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Alaa Al Aswany: What should our attitude to the barbarians be?

Jeremy Christian, a stocky American white guy, has a dishonorable history to bear. He has been found guilty of robbery and sentenced to years of imprisonment. He recently joined the “Neo Nazis,” one of the extreme right-wing groups that have flourished since the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA. He had often had rants about Islam and Muslims, and on May 26, Christian boarded a train in the US city of Portland. Among the passengers he noticed a young woman in a hijab sitting next to her female friend. He went up to the two women and started shouting: “What are you doing in America? You should get back to Saudi Arabia! We don’t want Muslim terrorists in our country!” The two terrified women burst out in tears. At that point some white passengers came over and confronted Christian, telling him: “Stop cursing two innocent young ladies! Cut out the racist speech!” The incensed man took out a knife and starting stabbing the passengers who had come to the women’s defense. Two died—Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old economics graduate and Ricky Best, a 53-year old veteran. There was another incident in the German city of Nuremberg when the police tried to arrest an Afghan student in order to deport him after his application for political asylum was turned down by the authorities. Hundreds of German students joined in a spontaneous demonstration which then turned into clashes between the police and the students, with people on both sides being injured. In the end, the German authorities rescinded the deportation order against the Afghan student. In a third incident, an Islamist terrorist went on a stabbing rampage in the German city of Hamburg, killing one person and injuring a number of others. He was set upon by a group of young men of Arab, Turkish and Afghan origin who threw anything they could get their hands on at him and managed to restrain him until the police arrested him. At this point we have to ask ourselves: what drives white American citizens to risk death trying to defend a Muslim woman against racist abuse? What drives white German students to become involved in clashes with the police to defend a Muslim Afghan fellow-student? What drives young Arab men to put themselves in harm’s way to restrain a young Arab like themselves, in order to defend German citizens? These three incidents highlight for us the meaning of civilization vis-a-vis savagery. It would seem natural for a person to defend someone with whom he has a common nationality or religion, but to defend someone he does not know, someone with whom he does not have a common religion or nationality, shows some sophistication and posits civilized behavior against racist viciousness and terrorism. A racist, just like a terrorist, dehumanizes people. To him anyone different is not an individual but a member of a group (Jews, Arabs, Muslims) who will always be responsible for what his group does. Likewise a terrorist considers westerners jointly responsible for the crimes committed by American soldiers in Iraq and consequently he tries to take revenge on the American army by killing the largest number of western civilians wherever they are. Resorting to the same logic, a racist considers Muslims all to be responsible for the outrages perpetrated by al-Qaeda. He is thus prepared to put Muslims down wherever he finds them and wants to see them expelled from the West in revenge for western victims of terrorism. A civilized person, in contrast to a racist or terrorist, sees someone different from him first and foremost as a human being like himself. According to civilized logic, all Muslims cannot be held responsible for the crimes of Osama bin Laden, and similarly all westerners cannot be blamed for the crimes of the American army because responsibility devolves upon an individual and that individual is only responsible for his own behavior. Then comes the question of how Arabs deal with people of a different religion? In 2013 thousands of villagers from Abu Musallam in the Giza governorate clustered around the house of some Shiites and set it on fire. They forced the Shiites onto the street and then set upon them and kicked them to death. As these brutal murders were being carried out, men were praising God and women ululated in delight at the killing of, what were in their eyes, Shiite unbelievers. Egyptian Bahais also suffer from state persecution. Not only does the state refuse to recognize their existence or to allow them to register Bahaism as their religion on their identity papers, considering them to be accursed unbelievers, but many Egyptians consider it their duty to disparage and curse Bahais whenever they come across them, as in their opinion they are unbelievers who deserve to be killed.

Go to any village in Upper Egypt and all it takes is for the news to spread, even if it is fake news, that the Copts want to build a church in the village. The Muslims will take the idea of a new church as a slight against their Islamic beliefs, work themselves into a frenzy against the Copts and often end up burning down their houses or killing them. This religious intolerance is not restricted to Egypt, as in every Arab country we can find oppressed minorities. What is clear is that the Arab peoples are still far from being able to behave in a civilized fashion towards citizens of a different religion. This religious intolerance is due to two factors: firstly, the Arabs are stuck in the mental prison of a form of juridical thinking which, for a thousand years, has been giving us the same old interpretation of Islam. We just do not want to acknowledge that this out-of-date juridical thinking encourages us to put non-Muslims in a subordinate position—it sees nothing wrong in our oppressing them, and even offers ideological grounds for violence and terrorism. The second factor in the spread of religious intolerance is that we live under dictatorial regimes which practice terrorism against us on a daily basis, and a person who sees his human rights violated by a dictator is not someone who is going to defend the rights of others. We cannot be considered civilized unless we can look at someone of a different religion as a human being, unless his humanity takes precedence over any other affiliation. We will only achieve this state of civilized consciousness when we manage to remove authoritarian forms of government and establish a democratic state.

This text was translated from Arabic by Russell Harris.

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