It is easy to imagine angry fundamentalist types in the Middle East. And they most certainly exist- thugs or bigots who grew beards. Faces that never smile. Yet your typical strongly religious Muslim is often more friendly and respectful than the average Egyptian.
A guest once asked us if we have ever received harassment or insults from fundamentalists, or if we have been told we were not welcome. To this I quickly answered no. Not once.
In fact my most interesting conversations on the Cairo metro are often with ‘scary’ bearded types. Only they are not scary at all, and their faces usually beam throughout our conversation. I have found Al-Azhar students to be especially outgoing and curious.
We were recently visiting with a young Muslim couple we know when the topic of religion arose. One of them began to recount a visit to the United States. She talked about how struck she was by the varied populace she met there. And despite the fact that many of them were not religious, the people she encountered were so kind and helpful.
“It was like they were Muslims but they weren’t Muslims,” she said with wide-eyes. “They were better Muslims then we are.”
The young woman's comment was a telling window into how Muslims view their religion. Islam lays out set of most high ethics and ideals. And it is this virtuous and dignified code that true Muslims constantly strive for.
Most of our neighbours are Muslims. I have developed particularly close relationships with a local shop owner and a butcher just down the street from our home. Both have the characteristic sunnah beards, and one might even classify them as fundamentalists.
I remember sitting with them one fine autumn day shortly after Muammar Gaddafi was lynched in Western Libya. While they openly abhorred Gaddafi, they were hardly in a celebratory mood. “That is not in Islam” they asserted, their faces void of their usual smiles.
I hear this rejection of brutality time and time again whenever the odd act of Islamist violence is committed.
Islamic life in the Arab world is a large subject, and I certainly do not claim to have captured the essence of Islam in any way whatsoever. Ultimately our experiences here have consistently confirmed the incredible complexity and diversity of Islam.
Of course Muslims are not perfect. Humans never are. But far more often than finding flaws, we routinely encounter the love, respect and honour in people’s lives. We see the importance of family and general passion of daily life. And the beautiful character of our friends and neighbours is proof enough of Islam's bounty.
At the end of each day we return home to our apartment in Beni Suef. Walking up the stairs and temporarily leaving the outside society behind, I often reflect on the warm conversations I just had. As I open my computer the pleasant taste in my mouth remains, making the crude news caricatures I find seem all the more destructive and ridiculous.