A few weeks ago, I left Cairo after living in Egypt for two years.
I loved my time there. I worked first as a copywriter and editor, and then as an English teacher, living through the uprising that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and then Egypt’s messy transition period.
I had hoped for a quiet exit, saying goodbye to Egyptian friends and colleagues I had gotten to know.
The day before I left Egypt was Sept. 11, the first day of demonstrations against “The Innocence of Muslims” – the film that was uploaded earlier in the summer and that offended so many Muslims across the globe with its blatantly antagonistic and historically inaccurate depictions.
Though I was staying in the downtown area just a kilometer or two away from the U.S. embassy, I only became aware of what had happened that night when I logged into my computer and saw the image of young shabab ripping apart the U.S. flag. I hadn’t seen any of the crowds in and around Tahrir Square that day.
The next day I went to the embassy, following about a dozen sheikhs from Al Azhar University as they snaked around cars stuck along one of Cairo’s notoriously jammed streets. They eventually joined a group of about 50 young men who had gathered outside the embassy.
Blocked off from the gate by a large wall of helmeted riot police, the crowd – mainly made up of young men (some carrying black flags with the shahadah on it) – chanted in Arabic as office workers and shopkeepers from nearby businesses watched on from a few meters away.
As I watched the scene, I thought back to six months earlier. At the time, I had gone to the embassy to get more pages for my passport.
Back then, there was another crowd of people standing outside the embassy walls. It was far larger than this crowd of energized, protesting youth. It was a line of Egyptians, men and women, some wearing robes and headscarves, others in suits and designer dresses lining up for U.S. visas.
It was strange to think of these two crowds, representing two very real and paradoxical aspects of the relationship between the United States and Egypt.
The current discussion in the media centers on “us vs. them,” the clash between Islam and the West, and how violent anti-film protests in the Muslim world have shown the “true color” of the Arab Spring.
The fact is that the relationship between Muslim countries and Western nations remains multifaceted; it is not always defined by hostility.
Since being back in the United States, I’ve gotten the impression from U.S. media and some Americans that there is a great sense of fatigue with regard to this volatile region of the world.
The demonstrations, the death of Christopher Stevens and the inaccurate association of the U.S. government with a cheaply made independent film have caused bitter feelings in this country.
While I understand the bitterness, I don’t think Americans or the government should “give up” on the region.
All too often, I sense an urge among Westerners to write the future of the Arab Spring before it unfolds, using each violent outburst to declare that this is the watershed moment.
Yet as anyone who has lived, studied or observed this part of the world during this time will tell you, it’s impossible to predict the future.
I recommend a more “Egyptian” approach: an approach that takes things one event at a time, that doesn’t make strong predictions.
It’s an approach that appreciates how these key events in history take place entirely in the context of ambiguity and uncertainty. This approach considers that one day’s events don’t necessarily define the next.
There are plenty of Muslims in Egypt, and across the world, who did speak out against what a few thousand of their fellow believers in the umma did two weeks ago.
Some 30,000 Libyans in Benghazi chased out the militia Ansar Al-Sharia (believed to be responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate that killed Christopher Stevens) from its city headquarters and declared their willingness to take back their country from paramilitaries.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt canceled its demonstrations. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi did speak out against the violence projected at foreign embassies and diplomatic targets, albeit it later than people in the United States would have wanted.
In short, while violent outbursts will probably continue in Muslim majority countries, and while “Death to America” will continue to be chanted at certain demonstrations, a large majority of people in these countries will simply go about their daily lives.
Some will watch the vitriol, shake their heads and sigh. Some will speak out and critique their neighbors’ excesses, while others will silently agree.
Not seeing them all on television doesn’t mean they aren’t all still there. They’re still there, and they still matter. Even if it might be easier to dismiss them, they still matter.
Sean Binkley is a graduate student who has studied, lived and traveled extensively in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. He is the son of Duane and Marcia Binkley, American Baptist missionaries to Thailand.