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Lessons from Cairo

Andrew DeBerry | Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Egypt is a country with a special history and grace. There is an open air about the culture where friends greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. As in many developing countries, it is common to see men walking arm in arm on the street.

There is a calming simplicity and a peaceful joy among the people.Many Egyptians welcomed strangers with open arms. During his studies in Cairo last semester, Terry Fitzgibbons, now a Notre Dame senior, met many random people on the streets who wanted to meet at later times for tea or conversation.

Despite having little money, Egyptians were willing to give him gifts and share what little they had.

His time in Cairo during the war added a special dynamic. The day the war began, the U.S. State Department advised Americans in Cairo not to go out, and the city was heated with protests. Despite this, he took a 40-minute walk alone from the school to the dorm without feeling threatened. He walked around town with friends that evening, and they were pulled into a wedding to dance around the new couple. The Egyptian hospitality was warm, however this attitude was not shown for all aspects of the United States: “We love Americans! We do not love your President.”

Near the end of my summer there on a National Education Security Program scholarship, I could talk with taxi drivers and shopkeepers and heard this often. Egyptians described Bush as “magnoon” (crazy) and as a thoughtless Yankee. There was graffiti on one street wall saying, “No, no, no to American products.” However, I personally encountered no hostility in Cairo. The streets were safe. I heard about no stories of crime. There’s a sense of communal justice and with one cry, several armed guards standing outside buildings could run to one’s aid.

Learning about the Quran and visiting mosques were key opportunities. The Western view of Islam is rife with misunderstanding. The word “Islam” itself has an awesome sense of divinity with a literal meaning of “peaceful submission.” This is a far cry from images of terror we may associate with the faith. Linking Islam primarily with extremist terrorists does the faith a gross injustice.

Jihad is also a term that’s been misused. With a definition related to a purposeful struggle, jihad resembles evangelism more than war. However, some Muslims have hijacked the idea and used it to justify violent acts. On top of that, the Western media reports these extreme incidents and soon the world has a misconstrued view of the principle. Only when the faith is seriously threatened or attacked does jihad permit the use of force in limited fashion. This has similarities to the Catholic doctrine of the just war theory.

While there are notable differences between Christianity and Islam, claims that the Quran tells Muslims to kill Christians are alarming. I am at a loss for how one reaches this conclusion. I encourage anyone, whether Muslim or not, to make this clearer.

Another key lesson gained from Cairo was to distinguish between the political and religious aspects of Middle Eastern culture. We may too often lump the two together as being one in the same. There are countries with strict social rules that stem from that nation’s government and not the Quran. My Quran professor noted that, while fierce dictators such as Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein may have proclaimed themselves to be great Muslims, those true to Islam know the opposite to be true. The best exemplars of the faith I encountered were the many common people in the streets of Cairo who lived with peaceful hearts and a joyful love toward others.

Returning to the States brings a second reality check. Terry has struggled to find a shift from heavy social concerns in Cairo to worries about one’s personal comfort in the United States. He has also returned with a sharper insight and concerns about democracy. He has grown more suspicious of American media, having had an external perspective, and feels troubled from a seemingly unquestioned acceptance of American news.

There is much that today’s current and rising leaders must address. Notre Dame is meeting this challenge head on. For the first time, incoming freshmen were required to do specified readings about tensions between the Middle East and the United States. Kudos are due to the Kroc Institute, First Year of Studies, the Program of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies and first-year students themselves who are preparing for a Sept. 23 academic convocation on “The United States and the Middle East: Do We Face a ‘Clash of Civilizations?'”

Such efforts will help our generation forge ahead in promoting a more genuine and realistic leadership at home and abroad.

Andrew DeBerry is a fifth-year senior and studied at the American University in Cairo, Egypt over the summer as a Boren Scholar. He encourages all students to bookmark the list of scholarships at http://www.nd.edu/scholarship. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at adeberry@nd.edu. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.