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The others

Two events have prompted this week’s column: the unprecedented attack on St. Mark’s Cathedral last week, and my recently watching  the Jews of Egypt documentary. Both got me thinking about the concept of “the other”. A predefined group of people which another group or culture or society will use to distance itself from. “The other” …

Ahmed Arafa
Ahmed Arafa

Two events have prompted this week’s column: the unprecedented attack on St. Mark’s Cathedral last week, and my recently watching  the Jews of Egypt documentary.

Both got me thinking about the concept of “the other”. A predefined group of people which another group or culture or society will use to distance itself from. “The other” carries with it characteristics too unpalatable or unsavoury for the second group to believe it may, itself, indeed possess.

There’s an interesting and now well-documented psychological phenomenon known as “projection”. Back in late-nineteenth century Vienna, Herr Doktor Freud noticed that when some of his patients began during the course of their psychotherapy to discover uncomfortable truths about themselves, these truths were then projected onto, or ascribed to, an outside person or object—sometimes even the good doctor himself.

A supposedly strong person who looks askance at sensitive souls and their gentle actions is, on this view, most likely a pussycat on the inside, but is perhaps unable to square this reality with a bloated and much-publicised self image or persona of “strength” which they have built up and deliberately cultivated over the years.

It’s a potent, attractive defence-mechanism (“it’s not me, it’s you”, to reverse the usual refrain used during countless breakups). This is, essentially, how you create the other.

As such, I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who very strongly criticises or points out particular character traits or phenomena they don’t like (I do it myself, actually, and will do so very shortly).

Anyway, both groups of people associated with the two events mentioned above have been characterised as an “other”: One back in the 1950s and 1960s; the other, much more recently.

Watching Jews of Egypt I saw how Jewish Egyptians (“I am not an Egyptian Jew, I am a Jewish Egyptian”, says one person on the film) were   suspected of being Israeli informers, and of putting their Jewishness before their Egyptian-ness (you see in the interviews with the subjects in the film just how untrue this is). Most eventually left Egypt as a result—but not to Israel as expected; the majority emigrated (reluctantly) to France, Italy and the USA.

Christian Egyptians now face similar prejudices; ones which have been brewing for some time, unfortunately. Turn on any of those so-called Islamic channels and you will see what I mean. The rhetoric directed towards Egyptians-who-just-happen-to-be-Christian is incendiary to say the least (and I’m being incredibly polite, here). Despite never having raised a flag of a foreign country during a protest, Christians are accused of being less Egyptian than everyone else, of somehow being in league with the devil—the evil, Godless “West”; where, I might add, my family and I were able to to practice our religion for over two decades (mostly) without any discrimination whatsoever.

And, with evident glee, Salafi television channel Al-Hafez held an SMS poll immediately after the attack on the Cathedral: “Do you think a civil war between Christians and Muslims will occur in Egypt?” it asked (with every SMS to participate in the poll costing a hefty three Egyptian pounds).

Al-Hafez, I’m told, also recently held a televised salam-a-thon: With a hadith on the ills of miserliness printed on the screen, the channel asked its viewers to send in their prayers and blessings on the Prophet via SMS, again for three Egyptian pounds (I’m sure that was a good day for their accountants). There are passages in the Qur’an regarding the punishments that await those who “trade” in religion; I do wonder whether the channel’s owners and presenters have read them.

So, an obvious question now rears its head: Who are your others? Who are mine?

How about the Islamists?  Those unthinking examples of blind followership (Muslim Brotherhood members, for example, have now acquired the appellation “sheep” on social networks); the beirdo weirdos; xenophobic haters of Crusaders (sorry, I meant Christians), women, and the rest of us less-than-evidently-pious Muslims.

I’m not necessarily doubting the above is true (I suspect there’s a modicum of truth in the above characterisation), but it’s  convenient, isn’t it? Comfortable.

Safe in the knowledge that I can criticise and lambast those possessing the above traits and views, I am automatically, at least in the eyes of the outside world, dissociating myself from those characteristics: “Phew, thank God I’m not like them.”

After the recent events at the Brotherhood HQ at Moqattam (Current score: Brotherhood 1 – 1 Revolutionaries), a number of people posted—with considerable Al-Hafez-esque glee, I might add—pictures of injured Brotherhood members after they’d received a good beating from the Revolutionaries or the Moqattam residents or whoever it was that kicked their behinds that day.

The “We are all Gaber Jika” Facebook page was incandescent with rage toward those who called for calm and criticised the violence: “Are you sad for the sheep but not Jika or Mohamed El-Gendy?” it asked. The page had posted that day the following status to explain the events:

“What happened today was simple: We went to protest in front of the Moqattam HQ and the sheep pelted us with rocks, so we stripped them, violated their honour (i.e. raped them; though, I suspect, not literally; I would have gone, otherwise), and dragged them across the ground naked.”

I must admit, I immediately also joined in on this, posting tweets like “Lambs to the slaughter” on my Twitter account, and that Eid Al-Adha had come early this year (still kind of proud of that one, to be honest).

I think most of you, however, will agree how dangerous this is. This “us and them” rhetoric is divisive, unhelpful, and ultimately futile.

I am by no means suggesting a love-in with our bearded friends here (“Love your enemies”?), just a call to understand more about what makes them tick (“know your enemy”?), and, perhaps, more importantly, about what makes us despise them so. Uncomfortable, unpalatable truths about them and about us no doubt lie in wait here  (there it is again: “us and them”).

I watched a debate during the mid-2000s’ “Clash of Civilisations” malarkey (like President Bush II, I doubt Samuel Huntington travelled much outside the States). When asked what was required of both sides (i.e. the enlightened West, and the backward Islamic world; hey, there it is again: projection) to end the so-called clash, Islamic expert Reza Aslan replied: “More understanding; learning from each other; each side has much to teach the other.”

A Christian friend of mine surprised me this week by putting that famous photograph of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan Al-Banna as his Facebook profile picture. After commenting with the obligatory “LOL”, I asked him: “If you can’t beat them, join them?”

His reply was interesting:

“If you can’t beat them, learn from them.”

Do take note, our so-called opposition.

I doubt that I will ever agree with the Society of Muslim Brothers or the Salafis or Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya or any other Islamist group. With their impoverished versions of this magnificent, inclusive and multi-faceted faith, their myopic attitudes are the very anathema to every breath I take.

However, I do believe there is an ethical, and, indeed, strategic obligation one has not to turn one’s enemy opponent into a straw man. After all, if you can beat a caricature of your opponent you have achieved pretty much nothing; beat a strong version (even one stronger than the reality), and you will epic-win every time.

The philosophical principal of charity, used in any civilised debate of any kind, requires you, as much as you can, not to attribute irrationality or stupidity to an opponent and their views. And one way to avoid this is to learn about them, and perhaps from them, as my friend has decided.

Perhaps we all have a lot of learning and growing up to do in the coming period.

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