Misrepresenting freedom in Egypt
On March 10th, I had an article entitled Egypt’s chilling conservatism published on the Guardian’s website. It meant to highlight the disturbing trend of increasing religious conservatism gripping Egypt. I used the conservatives’ excessive preoccupation with women and rules on gender mixing as a case in point.
The same day, the independent Egyptian paper al-Youm al-Saba’a, or Youm7, translated the article into Arabic and published it on their website. This was indeed welcome, for it was Egyptians that needed to hear what I had to say about our society. Since I knew the article would upset some people, I was pleased with Youm7’s decision to publish it, an indication of their commitment to freedom of expression.
Until, of course, I read the translation. The translator deliberately misrepresented my views by changing the headline, taking parts out of context, completely mistranslating a segment and omitting a crucial – and convincing – part of my argument.
Rather than the headline in the Guardian, “Egypt’s chilling conservatism”, the translator opted for a more sensationalist “Women are the victims of strict religion in Egypt.” Egyptians are very sensitive and (often rudely) defensive when it comes to criticism of their country or religion. The translator knew quite well she was putting readers on the defensive before even reading the article.
As I continued reading, it became clear that my article was taken out of context to make the point that I was against any kind of morality or chastity on the part of women, encouraging Egypt’s women to shun all modesty and take off their clothes, advocating a collapse in sexual morality, disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad and quite simply launching a “dirty attack on Islam”, as one of the comments put it.
Lost in translation cannot be the explanation. The translator’s choice of words made it crystal clear that she intentionally changed my message from “a disturbing religious tide is gripping Egypt” to “Islam makes women dress too modestly, why don’t they liberate themselves by taking off their clothes?”
To perfect her handiwork, she also neglected to mention the one line biography available on the Guardian, which mentioned that I was an Egyptian student living in Alexandria. Knowing that I was Egyptian and Muslim would have given me a lot more credibility with Youm7’s readers, which she also knew. Instead, my nationality was left to the readers’ imagination, leading one to believe I was a “nosy British journalist” who had no business discussing Egypt’s affairs.
The desired effect was achieved; an angry stream of defamation and personal attacks from readers. I was denounced as a traitor, a liar, a mentally disturbed person and assumed to be a non Muslim who wanted to launch a “dirty attack on Islam”.
Amazingly, there were some readers who did not buy this fraudulent misrepresentation of my article. Four comments were written in my favor. One called me a “respectable writer who has succeeded in uncovering the root causes of fanaticism”. Another, claiming to be a Muslim woman, agreed with me that men should stop blaming women for sexual harassment. Another wrote a lengthy comment in my defense, saying he (or she) was “astonished by the vicious attack on the writer.”
What was Youm7’s response? To selectively delete all but one of the comments supporting me and my argument. In their defense, they did delete the pure personal attacks as well. However, any comment clearly agreeing with me was removed.
The final result was a thoroughly anti Islamic piece in a liberal Western (thus by extension, anti Islamic in the eyes of many readers) paper written by a bigoted Islamophobe, followed by a series of comments justifiably attacking the writer.
Youm7, according to their website, are “committed to complete transparency and the ethics of journalism”. They have “no political or party affiliations” and “no religious or sectarian bias”. They also have a firm commitment to democracy and freedom of expression.
Such noble commitments are easier said than done. One comment on my article (that was not deleted) summed up what may be the future of democracy in Egypt; “please, if anyone has an opinion he’d like to express, it’d be better to keep it to himself”.
Some observers have noted that Egyptians are not ready for democracy, or that too much democracy will be a burden on the Egyptian people. I find this a patronizing assumption that is insulting to our intelligence. It seems, though, that many in fact are not ready.
The kind of democracy called for by many Egyptians is not the one that tolerates dissent and different opinions. Rather, it’s the kind that nurtures only one view while all differing views are crushed by the thought police. The kind of democracy that tells the majority only what they want to hear.
Rather than blame officials and the government for a lack of freedoms, shouldn’t we ask ourselves if we are ready for the very freedoms we claim to want? And the more disturbing question; if this is the kind of conduct a “transparent, independent” newspaper adheres to, can we really trust anyone who promises us more freedom? Can we trust intellectuals, writers and activists who claim to be fighting for our rights?
Can we have hope for real change, or is the oft repeated saying that “the one you know is better than the one you don’t” going to be proven true?