Religions and Revolutions: Reflections on the 2011 Eid Banquet
January 20, 2012
A few months ago, a friend signed me up without telling me graciously invited me to celebrate the end of Ramadan with the Muslim Student Association. Having never been to a Muslim holiday banquet (and hearing that the food at Eid was delicious), I decided to attend. I put on a nice dress and walked to Commons, excited to get my eat on. Much to my chagrin, there were some pre-meal speeches that would delay the meal. I promised myself I’d try to be a good sport and listen while simultaneously acknowledging that I’d be distracted by the alarming growls from my stomach.
There were a few polite introductions, the usual “Thanks for coming” and “We like diversity!” and a speech from the provost whose offensiveness I’m still internally debating (seriously, I have no idea if it was offensive or not). The President of the MSA explained what the significance of the holiday, and introduced a Muslim prayer leader.
The man who stepped up to the microphone shared part of my religious heritage, all the way back to Abraham and Isaac. Some parts of the Quran are even based on the teachings of Jesus. We lived in the same city. We shared a couple of religious ancestors. Beyond that, I didn’t feel like I had much of anything in common with him, and I wasn’t sure what to expect as he walked toward the stage and stood at the podium and closed his eyes.
Then he began to pray.
I don’t speak Arabic. I don’t know what he said or what it meant. I don’t even remember the sound of his voice. What I do remember is feeling like I had tentatively reached out to touch an electric fence that looked dead, only to realize amidst a state of utter paralysis and shock how very wrong I was. I’ve never heard anything “breath-taking” before, but listening to him, I forgot to inhale or exhale for a few minutes. I realized that we did have something in common. I saw what it means to submit to God, and I saw that he and I shared the same God and the same faith, even though we didn’t share the same religion.
Except that we did. Religion is more than a set of traditions set up thousands of years ago by some dudes in the Middle East. It is more than praying in a foreign language or eating a fancy dinner or identifying yourself with one sect or another. It is, ultimately, the recognition and trust of something that you cannot see, nor have any proof exists. No matter what cultural barriers stood between me and the man who read from the Quran at the Eid Banquet, we shared the same trust in the divine with everyone else in the world who believes, and it was really beautiful.
I was spellbound listening to him, and unsurprisingly, devastated when he stopped, especially since the next speakers were students. They were fine, and of course it was important to discuss the role of the MSA on campus and how students connect with their Muslim heritage away from home, but neither of the speeches were mind-blowing (especially given how hungry I was). Although I was still reeling from the prayer, I was eager to get through the keynote speaker and then finally get to the food.
I had no idea who Mona Eltahaway was before the Eid Banquet. I had only partially listened to the news of the January Revolution in Egypt, and knew even less about the Arab Spring, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from her talk. Ms. Eltahaway is an Egyptian journalist, blogger, Tweet-o-phile, and activist. She is one of the leading reporters on women’s issues and the revolution in Egypt, and maintains a deep love and connection to her country, often returning and participating in protests and demonstrations. She occupies a unique role as a feminist and Egyptian woman, and is perhaps one of the most intelligent people to whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening. She too was spellbinding in her own way; I readily admit to being mesmerized by her hair. She spoke of the special role that women played in the revolution, and the important role that they should continue to play in the formation of a new Egyptian government.
Women, new governments, hair – all these things were and are important to consider. However, what struck me most about Ms. Eltahaway was her commitment to change. She truly believed that change was possible, stemming from an open acknowledgment that change was necessary. When there is no where else to turn, individuals must step up and take a stance and be the agents of that change. She commended the Occupy Wall Street movement for their willingness to face harsh weather, police scrutiny, and general mockery from the major media outlets of the United States, (to say nothing of the the general population of the United States), all in the name of more social equality. She congratulated them for making those initial steps, again from a recognition that the status quo is unacceptable and must change.
While I agreed that there are some parallels between Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, I was fairly certain that the Egyptian government was certainly in need of some revolution. Here in the US, I’m usually quite confident that our government is not oppressive, nor is it in need of revolution. After some reflection, I realized that this is incorrect.
The word “revolution” has a particular connotation. It implies mass rioting and police squads and violence. It implies chaos in the name of an honorable goal – reclaiming power from those who misuse and abuse it. It conjures up images of oppressive regimes and rebuilding a new and better world. Often, it sets itself up for failure.
This is not the definition of “revolution”. This is a definition of “revolution”. It is the first one on dictionary.com, but it is not the only one, and it does not apply to the US. What does apply, however, is the idea of revolution as “a sudden, complete or marked change in something”. Whether or not we as a country require a violent change is unclear – whether or not we as a country are desperately in need of “a sudden, complete, or marked change” is (and should be if it is not) abundantly clear.
To me, this is what Mona Eltahaway was talking about when she offered her support of Occupy Wall Street. In Zuccotti Park, she saw individuals who were responding to the ineffectiveness, lack of concern, and outright corruption of their government. She saw individuals who were also ignored by that government, and who were searching for a means of redress. We are not Egypt; the United States government has not used the military against its people in the same way Mubarak did. The people at OWS have not been evicted or assaulted or forcibly removed. This is all true. But the people of the United States do need to ask themselves, “What am I willing to put up with until I decide to revolt?” We see the stirrings of social unrest in the Occupy Wall Street movement, rooted in the government and social structures that make it impossible for marginalized groups to succeed. Is that so dissimilar from protest movements in the Middle East? In recognizing a similar need for change,we share the same needs and goals of the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco. We share their revolution; this is what I learned from the Eid Banquet.
The 2011 Eid Banquet was largely the result of happenstance. it did, however, teach me a few things; I am not distant from the religion or politics of the world. To pretend that I am is to deny some very fundamental parts of who I am, and also a dangerous attitude for people living in the United States. It was, in short, one of the best and most informative learning experiences I’ve had thus far.
Also, the food was delicious.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed here are not shared by Mona Eltahaway, only my interpretation of them. If you’d like to follow her on Twitter, she can be found here https://twitter.com/#!/monaeltahawy.
Note #1: This is published retroactively. The thoughts on the Eid Banquet were all true, to the extent that I can remember them. I lost the notes that I took during the event, but I can vaguely recall fragments.
Note #2: If the OWS and revolution discussion seems a little shallow, that’s because it is. I’m working on a follow-up post that will discuss those ideas more in-depth, but for now, I wanted to add in the bare minimum of thoughts I had after the Eid Banquet, because lolz that’s what the post is for.
Note #3: Posting before the full editing process is done because I told Twitter I would. Expect edits.