Responses to the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya. (Image credit: Mohammed Al-Theeb, via The Atlantic)
British Council colleagues offer personal insights from Egypt and Libya on the violent protests across the Muslim world.
Protests erupted recently across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia against an anti-Islam film thought to have been made by an Egyptian Coptic Christian in the United States.
Tragically many of the protests have ended in violence. In Pakistan more than 20 people died in clashes with police the week before last; 200 are said to have been injured in protests outside the US embassy in Egypt, while an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi resulted in the deaths of 4 people, including the American ambassador to Libya.
Here, two colleagues based in Egypt and Libya share their experience of this turbulent time.
A Tale of Two Cities – Abeer Hassan, Social Media and Digital Marketing Manager, Egypt
The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens perfectly reflect a day in my life very recently:
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…’
On 11 September, when angry demonstrators climbed the US embassy walls in Egypt, I was in London having a unique experience as a Muslim in The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin. In one day I lived a tale of two cities: Cairo and London.
While having my morning coffee near my hotel in London’s Primrose Hill, I saw a lovely church. So I took a photo and shared it on Facebook. Instantly I got a ‘like’ from one of my Egyptian, Christian colleagues so I called her to have a quick chat and she suggested that I light a candle in the church. I liked the idea but I didn’t know how you went about lighting a candle in a church! So I asked the waiter who suggested that I go and meet ‘Marjorie’. I went to the church and asked for her and she welcomed me and helped me light the candle. I felt I needed to tell her that I was a Muslim – so I did. She smiled and offered to listen to my concerns. She then stood and prayed with me. I left Marjorie Brown, who turned out to be the vicar of St Mary’s, feeling calm and at peace.
Then I started getting tweets on my phone with the news.
In Egypt, protesters carried signs condemning the alleged insults to the Prophet Muhammad, while others vowed vengeance. Some demanded the US embassy’s closure. The protest turned violent when some demonstrators began setting off fireworks, the sound of which resembled gunfire. Others at the scene chanted ‘Peaceful, Peaceful,’ urging their fellow protesters to refrain from acts of violence. Later on there was the sad news from Libya…
I said to myself that it was ignorance that leads to these misunderstandings, which always seem to end in violence. As a Muslim who was still feeling blessed by a vicar’s prayers, I didn’t feel that anger. I spoke to other Muslim friends and we all agreed that there is no good reason for violence. One friend even said that if the Prophet Muhammad was alive and faced with such a film, he would have extended his hand in peace and had an exchange of opinions.
I wished I was back in Cairo and could go and remind the demonstrators of His Mighty verse in the Koran:
Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in a way that is best. Surely, thy Lord knows best who has strayed from His way; and He knows those who are rightly guided.
Wisdom, exhortation, exchange – all are the foundations of the bridge that needs to be extended between nations, faiths and people. Isn’t this what we do here in the British Council? We extend a bridge of cultural understanding between people worldwide, thereby helping to secure our collective prosperity and security.
I know that, with Muslims who have the Koran at heart, with vicars like Marjorie Brown and with enough bridges, soon there won’t be violence. As we say in Arabic ‘Kolena Ensan’ – we are all human!
Fighting hatred with speech – Rukaya Elturki, English and Exams Marketing and Communications Manager, Libya
As we sat in our training session early morning, the first calls came through to our security team. Heads turning and mournful faces were exchanged telling us of the news of the US Ambassador in Benghazi; we were frozen, digesting the reality of the situation.
To be honest, the remainder of that training session was a bit of a blur as the thoughts of what was happening in my surroundings clouded my concentration. The first eruption of anger I saw was online. Thousands of activists were changing their online profile photos and status to ‘I am Libyan, I am Muslim, I am against terrorism’, and as midday drew nearer the frustration had escalated into a fiery pit burning in the middle of our hearts. Ambassador Chris Stevens was a friend. This was not a representation of what Libya is about. An instant feeling of betrayal, of theft exasperated us. It was not okay for our revolution to be stolen from us in a heartbeat. It was not.
From the very early days of the Revolution, Chris had loved Libya and won the hearts and trust of the locals, and he continued to gain their affection wherever he went, from the mountain peeks to the desert dunes.
Over the past few weeks, I have had countless conversations with young activists of the Revolution. We felt like our image had been tainted. But it was clear to us all, unanimously, that the only thing that fights against hatred and violence is not suppression, but more speech.
While tens of thousands took to the streets in the city of Benghazi in peaceful protests to reclaim their identity from the extremists, activists in Tripoli were congregating as a united voice, working towards the same goal. We had to emphasise the need for social security and that violence is not the answer.
In whatever society, there will always be extremists who advocate hate and violence. Whether we are seen to retaliate against those extremists in anger or belligerence, how we protest is our decision. The minority should not, and must not be allowed to define our relations and values as a nation.