Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Tag

the montgomery method

Recently I posted a piece about Martin Luther King Jr’s global legacy, and later another one about religious unity during the protests in Egypt. Those two strands are tied together in this story on Comics Alliance:

Egyptian Activists Inspired by Forgotten Martin Luther King Comic

(Thanks to my friend Steven, who posted it on Facebook.)

The article details how The Montgomery Story, a comic book about King originally published in 1958 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was recently translated into Arabic and Farsi by the American Islamic Congress and distributed in the Middle East – including Egypt. The comic is an account of the historic bus boycott led by King in Montgomery, Alabama, and includes a primer on “the Montgomery method” – the program of nonviolent action that King initiated in the American civil rights movement and which proved so crucial in the struggle. The article hints the comic may have had an influence on some Egyptian activists during the resent uprising, and helped shape its largely peaceful nature.

Look, The Montgomery Story probably won’t ever win any artistic awards, but for a comic it is remarkably thorough and insightful in disseminating the spiritual values of nonviolent resistance and… well, love. It even includes a thoughtful recap of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in India.

The translation and distribution of The Montgomery Story‘s Arabic edition was spearheaded by activist Diala Ziada, director of the AIC’s Egypt office. Ziada tirelessly promotes peace, civil rights and nonviolent change in the region with various media projects and sheer determination. Among her noteworthy projects is the Cairo Human Rights Film Festival, now in its third year.

It’s fascinating to read this Time Magazine profile, published in 2009, identifying Ziada as part of a “soft revolution” of Middle Eastern women pushing for change within Islam. It really highlights how the earthshaking events in Cairo this month have changed the paradigms completely – the story is so right and prescient about some things, and so completely wrong and outdated about others. How quickly our perspective has changed. Note the description of the trouble the first edition of the film festival encountered from the government authorities, and Ziada’s heroic efforts to keep it going:

The censorship board did not approve the films, so Ziada doorstopped its chairman at the elevator and rode up with him to plead her case. When the theater was suspiciously closed at the last minute, she rented a tourist boat on the Nile for opening night – waiting until it was offshore and beyond the arm of the law to start the movie.

I hadn’t heard of this woman until I read this article, and I have to say I’m seriously impressed with her courage and energy and her commitment to nonviolent principles. (And she’s only 28. Ever feel like you’re not doing enough with your life?) In covering the Middle East, the mainstream media has generally focused primarily on victims and bad guys, giving us impressions of violence and pathos and little else. That’s why so many of us were caught off guard with the uprising, a genuine people’s movement defying lines of class, gender and religion, and not dictated by the agendas of elites and foreigners.

The Comics Alliance article admits that since only 2000 translated copies of The Mongomery Story were distributed, its influence on the events in Egypt could not have been widespread. But righteous seeds have a way of germinating at just the right time, and having an impact far greater than it may seem at first. In this letter, Zadia insists the book has had an important effect on those it reaches:

When, at first, we went to print the comic book, a security officer blocked publication. So we called him and demanded a meeting. He agreed, and we read through the comic book over coffee to address his concerns. At the end, he granted permission to print, and then asked: “Could I have a few extra copies for my kids?”

The comic book has been credited with inspiring young activists in Egypt and the larger region… Last week I distributed copies in Tahrir Square. Seeing the scene in the square firsthand is amazing. Despite violent attacks and tanks in the street, young people from all walks of life are coming together, organizing food and medical care, and offering a living model of free civil society in action.

It’s quite an image, a young Muslim woman handing out copies of a 60-year-old comic book about the revolutionary vision of an American Baptist minister, right in the middle of her country’s greatest crisis. As the writer of the Comics Alliance article says, “It’s certainly cool that a comic book starring one of America’s greatest real-life heroes has inspired even one person to take to the streets in the way we’ve seen over the last several weeks.”

Click here for complete PDF versions of The Montgomery Story in Arabic, Farsi and English.

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we’re all egyptians

Last Friday brought an incredible story among all of the other incredible stories from Cairo. In the middle of the massive protests that have rocked the nation of Egypt, Muslim protesters took time on their holy day to pray – and in many instances Coptic Christians (who make up 15% of the population) stood close by, protecting them from the police. The breathtaking images of these incidents have been circulated around the world ever since.

I also saw a couple of accounts of Muslim youth helping to guard an Anglican church when the police stopped their patrols and looting began. And I read more than once that during the protests a Muslim Brotherhood chant of “Allahu Akbar!” was overwhelmed by a larger crowd chanting, “Muslameen Mesiheen Kolina Masreen!” which means “Muslims, Christians, we’re all Egyptians!” (I love the way it rhymes in both Arabic and English.)

A lot of people are experiencing uncertainty about this turn of the tide in Egypt. I admit it, so am I. The agenda has shifted so fast. For a long time our main concern about Egypt was the possibility of sectarian violence, especially after the bombing of a church on New Year’s Day. But sudddenly, before we knew what was really happening, there was a mass uprising of Egyptians of every faith and economic class demanding justice and basic human rights. We aren’t sure what to make of it. We need Jon Stewart or Banksy to come along and clarify things for us, give us a reassuring summary of the situation so that we can go back to having an opinion.

Are we afraid this turmoil is going to permanently de-stabilize Egypt? Or even the whole region, especially if the aftershocks continue spreading (as they did from Tunisia to Egypt)? Or are we just afraid on general principle? It’s an unfortunate human tendency to value order above freedom most of the time. That’s what repressive governments count on. Revolution is a scary thing.

We’re used to thinking of the Middle East as a battleground in a quasi-medieval religious war, a divisive and hopeless place. Did anyone ever think we’d see anything like these Muslims and Christians struggling together and looking after each other any time soon?

First of all, we might want to question where we get our ideas from in the first place. We hear all about terror, everyone’s favorite flavor of bad news, but we haven’t heard much about the Mubarek regime’s human rights abuses, have we? And beyond that, how do we let ourselves get convinced that there’s no hope for reconciliation between faiths, that no change will ever come? What takes away our hope?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Marley lately. His music always resonates during a crisis. (It’s all I could listen to for weeks after 9/11.) The lyric that spoke to me when I saw these pictures is this one from “Coming in from the Cold”:

Would you let the system get inside your head again?
Would you let the system make you kill your brotherman?
No, dread, no!

If these images, which almost bring tears to my eyes even as I look at them now, prove one thing, it’s that new paradigms are possible, and can spring to life after decades – centuries – of hate and despair. Indeed, I think the potential for unity, peace and goodwill is always present, always just around the corner, even – or especially – in the most dire circumstances. Love is always stronger than hate.

All of our highest spiritual wisdom demands that we love one another. Maybe in the middle of this emergency in Egypt, we see here a glimpse of a new kind of interfaith connection, arising exactly when it’s needed most.

I think this should be one of our keys to understanding this situation. I don’t know what to think, I don’t know where these events will lead Egypt, or where they will lead us, which is probably how we should look at it. But I trust what I see here.