too soon. For the meticulous observer, I would be the one initiating the smile exchange. Guilty.

It was fine at first, but then I saw it, I saw it: the baffled look. I smiled to a newbie. She didn’t know about the code, she didn’t understand why I was smiling. She was me, but few years back. And there I was welcoming her to the Sisterhood I never understood or knew for sure it existed.

But then I discovered that it’s not only newbies that don’t smile back; there are others whose curiosity had driven through this enlightening journey to unravel the Secret of the Smile but had reached a different conclusion. They don’t like it; they don’t like being smiled at and they definitely don’t like smiling back. Their stern faces (bordering on the scornful) stand in defiance of the customary warm smile. “I’m not a minority or part of anything, so don’t you dare smile at me,” they’d almost say.

I was the offender here. I didn’t see this coming, although I should have.

Now, I am back to square one. I’m still baffled and confused; I don’t know what to expect. To smile or not to smile. I walk with my face muscles on alert, ready to give the blank face or the responsive smile. I hesitate. It’s only a brief moment of eye contact and my experience with my not so quick reflexes worries me; I could be giving out an awkward half-expression that’s neither of the above. And for that, I’m sorry, or not (depending on which smile camp you belong to).

Mini Travelogue 1: Whizzing through airports

During the month leading up to my travel date, airports’ full-body scans were all the rage. News reports, articles, commentaries and editorials were dissecting the inevitable decision to use full body scans at airports. How much will they cost to install? How time consuming are they, especially at already busy airports? Are they ethical? Is child pornography an issue? Is celebrities’ sacred privacy safe? Etc..

The questions were endless. The debate continued, but the one thing I was worried about was the inevitable ‘random’ profiling. Tightening airport security always comes hand in hand with passenger ‘random’ profiling. The extra security measures can’t be applied on all passengers, or else all airports would be flying a handful of airplanes a day. And just to ensure the direction of this ‘random profiling’, the man who reignited the on-flight terrorism scare by attempting to blow up a plane on Christmas Day in the US was Muslim.

With a scarf on my head, an Egyptian passport and an Arab name, there’s nothing random about possible profiling for me. A certain 2007 incident at the Los Angeles Airport (the dear old LAX) comes to mind. There was nothing humiliating or invasive; but if you consider waiting at the airport for 4-5 hours for ‘special data registration’ after 20 hours of flying and transits without knowing when it would end or even the fate of your luggage a problem, then you’d understand why I am not fond of that memory. Those that waited with me didn’t look Middle Eastern and I couldn’t make any concrete assumption about overall ethnicity or religion. But if darker skin weighed more than fairer one, this waiting area could have tipped over the whole airport.

But I wasn’t going to the US this time around; I was heading to Europe, where all my experiences in its airports have been generally ok.  Yet, reading ‘random profiling’ over and over again made this multiple-stop trip an increasing worry.

But it was fine. Seriously, better than I could have ever imagined. Granted, there were longer queues at the security check at the Brussels airport, but that’s probably due to the unexpected snow that day that led to the cancelation of many flights (including mine), which eventually led many passengers to go through security again after struggling to find another flight out. By noon, the security check point was dealing with almost double the number of passengers expected at the time.

The only hint of remote profiling was when I was transferred from BritishAirways to American Airlines, which has stricter guidelines at the airline luggage check-in point (not official airport security). I got the same load of irritating, useless ‘security’ questions as everyone else. Could anyone have interfered in your luggage? Why are you visiting? Bla Bla Bla. But I think I was the only one asked to show my press card, which was in Arabic which this airline employee couldn’t understand, when I said I was a journalist. I don’t think the Belgian in front of me or the American behind me were asked to show further identification. I could have rightfully objected, but I really wanted to leave the city and it was the only flight available.

But still no profiling, random or otherwise at any official security level.

And to top it off, as I was leaving London to Cairo, the bearded security officer at Heathrow handed me my passport with the typical automated half-smile, saying: “Thank you, sister.”

I still don’t know what to make of that, but it makes me laugh whenever I remember it.

In absence of the state-signature skewed logic

As absurd as many government policies seem, usually there’s some sort of logic behind them, something that justifies what could be easily labeled as ridiculous actions, at least to its leaders. Put yourself in their shoes, I’d tell myself, and you’ll see how and what led someone to make such decision. The goal has always been to at least understand or trace this skewed logic.

The technique has worked; an unreasonable decision to clampdown on a harmless protest of less than hundred people, for example, could be understood as the government making it clear it won’t tolerate any form of activism. Harassing journalists could be justified – at some level in the government – as an attempt to minimize coverage of a strike, industrial action or whatever that state wants to cover up.

It doesn’t have to make sense to me, but I was able to see how someone else could think this way. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to trace this twisted logic lately. Whether the government’s decisions and actions are getting even more absurd than the usual accepted level of absurdness, or I just lost it.

The recent arrests in Nagaa Hammadi are a case in point. A group of activists were arrested early Friday in Qena; they were traveling in conjunction with another separate group of older politicians to visit the families of the victims of the Jan. 6 shooting (which left six Copts and one Muslim dead on the eve of Coptic Christmas). Basically, they were there to offer their condolences and show their solidarity.

As an official, facing many accusations of negligence for failing to protect the Church that has reportedly received many threats prior to the attack, I couldn’t have thought of a better publicity stunt. The unofficial visit would demonstrate that the entirety of the Egyptian population is against any form of sectarian strife. Regardless of the political affiliation of the group, who were on an apolitical visit, the government could have easily spun the visit in its favor. But instead, and at a time when many demonstrations of various sizes are planned around the world to protest the Jan. 6 shooting, the regime shot itself in the foot by detaining those activists.

They remain in custody as I’m writing this post (more than 24 hours after their inexplicable arrest), and now reports of a release order are circulating, with a lot of confusion as of how this release would take place. Would they be released in Qena or would they be ‘deported’ to Cairo in a grueling trip that is bound to involve the usual dose of security and bureaucratic humiliation? It’s not clear.

There’s no clear charge and even there’s no logic between the lines, not even the skewed logic I was talking about. Blogger Sandmonkey suggested on twitter that the detention was a way to avoid a demonstration in Nagaa Hammadi on Friday or any clashes after Friday prayer, which was attended by the Azhar Sheikh and the Minister of Religious Endowment. Maybe, but if it’s true then they would have been released Friday night as activist Wael K has noted.

Another probable explanation is that the government didn’t want similar visits by the National Democratic Party leaders to be overshadowed by the activists’. But then, the same security officials allowed the other opposition politicians to visit the victims’ families on Friday. Most importantly, the news of the detention of the activists has by far overshadowed any solidarity effort.

Is the government trying to take the spotlight off one of its blunders (the lack of security on Jan. 6) by parading its lack of reason through another misjudgment? I honestly don’t know.

What I know for fact now is that if anyone had any doubt about the security priorities of this government, these two Qena incidents are enough to set the record straight once and for all. While the security ignored threats the church said it had received (officials actually denied any knowledge of such threats), the same security body with its intelligence and executive power was right on the ball when it came to a group of 30 activists, arresting them on the spot to preempt whatever unannounced threat those activists could have posed.

Galal Amin on Sexual harassment and religion

Sexual harassment is definitely an issue in Egypt but it’s relatively tame, especially when compared to other countries; mainly due to religion; it stops people from getting too far. That was more or less was Galal Amin’s initial response to a question about sexual harassment during a discussion of his book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians this month.

Galal Amin

Galal Amin at his house in Maadi, October 2007. By Sarah El Sirgany.

But what I like about Galal Amin – who I hade the pleasure to interview twice – is that he’s willing to reconsider his opinions if presented with new evidence, factors or arguments. And that’s exactly what happened at the discussion.

Amy Mowafi, Enigma editor and author of Fe-mail: Trials and Tribulations of Being a Good Egyptian Girl, interjected, comparing London to Cairo. While catcalls are rare in the former, they are abundant in the latter. And it has nothing to do with clothes or neighborhood. Crossing the street to get coffee, she said, is an adventure.

After a bit of back and forth, with Amin saying that difference in social class could also be a factor in harassment, he finally agreed acknowledging that he might not have the full picture when it comes to sexual harassment.

However, the reason why I’m writing this is that I completely disagree with his initial answer. While I didn’t get the chance to discuss it with him that day and might do that later, let me explain it here first.

First of all, sexual harassment here isn’t tame, whether we are talking verbal or physical harassment.

Secondly, religion, or rather skewed religious discourse propagated by some ignorant “preachers”, is largely responsible for harassment.

Recently, many ‘sheikhs’ have become apologetic and reasonable about harassment – not in a good way. Suddenly, many have become sociological experts who can give many reasons why men resort to sexual harassment: decadent video clips, the internet (in the broad sense of the word), and most importantly what women are wearing. I remember reading an interview for one specifically blaming “jeans el mohgabat” (veiled women who wear jeans, presumably tight ones).

But rarely do I hear sheikhs saying harassment is haram, forbidden, un-Islamic, you do it you go straight to hell, etc.

What’s appalling is that many of these sheikhs frown on a handshake between a man and a woman. Some go as far as saying it’s haram. Well, a handshake is pretty much consensual and quite harmless, but there aren’t a lot of those spouts of reason or sociological analyses there.

Even if we go beyond the handshake to the issue to which pages of magazines and newspapers have been dedicated, the issue responsible for many bad Egyptian films that plagued the screens throughout the 1980s and the 1990s: urfi (unregistered) marriages.

Again, it’s consensual and has a well of social factors behind it. But there are no sociologist sheikhs here, trying to find reasons, or rather excuses for the young men and women involved. For the most part, there is a consensus that urfi marriages are haram, forbidden, un-Islamic, you do it you go straight to hell, etc.

Although such tone hasn’t brought down the number of such marriages or affairs, but still I can’t help but when wonder: Where’s this clear cut tone when it comes to harassment?

The logic is: if consensual non-sexual physical contact is haram or frowned upon (best case scenario), then non-consensual, sexual physical contact must be hell-material, right?

Hell Physics + South Park + Discrimination = My Niqab Stance

Back in college, I got one of those forwarded emails about a physics exam with question about hell: whether it absorbs or gives off heat. The brilliance of one student, which prompted the circulation of the email, was reflected in the starting hypothesis.

After concluding that once a soul enters hell it won’t leave, he stated the following: “Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and all souls go to hell.”

He then proceeded to calculate the mass of hell based on that assumption. I was glad to find different versions of that email still floating around. You can find them here, here and here.

This email, which I got when I was 17 or 18, got me thinking about the possibility of being wrong. Not doubting my beliefs, but the fact that we can’t all be right. How the satisfaction that we are right and everybody else is wrong, which is the corner stone of any faith, could sometimes be meaningless in everyday life.

Take the South Park episode about afterlife for example. Supposedly people of all faiths are resurrected but find that they are standing at the gates of hell. They start shouting: I’m (Jewish/Christian/Muslim/etc), I’m right, I should be in Heaven. Eventually they start asking the inevitable question: “Who was right?” A stuttering man looks at some papers and answers: The Mormons, The Mormons were right.

The idea, I guess, was that all those people spent their lives on the sole hope that they’ll be awarded for being right without actually trying to live together.

The point is: it’s all relative when it comes to religion. There’s no point trying to get others to conform to your own ultimate truth. But you can always find common grounds that allow peaceful coexistence.

It’s this, among other encounters, that led me to firmly support the rights of other people to practice things I don’t believe in. Things that might seem ridiculous.  Individual choices. Differences. All these things, as long as there is no harm inflicted on me or others.

Sometimes it needs having your own beliefs dismissed as ridiculous by some people who claim intellectual superiority to empathize with those who face discrimination on a daily basis. I’m grateful I was put in such situations repeatedly, because it prompted me to have a firm stance when it came to violations of individual freedoms, regardless of how I feel about the action/practice in question.

I wrote an article in support f niqab based on this belief for Daily News Egypt. I got a number of mixed responses. I realize that some of those who voiced their agreement with what I wrote might have done so because the issue of niqab wasn’t far off from what we grew up learning in Egypt. Some might not support this theory if the practice in question is new to our society and its customs. Something difficult to stomach.

And even though I might be struggling too, this theory about accepting differences even if it contradicts with our understanding of religion is applicable in all fields. The right for a woman to wear the niqab is the same as the right of another woman to wear a short skirt or a bikini. As much as the first woman doesn’t want anyone telling her to take off the niqab or harass her because of it, the second woman doesn’t want anyone to tell her to put on a longer skirt or harass her because of it.

We don’t live in a perfect world, but we should try.

Here’s part of the article, which disagrees with Rania Al-Malky’s editorial, but she’s the one who suggested I write mine to present all points of view in the paper:

CAIRO: We live in a world with so many gods and sometimes with no god at all. Even those who pride themselves on worshiping the same god do so each in their own way. The many faiths and sets of beliefs render any discussion of what’s religiously right or wrong irrelevant.

But as social animals we don’t live in a perfect world. Reading the news, it’s easy to conclude that humans are intolerant by nature. What makes one society seem as if it’s more tolerant than another is its threshold of accepting differences. Some accept differences in skin color but reject different faiths. Some are more accommodating of sexual orientations than ethnicities, or vice versa.

Each society draws the boundaries of its accommodation and sets limits to its threshold of acceptance. But standing on this fine line — that separates accepting a different set of beliefs or rejecting it on the grounds that it’s too alien from the norm or dismissing it altogether because it’s harmful — is the will to integrate all members in society.

The full article can be found here.

The Judas of the big conspiracy

What the hell?

That was my most used phrase last week as I read one editorial after the other detailing the big Zionist, Jewish and Western conspiracy that Farouk Hosni fell victim to.

Words like Judas and Trojan Horse were thrown with abundance (wink wink Gomhuria) and the proponents of the conspiracy theory have never been so visible and outspoken. I don’t think many of these loud voices were that generous with use of “the Zionist Conspiracy” argument during the Israeli offensive on Gaza in December 08/January 09.

I don’t believe Hosni represented the Arab and Muslim world by his candidacy for the UNESCO director-general, but his reaction to the loss is unfortunately embarrassing us all. And by “all” I specifically mean Egyptians. He is merely showing the world that we are sore losers.

Diplomatically speaking, his reaction is inappropriate. Scandalous, even if his argument is true or has some element of validity to it.

In sports, where the usually-young athletes are physically and psychologically stressed and their reactions are often involuntary reflexes, such tantrums are not tolerated. Serena Williams lost dearly for breaking her racket in anger and frustration. I just saw the coach of Egypt’s volleyball team warned for silently pointing that the ball was outside the line. A silent, polite and reflexive gesture was considered a violation of sportsmanship.

Diplomacy on the other hand calls for something more refined than sportsmanship. Politics in itself isn’t refined, but its practitioners on the international scene are called diplomats. The word diplomatic is defined as tactful: “showing tact and skill in dealing with people”. Its synonyms include subtle, suave, discreet and cautious. Hosni only demonstrated such traits right after the results were announced by warmly congratulating his opponent Irina Bokova. But that was the end of it and his statements afterwards were anything but diplomatic. My friend’s description of him as a “loose canon” sounds more viable every day.

Deconstructing the conspiracy

I started by saying “even if his argument is true” his reaction wouldn’t haven been justifiable. The thing is, it’s not true. The many arguments that were used to validate the conspiracy theory or the Judas-like betrayal are, for the most part, baseless.

First of all, the accusation that the US was working secretly against Hosni. There was nothing secret about it. The US never supported the Egyptian candidate. So it’s perfectly normal for the US to campaign for another candidate.

Second, Hosni and the press condemned the lobbying that marked the elections. Hmmm… Isn’t this what elections are all about? Campaigning and lobbying for your preferred candidate?? And wasn’t this what Egypt did to get Hosni the 22 votes of the first round? Over the past year, all we were hearing about was Hosni securing the African votes, promised the Arab vote, President Mubarak convincing the Israeli Prime Minister not to officially object to Hosni’s candidacy, etc. Even during last week’s voting, Mubarak was directly involved in lobbying, calling heads of states to secure the culture minister the handful of votes that would guarantee his success.

Third, the politicization accusation. Who ever said that UNESCO wasn’t politicized? It’s a cultural organization, yes. But it’s run by politicians. It’s this politicization that led Egypt to initially support the Saudi candidate in the UNESCO elections in 1999 instead of the Egyptian. It’s the same politicization that allowed for the pro-Hosni camp to use the argument that Hosni would have been the first Arab head of UNESCO in order to rally more support.

Maybe we need to play a better political game, and like some analysts have noted, make it more dependent on substance rather than posturing.

Fourth, the great conspiracy of candidates withdrawing for the sole reason of giving the votes they got to the Bulgarian Irina Bokova. Well, Algeria had a candidate and he too withdrew. Can we safely say that he did that for Bokova? How would Hosni react to statements accusing him of “conspiring” with the Algerian candidate Mohamed Bedjaoui to get the majority vote?

Fifth, the “betrayal”. Since Hosni and Bokovo got 29 votes each in the fourth round, a fifth was imminent. One of them was bound to lose one or two votes to the other. It was a crucial time and a suave game: each was trying to get the swing votes and to further guarantee the secure ones. And in this game Bokova won by taking two of Hosni’s votes. He couldn’t get any of hers. Fair game.

It wasn’t the Judas betrayal he portrayed it to be. It was a simple game of politics that we played, but lost, with great results. Who would ever thought that the Egyptian candidate, with almost a single entry on his CV (he was doing the same job for the past 22 years, wasn’t he), would be the fierce competitor for the Bulgarian, who, like the rest of the candidates, had an elaborate resume.

But instead of losing honorably and priding himself in the impressive and surprising results he achieved, Hosni threw a media tantrum. He took all lobbying for his opponents personally and tried to give it a universal context of a clash of civilization. The North against the South. The West against Islam. The West against Arabs.

This brings us to the sixth and final point. The media is rallying the masses behind Hosni by selling them the false “he lost because he was an Arab” argument. Here, both Hosni and his supporters are misusing the Arab (or Islam) vs. the West debate to exude a larger-than-life struggle to his loss. Anyone who dares to challenge this is automatically labeled unpatriotic. Where was this patriotism when Ismail Serageldin was running for the same post 10 years ago? According to his website, his “candidacy was ultimately put forward by the Governments of Burkina Faso and the Netherlands [a Western, European Country], and supported by the Governments of Sweden and Egypt, and the OAU.” Egypt had initially opted for a unified Arab stance behind the Saudi candidate at the time. Or is patriotism exclusive to loyal ministers?

Hosni’s statements and those who are echoing and validating his views are making us all look like whiny sore losers.

Enough embarrassments already.

Judaism, Israelism and Michael Slackmanism

New York Times’ Michael Slackman’s statement that Egyptians “generally” don’t differentiate between Jewish people and Israelis was subject to much criticism, mainly for making such generalization and concluding, in the very first line, that since Egyptians see Israelis as the enemy, the Jews are enemies too.

But to be honest, I agree with the Slackman’s opinion, albeit partially. Many Egyptians don’t make this distinction. But this opening paragraph of the Sept. 6 article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/07/world/middleeast/07cairo.html lacked one important detail that would have provided much needed accuracy. “Egyptians generally do not make any distinction between Jewish people and Israelis” and the rest of the world doesn’t make this distinction either.

You support Israel, so you support Judaism. You criticize Israel, you are automatically anti-Semitic. That’s the general belief that dominates mainstream media and world politics. For many people — usually influential voices in the West and in the Middle East— Israel, Zionism and Judaism are one package. You love it all or you hate it all. No compromise here.

In the saga that still follows Egypt’s Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni’s UNESCO bid for having said that he would burn any Israeli books if he found them in Egypt, the anti-Israel statement was reported as anti-Semitic discourse. Both phrases (anti-Israel and anti-Semitic) were synonymous in press reports and politicians’ statements reacting to Hosni’s quote.

Like a Chinese whisper, Hosni’s damning quote turned in news agencies’ reports from “burn Israeli books” to “burn Hebrew books.” Aside from the fact that there are Hebrew books in Egypt — I’m assuming the Hebrew and Jewish Studies departments in Egyptian public universities do read Hebrew text (check this story for more on one of these departments http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=23494) —the people who changed the quote assumed that the word “Israeli” encompasses all the Hebrew heritage. In the same reports, the word “Jewish” was usually used as another synonym for Israeli or Hebrew. And assuming that there’s no malice involved here, I think the editors/reporters responsible for such changes truly believe that “Israeli”, “Hebrew” and “Jewish” can be used interchangeably.

While Slackman’s article didn’t use these words interchangeably, it focused on examining the Egyptian government’s efforts in the restoration of the country’s synagogues in the light of Hosni’s bid. Is it a publicity stunt to boost Hosni’s bid and to offer an unofficial apology to Hosni’s statements? This is an underlying question in the NYT article and an accusation in other reports and commentaries in world media.

This is not a defense of Hosni by the way (Daily News Egypt’s Editor Rania Al Malky has an excellent editorial that analyzes all the issues at stake if Hosni wins http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=24653 and I agree with everything she says and I think that burning books, any books, is a crime), but out of fairness, Hosni never said he’d burn Hebrew or Jewish books.

Thus, calling him anti-Semitic for making an anti-Israel statement is, in my opinion, unfair and, most importantly, inaccurate.

A criticism of Saudi Arabia and its government, for example, should never be viewed as an attack on Islam or Arab culture and heritage and it should be the same with the Israeli government and Judaism.

I often find myself in situations explaining to baffled eyes that even though I’m against Israeli policies, I do respect Judaism (usually while traveling to US or Europe or while talking to some of Egypt’s expats). Using the same argument I also have to explain to some Egyptian and Arab friends that even though I honor and respect Judaism as a faith, I’m against the actions of the government of Israel.

But most of the time, I think this distinction is lost on both sides. What I think is an argument is often dismissed as meaningless statements. For many, I only contradict myself by saying in the same sentence that I respect something and stand against it at the same time. After all, Israel is The Jewish State, and therefore Israel and Judaism are synonymous (even though my Microsoft thesaurus seems to disagree).

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