Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Clash of Civilizations

Kevin Sites turns over his "Hot Zone" feature this week to a remarkable column, first published in November in the London-based Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, by Mona Eltahawy:

When the planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, I lived in Seattle, on the other side of America.

My brother and his wife were visiting me. We did not leave the house for two days because we were worried that Americans angry at Muslims would attack my sister-in-law, who wore a hijab.

On Sept. 13, 2001, one such angry American, Patrick Cunningham, tried to start a fire in my local mosque's garage. When two Muslims coming out from Isha prayers tried to stop him, Cunningham -- who was drunk -- tried to shoot them but missed. He was arrested and put on trial and eventually jailed.

But he is not important.

What was more important were the flowers and messages of support that flooded the mosque when news spread of the attempted attack. And from that night on and for weeks more, neighborhood men and women holding signs that read "Muslims are Americans" stood on 24-hour guard outside the mosque.

I have waited to hear that Muslims who live near St. George's Church in Alexandria (Egypt) organized a similar patrol to protect it.

The church has been a target of Muslim anger over a play deemed offensive to Islam that was performed there two years ago. This culminated in riots after Friday prayers on Oct. 21 in which three people died and dozens were injured when riot police fired tear gas and used batons to dispel 5,000 Muslim protestors away from the church. A nun was stabbed a few days earlier.

But ahead of Friday prayers on Oct. 28, it was just hundreds of riot troops who guarded the church.

It looked like the church was under siege. Instead, it is the belief in minority rights that is under siege -- not just in Egypt but throughout the Arab world.

It's remarkable, too, that a human being so virtuous and intelligent as Ms. Eltahawy should feel compelled to write, "We should not be deterred from calling for minority rights just because the Bush administration or anyone else issues similar calls on our countries to respect those rights." But that's the state of the world we live in, where "anti-American" is the greatest virtue in too many places.

Now, what would really be a sign of progress is if such a column could be published not on an American Web site or in a British ex-pat newspaper, but in Arabic, in the Islamic Middle East.