‘Black sheep’ participate in political debate

‘Black sheep’ participate in political debate

From my spot at the end of the queue I wondered how long it would take to get my boarding pass. The airport terminal was bustling with people. Some were headed to Mecca on a short pilgrimage at the beginning of Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Others, in shorts and t-shirts, were going home to Europe after their holidays in the sun near the pyramids.

When the queue stopped for a few minutes, I stepped aside to take a peak at what was blocking it. A group of men in turbans and kaftans seemed to be having trouble checking in their luggage. I wondered where they were headed.

An hour later, as I boarded my plane to Europe, I saw the group of men settling themselves in the back of the plane. Torn between my curiosity and my shyness to invade their privacy, I gathered up the courage to ask the oldest-looking one about the purpose of their trip. He gave me a big smile, which seemed to insinuate, “Why are you surprised we are going to Europe?”

These men were Muslim scholars from Tanta, Egypt (north of Cairo) and were on an official one-month visit to a country in Europe known for its chocolate, cheese and wine. While there, they were in charge of “reviving Ramadan”, an Arabic expression used to explain the act of engaging in numerous prayers throughout the Muslim holy month.

When we arrived, the country was preparing for its upcoming parliamentary elections, and during the taxi ride to my hotel, I took note of the plethora of billboards around the city advertising different political parties.

One billboard stuck out. It was put up by one particular political party and depicted a group of sheep standing on the country”s flag. Three white sheep were kicking a black sheep out of the group, off the flag, and clearly – if only metaphorically – out of the country. Beneath the drawing, the party line declared: For better security… our house, our country.

I was shocked, and so were many of my friends, foreigners and locals alike. But I discovered that the party that was responsible for the infamous “sheep poster” had won over 25% of the Parliament”s seats in the previous elections. One could argue that “black sheep” is an expression describing anything odd or different and does not necessarily carry an ethnic connotation. This was, at least, the argument used by the political party when faced with accusations of xenophobia by the media and certain anti-racism associations.

During my one-week stay, I overheard many discussions about the poster and the values it promoted. Some were for its message, others against it.

That the country allows for such debate, at least, is refreshing. That people express their political inclinations in such an open manner makes me, as an Arab, green with envy. In a place where opinions are valued, one can stand up for one”s own political beliefs and find parties to represent her or him. Even a black sheep has a spot in the sun.

Arabs are often perceived as highly politicised; in reality, however, most of us rarely feel represented in our political systems. Many of us feel passionately about the Arab-Israeli conflict, or think we have a clear idea how to solve things in Iraq. Yet, we are not able to channel these passions through our political parties. So unlike in democratic systems, our political awareness and feelings do not contribute to policymaking or even influence politics in many of our countries.

But in this European country, people wore politics on their sleeves – at least their internal politics – when they participated through official voting channels in the policymaking in their country, something many Arabs do not feel we can do. So while national polls suggest that almost half the population of this country would vote for the party who posted this billboard, at the same time the country still officially welcomed a group of Muslim scholars to encourage its residents to engage in religious rituals.

Just because a country has a political party that advertises with an offensive poster does not mean there is a lack of respect for diversity and difference of opinion. It is only when a country does not allow opposing voices that it loses richness in the political arena, for richness comes with diversity.

Certainly it is a cause for concern that a large number of people in the country view a certain group of citizens as black sheep. But it becomes an even greater danger when public debate on issues such as this one are stifled or prohibited