Egyptian Muslims began their Eid al-Fitr celebrations to mark the end of Ramadan Friday without the angry and sometimes violent protests that broke out in other Muslim countries over a Florida pastor’s plan to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11.
The planned Quran-burning was front-page news on Thursday and Friday, and drew wide condemnation in Egypt. But many Egyptians say that while they were offended by the proposed action, they did not feel the need to take to the streets to protest one man with an extreme view and a small following on the other side of the world.
“He’s a crazy person,” said a man who gave his name as Kamal after Friday prayers at a Cairo mosque, adding that Mr. Jones’s plans were wrong and hateful but did not represent the views of most Americans or Christians.
“He’s just trying to cause problems between Christians and Muslims,” added Ahmed Youssef. “As Egyptian people, we like Americans. We know they are not all like him.”
Indeed, the worldwide media frenzy that has developed around Jones has challenged Muslims to show the same kind of discernment they asked from the West after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: that extremists do not represent the majority, says Fahmy Howeidy, a columnist in Al Shorouk newspaper who focuses on Islamic affairs.
“Previously some Western leaders kept asking ‘Why do Muslims hate us?’ Now Muslims are asking the same question, ‘Why do they hate us?’" he says. "I know that most [Americans] are against what will happen in Florida.… We need to convince [Muslims] of that as we needed previously to convince Americans.”
Egyptian newspapers were quick to point out, however, that the Coptic pope and the leaders of other Christian communities in Egypt had condemned the burning.
'I think Americans are smart and don't agree with this'
Mohamed Habib, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition group, said in an interview that he condemned Jones’s plans to burn the Quran as an attack on peaceful and rational societies, but that it was important for Muslim leaders to calm the anger.
“I think the American people are smart and intelligent, and of course they don’t agree with this. It is important for us, as leaders, to tell the people this,” he says. “It is also our duty to raise our voices to say what the Quran is, what are its values, what are the issues it focuses on, and what are the goals it promotes.”
Earlier this week, the Muslim Brotherhood called for Arab nations to expel US ambassadors over the Quran burning, which they said would cause Muslim hostility toward the US.
Many Egyptians directed their anger toward the US government for not stopping the planned burning. In a nation where the government rules under an emergency law that severely restricts civil rights and regularly breaks up protests, few said the burning of a religious book should be protected as free speech.
A top cleric from Al Azhar, a venerated seat of Sunni Muslim learning, this week called on the US government to stop the proposed burning, and said Jones’s plans amounted to “religious terrorism” that could ruin American’s ties with Muslim nations.
President Hosni Mubarak also condemned the plan, saying Thursday the act could increase terrorism and religious extremism.
Tougher task in Afghanistan, Indonesia
Mr. Howeidy, who decided to ignore the issue in his own column so as not to contribute to what he calls media exaggeration of the issue, said that most Egyptians are able to differentiate between the views of an extremist and the majority of American Christians.
“You don't need more reasons to convince the people in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Indonesia that the Americans are not against Muslims and Islam. It's very difficult,” he says. He blamed the media for making the situation worse.
“They did not tell us that there are limited people, in one state in the US, and the government and the leaders everywhere and even the churches and the pope are against this, “ he says. “The intellectuals can understand this, but how can we convince the millions that this is not the Western attitude, that they don’t accept this?”