Thoughts on Belonging and the Salafi Label

translation: We reject violence…peaceful…peaceful (R); Don’t believe the lying media (L)

The past week has presented opportunity to reflect on interactions with Muslims here in Egypt. More precisely, the reflection has been on my demeanor within these interactions.

On the whole, we are very comfortable and happy to be living in Egypt. We enjoy good relations with friends and neighbors, Muslims and Christians. We do, through the church, have a disproportionate number of Christian friends, but having been several years now in the Arab world, we know the goodness of the Muslims we live among.

Why then has this sense of belonging felt compromised in the last week?

On the one hand the reasons are obvious. My work placed me at a pro-bin Laden demonstration one day, and in an area torn apart by religious strife on another. Following the death of bin Laden warnings were dire his supporters would retaliate, especially against Americans. Following attempts to investigate the religious strife in Imbaba, a CNN reporter told his story of having to run for his life from angry mobs. Tensions are high; there is no room for a cavalier spirit.

Yet is there room for belonging? If so, what would it look like? This is the central question for us, not whether a report can be written or a story conveyed. Can we do these jobs with concern for and commitment to those with whom we interact?

I felt the compromise most on Friday, when I visited both the bin Laden demonstration and the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. At the cathedral Copts were awaiting the coming of Salafi Muslim protestors; due to several factors, including the bin Laden rally, they never came.

Yet while the Copts demonstrated anyway, I moved among them freely. I asked questions, I took pictures, I shot video – I had nary a thought of concern. I was not demonstrating with them; in fact, I felt quite at odds with what they were doing. But I felt at home; I felt comfortable. I trusted them.

Contrast this to my feelings at the bin Laden protest. It started earlier when I visited the mosque from whence the protest began. I stood at a distance, I held aloof from security, I scoured the area for a place of protection – I had nary a thought of tranquility. I was not watching opposed to them; in fact, I felt sympathy with their effort to honor the dead in defiance of Western scorn. But I felt foreign; I felt alone. I feared their reaction to me as an American.

Fear is not the right word, not if interpreted in terms of safety. But this feeling was amplified later that day when I arrived at their protest in front of the American Embassy. With the Copts, with Christians, I had no thought other than to jump right in. Here, with Salafi Muslims, I kept my distance, watching from the other side of the street. Again, there was no fear – the demonstration was peaceful, and soldiers kept watch of the proceedings – but there was also no belonging.

Perhaps the distinction of religion makes the difference. We aim for a sense of belonging to Egypt; we have a double sense with the Christians here. That second level of belonging is missing with Muslims, particularly with Muslims who practice in confidence. There is no opposition; on the contrary, there is great admiration. We wish to befriend these, learn from them, and should any opposition be found on their account, we wish to overcome it.

This was my attitude visiting Imbaba, but there were Christian sources to pursue first. Our interview was with the priest of the church, and we spent our time within its burned out walls. When certain youthful Copts had a run-in with the army outside, and then their fury was unleashed back inside within ecclesiastic safety, I was overcome with the weight of the situation. The day before, twelve people were killed as churches were attacked. Many feel the army did little to protect them. Witnessing their rage, I was initially paralyzed, but knew there was a place for me to have a role. It is my church also. It is not my struggle, but these are brothers in faith. Eventually, I did my best to offer words of calm and comfort. Again, I felt at home.

After we conducted our interview, I suggested to my Egyptian colleagues that we seek the army’s help in arranging a meeting with a Muslim sheikh. The area was still tense, and it would likely not be right to simply wander around, especially with me as a foreigner. They hesitated; there were time factors involved to be sure. But they too were nervous about the tension in the area, unsure of how they, as Copts, would be received. In the end we returned home.

Our report would have been better if we had Muslim sources to match, but that was not my chief concern, and may have marked a difference of emphasis between me and my colleagues. If I struggle with my lack of second-level belonging to Egyptian Muslims, many Copts, who should bear first-level belonging as Egyptian citizens, lack it altogether. Fine. Many on both sides are polarized, and in this text I am not reflecting upon them.

In this instance I sensed the divisions in the neighborhood, perhaps extending to the world, and wished to overcome it. In the middle of strife, I wished an uninvited American could sit down with, seek the opinion of, and honor the Salafi sheikh in front of him. Who will ever read what I write? Yet there was a chance to build relationships of peace with one in an area currently in need, with one in whom no natural bond existed.

This is the valor I can sometimes summon, but part of my language above gives me away. I stated: It would likely not be right to simply wander around, especially with me as a foreigner.

Why should I have not walked right into the middle of the pro-bin Laden demonstration? Why do I assume I would have little welcome in Imbaba? The external reasons are obvious, and should not be treated lightly. Yet it is the internal reasons which concern me. Where is my sense of belonging?

It is natural to be comfortable with those of like nature. With Egyptian Christians there is a like nature of faith, and with Egyptians in general we have discovered a like nature of humanity.

With both of these groups, however, and especially from my essential nature as an American, there is an assumed and created nature of enmity. Yes, every group defines itself at least partially in opposition to the other, and there is little harm here. Yet my group has demonized bin Laden and his supporters. My group – both American and Egyptian – sit either fearful or suspicious of Salafi Muslims. This, through belonging, is nurtured in my heart also.

Therefore, it is only through belonging that it can be nurtured out. Yes, those groups are demonized because they demonize us; yet which is first, the chicken or the egg? In the end, both become food: Do you prefer to be rotisserie or scrambled?

I have a fear that the label ‘Salafi’ is being appropriated in popular usage to generalize a community and minimize their humanity. Not all Salafis are violent, perhaps most are not. This is an item I must discover through research and relationships. They may bear an ideology many would be right to oppose; they themselves must be treated with dignity and the diversity present in their thought. ‘Salafi’ risks becoming like ‘terrorist’ or ‘Muslim extremist’ – catchphrases utilized to instill fear and rejection, while the content of the label remains nebulous and ill-defined.

We must resist all labels, even as we acknowledge their reality. If we can find in our hearts the desire to belong to those with whom we naturally do not, maybe one day we will. This, perhaps, is the path of peace.

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