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This side of terror
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 09 - 2007

Ramadan gives Westerners, and Americans in particular, a different perspective on Islam, writes Ida Sawyer
Cairo just after sundown -- and plates of food are being thrust into the open windows of cars driving by. A doorman from Upper Egypt shares a meal with his building's well-to-do residents, while complete strangers are inviting you to their table.
The start of Ramadan has shown Westerners in Cairo, and Americans in particular, a part of Islam rarely heard about -- the strong sense of community, charity and equality between rich and poor, young and old, Christian, Muslim and Jew.
As Americans were consumed once again by the heightened terror alert surrounding the sixth anniversary of 9/11 and the seemingly endless loops of Osama bin Laden's latest video broadcast, Muslims in Cairo were focused elsewhere -- preparing for a month of self-discipline and purification during which they abstain from eating, drinking and sex from sunrise to sunset, and then break the fast in a festive communal feast.
Every day for a month, Cairo's main roads are lined with tables as restaurant owners and shopkeepers prepare lavish meals for the poor -- or anyone who happens to pass by. Just before sundown, young men and women rush to the homes of relatives carrying boxes of sweets and empty containers for leftovers. Men in Coca-Cola T- shirts line the traffic circles around downtown's Tahrir Square, preparing to give out free cans of soda to the traffic policemen and anyone driving by. Even the pizza joints set aside stacks of pizza boxes to be given away.
Then, just after 6pm, this entire city of over 17 million people shuts down. The largest metropolitan area in both Africa and the Arab world -- a place of constantly blaring car horns, sheikhs calling the faithful to prayer and music blasting from the disco boats on the Nile -- is eerily quiet. Everyone joins family and friends to break for Iftar. Stores, cafés, the ubiquitous street-stands selling fuul and taamiya and freshly squeezed fruit juice are all closed while the owners and workers enjoy their meal. Then, a few hours later, the city comes back to life, as family and friends go out together, crowding the streets and walkways along the Nile and, while they do so, handing out plates and bags of leftovers.
Many complain about the almost unbearable traffic -- even by Cairo standards -- in the late afternoon as everyone rushes home from work early, the headaches, short tempers and lack of productivity during the day as Cairenes adjust to a work-day without coffee, water, cigarettes or lunch. Some also argue that Ramadan in Egypt is no longer about asceticism and devotion. In fact, they point out, food consumption increases by 40 per cent as families try to outdo their neighbours with excessive spreads. But no one fails to see or contends with the strong sense of community. "It's one of the most beautiful times of the year," says David Snipes, an American who has lived in Cairo for the past 14 years. "People are much more social, and I like the idea that at a certain time of day, everyone is sitting and eating together."
For Akram Razek, an Egyptian lawyer who just returned from a two-year post in Iraq, "the idea behind Ramadan is to show equality because everyone tries to feel what poor people feel by not eating for a whole day." It is the only time of year during which rich and poor -- everyone -- have plenty of food and the main meal at the same time. According to Razek, understanding Ramadan in Egypt helps show what people, Muslims, are really like.
"With all due respect to Americans," he says, "you ask them about Egypt and they say it's camels, Pyramids and desert. All Arabs are belly dancers. And all Muslim men marry four wives, force their wives to cover themselves up, and walk around with swords to fight for jihad. We're a peaceful, civilised, and modern nation, but Americans don't see us that way."
A recent, in-depth poll by World Public Opinion showed that a significant majority in four major Muslim nations -- including 92 per cent of those surveyed in Egypt -- believes the United States is waging a war on Islam. The findings also showed strong support for enhancing the role of Islam in each of the countries polled, including the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law). But majorities also had positive views on democratisation, globalisation, and freedom of religion.
While many favoured attacks on US troops in the region, there was strong disapproval of attacks "by groups that use violence against civilians, such as Al-Qaeda." Large majorities -- 88 per cent in Egypt -- believe that such groups "are violating the principles of Islam". Yet large majorities still agree with many of Al-Qaeda's principal goals, such as standing up to Americans and affirming the dignity of the Islamic people.
"We don't hate Americans, but we do hate the actions of the American government," Razek explains. "For the United States, the so- called war on terror is really a war on Islam and America sees it as in their interest to attack Muslims. Americans only see the attacks in Iraq or Afghanistan or the occupied territories of Palestine. Their ideas about jihad make us look like a bloody people, but it's a means of defence, not attack. If anything happens, it's a reaction."
And it is true that much of what Americans hear about Islam relates to militant Islam and terrorism. Yet for the majority of Muslims, the most important parts of their faith revolve around the basic tenets of justice, equality, self-discipline and charity, all of which are so central to the celebration of Ramadan.
"All the anti-Islamic sentiment since 9/11 has linked people here more strongly to their religion," says Razek. "But now much more needs to be done to give Muslims space to explain themselves and to help Americans understand Islam."

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