by Joseph Puder
Hussein Aboubakr: a portrait of moral courage.
Hussein Aboubakr has done what few of us dare to do. He left a warm loving family, a homeland, and culture, in favor of fulfilling his deepest moral convictions, and in search of the truth. A native of Cairo (Egypt) and born to a traditional Sunni-Muslim family, with all of its hatred of Jews, Christians, and the West, and a particular hateful contempt for the Jewish State, Hussein strove to learn about his Israeli “enemy” by studying Hebrew. In the process of reading Israeli and Western literature, he discovered the truth about the Holocaust, Judaism, and Israel, and began to understand the “brainwashing” Arab Muslims undergo throughout the Middle East, as well as in Egypt. He was accused of being an Israeli spy by the Egyptian Security Services for daring to enter the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo and studying Hebrew. Imprisoned and tortured, and ultimately released, he was aided by Coptic-Christian friends, who helped him leave Egypt and get to the U.S. Hussein is currently employed by StandWithUs and is working on his upcoming book to be titled “A Minority of One.”
Joseph Puder (JP): Please tell our readers about your family, your upbringing, and how Egyptians perceive Israel, Jews, and the West?
Hussein Aboubakr (HA): I was born in 1989 to a traditional Arab Muslim Egyptian family. My upbringing was ordinary in every sense. I attended all the institutions most Egyptians attend; school, mosque, and youth clubs. As a child, the way I understood Jews was that they are incredible supervillains. Intense anti-Jewish hatred exists in every corner of the public space and almost every aspect of the culture. We prayed against Jews in mosques, we learned about their evil in schools, and we watched their conspiracies on TV. A lot of Arabic movies and TV shows show Jews as villains. As a child, I believed it all, and as fish is oblivious to the existence of water, so everyone in Egypt is oblivious to the presence of antisemitism which permeated everything. Hatred for Israel is also very intense as Israel is viewed as the embodiment of this Jewish villainy. Attitudes towards the West are very paradoxical. Egyptians and Arabs love Western and American products. I remember as a child, my siblings and I used to beg my parents to take us to American fast-food chains. Yet, with this affinity comes great disdain. In the religiously conservative circles, which are the majority, the West is primarily infidel and anti-Muslim. In the less religious circles, the West is seen as colonial and anti-Arab. All acts of the West, whether it was the war of terror or aiding authoritarian regimes are seen as undue aggression and hostility toward the Arabs and the Muslim world. This causes a lot of sympathy for many acts of violence against the west, such as 9/11. I remember how my parents, teachers, and imams, who were not terrorists or bad people, rejoiced at the time of 9/11 because of that very perception. This dichotomy of love and hate makes for an inferiority and superiority complex at the same time.
JP: How is the Egyptian media covering Israel and Jews, and how influential is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egyptian Life?
HA: It largely depends on the media. State-owned media usually can't bash Jews and Israel directly, yet they do run movies and TV shows which feature Jewish and Israeli conspiracies against the country. It also speaks implicitly of "neighboring enemies who want us harm" which is generally understood to be Israel. Religious media, usually funded by Saudi or Gulf countries, and private-owned outlets are far less subtle and more direct about warning of the evils of the Jews. When Israel or foreign countries raise criticism of some blatant antisemitism in such outlets, the Egyptian government, ironically, consider it a matter of freedom of speech. Aljazeera is the primary inflammatory outlet when it comes to anti-Israel sentiments.
The Muslim Brotherhood was the most influential political movement in Egypt before the military coup of 2013. This is primarily due to their social welfare programs and their perceived righteousness as opposed to the corruption of the Egyptian failed state. The MB also receives significant support from Qatar and Turkey. They are the most favored political Arab faction by Aljazeera. When I attended college in Egypt between 2005 and 2010, they practically had control over all Egyptian campuses. All of this changed a lot since 2013 when the Egyptian military openly declared war on the MB. Today the group went underground and lost a lot of sympathies. However, from following Egyptians on social media, it seems economic and political grievances against Al-Sisi is refueling sympathy to the Brotherhood.
JP: Can Islam find peaceful accommodation with Western Culture and mores?
HA: Religion is just a belief system and a spiritual space of ideas and fascinations. It is inevitably up to the individuals to choose how their belief system plays out in the public space. If Muslims insist on maintaining a Muslim orthodoxy which does not accept religious, sexual, political, and personal freedoms of men, women, Jews, atheists, and homosexuals, then there is no way the Muslim orthodox belief system can be accommodated in the west unless the west is ready to give up and compromise on its values. A clear example of this is the clash between freedom of expression and the Muslim orthodoxy in the case of Salman Rushdie and later the Danish cartoons. And one needs to separate accommodation of Muslims from the accommodation of orthodox Islamic beliefs. Liberal democratic traditions demand from the West to accommodate different people, but in no way is the West obligated to accommodate liberal anti-democratic ideas.
The Muslim world is the toughest problem humans could face; bad ideas. The only cure for bad ideas is good ones. If the West is sincere about helping me, my family, and my people then the West needs to stop investing in our armament and start to invest in our education. The grave challenges Muslims are facing from tyranny to terrorism, to economic mobility, can't be solved but by Muslims themselves. The values of liberal democracy and personal freedom are what a region plagued with tribalism, sectarianism, sexual repression, and human rights violations needs. Muslims and even Islamists are not bad people, but unfortunately, they managed to get the wrong answers for many important questions. Those questions, of freedom, sexuality, openness, etc. are difficult questions even for the most liberal and democratic nations. We should be honest about what we think, and we should be open to explaining why bad ideas bad, and why good ideas are good.
Israel, as an indigenous Middle Eastern nation that has a responsibility towards its neighbors. The Israelis were able to create a democratic model which is a liberal yet not brutal, and western-style secular state with freedom of religion. They are both Jewish and democratic. Israel should help and even lead the Muslim nations into a democratic and the liberal Middle East. Israel should be an ally and an inspiration to all the non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities in the regions who are denied of their rights to self-determination.
JP: Tell our readers about your book “A Minority of One”?
HA: I'm currently working on my autobiography, which talks about my childhood in Egypt and my radicalization in Salafist mosques. Then my transformation, my confrontations with my family and the Egyptian government, the Egyptian revolution, and my immigration to the United States. The title of the book came from a George Orwell quote, which helped me change my life, "Being a minority of one does not make one mad. There is truth, and there is untruth."
Photo by Nate Saunders.
Joseph Puder is a freelance journalist and founder and executive director of the Interfaith Taskforce for America and Israel
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