Archive for September, 2009

Stateless Muslims and the Pope

By Arwa Mahmoud
Published in (Sep 26, 2006)

Starting a new day wondering whether it would pass peacefully, I received a phone call from my deputy editor in chief telling me that I was expected to write an op-ed piece on the pope’s speech and the Muslim reaction. I was told that I am the type that writes well when provoked. I searched in me for the faintest sign of provocation and found none. I had learned that with nearly every news I read or hear everyday, there is some killing, some statement, some remark that involves Muslims.

The mere fact that I was not provoked gave me an uneasy feeling about myself. Have I become so numb that I do not even care about my own religion? If I were so numb, what brought me to such a stage? Is it the ongoing insults on Islam coming from all directions? Is it the worldwide violence that nearly always has Muslims involved, either as culprits or victims? Is it the ongoing feeling of insult we get as our governments treat us like subjects or laboratory animals, as if wishing we never existed?

Looking closely, I realized it is everything.

Muslims and the Pope

I realized that there was more to the pope’s remarks than just another provocation against Muslims. This was not an irresponsible editor publishing provocative cartoons or a bellicose president calling for a world war against “Islamic fascists”; the words came from Pope Benedict XVI, the highest Catholic figurehead, a man regarded with high esteem and followed by more than 1 billion Catholics from all over the world. And the pope did not say these words as a passing comment; they came in a thoroughly thought-out and revised lecture, which he gave in the University of Regensburg, in Germany, addressing an academic audience.

In the minds of many Muslims, the late Pope John Paul II and his humanitarian outreach to the Muslim world was a constant reminder of God’s words in the Qur’an:

{And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud.} (Al-Ma’idah 5:82)

When he passed away, their hope in the continuation of the pope’s role as a vanguard of peace and humanitarianism slowly began to diminish as his successor’s views became more apparent. Pope Benedict XVI stood strongly against Turkey’s membership in the European Union, seeing it a threat to Europe’s “Christian identity.” And in March of this year, Richard Owen of the Times reported  that the Vatican was sponsoring a conference on the Crusades which showed that they were fought with the “noble aim” of regaining the holy lands.

And recently, the pope gave a lecture on faith and reason, in which he spoke about the incompatibility of violence with the nature of God and the soul, quoting a medieval dialogue between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian Muslim. The emperor challenged the Persian to show him what the Prophet of Islam brought other than what was “evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The pope confidently stressed that the Emperor knew about the verse {Let there be no compulsion in religion} (Al-Baqara 2: 256) and that, according to “the experts” — whom he failed to identify — the verse came in an early period in which the Prophet was “powerless and under threat.”

The pope used the text to make a certain argument. He did not explicitly support the quotes he used, but neither did he explicitly detach himself from them except in his first public appearance after the lecture, in the Sunday service. He contradicted himself to any person who read the full text of the lecture, yet he continued to point out that he was “misunderstood.”

The pope’s lecture is confusing. How can the Crusades be defended when violence — any violence — is incompatible with the nature of God? Would I be mistaken if I reached the conclusion that, in fact, it was Muslim violence to which the pope referred?

If examples were to be brought, why Islam? Was the pope provoked by what he sees of Muslims slaughtering each other in Iraq? Al-Qaeda feasting on innocent civilians? Why weren’t Israel’s continuous assaults or America’s “war on terror” an equal provocation? By specifically referring to Islam, wasn’t the pope meticulously placing Islam on one side and the Judeo-Christian tradition on the other, like two opposing poles that can never meet?

What exactly did I “misunderstand”?

Blurring the Problem

The pope’s lecture came in a time in which scholars from all three monotheistic faiths had been engaged in long years of interfaith dialogue, promoting for mutual understanding and respect. This is a delicate phase in which politics blends so strongly with religion, making the clear separation between people’s actions and their faiths an uphill task for academics, journalists, writers, and activists, who address an often confused audience. And in this turbulence, religious scholars often become agents for peace, unity, and tolerance. They become the authorities in religious knowledge to which many refer for answers. To Muslims, the pope’s remarks shook this image, but how many devout Catholics felt the same?

After 9/11, remarks hostile to Islam have accelerated, challenging ongoing Muslim efforts to address problems related to the reality of the Muslim world and to provide a clear and comprehensive Islamic discourse.

I recall that, on the first 9/11 anniversary, consultant Dr. Ahmad Abdullah noted in a meeting discussion that 9/11 put Muslims in a dark room where they kept receiving punches from all directions, rendering them helpless and unable to defend themselves or their faith. Like the rest of the world, they too were taken by surprise, but unlike others, they were placed under the spotlight — asked to speak on behalf of their faith, to speak well, and be convincing. They were simply not prepared.

Many Muslims felt that the wrong agenda was being imposed on them, that with 9/11, the problem which they had to address now suddenly became Islam, and there was little or no attention to political and social problems which they had been facing.

Similar to what happened in the Danish cartoons crisis, after the pope’s lecture, the media quickly broadcast images of Muslims burning the crucifix and the German flag, of the body of the Italian nun who was shot dead in Somalia, and of the numerous aggressive banners that were held in a number of demonstrations around the Muslim world. Such reactions further supported the perception of Islam as a violent and intolerant faith, doing more good to the parties that committed the offense than to any Islamic cause. And once again, the question became “Why do Muslims behave the way they do?”
Apart from the well-known sensational selectivity of the media that in many cases ignores more positive forms of Muslim protest, the question is not to be dismissed as merely a problem of biased coverage; there are reasons why some Muslims behave like this. And those reasons have nothing to do with their faith.


People in an overwhelming number of Muslim countries have been subjected to long years of authoritarian rule and dictatorships that created an atmosphere of fear and repression. Security priorities of the state became the safety of the regime, which sought the maintenance of the status quo as the only means for survival.

All civil activities thus had to be closely monitored by the governments, from education to public welfare. Religious education, consequently, had to be subjected and run by the state. A clear and thorough understanding of religious issues, based on independent, fearless Islamic awareness became a rare commodity.

Consequently, trust in governments is nearly absent; many people in the Muslim world feel stateless, willing to take matters into their own hands. This is the core problem that needs to be addressed, and postponing the solution only promises more violence and bloodshed.

Personally — and I think I am not alone in this — I’m skeptical of some Muslim governments’ quick rise in defense of the Prophet and his Message. Once again, governments who continuously subject their own people to arrests; put a ban on legal civil activities and positive engagement; continue to remain in shameful silence as thousands of Palestinians, Iraqis, and Lebanese lose their lives in wars meant to reshape the region, do not hesitate to take “strong” stances against a Danish editor or a pope’s lecture based on erroneous judgment.

Regimes in many Muslim countries feed on such chances to desperately draw a picture of heroism. And the more the violent protests, the more the distraction, the safer the regimes become.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the pope should praise Islam in each talk he gives, but if he speaks with misinformation there should be a response. That response should be clear and rational, and we should move on to more pressing issues.

The picture looks bleak and frustrating, but it is not about pointing fingers at ourselves and always feeling guilty when some of us misact. The misconduct of some Muslims is a sign of an ongoing ailment that isn’t caused by a pope’s remarks, and that ailment does not lie with ignorance or barbarity; it lies with those to whom ignorance and barbarity are an interest that should be protected.

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The Global Ethic: The Key to Interfaith Dialogue (Interview with Dr. Hans Küng)

Interviewed by Arwa Mahmoud
Published in (Dec 11, 2007)

Hans Küng

Hans Küng

Dr. Hans Küng is one of the few religious scholars whose insight on the role of religious understanding in solving international conflicts has inspired people from different cultures to read and learn more about each others’ histories as well as their own. His latest path-breaking study of Islam, titled Islam: Past, Present, and Future (AUC Press, 2007), stimulates a series of discussions on the essence of religion and the variation of its interpretation paradigms through different historical phases.

A Roman Catholic theologian, Dr. Küng was the first to reject the doctrine of papal infallibility since the 19th century, which resulted in stripping him from his license to teach as a Catholic theologian, but he maintained his priesthood and continued to teach ecumenical theology at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

Dr. Küng proposes the doctrine of the Global Ethic, which is composed of universal ethical standards that can be shared by all faiths as a foundation for better dialogue and peace. It was around his understanding of this form of human unity that I interviewed him on December 3rd, 2007 in the American University in Cairo.

In a lecture you gave in the American University in Cairo on the challenges facing Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in today’s global crisis, you proposed maintaining and preserving the substance of faith as a solution to conflicts. What practical steps do you suggest can help in instilling the notion of the “Global Ethic” in the hearts and minds of ordinary people?

In a world which is more and more pluralist, we need a solution for ethical foundation which can be shared by everybody. We have many cities, especially big cities, where there are considerable minorities of other religions. So very often we have in the school classes children of different religions, and in order to resolve this problem, you cannot impose one religion on all the others. On the other hand, it is also no solution to impose no religion at all. So a global ethic means that despite different faiths, we agree on certain elementary ethical standards, and we should do everything we can to have it in the school program. Very often the older generation is not anymore able to change, but I think that there is a great thirst today among the younger generation for some orientation, and they need an ethical orientation which can be supported by the Islamic faith, the Christian faith, the Jewish faith, and also by the humanists.

How do you think ethics can be positively reinforced in global politics? For example, do you not think that the only solution to conflict can be through the limitation of state authority and further assertion of worldwide civil action, especially that we find a number of religious citizens in Europe and in America who are opposed to the actions of their governments in places like Iraq and Palestine, yet at the same time they are not as assertive as they should be.

It is difficult to give a universal answer to this question. The situation is not everywhere the same. We had, for example, France and Germany opposed to the war in Iraq, so it was not necessary to have a civil action. There are other countries where it would already be helpful if their religious authority would oppose governments who are going for war. This can be – and sometimes it must be – but on the other hand sometimes you need state authority to impose a form of progress, which can be done by legislation and taxes.

Do you think that a complete separation between culture and religion might be necessary to establish a global consensus of human understanding? Is it possible to actually separate culture from faith in order to arrive at a common ground?

I will try to give a differentiated answer. There is no faith without a kind of foundation in culture. Faith does not exist in a vacuum. And, of course, faith is different in Europe and different in Egypt, and within Egypt it is different between the Coptic community and the Muslim community. So it is not “bad” that faith is rooted in culture. It is only bad if you have a negative influence of culture on faith; if, for example, you have old Arab customs which were already before the Prophet Muhammad, influencing the role of women or promoting female genital mutilation.

What were the main challenges you encountered in your practical experience in interfaith dialogue and how do you think these challenges can be reconciled?

My essential proposition is that there is no peace among the nations without peace among the religions; no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions; no dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions. This is generally received very well. I participated in the UN General Assembly, with a group of eminent persons, and there was no delegation that was for a clash of civilizations; they spoke all out for dialogue. But the main obstacles are ignorance, lack of information, and laziness.

People are not informed. Sometimes even statesmen are absolutely ignorant in their impressions of religions. And then there is of course laziness. They say it is a fine program but they don’t do anything. For instance, our Global Ethic Foundation is a very small but very effective team, but we often meet the answer that it is great what we do, but if we ask for sponsoring we do not receive clear answers.


After the Pope Controversy: The Future of Interfaith Relations

By Arwa Mahmoud
Unpublished (written in Oct, 2006)

In many countries around the Muslim world, members of the older generations often recall times in which their societies were stronger and more cohesive, with close brotherly ties between people of different faiths. They often tell stories of their Muslim, Christian, or Jewish neighbors, of how they used to feel like one family, and of how they never felt a difference or isolation because of their faiths. Each side accepted the other and respected their religious identity, their religious feasts, and sometimes joined them in celebration.

Over the past 30 years, things have changed dramatically.

Roughly with the rise of militant Islamist movements in the Arab and Muslim world, and with the special focus on the Middle East after 9/11, global politics has become increasingly intermingled with religion. Jihad has become the most sensational term that guarantees a story’s success in the media, and critics of Western domination and hegemony emphasize a Crusader heritage in the foreign policies of Western states. Small and large-scale violence increasingly carry religious messages, and ordinary people from all faiths – those of the new generation – are now facing difficulty maintaining the distinction between religions and the actions of their adherents clear in their minds. Never before a time like this has the world needed a serious, in-depth, and fruitful interfaith dialogue to lead the road to recovery.

Human to Human: The Solution to the Crisis of Interfaith Dialogue

It was in that global setting that Pope Benedict XVI gave his recent controversial lecture at the University of Regensburg, Germany. The pope stressed the inseparability of European heritage from its Greek and Christian roots, which were – in his perspective – the only cultural heritage of Europe with a comfortable marriage between faith and reason. To emphasize his point, he contrasted this heritage with Islam as he spoke about the incompatibility of violence with the nature of God and the soul. He quoted a medieval dialogue between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian Muslim. The emperor challenged the Persian to show him what the Prophet of Islam brought other than what was “evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The pope confidently stressed that the emperor knew about the verse {Let there be no compulsion in religion} (Al-Baqara 2: 256) and that, according to “the experts” — whom he failed to identify — the verse came in an early period in which the Prophet was “powerless and under threat.”

Islam was therefore the violent, irrational faith whose heritage was alien to Europe. This was the conclusion any person reading the text could reach.

In many parts of the world, many young religious youth are increasingly defining themselves in relation to others; some view the fact that they come from a certain faith as being not only different, but also opposed to, members of the other faith.

In an unnerving atmosphere of mutual suspicion, there lies a potential danger of the alienation of religious minorities from their respective communities, altering the social fabric of their societies as a whole.

But it is not the sole responsibility of the religious scholars to protect and enhance interfaith relations on the level of the people. A person’s duty in the society in which they live is towards their fellow countrymen as well as their coreligionists. There are other bonds that also keep people together, especially in times of hardship.

During the Danish cartoons crisis, I received a number of e-mail messages in the website where I work from Danish citizens who were equally angered by the provocation of the cartoons and wished to express their solidarity with all Muslims. And a few years back, activists and professionals from around the world met in Cairo in support of the people of Iraq and Palestine. In times of crisis there is always a human bond that brings people of different backgrounds together – human to human. And the first step towards better interfaith relations can be found in recognizing this bond and acknowledging the universality of virtue.

Looking in the Mirror

For interfaith dialogue to continue along a healthy road there needs to be a real internal reflection on our heritage. Members of the three monotheistic religions must be able to develop an ability to find convincing and comprehensive answers to pressing questions, and to meet serious challenges.

They need to have a clear understanding of their relations with the “other” as set to them by the teachings of their respective faiths. By practicing a thorough and honest process of separating reason from emotion, it becomes easier to think only of what those teachings tell, and to apply them according to the situation at hand. If such practice is successful, interfaith relations on the people’s level would be more about coexistence and less about judgment or dismissal.

In response to the controversy over the pope’s lecture, renowned Muslim intellectual and academic Tariq Ramadan wrote, “Europe must learn to reconcile itself with the diversity of its past in order to master the imperative pluralism of its future.” This statement could not be truer of Europe than it is of the Muslim world today.

The increasing demands and challenges Muslims have been facing since 9/11 make it imperative for them to deliver a thorough, clear, and responsible discourse that delivers the full message of their faith and puts it to real-life practice. With increasing social and religious diversity and with revolutionary communications, their success depends on their ability to read their past and to learn from it.

There are many Muslims who need to revisit the history of Islam and to closely examine the Islamic outlook to non-Muslims as positive and active members of their larger communities, with duties and rights to be protected and with contributions to the cultures and arts of their respective societies. Muslims, like others, need to learn how not to take the whole by the few; how not to consider each member of the faith to be a representative of its extremist fringes.

Many Muslims, Christians, and Jews, especially those living in their homelands, need to acknowledge that the world is not theirs alone, nor was it ever meant to be. They need to realize that the role they have to play is one of positive contribution, and that contribution is about rebuilding and outreaching, not about setting courts.

Perhaps the gravity of the situation is emphasized by the fact that the lecture was given by a person held at high esteem to more than 1 billion Catholics around the world. But it is this challenging situation that forces us all to stop, think, and reflect on ourselves and on our relationship with the “other.” And as negative as this crisis appears to be, it also promises a chance to once again be able to tell new stories of coexistence, tolerance, and solidarity for the generations to come.

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Layers of Ordeals: Beirut’s Palestinian Refugees Host Others in Bourj Al Barajneh

By Arwa Mahmoud

Palestinian refugees embraced others as the violence in Nahr el Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon reached its peek with a rising death toll and a large exodus. On the day I did this feature in May 2007 over 100 refugees had flooded the already crowded Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut. A shorter and edited version of it was published in on May 27, 2007.

“Hajjeh Zeinab*, where are you going now?” asked a young lady in Bourj Al Barajneh, one of the oldest Palestinian refugee

Children in Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp (Beirut)

Children in Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp - Beirut (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

camps in Beirut, “I’m going out again to see if more people have arrived,” explained the old woman as she struggled in her walk to the door, “I must see if they need anything.”

Beirut’s Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian camp is placed on 1 square kilometer space and is home to around 21,000 Palestinians—offspring of villagers expelled in 1948 from their homes in what is now Israel. The camp is now home to over 100 extra Palestinian refugees who continue to flood in from Nahr al-Barid camp in the north of the country after the truce.

“There isn’t much aid coming to us from UNRWA, but there are some non-affiliated NGOs who are offering some help,” said my escort, who met me under a large Hamas poster placed at the entrance of the gate next to a fading poster of Yassir Arafat, “The refugees here live day by day, they have no stable jobs, but everyone is giving what they can give.”

The only clear affiliated efforts to settle the refugees in Bourj al-Barajneh came from the social sector of Hamas. With the arrival of the first wave of refugees from Nahr   al-Barid, a committee was created to survey the available space and aid needed. Sometimes they were lucky to find empty homes in which they managed to place some families, but most of the time they had to seek permission from existing families to host more people.

“This made matters much worse,” said a young Hamas social worker, “Most of the homes here are very small; two rooms maximum, and they are often inhabited by families of six or more members. So how can we give them even more people? Even when they welcomed them, which they always do, there is hardly space to place a mattress for a person to sleep on. So they spend most of the time out of the house because of the crowded atmosphere.”

With this bleak introduction, I began my journey through narrow, damp walkways, hanging electricity wires, and into the already crowded refugee homes that now hosted more people inside. It was impossible to picture how such homes held double their capacity.

Despite the difficult conditions in which these homes were built and the current troubling situation they are in, inside they were clean and tidy.

The refugees coming from Nahr al-Barid were timid and all of them refused to be identified or to have their pictures taken. They gave conflicting observations that made it difficult to draw a complete picture in the beginning.

In the first home three teenagers spoke as their mother served juice.

“We fled the camp at 11 PM, after the truce was announced. The Lebanese army shot at civilian homes, with no evidence of the militants being there,” said Mohammad, a green-eyed 16-year-old who showed noticeable confidence as he recalled his ordeal. “We had no militants shooting from our homes and yet our house was hit. No person would allow the militants into the rooftops of their homes to shoot at the army,” he added. “It was very difficult for us to flee because of the shooting, and it wasn’t easy to make calls, there was hardly electricity for us to charge any mobile phone. With each bombing there would be shrapnel everywhere, and then the camp would be filled with a bad unusual smell.”

“I had the blood of a teenager splintered at me in an instant,” said another, “There was random shooting. Random, merciless shooting coming from all directions.”

A man in his late forties appeared terrorized, angry, and frustrated. “We were refugees in the north and now we are refugees in Beirut hosted by refugees,” he said with a nervous smile, “We are rejected, unwanted by anyone. Why doesn’t everyone kill us [Palestinians] all and be finished?”

Many of the Nahr al-Barid refugees specifically chose Bourj al-Barajneh for its distance. As I walked further through the alleys, my escort explained the reason behind the influx. “Some of us fled to Bedawi camp, some to Eih el-Helweh, but it’s unwise. Violence can spread to these camps any minute.”

We walked on to Abu Kamal’s house. A home with 3 rooms for a family of 6 people that now received 8 refugees. At the door we took our shoes off in respect to the custom of most of the families there, and walked on a clean floor and sat. The door of one of the rooms was open, showing a line of mattresses placed on the floor. There were men and women in the house, women dressed in hijab now all the time, since they hardly have any privacy.

“The camp was filled with young youth who had no sense of life direction. They knew nothing about their religion and many of them sometimes committed blasphemy. With the coming of Fateh Al Islam, many of its members used to guide this youth and teach them more about Islam,” said an old man who refused to be identified.

“It would be unfair to say that they [Fateh Al Islam] were completely bad,” said one of the women, “they used to stand by the poor and help the needy.”

Through further conversation, it became apparent that none of the Fateh Al Islam militants were Lebanese. They came from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and many other Arab countries.

Fatah al-Islam is a Sunni salafi group that emerged among others in the north of Lebanon, basing themselves in Palestinian refugee camps such as Nahr Al Barid and Ein Al Helweh. Recently, they have especially drawn the attention of observers as being a balancing counterforce funded and supported by the Future Movement under the auspices of the current Lebanese government to meet the rising challenge of Shiite Hizbullah. After the summer war in Lebanon in 2006, there numbers have increased.

In what became a prolonged discussion in Abu Kamal’s house, Abu Kamal referred to American journalist Seymour Hersh’s recent article “The Redirection,” published in The New Yorker on March 5, 2007, where he pointed to evidence of US and certain Arab states supporting Saad Al Hariri’s Future Movement in funding such movements, more specifically after the summer war in Lebanon.

“Hersch is right,” said Abu Kamal, “the militants had a lot of money with them. They used to give whoever was in need. They would pay for widows and help the poor. But dollars would pop out of their pocket any time. Where did they get that money from?”

In a special interview for that is soon to be published, retired General Amin Hoteit of the Lebanese Army stated: “these movements have entered the camps under the blessings and support for the Lebanese authority. There is no other way they could enter.” He added that one of the people whose name came in the investigations of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri was involved with these movements, but he was never arrested.

In retrospect, the residents of Abu Kamal’s house reflected on their helplessness during the fighting in the camp. They could not stop the Fateh Al Islam militants from shooting, and some were impossible to approach during heightening tension, because they would simply blow themselves up, killing others in the process.

“We used to spot people carrying rifles and randomly shooting, but they were clearly neither from the Lebanese Army nor from Fateh Al Islam. They wore civilian clothes, and many times they were the ones who would start the shooting, provoking the Lebanese Army to hit back at the camp,” he added.

A tingling thought remained in the air about the direct involvement of the Future Movement as I gathered accounts from refugees and reflected on observations of analysts.

Lebanon continues under layers of ordeals, forever a ground for forces vying for power and civilians victimized in the middle. But hope never fades even with those “double refugees” now in Beirut’s refugee camps. Greeting welcoming smiles, servings of tea and juice, and kind old people like Hajjeh Zeinab tell that it will one day be over.

*All names in the feature have been changed for privacy.

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Inside the Home of Islam Badr (1997-2008)

By Arwa Mahmoud
Published in Daily News Egypt (Oct 31, 2008)

An 11 year-old boy was killed when kicked in the chest by his mathematics teacher for failing to present his homework. When I decided to do a feature on the story and investigate the boy’s background I found myself exposed to another side of Egypt’s beautiful Alexandria; a parallel culture with social problems more representative of the harsh realities many Egyptians suffer from today.  It was published in Daily News Egypt in October 2008.

Islam Badr (1997-2008)

Islam Badr (1997-2008)

A 30-minute drive further into Alexandria’s eastern outskirts and the classical 1920s architecture so typical of the old city begin to give way to more recent, plain groups of untiled buildings clustered along the sides. The fresh sea breeze becomes a stench of dung and dust as the streets begin to narrow, forming a large maze of unpaved alleyways known to its inhabitants as El-Ras El-Soda.

Hardly known to the average Egyptian when thinking of Alexandria, El-Ras El-Soda was home to 11-year-old Islam Badr, who recently died when kicked by his mathematics teacher in his chest for failing to present his homework.

Pacing up the stairs in one of the few tiled buildings in the area, Islam’s eight-year-old brother Sirag led the way to their small apartment. Inside, he ran to a small room with two beds. “This is our bed; Islam, Abdel Rahman and me,” he said pointing to medium-sized bed at the corner of the room. “Our sister sleeps on the other bed.”

Since the death of their son, Islam’s parents have refused to go back to their home and preferred to stay at a relative’s place, leaving Islam’s deserted clothes, shoes and books as he last left them in the room.

Islam’s books lay on his bed. In large red font he’d written his full name on the first page of his brand new drawing notebook. “He had neat handwriting,” said Sirag with a faint smile as he held one of his brother’s homework notebooks.

The relatives’ place was not difficult to spot after a short walk in the bumpy alley. A crowd of people dressed in black stood at the entrance to the building and filled the stairs all the way to the apartment where Islam’s parents were staying. Islam’s mother sat silently at the far corner of a room, pushing back her deceased son’s picture with a quivering hand as someone tried to hand it to her.

“I used to be very wary lest my son gets hurt or sick. I sent him to his own death on that day,” she said, her voice breaking into a sob.

“Unlike his brother, my son hardly complained to me about anything that happened to him at school. He was always quiet and kept to himself,” said Amr, Islam’s father.

“Islam was a decent, quiet boy who hardly gave anyone a hard time,” said Sheikh Ahmad, a bearded man in his early 20s who used to give Quran lessons to Islam at the local mosque. “I can’t imagine how he could have provoked any teacher, let alone elicit such a violent reaction.”

“But I could sense sometimes that he was troubled,” recalled his mother, “he asked me once for money to buy some school supplies. He said that his mathematics teacher threatened to fail him in his exam if he did not bring them.”

After Islam’s violent death in the classroom, most of his classmates stopped going to school, traumatized by what they saw. Two of them recalled what happened to Islam in detail.

“Some of the students had not done their homework, so Mr. Haitham [the mathematics teacher] began to hit the palms of their hands with the stick. Islam pulled his hands to rub them and fell to the ground, so Mr. Haitham kicked the side of his chest,” explained Abdel Rahman.

“He fell on the ground, lay under the desk and began to urinate,” described Ahmad, “So Mr. Haitham beat him again with the stick.”

The room Islam shared with his brothers and sister (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

The room Islam shared with his brothers and sister (Photo by Arwa Mahmoud)

Both children confirmed that the teacher lifted Islam’s head and they could see the boy’s eyes were half open, his face gone blue, and he appeared unconscious.

A group of teachers carried Islam and took him away to a nearby clinic.

Abdel Rahman continued, “After the teachers took Islam another teacher came to the class and said, ‘Islam is alright, so don’t say anything to the police. If you do, your parents might be taken to the police station and they will be asked a lot of questions and get into trouble.’ We did not want to lie, so the teacher said, ‘don’t lie, but don’t talk too much.’”

At the clinic, Dr Ahmad Sadiq was the first physician to examine Islam. He suggested to the teachers to take the child to a hospital, declaring that the child was “dead.” The primary hospital report, of which Daily News Egypt obtained a copy, stated that Islam was not breathing when he arrived to the hospital and no pulse was detected. Heart resuscitation was administered successfully and he was placed on life support. No signs of physical abuse were mentioned in the report.

“When I went to see my son at the hospital I found bruises all over his back and chest, and Dr Sadiq told me that my son was dead when he arrived at the clinic,” complained Amr, “There is no way my son died of heart failure like the hospital staff tried to convince me. He played soccer twice a week. There was nothing wrong with his heart.”

Dr Sadiq refused to comment to Daily News Egypt on Islam’s condition when he arrived at the clinic, or compare it to the hospital report, declaring that what he had to say is now with the father.

Corporal punishment in primary schools has been a tradition in Egypt for decades. The commonly held stereotype of the Egyptian teacher is one of a middle aged man carrying a book and a multi-purpose stick in his hand used for “disciplining” the class. With a rising problem of overcrowding specifically in government run schools, corporal punishment has taken more severe forms, several times causing serious physical injury.

However, despite the rage the death of Islam has caused among the El-Ras El-Soda community, few seemed to have objections to what they considered “mild beatings” at school for the purpose of disciplining the child. Many showed quick willingness to accept apologies if their children did not suffer permanent injury.

“My daughter almost lost her eye once,” said a parent who refused to be identified, “The teacher was trying to hit her palm with a ruler but it accidentally hurt the eye. The teacher apologized to us. And when we checked with the doctor that our daughter’s eye was fine we did not file any complaints against the teacher.”

Roqaya Hamid Zaki, 12, was hit in the head with a ruler by the school teacher. With guilty uneasiness she eyed her father as he spoke on her behalf.

Beatings of the children inside El-Ras El-Soda schools were recalled by both children and parents as a de facto form of educating. “Mr. Haitham would lift up the stick very high,” demonstrated Abdel Rahman, rolling his arm backwards, “and land it strongly on the palms of our hands. Sometimes it fell on our fingers, making them swell,” he explained.

Abdel Rahman described the “stick” with which the teachers beat him and his schoolmates. It was not always a ruler. “It is a long wooden object that is very thick.” He demonstrated with his little hand what appeared to be a five-centimeter diameter.

In response to a series of human and child rights organizations the Egyptian government has issued a comprehensive law banning all forms of child abuse, ratified by the parliament in June 2008. Executing the law, however, is a serious challenge especially in remote areas such as El-Ras El-Soda, which suffers from compounded problems.

The area seems to the casual visitor like a cultural ghetto impenetrable by the law. Alleged drug trafficking is an open practice around the school premises, and extortion of public land is reported to be a common practice unstoppable by the state. In such a chaotic atmosphere, both teachers and parents feel victimized.

“High ranking officials from the ministry would never bother to visit one of our schools. They only go to the private schools in the city,” snapped Amr.

“It is really unfair that the whole problem is being laid on the teacher like this,” complained Aya, a student affairs specialist in a neighboring school. “The class is loaded with 60-80 students. How would anyone expect a single teacher to keep their sanity in such mess?”

She is collecting money with a number of Haitham’s colleagues to find him a lawyer.

“I get paid LE 104 [$18] a month, and I don’t even receive it on a monthly basis. I end up searching for an afternoon job,” she said.

Aya was hoping she would be appointed by the ministry office through what is called a “special” contract that offers extra benefits, earning her LE 317 ($57) a month. However, this turned out to be a system applied only in few of the ministry offices, and with no consideration for experience.

“We have no chances for a decent life,” hollered Islam’s aunt, “it is as if we bring children to their own death. And so Islam is gone, he was too good for this world.”

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