Thursday, November 30, 2017
Scary places in the mind's eye
Recently there was an incident in which Islamist militants in Egypt’s northern Sinai peninsula bombed a Sufi mosque, surrounded it, and shot up everybody attempting to exit – something like 320 dead. Some months ago, a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria was bombed, killing I think 52. Living here in Egypt, we heard expressions of concern from various relatives and friends back home. Are we okay? Should we really be living there? I’m going to try to shed some light about this.
There is a huge disconnect between events like those and the world we inhabit in Cairo. We live among a class of people who are almost entirely oblivious to such matters, and they can afford to be. If I hadn’t heard about these events from expats, American news, and friends back home, I might never have known they happened. This is not to say people like us and the Cairenes around us are blind to real dangers. We are very familiar with the US State Department’s warnings as to risks and where in Egypt one should not go. But if you sensibly heed that advice, these events are far more distant than you might think. They don’t affect us in any tangible way. It's not just that that mosque was hundreds of miles away in a city and province I've never heard of, targeting a small sect. Or that these events come predictably, sparsely, every few months – a far cry from the reports from war-broken societies that our media has so marinated us in – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen... To understand the distance people here feel from these events, the sense that they don't involve us, one needs to grasp the great cultural difference between Egyptian and American perspectives. It’s taken me quite a while to begin to decipher it.
This society is very tradition-bound, deferential to authority, fatalistic in outlook, and indirect in its communication. It can be hard to know what people ‘really’ think. Yes, there are these rebellious tribal groups in the hinterlands, and there are some disaffected, violently-inclined ISIS-types pushing a fruitless agenda to divide the society against the security forces, Coptic Christians, and now ‘heretical’ Sufi Muslims – yet these events don’t come up in conversation. The attitude here is that it’s not in your hands to do anything about it, so it’s basically not relevant.
It’s a world apart from American ways, in which every aspect of a terror event must be devoured in media, social media, and personal exchanges. You might think this is a head-in-the-sand approach, but there are other differences between these worlds that help to account for it. I think Americans are, in a way, equally oblivious to our own unique brand of male hyper-violence, the random mass shootings by crazy men (not 'terrorists'!) who own most excellent assault rifles. It’s not that we’re not bothered by it, but so what? NOTHING will make the society change in a way that would confront the problem. You could say the same thing about the failures of the heavy-handed Egyptian security state.
Yet Americans are deeply rattled and traumatized by Islamist political violence. It envelops our vision of mass violence in a warping lens. I think it goes back to the early days of ISIS, or, actually, to events in the Iraq war: the beheadings of westerners by masked Arabs embedded in us the very deepest vein of fear and terrorization. This was the genius P.R. coup of the ISIS brand! There is this incomprehensible otherness, and the idea that such acts could be undertaken for (ostensibly) political or religious motives is creepily incomprehensibly to Americans. We can’t get their heads around it.
By contrast, one white guy can kill/injure 500+ in Las Vegas, and the fact is, it’s almost normal, expected. Life goes on, for most. We have a sickness, that’s all there is to it, and it takes its victims randomly and anonymously, not for any reason at all. It just is what it is. Compared to what we see as the Middle Eastern variety of violence, we are, at the end of the day, far more comfortable with our own problem.
What's hard for those on distant shoes to believe is that families could be safe here. The fact that it's a city of 20+ million souls with very little crime, just people getting along reasonably, does not really register. Our huge part of the city has never seen any problems whatsoever. It's like, there have to be bad guys lurking, you must be a target. But Egypt is not Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya. It has the largest population in the Middle East, and its occasional violence problems are at the margins. You know the pattern of where and to whom the occasional acts of violence occur, and you stay well away from it, you’re not of the populations targeted... and nothing happens. Just life.
Just put the shoe on the other foot for a minute. Did you know that the young Egyptians I know find today's America a very frightening place? Egyptians, by and large, really love America. But recently, news coming out of the States has really hurt our image. I submit that Egyptians' view of the menaces they would face in daily American life is just as exaggerated as Americans’ outsized sense of danger here.
It's the season for college applications, and most of the Egyptian students at this elite school look to colleges abroad as the place to build their futures. It's plain to see that applications to American colleges are dramatically down - it's all Canada and the UK these days. I've asked the seniors about it. You have to prod, but eventually I have learned that there are two factors: number one by far is the Trump effect. Not only do they feel targeted by Trump as Arabs, they believe that America is crawling with newly empowered white supremacists who would take a dim view of their presence there. Number two is guns: they imagine the streets of America as a place where your odds of getting randomly shot are too high to risk.
Do you think their view of America is in accord with the sense of danger you feel? America might be a bit messed up these days, but it’s not the wild west. And as for them in particular, by and large, are Muslims being victimized by physical violence in America? There may be rare incidents which get magnified by the media. I've tried to get them to understand that in American college communities, they would be easily and genuinely accepted for who they are. But the very idea of stigma and danger is deeply disturbing to them.
From the privilege of living for a while in a strangely alien land, what I have come to see in sharper relief is that we are, all of us, in our different ways, awash in outsized fears.