The souls of our shoes: A reflection on Egypt

On Thursday night, as Mubarak defiantly refused to step down from the presidency, the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square held their shoes high above their heads, making

Egyptians holding up their shoes in Tahrir Square on Thursday night.

visible their soles and directing them symbolically toward Mubarak.  In the Arab world, this action—showing someone the sole of your shoe— is a sign of upmost disrespect.  Raising these shoes seemed to be a final act of frustration in a thirty-year, and a three-week, struggle against the Mubarak regime.  And as we saw yesterday, Mubarak has left (Alhamdulilah!/Thank God!).

What is amazing about this revolution is that it wasn’t only the Egyptians holding up their shoes—the world was doing it with them. By Tweeting messages of solidarity, watching live Al-Jazeera coverage in Arabic class, and posting relevant articles on our Facebook pages, we were virtually shaking our shoes and shouting “Huria” (Freedom) along with the democracy protestors across Egypt.  If the Iranian protests of 2009 showed us the potential of social media in fighting oppression, Egypt showed us social media’s power in action.

Youtube clip: American girls protesting in solidarity

My favorite example of Internet solidarity was a YouTube video posted by an American family.  After watching the protests on TV, the man’s four daughters didn’t want to go sleep; they were too excited and wanted to participate in whatever way they could.  So these four little blonde girls marched around their living room with signs of support and shouting Arabic phrases, and their dad taped it. I almost cried while watching it.  I commend these parents so much for educating their young children about current events and the importance of standing in solidarity with others.  As a parent, I hope I can encourage this kind of curiosity and compassion in my kids.

While the Egyptian people did receive support from many Americans and others around the world, their movement lacked support from most democratic governments, most notably the US, who claims to be a beacon of democracy.  Our government has advocated democracy in word and in deed in other countries, yet regarding Egypt, the US government’s support of the democracy movement was weak.  The Obama Administration was unwilling to criticize Mubarak’s regime (an old ally), and the administration’s call for non-violence rightly fell on deaf ears when discarded tear gas canisters were found bearing the words “Made in the USA.”

Despite the fact that these demonstrations lacked institutional support and rejected violence except in cases of self-defense, the Egyptian people were able to successfully oust their president, the symbol of their oppressive regime.  This fact is utterly mind-blowing and gives me and so many others a renewed belief in the power of grassroots organizing and non-violent responses to oppression.

This event should also prove something to America and the West: that democracy can grow organically from within Arab countries; rather than being imposed on the West’s terms, internal efforts for democracy should be supported.  The US must realize and be willing to accept that the new Egyptian government is likely to be anti-American in some form.  If I were one of the Egyptians, who have experienced how American tear gas and tax dollars have been used to bolster the Mubarak regime for 30 years, I too would want my new government to have little to do with the US.

Many others and I have also been struck by the lack of formal ideology that has fueled this democracy movement.  The Muslim Brotherhood did not participate in the protests initially, and though they joined later on, they were not motivating the demonstrations.  The protesters were driven to stand in Tahrir for three weeks straight—some of them even living there—because of purely practical political, economic, and civil grievances.  Even if the democracy movement becomes more ideologically driven and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the West doesn’t need to worry as much as I expect it will.  The Brotherhood is portrayed in Western media as being more radical than they are, according to a Georgetown professor who talked a few weeks back on the Daily Show.

For me, the most powerful images of the past three weeks were these:

Qur'an and Cross held high in Tahrir Square
Christian+Muslim=Egypt
Christian and Muslim women in Tahrir. (Photo credit: Joel Carillet)

On Friday, February 4th, while Muslims prayed in Tahrir Square, the Christians made a human barrier around the worshipers, who then reciprocated for the Christians as they prayed on Sunday the 6th (which was dubbed “Day of the Martyrs”).  Throughout the demonstrations, Muslims and Christians have been standing aside one another, defending one another, in order to help achieve their common goal of a free and unified country.

We in America and the West must look to and learn from this example of solidarity. Despite the tense and dangerous situation in which they find themselves, the Egyptian people, both Christians and Muslims, are able to put aside their differences and become unified.  If they, while defending their lives in a violent and hostile environment, can come together in decency, respect, and friendship, why can’t we?

In this era of mistrust and hostility between Muslims and Christians in the West, I urge all of us to lower our shoes, which we’ve held up for so long in disrespect.  Instead, we must put our shoes back on and stand side by side, so our true souls can be seen.

 

Note: I’ve also wanted to write about the journalists who have bravely covered the protests, but that will probably come at another time.  In the meantime, I thank them for the sacrifices they made and the risks they took.  Many have been violently targeted because of their noble and important work.

Also, the events in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world may have massive implications for many college students’ study abroad plans–including my own.  Hopefully I’ll post on that topic as well.

Modern day prophets

The theme of this year’s Ignatian Family Teach-In is “Prophetic lives: Caminando juntos (Walking together).”

Romero's assassination

This idea is taken from the words of Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered while saying Mass in 1980.  During the brutal civil war, he advocated for the protection of the poor in his country, but was left unaided by the Church and foreign governments.

“Cada uno de ustedes tiene que ser un profeta./ Each one of you has to be a prophet.” –Oscar Romero

Again, the delegation of Georgetown students was asked to contemplate this quote and the conference theme in anticipation for the IFTJ.  Is God calling us to be prophets?  And what does that role entail?

I look to Isaiah, Jesus, and Muhammad for guidance in answering these questions.*

All three men were misunderstood in their own era, their words ignored or marked as radical or blasphemous.  Isaiah urged the Israelites to turn back to God, but they continued in their sinful ways.

Isaiah as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

They were outsiders whose positions on issues of God and faith were ahead of their time.  Muhammad called for greater increased women’s rights in a world dominated by men, and in polytheistic Arabia he pushed the notion of a single God.

Muhammad, written in Arabic calligraphy. In Islam, religious figures are not depicted in art.

They challenged the status quo, made a community among the ostracized of society, and criticized unjust social structures and practices—always at their own peril and sacrifice.  Jesus broke social norms and dined with sinners, ultimately losing his life.

Jesus and Veronica

Though their messages were shunned during their own time, looking back, we realize that God was speaking through them, that their messages—which God wanted us desperately to hear—were taking root.  Today, billions of people of many faiths revere these men, seeing them as perfect or near perfect examples of a servant of God.  Isaiah, Jesus, and Muhammad may have had a difficult time seeing the fruits of the religious and social progress they initiated, but their work was crucial to beginning the process of change.

So can we too be prophets?

Admittedly, we are not as holy as Christ or the founder of Islam, but despite this we are called to fill a similar role.  When we see injustice in our communities, we must be the mouthpiece for God, challenging the social, religious, or political status quo.  We may be misunderstood, ignored, or even persecuted by those in our society who are afraid of change, but we know that we have the support of God, who is working through us.

Being a messenger of God requires a lot of humility, and a willingness to learn and question.  We cannot assume that we as humans can find the solutions to problems on our own.  Rather, we must listen to God and discern his message, using our talents to share that message with the community that needs to hear it.  We are only the vessel through which God works; in order to be filled, we must empty ourselves. (I take this idea from the prayer, “A Hallowed Space to Be Filled” by William Breault, S.J.)

I see my work as a writer, journalist, and advocate as prophetic work. I believe God has charged me to promote a message of understanding between religious groups, particularly Muslims and Christians, during a time when demonization of “others” is deemed acceptable and goes unchallenged by many.  I realize that my positions regarding religion are considered radical by many in my community, and that many are unwilling to listen.  Yet I know that my work is important and necessary. “God has created me to do Him some divine service.  I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next,” as Cardinal Newman says in his famous meditation.  I am confident that though I cannot see fully the effects of my labor—and never will—God has called me on this path of prophethood.

During times when I’ve doubted what impact I can make, Oscar Romero’s famous prayer has encouraged me to continue, and reminded me of the divine significance of my small contributions.

The Prayer of Oscar Romero

 

 

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.  The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

 

Questions for reflection: Do you see yourself as a prophet?  What message has God given you to convey?

Additionally, you may be interested in a recent article by Jesuit James Martin about how we can follow the example of the saints.

*My Biblical history is lacking so if I made any mistake in recounting the lives of the three prophets please let me know.