Saturday, November 21, 2015


Speaking of great good fortune, I was highly fortunate to spend a month in Egypt in 1986 together with nineteen other academics and an political scientist, a specialist in Egyptian studies, as our group leader. In Cairo, the Sinai and upper (southern) Egypt I interacted with Egyptians at every level of society, mostly Muslims and some Egyptian Christians as well. For three of those thirty days we were based in Luxor, a ferry and bus ride away from the Valley of the Kings.
For a few years prior to the trip, I’d been teaching my college classes from a book, Shahhat, an Egyptian, by Richard Critchfield (Syracuse University Press, 1978. I highly recommend reading this book.) According to Critchfield, Shahhat, the central figure in the book, was a young man living in a village near Luxor. Now I was visiting in Luxor and decided to find and interview Shahhat.

On the day my group traveled out to the Valley of the Kings, a colleague and I were able to get off the bus at the intersection with the side road that led to Shahhat’s village. We were in irrigated fields on the west side of the Nile River.

We found no transportation so we set out on foot. After walking two or three miles through the fields we reached Shahhat’s rural farming village, al-Bairat. In the square, I approached a villager and inquired for Shahhat. Pointing to a small shop, he told me we’d find Shahhat in the tearoom, which Shahhat owned he said. Incidentally, our presence in the small, nearly-empty square caused no commotion nor even a stir of curiosity.

My colleague and I found the little shop to be rather emptied out of patrons. The mid-afternoon heat was blazing; people were probably at rest in their homes. I introduced myself to the only man behind the bar and asked for Shahhat. Dressed in a simple brown-grey peasant gown, the man said, “I am Shahhat. Please sit at a table. I will bring tea.” 

Soon, my thirsty colleague and I were drinking tea and eating bread while conversing with the middle-aged Shahhat, no longer the nineteen year old youth in the book. Shahhat communicated his pride in having risen from the field worker portrayed in the book to a shop owner. After a time wished us well and he gave us directions back to the main road. We offered, but he absolutely refused any payment for the snack. 

Shahhat’s generosity to two complete strangers typifies the warm welcomes I’ve experienced from Muslims in Egypt, West Africa and the United States. From the head of Al Azhar University in Cairo, with whom my group met later in the same trip, to simple village villagers in Sierra Leone, not a single Muslim had threatened me or attacked me. Over the years, Muslim students at the University of Puget Sound had gladly given talks about their home towns and societies to my classes on Islam.

Okay, but if Muslims are as hospitable and generous as I’ve portrayed, what, then, is to be said about death-dealing ISIS and the like in Bamako, Iraq and Europe? What about those who plotted the Trade Towers massacre on 9/11/2001?  

Muslims have long memories of conflict with the West, running back to the medieval crusades. They remember the invasions of the Middle East by European powers before World War I, and the carving up of the Middle East without regard for ethnicity or religion by the Powers at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I. (Suggested: the insightful and informative book by Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia, Anchor: 2014.)

Middle Eastern muslims feel they’ve been robbed of their historical position. Radicals among them will fight and die to reclaim Islam’s ancient majesty.  Their cause isn't simply a political power struggle. In their understanding it’s a noble cause justified by scripture and communicated in classical and contemporary poetry. Resistance to the West is a cause for which thousands are willing to die. The Middle East and the periphery from Europe and North America to the African desert and the Sahel are in their gunsights.

Nothing I write here is to be taken as a justification for terrorism. For terrorism, like shooting a theater packed with citizens, there is no justification.

For detailed responsible Christian theological and moral suggestions I refer you to the postings by Jim Wallis, founder and leader of Sojourners, a Christian organization with long history of concern for love and justice. Jim has written several posts on a response to ISIS. To get started click on this link

As Wallis asked in one of his recent posts, how many American know even the name of Mohammed Mossadeqh? Mossadeqh was “the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran from 1951 until 1953, when his government was overthrown in a coup d'état orchestrated by the American Central Intelligence Agency and the British Secret Intelligence Service.”  More detail here.  

Military action alone--beating the hell out of them--will not make the world secure. Justifiable self-defense and security in Brussels and Beirut, Paris, New York and everywhere is only step one. 

An even more basic step is historical understanding of Western assaults on Islam, starting with the First Crusade in 1095 and continuing into Twentieth Century. For example, the words “Caliph” and “Caliphate” arise as the ideal Muslim form of governance. Muhammad the Prophet is regarded as the first Caliph. Re-establishing that ideal order is the crusade, at one level, in which ISIS is engaged. 

When we understand the Islamic grievances we may find ways to deal with them. There will be more hope.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home