By Nile Elwardani, MPH, Ph.D.
This is an email comment I got from a friend in America in reaction to the demonstrations that arose in Cairo over the reprehensible inflammatory anti-Muslim film "The Innocence of Muslims."
She wrote: "Muslims need to get a thicker skin. Can you imagine Americans rioting every time someone said something offensive against a Christian or Jew?"
My answer: No, I can't because Christians and Jews are well off in America today. They are not down-graded or tortured or jailed just for living their lives. Their futures have not been stolen from them by their governments and outside forces that support dictators that rule over them. No, they are OK, they have the freedom to just ignore such offenses.
But I can imagine another scenario that would set people aflame. It already happened once, I was there. The Rodney King riots (Los Angeles 1992) were set off because an unknown uneducated black man name Rodney King did not get justice. This started riots, far far worse than the peaceful demonstrations here in Cairo. Widespread looting, assault, arson and murder occurred during the riots in Los Angeles, and estimates of property damages topped one billion dollars.
Contrast this to these past days in Egypt. Egyptians burnt one American flag. There was no looting, arson or murder. Egyptians did not loot or burn buildings or shoot people, as happened during the Rodney King riots. What do Egyptians and African Americans have in common? Why did they both react so strongly to injustice and indignity?
Because the ground was fertile. Both groups already felt down-trodden. They already felt that they have suffered and continue to suffer from racism, economic exclusion, horrible schools and horrendous housing and severe disenfranchisement. They have already lost so much and have so little. What does the African American have left in the inner city? And the Egyptians in their impoverished nation, ruled over by an American backed dictator Hosny Mubarak for 30 years?
They have their dignity.
Just imagine if someone from another culture or country made a horrendous video that depicted Martin Luther King, Jr. as a child molester, a murder, a rapist, a liar, a cheat and ignorant buffoon. Just imagine if such a horrible video was made and sent from another country to the US and targeted African Americans and was seen by millions. I can well imagine that there would be a huge reaction, not unlike the demonstrations we are seeing here in Egypt over the reprehensible depiction of the Prophet Mohamed
Just as Muslims the world over hold the Prophet Mohamed in great regard, so do the African American people hold MLK in great regard, as do many others the world over. African Americans and many Muslims (certainly the poor down trodden of Egypt) have been so disenfranchised and treated so poorly and have so little except their dignity. When their dignity is also attacked - their reaction, quite naturally, is to defend their dignity. I imagine poor African Americans would do the same in the example I sight above. They did so when Rodney King was not given justice.
Maybe this example will ring true for you and maybe now you will begin to see things from another perspective, not through the eyes of privileged American living with dignity in a nice home, and has never felt the sting of racism and the pain of utter injustice - but through the eyes of a down trodden poor African American who has little to hold on to but dignity, or a poor Egyptian who has lived under a repressive dictatorship and has been beaten, imprisoned or has lost a brother or a job or just never could get a job - a person that is left with only his/her dignity. Can you see through their eyes? Can you see why it would send spurs of hurt and anger to those two different peoples from different parts of the world. Can you imagine how they feel when their prophet, or icon, or their mentor, is treated with such disrespect? It is easy to have "thick skin" and not care about such offenses when you have everything you need and you are not disenfranchised. However, when you have nothing left but your dignity, you will hold on with all your might.
Muslims may very well need thicker skins (and not react to such provocations) while privileged Western societies need to learn respect for others. And most important - Western governments must walk the walk - not only talk the talk of democracy - Western governments must STOP backing dictators who destroy their countries and peoples. The dictators and their allies in the West are responsible for the tremendous frustration and injustice the people on the street are now protesting against.
Can you now see through another's eyes and understand?
A longtime board member of the Levantine Cultural Center, Nile El Wardani is currently based in Cairo.