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The Muslim World’s Intellectual Refuseniks Offer Enlightened Views on Islam and Israel

Egyptian playwright Ali Salem and others are marginalized at home and in the Western media, but they are political pioneers

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Ali Salem, the Egyptian playwright, is seen wearing the 2008 Civil Courage Prize, which he received in London on Nov. 19, 2008. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
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Braude, who is a frequent commentator on Al-Arabiya, one of the Middle East’s most popular television networks, acknowledges that there is a taboo against openly advocating normalization. But, he says, Egyptians send messages on the issue in a more covert way: for example, by making appreciative remarks about the Jewish role in Egyptian history. “Normalization in Arabic discourse is a long and subtle process,” Braude told me, “and the people who ‘perpetrate’ it strive for plausible deniability as a matter of self-preservation.”

Both men agree that while military and security cooperation between Israel and Egypt is just as strong under the new military rule as it ever was in the Mubarak years, but no one with any clout advocates a closer cultural relationship with Israel. Yet Ali Salem continues to hope. He has not changed his views since the withering of the promise of Oslo, the decline of the Israeli-Egyptian cold peace into a deep freeze under the Muslim Brotherhood, and the current uncertainty of military rule.

In February 2013, Ali Salem, now 77, was interviewed by Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper. Salem told the interviewer, a hard-line anti-Israeli, “You think that the only solution is to expel them from the land, but that’s not feasible—just as they have no prospect of expelling you from this land.” A few years earlier, in 2005, Salem was assailed on Egyptian television by critics who accused him of being an “Arab Zionist” and of “launder[ing] the reputation of the occupation” with his frequent trips to Israel. “What do you gain by going there?” he was asked. Salem responded calmly: “We prove to them that not all Egyptian intellectuals are against them, or deny their presence in the area. … We are tied to Israel by a peace treaty. The issue that remains is whether you recognize this treaty or not. … Egypt cannot sign a piece of paper and then say, ‘I am not responsible for this.’ ”

* * *

Salem thinks that true cultural dialogue between Israel and Egypt will happen in the long run. Yet there are a few children of Ali Salem in Egypt who are determined to reach out now and make a real connection with Israelis. One example is a young woman with green eyes, a welcoming smile, and a hijab: Hiba Hamdi Abu Sayyaf, who reports on Egypt for Israel’s Channel 10 (Arutz 10). Abu Sayyaf has never been to Israel, but she speaks perfect Hebrew. “The Muslim Brotherhood thinks I’m a traitor, an Israeli,” she told Channel 10 when asked whether she has been attacked for working with Israelis. “But my mother taught me not to be afraid of anyone.” Abu Sayyaf has said that one of her main motives is to show Israelis that they’re wrong about Egypt: Egyptians are diverse, and some even dare to appear on Israeli television.

Another of the lonely voices urging a conversation between Egyptians and Israelis is a 44-year-old teacher and blogger named Emile Bekhiet. Bekhiet is a Coptic Christian, but his blog features an allusion to a verse from the Hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad says to look for knowledge even if it is as far away as China. Bekhiet then writes, “Don’t look for knowledge in China, but rather in Israel! Learn from it what you don’t have. Learn how it deals with its citizens; learn from its armies not to point your weapons at your own people; learn from a nation that revived its people and its language.”

Bekhiet is a courageous man: He posts his email address and phone number on his blog, and when I asked him for an interview he eagerly agreed. “I know very few people who have the same views I do about Israel, maybe no more than five,” he wrote to me in an email. “I don’t hate Israel, and so I get a lot of insults and threats. I express my opinions on Israel very clearly on my blog and on Twitter, but, I regret to say, I mostly don’t mention them in conversation because I might be attacked, verbally or even physically. People are likely to have a violent reaction and start accusing me of treachery and being an Israeli spy.”

When I asked Bekhiet whether he knew any other Egyptian bloggers who, like him, had sympathetic views of Israel, he could think of only one: Maikel Nabil Sanad, also a Copt, who has spent time in jail for “insulting the military.” As an avowed atheist and a conscientious objector, Sanad is so disdained by the Egyptian public that his views on Israel are easily brushed aside or, more often, taken as further proof of his morally degraded character.

Obviously, Egypt has a long way to go before opinions friendly to Israel are taken seriously, seen as worth listening to rather than as evidence of the speaker’s craziness or corruption. If and when that happens, though, Ali Salem will be remembered as a pioneer who, in his rusty Russian Niva, helped forge the way.

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The Muslim World’s Intellectual Refuseniks Offer Enlightened Views on Islam and Israel

Egyptian playwright Ali Salem and others are marginalized at home and in the Western media, but they are political pioneers

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