When the planes flew into the World Trade Centre in New York on September 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 hijab.
On September 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, neighbourhood 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 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.
We will learn nothing from the Alexandria violence unless it is placed within two larger contexts. The first is a regional one that focuses on the Sunni Muslim majority and how it treats minorities, whether they are from other Muslim sects or other religions. The second is a global context that flips the equation by concentrating on Muslim minorities around the world, particularly the West.
Last week I urged Egyptians to acknowledge the problems between Muslims and Christians and to admit that Christians in Egypt face discrimination. The phenomenal reaction I received in response was proof that we must end our self-denial and urgently address these problems. I thank all the readers who wrote to me.
Minority rights in Egypt are central to the debate on reform and democracy that began when pro-reform activists started demonstrating in 2004. In recognition of this, the opposition movement Kifaya called on Egyptians to join its march this Monday against the dangers of sectarianism. Kifaya was launched by Muslims and Christians who lead protests as Egyptians first and foremost.
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.
A Christian called an Egyptian talk show on sectarian relations recently to say he would rather be killed by Muslim extremists than have America come to save him. Muslim guests on the show jumped to assure him they’d defend him against extremists. But just a few weeks later, when the riots broke out in Alexandria, it was just the police defending St. George’s church.
Minority rights are also central to the debate about Iraq and its new ethnic and sectarian power structures.
Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority – long used to privilege under Saddam Hussein’s’ rule – is now struggling to adjust to its newly reduced status, often with violent results. As Arab Sunni governments call on Iraq’s Shia and Kurdish-dominated government to respect Sunni minority rights, they should consider their own minorities lest their stones shatter their own glass houses.
Looking further, Muslim majority countries must be more sensitive to minority rights not just because it is the morally correct thing to do but also because the 9/11 attacks and others since have thrust Muslim minorities in the West onto an uncomfortable stage of permanent suspicion.
Five years ago when I moved from Egypt to the United States I made a parallel move from being a member of my country’s majority to joining a minority which is under tremendous scrutiny. The attempted attack on my mosque in Seattle ended without harm thank God. But other attacks were successful. Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims have been attacked and some have been killed. Some mosques were set on fire and others vandalized.
But there are legal resources we can turn to. Muslim civil rights groups have won lawsuits against discrimination and unfair work dismissals of Muslims scoring victories that Christians in my country of birth can only dream of achieving.
I live in New York now but there is a happy ending from my Seattle mosque incident that we can all learn from. Issa Qandil, a Jordanian immigrant who was one of the two Muslim men whom Cunningham had tried to shoot, told authorities he forgave Cunningham and wanted to drop the charges.
The Seattle Weekly newspaper said that wasn”t possible but that Qandil’s attitude of forgiveness facilitated a plea bargain that dropped some of the charges. Qandeel even testified at Cunningham”s sentencing hearing, saying that retribution was useless and asked the court to be lenient. Cunningham got six and a half years instead of 75.
According to the newspaper, Cunningham wrote a four-page, handwritten apology to the mosque in which he referred to "the two brave men of your congregation”.