Seeds of Change - An evening in Cairo
During my time working in Cairo, I was informed that a group of Muslims, old and new from the East and West would be gathering in Moqattam one evening. I welcomed this excuse for exploration, more so as it promised to be bring together activists and students of knowledge. So, arriving on Cairo’s very own mini mountain, I navigated my way to the barren edge of Moqattam and after spending some time peering over and monument-spotting on the skyline, I caught a taxi. I had no idea where I was going, unfortunately, neither did the taxi driver. Twenty minutes and twenty Egyptian pounds later, I left the car at the same place at which I’d entered it and traipsed my way to the meeting point; a spacious, cool unassuming apartment block.
As someone accustomed to meetings that involve lengthy agendas and death-by-PowerPoint, I felt somewhat intriguingly unprepared, but when the host for the evening, British born Doctor Bilal Hassam, opened the evening by asking us to describe ourselves as pizza toppings, all concerns dissipated. The tone was engaging and we went on to share our stories, mapping out how our professional, communal and spiritual lives had come together and brought us to this evening in the Egyptian capital. The diversity in our age, ethnicity and background was reflected in the experiences we shared as we listened and learned from one another attentively; together we made quite the pizza, plenty of pineapple, mushroom and cheese.
The evening program was the first international extension of ‘The Planting Seeds Forum’ chaired by Dr Hassam under the auspices of ‘The Leaf Network.’ Although Bilal was the Master of Ceremonies, the Forum was hosted by a group of gentle and remarkable Egyptian women. Dr Nagia AbdelMoghney Said, Mama Lamia and their colleagues in Egypt have dedicated their lives to building trust across the world's divides. The partitions in our planet are as plentiful as they are deep, and striving to heal these gashes since 1938 is an international movement that our hosts belong to, an initiative that focuses on ‘Moral Rearmament’ in both word and deed.
‘Moral Rearmament’ has a captivating narrative; established by American Reverend Frank Buchman, it was born from a world that was witnessing exponential expansion of its military. Buchman described the predicament facing the world as a ‘moral crisis’, in which nations must re-arm themselves morally. This assertion is just as needed in today’s world, as sadly that rapid military expansion never slowed down. Preserving and promoting moral integrity underpins the foundations of our societies and nations and defines our engagement with the world around us. Buchman poignantly stated, “...moral recovery is essentially the forerunner of economic recovery… [creating] not crisis but confidence and unity in every phase of life”.
Buchman’s movement quickly became a powerful international force for good and since 2001 has operated under the name ‘Initiatives of Change.’ It is the strength and depth of its message that led Dr Nagia and her colleagues to maintain the original name and uphold the banner of ‘Moral Rearmament,’ and she currently serves as Vice President of the Egyptian Moral Rearmament Association (EMRA). This Egyptian chapter was founded in 1988 and functions as an associate of the international movement, which in turn is an NGO holding Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
The essence of the movement has always emphasised the means of discovering and respecting the beliefs of others through exploring the roots of one’s own faith-based tradition. It was refreshing to hear how EMRA tackles some of the world’s greatest political and social challenges with such practical, incremental and hopeful optimism. Putting public interest before personal interest demonstrated the extent to which they serve and dedicate themselves to a purposeful standard of living. Their work has necessitated and inspired personal, institutional and even cultural transformation. Born to two intellectual revolutionaries who met after reading each other’s publications, Dr Nagia was brought up in the cradle of the movement which she herself joined as a young girl. Strengthened by a childhood in a diverse environment of activists, she embodies a lifetime of action inspired by faith and universal truths and through her dedication has demonstrated how Islamic wisdoms can be contextualised and exemplified for the world.
In this vein, as tensions run high between different religious, political and social groups in Egypt, Dr Nagia spoke of the significance of the EMRA objectives of reviving hope and human dignity in society by reinforcing the national social fabric, building trust and developing the community on shared moral values. The new challenges that the Arab Spring has brought forward seemed to be well met by these determined people; amongst our group there were lawyers, NGO workers and scientists, all of them activists. Throughout the Egyptian uprisings and the parliamentary elections, EMRA has worked on a practical level to address the importance of justice in society, of fighting to eradicate corruption and of promoting integrity. Such developments are vital in order to effectively heal the past and forge a sustainable and truly democratic future.
Honestly speaking, whilst appealing, the ideology and approach of EMRA was somewhat unfamiliar to me. As a practical person with a legal background, zooming out from the finer detail and the small print doesn’t always come natural to me. Our Egyptian hosts and others in the Initiatives of Change movement use strategic foresight to assess the ‘big picture’ and then go on to articulate and realise an alternative vision, calling their communities to task. During my time in Egypt, I witnessed many different perspectives and took lessons from unlikely sources; people not too dissimilar to me at first glance but who see and experience the world using an entirely different frame of reference. It can sometimes be difficult to listen patiently to those, who may be in the same boat as you, but look out in very diverse directions. Learning from these ladies who have my lifetime of experience (literally) however, proved to be far from a test of patience; rather their example of fortitude gave me a gentle nudge, suggesting that I extricate myself from mental compartmentalising and not be concerned with the difference in other people’s thoughts but rather with the integrity of my own.
What was unique about this gathering was the interaction between what was described as ‘students of text’ and ‘students of context.’ Bilal described a schism between generations of passionate Muslims engaged throughout the society in various community organising efforts and initiatives (i.e. contextual) and the religious/scholarly community (i.e. textual) which seeks to inspire and facilitate their grass roots efforts. The Planting Seeds Forum is an initiative that seeks to network, nurture and engage emerging Muslim leadership and position a generation of change makers alongside established community leaders and religious scholars. Beyond a shared learning experience the forum candidly and innovatively addresses some of the most pressing issues facing society and the world today. This Egyptian chapter of the Forum brought together activists from across the spectrum of the Egyptian community and a number of students from one of the oldest and most prestigious Islamic Institutions in the world, the University of al-Azhar.
These two communities, so close together yet often worlds apart, reflected on the symbiotic relationship between the religious sciences and wider social responsibility. I was taken by the maturity and sincerity of the conversation as there was no assumed knowledge or judgement projected by any group or individual on the other, rather the personal ownership of faith felt by each of the attendees enabled and encouraged our mutual exchange. I could see how a simple exchange of experiences can give meaning to and enrich our own. The vision of the Forum is to facilitate these mutual collaborations on the backdrop of a loose, albeit empowering spiritual frame of reference.
Our gathering also provided an opportunity for me to reconnect with my Western home and reinforce what I know and am learning of the East. I met new people with familiar names, and familiar people with new experiences, and heard both emerging and established Muslim voices. I sat with people who live as humanitarians, not only by holding strong moral values but by acting on them for the sake of uniting our global community and acting with conviction and determination. Spending this time with these people and their words reminded me of why most of the time, I prefer to listen than to speak and just how much we all have to learn.
As always, in the company of good people, time flew by and although the room was now cold, the people and atmosphere was warm. In order to satiate the profound sense of ‘unfinished conversation’, I scribbled some notes to contact a fellow forum attendee engaged in the tough fight against local drug demand and supply working who also had contacts working in the field of anti-corruption in Egypt. I was glad to make social and academic connections with some ex-pat Muslim ladies from North America and the UK. My notes also entailed a list of things to research into further; as Dr Nagia frequently praised the involvement of Indian activists in the international movement, I couldn’t help but wonder if the ‘Indian experience’ has ever addressed its own pervasive societal and administrative harassment of minorities such as the Kashmiris. Whilst that’s the activist in me speaking up loud and clear, exploring and explaining that musing is definitely a whole different story.
The Planting Seeds Forum has articulated and realised a sustainable method where activists from all walks of life can intimately engage with their religious and spiritual counterparts and build relationships based on an inherent and organic understanding of social cooperation at a local and global level. I was glad to play a small part in this burgeoning movement and am hopeful that communities in Britain, Egypt and beyond have the potential to transcend their differences, enrich themselves with the experiences and insights of the ‘other’ and work for a sustainable and positive future together.