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Small Voices

February 25, 2011


There is obviously so much that can be said about the recent revolution in Egypt and I hope to be able to write more about it in the future.  For now, I’d like to share an an op-ed piece I wrote for the Times Union (Albany, NY) a day or two before Mubarak’s resignation.

As an American Muslim who has lived in Cairo for the last four years, I have found the past two weeks both tumultuous and inspiring. The protests have shown me a new side to the Egyptian people, and their desire to better themselves and their country.

Last week, when looters began to take advantage of the lack of law enforcement on the streets, people from every neighborhood gathered together and sought to protect their homes and communities. They organized themselves to take shifts around the clock, check cars that passed by and guard their neighborhoods.

One night, I woke up to the frightening sound of gunshots that seemed to be coming from a nearby street. I looked out of my window to see a group of young men wielding sticks, on guard, blocking off the street from would-be thieves.

At a time of chaos, when Egypt was at its most vulnerable, many Egyptians took the initiative to work for the good of their communities in ways they were never able to before. The protests themselves have been well-organized, with Christians and Muslims marching side by side, volunteers checking people’s identification and minimal injuries incurred considering the large number of participants. Along with a political message, these actions spoke for the resilience of the Egyptian people and a reawakening of their humanity.

There is a new spirit in Egypt now, which has been painfully missing for years: a feeling of empowerment, and with it, a feeling of hope and optimism in the future.

The grinding poverty I would see on a daily basis, and the constant fear of living in a police state, led to a crippling apathy that is now, finally, being shaken away.

“We were dead before these protests,” one woman told me, “and now we are alive.”

Having seen this desire for betterment with my own eyes, I can only question the United States’ support of brutal authoritarian regimes. I believe our policies in Egypt and in other places are fueled by the mistaken belief that Muslims cannot govern themselves in a just manner that honors human rights for all, and instead need to be ruled by a dictator of our liking.

This is in part a xenophobic idea that hearkens back to colonialism, and is also linked to a deep distrust and suspicion of Islam itself. Recent hysteria in the U.S. over Shariah law underscores this idea, and shows how little we really know about Islam, other than assuming it is misogynistic and barbaric.

Instead of a nuanced understanding of the ways in which Islam is expressed in Muslim-majority countries, we paint all of them with the same brush: as extreme and intolerant.

It is disheartening that even with Egypt — where polls show the vast majority of people support freedom of expression, freedom of religion and other convictions that we as Americans hold dear — our prejudices cause us to equivocate in our support of the people. Our lack of understanding about Islam and our mistrust of Muslims causes us instead to support a dictator who has worked to crush these ideas and silence these voices.

With heavy hearts and at the urging of our families, my husband and I decided to leave Cairo a few days ago.

As we waited for our ride to the airport, my son, Ibrahim, began to play with some of the neighborhood kids.

As I saw their heads bent together in shared laughter, I could only pray that when we came back to Egypt, it would be a place where those feelings of hope were well-founded and where these children’s voices would be heard.


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