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Op-Ed

The Contradiction of Samira Ibrahim

By Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on March 14, 2013

For supporters of political reform in the Middle East, the contradictory postures of Samira Ibrahim -- the courageous Egyptian feminist activist who publicly shared her deeply hostile views of America, Jews and Israel -- is both a cautionary tale and an opportunity to address prevalent hatreds and intolerance that endure in the "new" Egypt and across the region.

Ibrahim was one of 10 women set to receive the Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award, which "recognizes women around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for women's rights and empowerment, often at great personal risk."

Indeed, Ibrahim's extraordinary actions certainly met the criteria for this honor. In March 2011, during the heady days of the Egyptian revolution, Ibrahim and other women who had been protesting at Cairo's Tahrir Square were detained by Egyptian soldiers and beaten, tortured and forced to endure a "virginity test."

Ibrahim courageously spoke out about this abuse and filed a legal suit against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. As State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland said: "Not only did she speak out about that, but she also became a real leader in her country in trying to address gender-based violence and other human rights abuses."

Yet just a day before she was to receive this recognition from First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, reports emerged about numerous anti-Semitic, anti-American and anti-Israel postings on Ibrahim's Twitter feed, and the State Department announced that her award was being "deferred."

As first reported by Samuel Tadros in the Weekly Standard, on Sept. 11, 2012 a tweet on her feed -- later removed -- read, "Today is the anniversary of 9/11. May America burn every year." In July 2012, a posting on her Twitter feed welcomed the terrorist attack on Israelis in Bulgaria, writing, "Today is a very sweet day with a lot of very sweet news."

That August, one post referred to the Saudi royal family as "dirtier than Jews" and another, citing a quote from Hitler, said, "'I have discovered with the passage of days, that no act contrary to morality, no crime against society, takes place, except with the Jews having a hand in it.' Hitler."

The tweets were a shocking jolt of reality for those who still hoped that the Egyptians who took to the streets of Cairo pushing for political and social change were also advocates for a society which would be more tolerant to others and open to the outside world.

Ibrahim, who in 2012 was recognized by Time as one of the "100 most influential people in the world" has undeniably done much to push back against entrenched societal misogyny. Yet, while embracing this modern reformist ideal, she clearly remains immersed in the hate-filled attitudes toward Jews, Israel and America that has been allowed to fester and permeate society for decades in Egypt and the Middle East.

When confronted with the objectionable tweets, Ibrahim first denied she had written them. "My account has been previously stolen and any tweet on racism and hatred is not me," she posted on Twitter on March 6. Yet after the State Department announced the deferment of her award, she tweeted: "I refused to apologize to the Zionist lobby in America on the previous statements hostile to Zionism under pressure from the American government, so the prize was withdrawn." On a television interview once back in Egypt, Ibrahim proudly spoke about withstanding State Department pressure to apologize. She made no reference to her Twitter account being hacked, or to the tweets not being her own.

The paradox of a reformer fighting for political progress while adhering to regressive hatreds is not unique to Ibrahim, nor unique to Egypt. Those who gathered at Tahrir Square and at rallies across the region and those who are running for office in new democracies grew up and came of age with daily exposure to harsh anti-Jewish, anti-Israel and even anti-American messages in popular television shows, music videos, newspaper editorial pages and in religious sermons.

Jews of Libyan heritage who have sought to visit post-Qaddafi Libya have been threatened and barred. The new Tunisian regime debated including a clause in its new constitution barring normalization with "the Zionist entity."

A long-circulating video features Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first post-Mubarak president, giving a speech in 2010 in which he exhorts his audience: "We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews." Egyptian children "must feed on hatred; hatred must continue...The hatred must go on for God and as a form of worshiping him."

That same year in a television interview he said, referring to "Zionists": "These bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs...They have been fanning the flames of civil strife wherever they were throughout their history. They are hostile by nature."

In October 2012, four months after assuming the presidency, Mr. Morsi was seen on television saying "amen" to a sermon given by Imam Fatouh Abdul Nabi, calling on God to "deal harshly with the Jews and those who are allied with them." For the record, President Morsi recently explained away his 2010 words, telling visiting U.S. senators they were taken out of context.

To be sure, there are many in Egypt and across the region that reject these hatreds and attitudes. Unfortunately, their views are not the ones that seem to be carrying the day.

It would be unrealistic to expect Arabs of any political affiliation to drop their critique of Israeli policies, nor their affinity with the Palestinians. But glorification of terrorism against Americans and Israelis, overt anti-Semitism, and outright refusal to consider normalized relations with Israel all are well beyond acceptable political discourse.

Activists, reformers and all who are working for a more representative Middle East should seize this moment to confront the fact that after rejecting the values and policies of repressive dictatorial regimes in favor of liberal democratic freedoms, it is inconsistent and even absurd for "new societies" to hold fast to the prejudices and hatreds so prevalent for decades and so contrary to progressive values of tolerance, openness and coexistence.

As the so-called Arab Spring evolves and matures, the focus of reformers and their supporters around the world cannot be on governance and institution building alone. Attention must be paid to the knee-jerk hatreds that still poison the region's popular culture and pervade mainstream thinking.

The silver lining of the Samira Ibrahim incident may be in that it has started important conversations about old assumptions and attitudes. As one Egyptian activist aptly tweeted: "Samira Ibrahim: is a simple Egyptian who was raised to hate Jews. We need to address the issue, not the person."

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