Eight Reflections from an American Student in Cairo


Wednesday, February 3, 2011

I write this message on the first day of being back in America having traveled from Cairo. It was with an incredibly heavy heart that I had to leave. When the protests started and the situation was uncertain, my husband and I had to make a choice: will we stick it out in Cairo, join the protests, and serve the cause of freedom and human dignity with our neighbors there? Or will we leave and try to the serve the same cause but in a different way in America? After istikharah (the prayer of guidance) and shura (consulting with others), the decision was to leave.

All the while, we prayed that if there was something Allah (subhanahu wata’alaI – exalted is He) wanted us to do for His sake in Cairo—if staying in Cairo was more pleasing to Him–that He closed off the means to return to America completely. And if what we could do in America is more pleasing to Him, then He closed off the means for us to participate in Cairo, and He makes the way to America easy and open. After the decision was made, we tried to plan our departure as quickly and safely as possible, and subhan’Allah I (glory be to Allah), it was easy and open, while message after message from the Egyptians and others that we know was consistently telling us to “go home.” Subhan’Allah, at the same time, I know a western sister whose father is a prominent international figure, and various factors in her situation pointed to the decision to stay in Egypt and participate with her brother, and see this thing through. I believe we were both guided to what was best for us. And yet, the great fear that I had and still have is to not betray the amanah (trust) of what we were destined to witness. Below are some scattered reflections on this experience and what we can take from it:

1. This is not an Egyptian issue, it’s an Ummah issue, and even broader than that—a human issue.

 

While millions around the world watch the news to see what is going on in Egypt, we have to realize how significant this struggle is to both the Muslim ummah and the world at large. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us that this ummah is like one human body; when one part of it hurts, the rest of the body also experiences the pain. The protests that have erupted globally are a testament to the fact that our ummah is alive and able to feel. Another issue we have to keep in mind is the pivotal role that Egypt plays. Whichever way Egypt goes, there will be a ripple effect throughout the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world. What started in Tunisia, spread to Egypt. Already Algeria has announced the end of their 19-year infamous emergency law, and Yemen is also protesting. This is a pivotal moment in our history; perhaps akin to the Badr of our times. The struggle for human freedom, justice, and dignity is one that must be honored and supported by every God-fearing Muslim. Therefore it is incumbent upon all of us as Muslims to not just look upon this issue as spectators, but as those who feel personally invested.

It is a human issue. Subhan’Allah, when I was in the airport I was talking to a non-Muslim woman who was heading to America. She told me that if it were not for her own daughter’s safety, she would have stayed and joined the protesters. She said something beautiful that stayed with me: “Every country that ever wanted freedom had to fight for it.” Another thing I was struck by was when I asked her what her plans were on return, she said: “I’m going to join the protests and efforts I can find in Texas.” She told me she had tried to start a business in Egypt, and her accountant had told her it would cost $15,000 plus bribes. The accountant also said the best business licenses were only given to people who had personal connections to Mubarak, and unless there was a way to get referred, there really was no point in trying. This non-Muslim woman taught me in a matter of moments that we should all, as human beings who honor justice and equality, have the drive to get involved, and speak out against the corruption and oppression in Egypt.

It is not for Israel or America to decide who the interim president will be when Mubarak steps down. I say “when” and not “if” because as far as the Egyptian people are concerned, getting rid of Mubarak is not a point of compromise.

We need to pressure our governments, no matter where in the world we may be, to call for free and fair elections in Egypt, and allow the people themselves to choose the interim leader. The interim leader cannot be someone associated with the Mubarak regime in any way. We must voice our opposition to any effort that undermines the people’s choice.

2. Courage is in rising above fear to do what is principled, with full tawakul in Allah (swt).

Last Saturday, we had Imam Suhaib and his wife over at our place in Cairo for lunch when we heard a call from the microphone of the masjid and some screaming in the street.  It was announced that thugs were let loose and looting different areas. The call asked for all the young men to come down and protect the neighborhood, their families, their wealth, and their honor. At that moment, we didn’t have any idea of how many thugs to expect. Would it be truckloads of men, would be in the hundreds, would it only be a few? Subhan’Allah I remember standing on the balcony listening to the announcement and my husband turning towards me saying, “I have to go.” He and Imam Suhaib went to the kitchen, grabbed some broomsticks, and headed into the street to help protect the neighborhood. I asked my husband later how it was that he didn’t hesitate, and went immediately into the face of the unknown. He admitted that in the beginning there is a moment of fear, but you just have to make a choice to overcome it, and be ready to face the consequences for the cause you believe in. Subhan’Allah, that incident is symbolic as to what happened on a much larger scale for the whole country. The news kept reporting that “the wall of fear has come down.” A few weeks ago, we could have never imagined people saying anything negative about Mubarak on the telephones which are all assumed to be tapped, let alone demonstrate in the millions. What changed was people made a choice not to be afraid anymore. They made a choice to take a stand and accept the consequences of that courage.

We heard that a young man who was part of the neighborhood watch on the other side of our neighborhood was killed by a thug who shot him in the head. It was assumed locally that the thug was working for the regime, as they are the only ones with easy access to guns. When people in the neighborhood discussed this incident, subhan’Allah they were not overcome by grief, sadness or fear. They answered solemnly, “Shaheed insha’Allah.” He is a martyr, God willing. The discussion that followed showed how people recognized that martyrdom is a price that will be paid in their struggle for human dignity and freedom. Some young men who were protesting wore white thawbs with signs on them, saying that this is the cloth they may be buried in. Azhari students and shuyukh also protested in Tahrir, recognizing that though al-Azhar is government funded, its people of knowledge will still speak against the oppression of the government. People were so overjoyed to see them they tried to carry them on their shoulders. It is really something to witness a people who have lost their fear and are relying on Allah. If this ordeal lasts a long time, it will be those whose struggle is based in their relationship with Allah who will have the patience to endure and stay strong.

3. Just as oppression creates many ills, hope in Allah and the freedom to practice can heal them.

 

Having lived in Egypt for a number of years now, one of the issues that people faced socially was the difficulty of getting married due to the economy. As the average age for getting married increased well into the 30s for men, so too did the social ills of harassment, leering, and cat calling. Yet, on my street the neighborhood watch was made of these same young men, some who would normally be seen hitting on women. In this environment, given the opportunity, hope and freedom to participate in a process that asserted their own dignity, these young men rose to the occasion. They were the chivalrous guards of the community, protecting and respecting the women instead of harassing them. At some point, one of them buzzed the apartment and addressed me as their sister, warning me to fill up water bottles because of a rumor that the water might get turned off. I felt safer on my street during the days of the neighborhood watch than any other time in Egypt. Some of these young men took extremely long shifts, lost a lot of sleep, and were still the first responders in the middle of the cold nights when false alarms went off. While oppression has the power to undermine manhood, the fight for human freedom and dignity has the power to assert it.

Another powerful image was that of the masajid and the small mussalahs being full for the daily prayers. People who never came for the regular prayers started to come regularly. As the masjid became a place of organizing and free speech, the community came together and spoke for once openly about all that was on their minds. The sweet taste of freedom of expression followed by the sweet taste of praying next your neighbors while the Imam makes qunut al-nazilah (the du`a’ when hardship descends) is something the people cherished. While oppression alienates neighbors, and makes people lose hope and even iman, struggling for a just cause brings people together, increases hope and even iman. Hearing different American students say that the masajid near their places were full for prayers was something that increased my hope as Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change that which is within themselves. I pray the iman rush is not temporary and that the Imams use these moments to emphasize the role of self-development and tarbiya in seeking success from Allah (swt).

4. The importance of having a “Fiqh of Priorities”

Freedom of religion, expression and assembly are all necessary elements of any just society. Muslims, Christians, and secularists in Egypt all understand this. While Egypt is a Muslim majority, I was happy to see that various Muslim groups took the inclusive approach of seeking justice and freedom for all. From makeshift clinics, to neighborhood watch efforts, to the protests themselves, everyone acted as participants and not as opportunists. When they were interviewed, they spoke about democracy and freedom. I compared this to some of the other commentators, who took these moments as an opportunity to claim credit and undermine the efforts of others. This is not a time to focus on differences. Salafis, Sufis, Tablighis, Ikhwanis, secularists, conservatives, liberals, Christians and others have a goal they all need to protect with their lives: freedom, democracy and the rule of law. With freedom, each group can participate, organize freely and call people to their da`wah. This is a time to unite on shared values–not get caught up in the blame-game. Once the people have won this struggle for a just and free government, they can debate all they want about the future of Egypt. It’s important to have a fiqh of priorities and not contribute to division during a time when basic human rights and dignity are at stake.

Courtesy of Muslema Purmul, http://www.suhaibwebb.com/society/international/eight-reflections-from-an-american-student-in-cairo/

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