North of Cairo, and Looking Up

Mustafa Khattab, on Egyptian village life, interfaith exchange, the popular uprising in Egypt, President Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Monday nights during Ramadan in 2007, Mustafa Khattab and I talked. We sat in cold, metal chairs around a typically utilitarian fold-out table in the mosque of the Islamic Society of Clemson (ISC). It was perfect 21st-century Americana – a mosque off Old Stone Church Road in Clemson, South Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

We studied and discussed the Qur’an. Later, around the same table, we shared iftar – the fast-breaking meal rhythmically punctuating Ramadan – with Muslims from Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan and India. The whole scene channeled the sprawling, rambunctious potlucks in the church fellowship halls of my youth.

In the fall of 2007, when I first met Mustafa, he was passing through the United States as part of a Fulbright interfaith exchange program. Now, Sheikh Mustafa – imam at the ISC since the spring of 2008 – is watching or listening or receiving tweets that his beloved country is in the winter of her discontent.

When we talked via email on February 3rd, Mustafa was back in Egypt visiting his family.

How would you describe the village life in the Egyptian province you call home?

I come from El-Monofiyah, north of Cairo, in the Delta. It’s basically an agricultural province with lots of small farming villages. Ninety-five percent of the people in my village, ‘Ezbit Koum El-Dab’, are farmers.

Village life is very peaceful, very quiet. Every day you go to the farm, you work on the farm, you feed your cattle. Most of the people in my village can’t read or write, but they are very religious. Their lives are simple. They don’t like complications.

What was your education like, then?

We have two educational systems in Egypt: public and Azhari. Azhari education is foremost a religious education. But secular topics like math, science, philosophy, English – these are part of the curriculum as well. The Azhari education is inexpensive, which was perfect for families like mine. From age 7 on I was in the Azhari system, and I finished my Masters degree in Islamic Studies at Al-Azhar University in 2007.

In 2007, what prompted you to apply for the Fulbright Interfaith Community Action Program?

I had the opportunity, fortunately, to visit a number of Arab countries. And I didn’t see many significant differences between my experience in Egypt – in terms of culture, language, religion – and my experience in Libya, Tunisia or Saudi Arabia. Generally we don’t have the kind of diversity that you have here in the States – different nationalities, religions and colors, so to speak. I wanted to experience this.

From your experience in the U.S., what is necessary for healthy and honest exchanges between Christians and Muslims?

My earliest memory of interfaith exchanges actually comes from the example of my father. I remember when Coptic traders would come from another village to buy things from my father.

One particular visit, during Ramadan, my father asked my mother to prepare a meal for our non-Muslim guests. Upon completing the sales transaction, both my father and the Coptic traders recited the first chapter of the Qur’an, as an expression of good will and as a way of calling God to witness. That was amazing, as I think about it.

As I see it, interfaith dialogue must advocate mutual respect for each other’s traditions, beliefs, culture and values. Our conversations should strive for openness and straightforwardness. We should not gloss over or sugar-coat the conversation. And I certainly think developing genuine personal relationships would help this process.

So, how are you responding to the popular uprising in your homeland? 

This is a very critical moment in Egypt’s history. I feel sympathetic for the Egyptian people. I’ve seen my fellow villagers suffer from poverty and instability. There is nothing they can do to change. They feel they have no say in the way the country is run or no share in the country’s wealth.

As an analogy, this reminds me of a personal experience I had riding a roller coaster at Six Flags in Atlanta. It was my first time, and I remember being moved in every direction. I had no control; I felt like a feather in the wind. Many Egyptians unwillingly have been riding along in a roller coaster for many years.

How do you view President Mubarak and his leadership?

President Mubarak has tried hard to improve the condition of the Egyptian people. But in my experience, his efforts have mainly benefited the elite in the country. The rich have been getting much richer; the poor much poorer. Egypt’s role as a leader in the Middle East has been downsized dramatically. Corruption and nepotism have plagued the country for many years. Perhaps his foreign policies have spared the country the brutalities of war for 30 years, but his domestic policies, especially the failed economic policies, have fallen short of many people’s expectations.

In the swell of this unrest, what should happen next in Egypt?

With all due respect, I would sincerely advise President Mubarak to retire honorably and to let the people have a say in the way they are governed. We need a government from the people who will work for the people – to fight poverty, unemployment, corruption and injustice; to restore pride in our identity as Egyptians; and to introduce real democracy and freedom. The new leader should not be seen as a Pharaoh but should be a servant of the people.

*What do you think of the Muslim Brotherhood and their role in an emerging Egypt?

The Muslim Brotherhood definitely has its pros and cons. The group has been villified by both the Mubarak regime and conservatives in the West. But they do great charity work at the grassroots level in Egypt -- especially with sectors that have been widely ignored by the government. That being said, I don't think the Muslim Brotherhood is qualified or strong enough to lead in Egypt.

*On the heels of President Mubarak's resignation on February 11th, Mustafa Khattab responded to this question about the Muslim Brotherhood.

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