Opinion: I tell fellow Egyptians and fellow Americans it’s about us, not about them

by Mona Eltahawy

When my fellow Americans ask me that tired question, “Why do they hate us?”, my initial response is usually: “It’s not about you.” When a fellow Egyptian wants to talk about hating the US, I flip that response on its head and tell her: “It’s not about America – it’s about you.”

After this week’s Middle East protests we must move beyond the deceptive simplicity of the question: ‘Why do they hate us?’

When my father came home from Friday prayers, I was eager to know what the sermon had been about. We’d all been following three days of protests outside the US embassy in Cairo, ostensibly over a film deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad that was posted on YouTube. More protests were expected in several countries after Friday prayers.

“The regular imam wasn’t there, so the muezzin stepped in and told us the best way to honour the prophet was to live by his teachings,” my dad said. I carry that breathtaking simplicity in my emotional suitcase with me when I travel back and forth between the US, where I’ve lived for the past 12 years, and Egypt, the country of my birth, to which I’m returning to fight for the social and cultural revolution we desperately need in order for our political revolution to succeed.

When my fellow Americans ask me that tired question, “Why do they hate us?”, my initial response is usually: “It’s not about you.” When a fellow Egyptian wants to talk about hating the US, I flip that response on its head and tell her: “It’s not about America – it’s about you.” The truth is somewhere in the middle, but too many people are willing to use it as a football in an endless match of political manipulation.

For a slightly subtler response, I tell my fellow Americans that “they” don’t hate them for their freedom but, rather, because successive US governments all too willingly and knowingly supported dictators who denied their populations any kind of freedom. As a US citizen, I cherish the first amendment. It’s what I whipped out as I stood alongside Muslims and non-Muslims in Lower Manhattan in 2010 to defend the right of an Islamic community centre to open close to Ground Zero. We told those who opposed the centre that that first amendment was what gave them the right to protest and at the same time guaranteed freedom to worship right there on that spot.

How could a country that cherishes such freedom be so willing to support dictators all too eager to deny that same freedom to their people? Even President Barack Obama, who spoke so eloquently about dignity and freedom in his 2009 Cairo speech, disappointingly dragged his feet when it was time to decide between Mubarak and the people rising up for that very same freedom and dignity.

Anti-US sentiment has been born out of many grievances – support and weapons for such dictators as Mubarak, unquestionable support for Israel in its occupation of Palestine, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen that kill more civilians than intended targets.

And, paradoxically – or perhaps fittingly – that anti-US sentiment was played on dictators such as Mubarak, who was happy to pocket US aid in return for maintaining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and buying US weapons, and yet used the state-controlled media to fan hatred of the US. Mubarak was adept, as were many other US-backed dictators, at playing the sane middle to the “lunatics with beards” he so often used as bogeymen to guarantee the support of foreign allies.

Mubarak is gone, and Egypt’s president is from the Muslim Brotherhood movement – long vilified as the “lunatics with beards”. It is at this point that I tell fellow Egyptians it’s about them, and not about America.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

That YouTube film – not made or distributed by the US government – was posted at least two months before ultra-conservative Salafists called for protests at the US embassy. Why? Understanding that the president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, must now occupy that same middle ground as Mubarak did, the Salafists are all too happy to flex rightwing political muscle. Why else did they call their protest in Cairo on the anniversary of the attacks on 11 September 2001?

Morsi, not wanting to concede the moral high ground, remained silent for too long, stuck between his memory of being the opposition and an awareness that he’s now the president. That’s what I mean when I tell fellow Egyptians that it’s about us, not America.

Mubarak could and did ban films. That’s why many genuinely offended Muslims in Egypt and other countries so quickly ask why the American government can’t do the same. Of course, he also gave the green light to messages of antisemitism and hatred against Egypt’s Christians.

As an Egyptian-American, I want both sides of that hyphen to enjoy the forms of freedom guaranteed by the first amendment, as I want both sides of that hyphen to move beyond the deceptive simplicity of the question, “Why do they hate us?”

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