Monday, June 8, 2009

Islam in Egypt , Learnings of a US citizen- Al Jeezera Interview-- part 2

(One of King Ramses's many statues. That's me in the corner, show you how ginormous this statue is)
M: You spent over a week in Islamic countries, tell us your impressions of Islam.

(sound of machetes being unsheathed by audience)

R: Actually, I had many conversations about religion with both my guides. Islam actually means “peace, and submission to God.” Now, for me the word “submission” is key and I’ll discuss that in a second. First off, over 90% of women wear a head scarf or burka in Egypt, which is fascinating because 20% of the country is Christian, which means that many Christian woman do so as a fashion statement as well, and virtually all Islamic females do. However, unlike Saudi Arabia and Iran, woman in Egypt are allowed to choose to do so or not. According to my guide Hend Harb, no one looks down at those who don’t. Now personally, knowing human psychology, I have my doubts whether that statement is accurate, the not looking down part/societal pressure thing, but at least that thought exists in theory.
M: What about the Mosques and the calls to prayer?
R: Mosques in Egypt are like Starbucks in America, they’re everywhere, only less caffeinated. Five times a day the calls to prayer blare over the mosques loudspeakers. And they are LOUD. In Turkey, my hotel was located right next to the Blue Mosque, one of the largest Mosques in the Arab world, which woke me up every morning at 4:30 AM, and I remember wanting to issue a strongly worded opinion to the imam that Islam should modernize and the call to prayer, at least at that hour, should take the form of a mass SMS to phones that were hopefully on vibrate.
M: A text message?
R: And of course, I’d take a massive position in Arab telecom and make a mint.
M: Perhaps you should hold off on your stock purchase.
(five thousand year old cobras guard a pyramid)

R: My guides told me they believed that most Westerners had the view that Muslims were all a bunch of American flag burning terrorists, whereas Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. I pointed out that while I didn’t believe that most Americans held this view, the fact is that of all the world's religions we only see Muslims blowing themselves up as suicide bombers, flying planes into buildings, killing each other over the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed.
M: You are referring to the Sunni/Shia—
R: Exactly. And both my guides were almost in tears. “These people are NOT Muslims!” They both independently stated this. “No Muslim could possibly do this! They warp our religion.” I pointed out that Al Queda seems to have the tacit approval of many in the Muslim world, and that moderate Arabs do not seem to speak out against them. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” they stated, your media just does not report on these things. I pointed out that many Americans believe the Muslims behave like nut jobs. Wanting to kill an editor for publishing a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.
M: What was they’re reaction?
R: Now, my female guide almost started to cry here, and my male guide the next day was as angry as I had seen him. “It is against our religion to create an icon of the Prophet. No one knows what he looked like. How can you depict him. And in such a negative way? How would you like it if Jesus was depicted in such a way?”
“It has been done many a time, and in ways far less flattering than Mohammed.” I might not agree with it, but it is not up to me to decide what can and cannot be published.
“But this is wrong. To use freedom in such a way only to make people angry.” Maybe so, but I will defend to my death the freedom to do so.” They understood what I was saying, but still did not like it one bit.
(a view of the Cairo skyline and Nile river)

M: Does Islam’s interpretation change from country to country?
R: Yes. Far fewer women in Turkey dress in burkas or headscarves than in Egypt while in Saudi Arabia, and I pointed this out to Hend in the context that another view we had in the West, that I too am guilty of, is that women are treated as second class citizens and that their freedoms are stifled. Saudi women are not only Required to wear burkas only, but also are not allowed outside without a male relative, are not allowed to watch movies, or drive cars.
M: And she said?
R: She defended her country, and Egypt’s interpretation of Islam, stating that women in Egypt had a choice to wear a scarf or not. The reason behind the headscarf was to protect the woman, to make her less desirable to anyone besides her husband so that men wouldn’t be tempted or make sexual advances towards her, and to do so, women should cover their bodies and hair. Hend then stated that the burka was not prescribed by the Prophet, and this is not true Islam but rather a deviation from Mohammed’s words.
Now, speaking of choice, Hend, who is a lovely woman, is unmarried and thus a virgin, and she will in Muslim tradition, will continue to live with her parents until such time as she is married. There was another tour guide who was going to the same sites we were, nice looking guy with light eyes, and though I didn’t understand the words of their conversation, their body language and tone was very friendly. When I asked why she did not date him, she lamented that he was a Christian, and it was impossible for a Muslim woman to marry a Christian man. “Oh so, it’s not a choice for you?” I asked.
“Yes,” but I am okay with that Hend answered.
“You are able to drive a car, correct?” I asked her.
“Yes, of course she answered.”
“And you would object if someone tried to tell you that you couldn’t.”
“Yes,” Hend replied.
“You know that Laura Bush, George Bush’s wife, went to Saudi Arabia to promote womens’ rights. She spoke of the fact that Saudi women were not allowed to drive. And the Saudi ladies in the audience interrupted her and said, “yes, but we are okay with this.” And Laura Bush answered them, “That’s fine if you don’t wish to drive, I just want you to have a choice.” Now Hend, I must state that it doesn’t matter to me whether or not you’d like to marry that nice guy, but I personally feel that your life might be richer if you had the choice.”
M: Hmmm … and she responded?
R: She didn’t really. I just let her ruminate on it.
M: You mentioned the fact that Islam meant “peace and submission to God, that the word “submission” had special importance.
R: Yes, now bear in mind that I have nothing against somebody’s choice to wear a scarf, and that I would, similarly to someone’s right to publish an offensive cartoon, defend to my death someone’s right to wear a headscarf, on the last day I was with Hend, she told me that she was wearing the scarf so that she would be a good Muslim and be rewarded with a good afterlife. Now, this is not unlike the religion of Christianity being used as a tool by the nobility of the middle ages to suppress the peasants, telling them, work hard for us now and keep your head down, and you will be rewarded in the after life with heaven. Submit to this. Now, again, the challenge here is not Hend wearing the headscarf, the challenge is that based on the definition used to describe Islam, depending on who does the interpreting, Islam could be used as a dogmatic tool to get people to submit to their version of Islam, and make it easier to recruit uneducated people to do their bidding.

M: You are speaking of terrorism?
R: Amongst other things, yes. I believe that this is a potential means of control. And speaking of interpretations of Islam, in Saudi Arabia there is nothing, no bars, no alcohol no prostitutes, nothing. But you know who goes to Dubai and Bahrian every weekend where prostitution is rampant, Saudi men. Such austere interpretations run contrary to nature, and thus, frankly, don’t really work other than by force of some type.
M: Is it true that you prayed as a Muslim?
R: Yes, I like new experiences, and believe that all of the major religions are based on Universal truths. On the last day I was there, my guide was going to have me walk about the main commercial bazaar in Egypt while he went and prayed, I told him I'd rather experience prayer as a Muslim and went with him.
M: Was it weird for you?
R: Well, when I entered the Mosque I had that “Be careful,” feeling run through me, cause people were giving me strange looks. So I tread very lightly, until I realized that it’s because they almost never see a light eyed light skinned foreigner in their Mosque (if ever) and I went and did the purification ceremony, wherein you splash your hands, nose, face, feet, and elbows with water five times. I went into the Mosque, and following my guide, prayed as Muslim. It felt no different than the normal way I pray, I was merely connecting to the divine, what truly is. When we were done, many people came up to me, and said something I perceived as nice, and shook my hand. When the well wishers were done, my guide, who was suddenly very popular told me that, “Everyone is asking about you, whether you are a new Muslim, how you find our religion, how you came to be here. Everybody is very happy.”
“Because it is apparent to them that a foreigner is respectful of our religion, and is willing to embrace it. Everyone is very happy.”
M: Nice experience?
R: Yes. Of course. But it was about mutual respect, so we were all happy.
M: What did you think of Obama’s speech he gave in Cairo?
R: I thought it was a fantastic speech. He 100% hit the mark for his primary audience, which for this speech was the Muslim world, and I had specifically asked my guides what they wanted to hear from Obama beforehand, and he nailed it. Basically, Muslims want to feel respected, that their religion is tolerated, as 99% of them recognize the merits of the world’s religions. Obama has a tremendous amount of goodwill, and I guarantee that in electing him, we have not only silenced conspiracy theorists in the Middle East who claimed the powers that be would never let it happen, but we have also, at least while this goodwill lasts, created an environment where it will be far more difficult for Al Qaeda to recruit new members. I have seen some neo-conservative views on Fox News in recent days, some people twisting Obama’s words from the speech, out of context, to show an overly apologetic almost anti-American, our response to 9/11 being unjustified view from the President. No! Not at all. Obama was level and fair to all sides involved, and remember WHO his audience was if you think there is a possibility of that, and his intent of the speech. Let me leave you with, and I believe we are on the right course finally, despite Sean Hannity-- … Whereas war, hatred, and suppression act sow the seeds for extremist ideology; peace, moderation, and opportunity uproots this violent mindset and creates an environment where it is far more difficult for it to grow.

As-Salāmu `Alaykum – peace be upon you.

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