Traveling through SeaTac Airport, I stopped by a snack shop where the woman at the counter wore an Islamic head cover. I noticed her name tag and said: "Your name, Farah, means happiness in Arabic."
She replied: “You’re from the Middle East. What country?”
“Egypt.” I said.
She looked up and smiled: “Congratulations!”
I felt awkward accepting her congratulations as I haven’t been to Egypt in more than 30 years. It felt as if I was riding the coattails of the people in Tahrir Square who held demonstrations, demanding freedom and justice. I, like other Americans, watched the events unfold on TV. What we saw challenged conventional beliefs and perceptions about Muslims.
Egypt didn’t resemble a regressive or oppressive Islamic society. The revolution was not led by a caliph promising the return of Islamic glory. Instead, Egyptians found their collective voice and assembled in a peaceful demonstration for democracy.
It was easy for many Americans to rally behind them as they pursued the basic rights we cherish.
As violence broke out, and thugs threw Molotov cocktails into the crowd, we saw something remarkable. In the midst of the chaos, Muslim demonstrators stopped, looked to the east, straightened their lines and began to pray.
While they prayed, another group quickly assembled around them. They interlocked arms and built a human wall between the worshipers and their would-be attackers. Those people, putting their own safety on the line to protect Muslims, were Egyptian Christians.
Earlier, in the same spirit, Muslims had defended a church and its occupants from harm. The message was clear: Egyptians of all faiths would stand together in the fight against tyranny.
These educated, proud, young men and women who swept their streets clean after a day’s demonstrations were determined to build a pluralistic society for all Egyptians.
We saw Muslim women, some covered with traditional head scarves and some not, leading the uprising alongside men. They stood as equals. If we expected to see an image of an oppressed or defeated woman, we never saw one.
Look. No one suggests that Egypt is a model for social equality. The rights of women and the Christian minority are yet to be fully realized. While we admit that, we must also recognize that the people’s actions defied stereotypes about Islam.
And it’s important to keep this in mind: As Egyptians pursue democracy and freedom, they’re not turning away from their religion. On the contrary, they realize Islam is compatible with these values.
We heard the people chant: “Allah’u akbar,” meaning God is greater. These words remind Muslims there is no foe, no challenge so great that it can’t be overcome by the strength of their faith. I would like to think that on that day, watching these events, Americans empathized with those words. But, maybe I’m being too hopeful.
We saw the Muslim Brotherhood, the long-feared fundamentalist enemy of democracy.
Was this the dark force hidden in the shadows and ready to seize control of Egypt? Hardly. They seemed caught by surprise, unable to push forth any agenda or promote a single leader from their midst. In the end, they too were eager for the chance to participate in a future democracy.
Equally important to what we saw is what we didn’t see in the streets of Egypt. No al-Qaida. The great menace, calling young Muslims to violence, inciting the overthrow of governments and promising world domination in the name of Islam was nowhere. Egyptians showed us that al-Qaida has no rightful place among Muslims.
We also saw no expression of hostility toward the west. The American flag was not desecrated. No American president was burned in effigy.
Egypt gave us an opportunity to examine the true aspirations, values and fundamental needs of Muslims. And in the end, they were strikingly similar to our own.
Dean Hosni, an underwriting professional in the insurance industry, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.