From the Heart the Mouth Speaks

To properly describe the peacemaking work we are trying to undertake here in Egypt would require much background information and many blog posts. It is our hope that over time we can give a proper picture of the many nuances and subtleties which inform our work, but we apologize that this will come piecemeal, and that in our effort to inform we may only further confuse. If this is so, please understand that we ourselves have a lot to learn, and we expect it may be many years until we develop the cultural eyes to appreciate situations as an Egyptian would. Until then, we will stumble along together.

Conflict does not take place in a vacuum. There are many social realities which contribute to a single incident that then is exasperated into a sectarian conflict. Among these is the general poverty of the Egyptian countryside. It has been recommended to us that in seeking to address what may properly be understood as improper mindsets and behaviors, it does little good to simply go to the area and hold a workshop on understanding the other. If such a message is to be delivered with any hope of success, it would be well to wrap it into a project that delivers some social benefit to the area, preferably one which addresses the realities which led to the conflict in the first place.

The benefit of a project in an area in which tension has developed between Muslims and Christians is that it can bring together these communities which, now at odds, have separated themselves. It is a general rule, or at least belief, that people will set aside differences when it comes to the mutual benefit of making money, or educating their children, or securing good health services, etc. Moreover, as people interact they discover their commonalities, realizing the demonized other is not so bad after all, and not so different from myself. Within a project, the message takes hold.

Undertaking the project, however, is difficult, for how are we to know what projects are beneficial to a community so distant from our own. Even our Egyptian partners and advisors do not understand their needs, for they are educated city people, far removed from the issues of the countryside. Given this, it has also been recommended to us that we actively seek to involve the non-governmental organizations, agencies, charities, and associations which are currently working in the area. They know the situation, and even if they are not currently involved in the village at hand, they are familiar with its context. To date, we have found one such organization which has a very good reputation in the area among both Muslims and Christians, having served many communities with both skill and tact.

There is only one problem, and though it is inconsequential for them, it may be a issue for us. This organization is Christian in its formation. It has been recommended to us that because of the sensitivities of foreigners working in religiously-related matters that we are seen as absolutely neutral in our orientation. It matters little our intentions, or even our behaviors; what counts is our appearance. This organization has a mixed Muslim-Christian board of trustees, and employs only Muslims as its field workers. The office staff, however, is entirely Christian, and they would admit themselves that though they deliver their services irrespective of religion, their motivation and orientation is Christian, and the organization is designed to stay that way. Though they are not connected to the church, they would be seen as Christian. Our advisors have not recommended we distance ourselves, though, for they are clearly capable and enjoy wide local support among all. They recommend simply that we work in addition with an organization that is Islamic in its orientation. This will provide the balance that is necessary for our own proper appearance as neutral. Otherwise, our ability to work in these areas may be compromised.

We have been negotiating a project with this organization, even taking a trip to the area to speak with them directly. The other day they were in Cairo and visited us to continue the conversation, and after many positive signals we explained to them the above, asking their recommendation for a similarly oriented Muslim group with which we could also partner. Now, it is granted that such a question could be seen as a threat, not religiously, but professionally. Projects require funding, and surely based on our negotiations so far they could be expecting our contributions, however limited. With the addition of another partner, their share, their influence, and their involvement would naturally decrease. Though not expecting their resistance to our question—they know the other area organizations, work in conjunction if not together, and recognize the value of partnership across religious lines—for the above reason the resistance could be explained. What was evidenced, however, went far deeper.

Up until this time, their representatives were jovial, full of mirth, life, and spiritual commitment. Nearly instantaneously, facial expressions changed, cheeks flushed, arms folded, and when extended ended in a finger pointing in exclamation, “I swear by the Messiah that there is not one Islamic organization that also takes care of the Christians!” They were accused of hypocrisy, speaking kindly to your face only to adopt their own priorities upon receipt of the donation. It was unfortunate in addition that both we and they had a subsequent appointment approaching which forced the rapid communication of ideas. Had we more time such sentiments could have been expressed with more nuance and explanation. While our partnership was not threatened—we ended with agreement to continue our planning—we were warned about seeking out a Muslim group.

It should be reiterated, this is a group that works closely with Muslims; it employs them and trusts them as influential advisors. They serve Muslims without any question of religious affiliation. Yet our question touched a nerve that, though our (Caspers’) experience is limited, seems to be indicative of many Christians here. They can and generally do have beneficial relationships with the Muslim majority. When it concerns the question of Islam, or Muslims as Muslims, however, the hardened heart becomes evident. There is a mistrust and a frustration that prevents genuine charity, both in its contemporary understanding and its original usage as ‘love’. While this organization is serving all, including Muslims, in a commendable manner, it appears that it is for the objective of creating a viable civil society that is inclusive of all, Muslims and Christians as fellow citizens. This is a noble objective, though it is true that some Muslims oppose it, believing Christians to properly be protected, second-class citizens in the Islamic order. This organization serves Muslims in the hope, at least in part, that they will demonstrate their own good will and valuation of communal life. They hope to win for themselves a secure place in society. As admirable as these goals are, and the means by which they hope to achieve them, are they motivated by love, by true Christian charity? Sad as it may seem, are they destined only to be a resounding gong?

Perspective is necessary. Though in Cairo there are many Muslims who share the ideals of civil society and citizenship rights for both Muslims and Christians, perhaps these are far fewer in the countryside. They may be correct; there may not be any Islamic organizations which also serve Christians. They may have tried to partner with some and been burned in the process. They themselves are affected by the perceived rising of religious tensions, and the rhetoric of some Muslims is downright offensive to Christian sensibilities. They must be commended for rising above their predispositions to serve as ably as they do. Surely we from the West cannot comprehend the difficulty of their position.

Perhaps also I am way off base; after all, I am judging from one response from only our second conversation. It is at times like this the foreigner must remember he does not belong, and therefore does not understand.

But I cannot budge from the ideal that God calls us to more than an overcoming of our predispositions against the other. He calls us to do good, as they are doing, but he also gives us a new heart. Lacking this new heart in its full expression, a condition from which we all suffer, our friends invoked the name of Christ in vain. Yet my words expressed here are no better, for they come not from a new heart, but from a new set of ideals. Though these ideals may come from Christ, they will be proved true only when issued from a heart of love that has experienced also the suffering they perceive. May God spare us all from any suffering, but may he preserve, renew, and employ us whenever it occurs.

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