Sunday, July 5, 2009

I say what I want! But should I?!

Democracy. A government of the people, for the people, by the people. Considered by many Western nations as the only way forward, as the only means of rendering any political entity or country a success. Democracy grants citizens fundamental privileges such as the right to free speech, the right to vote without fear of suppression, the right to practice your own religious creed.

These are all values that are inherently part of the democratic structure. Or are they? Through working with Arab-West Report, I have witnessed a variable of cases where this does not hold true, both within Egypt, and in the West. Freedom of expression, and the freedom to practice one's creed, are values that are hard to argue with. Yet there are clear examples of when these traits have not been upheld (such as the recent Facebook scandals involving censorship and arrests carried out by the Egyptian government - but lets save that for another time, I'm not here to point fingers). The right to express yourself freely is crucial in building a society that is based on equality and understanding, but sadly many take this right for granted, or wholly abuse it. To make accusations and place blame on another party or person, purely because it is your "right" to do so, and without having any evidence to support your cause, is wrong, immoral, and should never be tolerated.

To use this freedom to fuel any strife or sedition only leads to further tensions and potentially aggressions. I see this frequently with AWR - it's a constant game of he-said she-said, and as is often times the case, it generally involves either political or religious factors. One of the more outrageous examples of abusing freedom of speech that I have personally witnessed was the crisis of the monastery of Abu Fana. For those unfamiliar, I'll explain. Abu Fana is a Coptic Orthodox Monastery located in Upper Egypt. Last year, tensions erupted between monks of the monastery and Muslim residents of the village. The dispute centered around the monastery's construction of a wall, which local residents claimed to be on land that did not originally belong to the monastery. This resulted in a vicious cycle of blame game and a highly tense atmosphere. This tense atmosphere was manipulated by many, who through their employment of the freedom of speech, attempted to stir the rumour mill causing people to believe that this was a pre-empted attack against the monastery, further evidence of Coptic persecution in Egypt, among other claims. I do not wish to downplay the severity of the situation that evolved, but the allegations that were proclaimed (often times print in "reputable" publications) stoked the fire of sedition, and are evidence that freedom of expression, while a right, should NOT be manipulated to serve your own needs and/or desires. (Btw, anybody wanting further information on this, contact me :) )

[**EDIT 20 JULY: After discussing this posting with my sister, she informed me that my position on this entire situation is unclear. While I am talking about governmental infractions on freedom of speech being wrong, I am also commenting on about people abusing it, which may seem like a Catch-22. Either governments are going to hinder freedom of speech, or people will say whatever the hell they want. I am not discussing individual "people" in this case, I am referring to media outlets, who are supposed to have a responsibility to check things they are reporting on. If some dude wants to run down the street, screaming "The moon shines of out my ass," he has every right to do so. However, the media should not then present his rantings as a credible source...**]

As is the case with many cases of "sedition," troubles arise from a lack of understanding, or an unwillingness to accept differences. I'm not naive, I don't expect sunshines and butterflies to shine out of everyone's orifice, but I do believe that people have the ability to at least open their minds a little bit, and try to understand. When I first moved to Egypt, I was shockingly unfamiliar with Islam. I have always considered myself to be a worldy person, but I was forced to face the reality that I really didn't know as much about Arabs, the Middle East and Islam as I had first believed. I had been sheltered in my "post-9/11" media bubble, which notoriously played the blame game, pinpointing Arabs in general, and Muslims specifically, as the terrorist enemy. There were countless occasions when I would be asked, in all seriousness by my friends in the U.S., if I was afraid to live in Cairo. "Why?" I would ask. "Aren't they all a bunch of terrorists there?" Sad, truly sad, that people actually believe that everybody walking down the streets in Cairo has a hidden agenda against crushing the Western nations and ridding the world of evil! Having been here for three plus years, I can honestly say, I feel very safe in Cairo - so let me dispel that right now.

When I started my work with AWR, I was barraged by articles on Muslim-Christian relations, Islam and the interpretation of the Quran, the Coptic Church, religious dialogue, you name it, I've probably read about it. Yet one thing that I passionately and whole-heartedly support, particularly when I take my own experiences into consideration, is inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue. Many Muslims living in the West are faced on a daily basis with the same misguided impressions I used to have. Recently, the German Federal Minster of Interior Wolfgang Schรคuble delivered a lecture at Cairo University, discussing inter-religious co-existence in Germany. The minister pointed to a number of factors in Germany that are supporting the democratic ideal of "freedom of creed," and I truly applaud his efforts. Similar initiatives are the foundation blocks of building a better understanding between the Arab world and the West, and only through a greater sense of understanding can we remove the veil of suspicion that has erupted between the two cultures. I feel that I have only touched on how important this subject is to me, so for now, I'll say "food for thought," until the continuation....

1 comment:

  1. Good post - but sadly the media have to take a lot of responsibility for a lot of the preceptions we have.