Recently, a judoka representing Egypt at the Rio 2016 Olympics refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent (to whom he lost the match).
What surprised me most was the people all over the Internet acting shocked. What did you think a man who had been indoctrinated for 34 years was going to do exactly?
On the contrary, Islam Al Shehaby’s so-called hate is the natural manifestation of his state-sponsored indoctrination.
Egyptians have strange ideas about Jews. The Jewish population was driven out of Egypt in the late 1950s as a reaction to the war with Israel. About 40 Jews remain in Egypt today. So most Egyptians have never met a single Jewish person–much less interacted with an Israeli.
A close Egyptian friend of mine* (let’s call him Joe) was traveling to America for the very first time. On the plane, the kind gentleman next to him helped him navigate the process. It was only later when they were chatting that Joe found out the man was Israeli. He was startled. “This is not the Israeli I have been taught about.”
Another friend of a friend (let’s call her Mary) was outside Egypt for an exam. Sitting next to her was a gentle and caring soul. Of course, they hit it off right away–having a lot in common. And then later Mary discovered her seatmate was a Jew. She went home to her friends at University saying, “They look like us. Can you believe it? They look like us!”
These are highly educated, upper middle class Egyptians.
It reminds me of the Middle Ages when Christians were convinced people of Jewish descent had horns. If you’ve never seen or met one and all the stories make them out to be the Boogie Man, what else are you to think?
So what did you think Islam Al Shehaby was going to do?
YOU FIRST MAKE THIEVES
It reminds me of a quote that helped form my teen years and my perspective of society. A quote which comes from an unusual source:
“If you suffer your people to be ill-educated,
and their manners corrupted from infancy,
and then punish them for those crimes
to which their first education disposed them,
what else is to be concluded, from this,
but that you first make thieves and then punish them?”
Sir Thomas More, Utopia
I came across this passage in high school. It was a line in Ever After–a movie I adored and memorized as a romantic and emotional teen. I looked up the original passage by Sir Thomas More and used it in a group project for school. (Of course, our unsuspecting teacher had no idea we found it through a Hollywood remake of Cinderella.)
Since then I have thought of this concept in a variety of situations to reassess how we place blame. So to say that it is a paradigm in my life, a lens I use to view society, would be accurate.
If the Egyptian government has taught Al Shehaby all his life to hate Israel and to disdain The Enemy, how can it then punish him for doing exactly what it taught him to do?
If a man representing the Taliban came to your city, would you shake his hand? Just as you have been taught the Taliban is the vilest of all humans, in Egypt they have been taught that Israel is The Enemy.
As one friend put it, “When we talk about them, we don’t even need to say Israel. Even in our military education, we just call them The Enemy. The Enemy does this and the Enemy does that. We all know they mean Israel. The words are interchangeable.”
If you are expecting a Muslim man who has been taught that Israel is his Enemy, watches news reports of Israeli airstrikes on Palestinian children, perhaps whose friends have relatives starving in the Gaza strip, to love his Enemy, then you are expecting him to act outside the accordance of his faith and his education.
Be sad for Islam Al Shehaby. Be dismayed and be disappointed. But don’t pretend he doesn’t represent Egypt. A man can only do as he’s been taught. I’m sure he’s a hero to many people back home, even as Israeli social media makes a big fuss about it.
I am not saying what he did was right. I believe strongly that the IOC has every right–and a responsibility–to reprimand him. Let Egypt make an example of him. But let them also examine what they are still–to this day–teaching their children.
LOVE YOUR ENEMY
And you, in your heart as a Christian, should be careful about condemning him. You, who have been born with the immense privilege of being a Christian, cannot expect Christian behavior from those who were not so privileged. Even Christians are often not capable of Christian behavior!! “Love your enemy” is not an easy commandment!
Teach your children to love their enemies, to respect an opponent. But when a member of the Taliban comes to shake your hand, remember this moment. Remember that by the measure you use it will be measured back to you.
And let us be slow to judge and quick to empathize.
Let us take the lesson of the moment and leave condemnation to those under whose authority it is to condemn. Lest we find ourselves in judgment.
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