Geneive Abdo works to build bridges

Safaa Abdoun
9 Min Read

CAIRO: Two years since her last visit to Egypt, American foreign policy fellow and author Geneive Abdo is amazed by how much the country has changed.

The author, who has focused her work on the Middle East and Muslim-Americans, has spent her visit holding lectures that aim to bridge the gap between American and Arab cultures.

“People are much more involved in politics, young people are much more involved than before. I think that there are a lot of important things happening, said Abdo. “It also seems that a part of society has become very wealthy, there is a great public display of wealth such as the Four Seasons and the shopping center in Nasr City [CityStars]. I hope that doesn’t create a division in society, she added.

The former journalist, who has Lebanese roots, lived in Egypt from 1993 to 1998 working as a foreign correspondent for The Guardian.

“No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, was the product of her experience in Egypt. The book was published in 2000 by Oxford University Press and was later translated into Arabic.

“The book depicts the societal transformation of Egypt, how society has transformed from a state that was really secular, during the Nasser period, to one now that is very religious and very Islamic, said Abdo.

The book tackles subjects like Al-Azhar, how more wealthy Egyptian women were donning the veil and how the government has shut down many syndicates because they were taken over in elections by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Following her stay in Egypt, Abdo lived in Iran for three years and then moved back to the United States in 2001, where she worked at The Chicago Tribune.

In 2004, she decided she didn’t want to be a journalist anymore. “I wanted to do work that is more in-depth…policy [related] work.

And so she began working for the United Nations project called the Alliance of Civilizations. Initiated during the time of former Secretary General Kofi Annan, the project worked to promote dialogue and improve relations between Islamic and Western societies.

After this she took up her current position as a foreign policy fellow at The Century Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank and research institute.

Her work includes research mainly on modern Iran and contemporary Islamic issues, such as the Islamic political movement and Islamic revival.

She also follows current affairs in the Arab World.

“As a participant in the foreign policy debate, I’m trying to bring people from the Middle East who can speak about what’s happening so we could get to know the views of societies and not only of governments. Often in Washington people don’t know anything about the Middle East, they don’t understand the Middle East and they only listen to analysts who have never been there, she said.

“Part of the reason why the [US] foreign policy is such a disaster is because the US government does not understand the region. That was clear with Iraq, it was clear with Afghanistan. People in Washington don’t understand that there is a big gap, a big divide between what Arab governments think and what their societies think, she added.

Abdo released her new book “Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11, which is an investigative study of the Muslim community in America after the worst terrorist attack on US soil.

She explains that while the number of hate crimes against Muslims after 9/11 increased, the alert against Muslims is no longer present in the same way.

However, part of the American public believes that Islam is a violent religion.

“Many of these people are very pro-Israel so this campaign [Islamofascism] really feeds on the Israeli occupation of Palestine and so they are driven by ideological reasons than by anything else, she explained.

There is also a current of Muslims, such as Irshad Manji, who write negative articles and books condemning Islam, which has created a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment in America.

On the other hand, Abdo finds that to a certain degree, Muslims did benefit from the 9/11 attacks.

“They can now speak publicly in the media and to Washington about their own issues and concerns and I think that Americans listen to Muslims more than they did before 9/11, said Abdo.

While a number of Muslims in America chose to detach themselves from Islam after 9/11, the general trend was towards embracing Islam.

“Many told me that they’ve stopped dating and drinking alcohol, other wore the hijab, said Abdo.

In addition, there has been a revival of Muslim organizations, which have existed for decades, but now have hundreds of members and carry out many activities for Muslims and non-Muslims.

“Their objective is to enlighten and educate people about the religion so that they could have a less negative impression of it, explained Abdo.

Currently there is a move in the US, especially among young Muslims, to lead a more Islamic lifestyle than they used to. Some feel they’ve strayed too far from Islam and faced their share of challenges in making that transformation.

“Young people told me that when they went to mosques, there were always these aging imams coming from Arab countries they weren’t able to carry discussions with … [discussions] that are relevant to life in America, explained Abdo.

American Muslims need imams that are educated in America so they can relate to the issues they face in their daily lives because Muslims in the US have nothing in common with Muslims in the Arab world. One institute in California is attempting to teach Muslims about Islam, she said, because thousands are interested in finding out more about their own religion.

Despite the relative surge in hate crimes, Muslims in America are living extremely well, said Abdo.

The general statistics state that the average Muslim family earns $8,000 to $10,000 more than the average American family. In addition they are more educated than the majority of Americans.

“In an economic sense, they [Muslims] are completely integrated and they are very prosperous. They are doctors, lawyers, professors. There is no issue of job discrimination, said Abdo.

She said the reason behind this is that the Muslims immigrants were members of the elite in their native countries so they were already wealthy and established when they came to the US.

This, she said, is a different situation than what you d find in Europe, where Muslims are poor and suffering. In America, they are part of the middle and upper classes, according to Abdo.

For people in the Middle East to embrace Americans and Westerners, there has to be more long-term exchange programs where students can exchange ideas and talk about their cultures.

In addition, the media has to play a role in helping both sides understand each other.

The Turkish newspaper Sabah has been publishing weekly articles by foreign journalists to give readers a different perspective.

Regarding whether there would be tolerance between the West and Muslims Abdo said, “It will take a long time to get there because of everything that has happened.

“In addition, the United States has to be willing to accept the region at its own terms instead of forcing policies.I think the problem is with the foreign policy not the people. s

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