Response to critics of ‘racist rhetoric’ in Egypt article

Journalism is one of those occupations where your work can be the object of ruthless public attack. I got a taste of this first-hand after people wildly misinterpreted some quotes in an article I wrote about the revolution in Egypt. Here’s the “offending” section of the article:

But those hoping for a true democratic republic to blossom in Egypt shouldn’t hold their breath, said Elias Tuma, an emeritus professor of economics at UC Davis.

Only 58 percent of Egyptians can read and write, according to U.S. State Department figures. That’s one of the biggest obstacles to positive change, Tuma said.

“They don’t know about democracy – they probably don’t even know how to spell the word in Arabic,” he said.

Tuma, who grew up in the Arab village of Kafr Yasif in northern Israel and lived in Egypt when Mubarak became president in 1981, said democracy must become part of the culture practiced in homes, schools and businesses.

“Democracy cannot be installed like you push a button,” he said.

Hossein Farzin, an agricultural and resource economics professor, agreed that illiteracy is a major problem, but for a different reason.

“Illiteracy is a good field for the fundamentalist Islamists to sow their seeds,” he said. “They basically brainwash the illiterate and use their emotion rather than their rational thinking.”

Farzin, who has worked as an economist for the World Bank and advised the governments of Kuwait, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, said there is a serious risk that if Mubarak’s government is deposed, radical Islamists could turn back the clock on any democratic progress Egypt has made.

“They are just waiting, waiting to hijack this movement,” Farzin said.

The most stinging response to this came from Yoo-Hyun Oak, a senior film studies major who tweeted:

“This is a disgusting article & you should be ashamed to publish such racist rhetoric; a pathetic attempt to be balanced.”

Another critique came from Omnia El-Shakry, an Egyptian UC Davis professor who I actually interviewed and quoted in the same article. In a comment on the article online, she wrote:

“I cannot believe this article. In the naive attempt to be balanced the author has included individuals who perpetuate the most racist and offensive conceptualization of democracy. Perhaps they are the ones suffering from a form of illiteracy.”

Joshua Clover, a UC Davis English professor, commented:

“The colonial rhetoric of 1955 and the slavery rhetoric of 1855 are one; apparently we are still speaking it today.”

Before I address the allegations of racism, let me first point out that my motivation for including these quotes had nothing to do with “balance.” I did not seek out “anti-Egypt” or “pro-Mubarak” professors to “balance” the article. I had no idea who any of these professors were or what they were going to say before I interviewed them. I merely contacted as many experts as I could in the time I had. The purpose of including these quotes was to provide as much insight into the situation as possible in this format.

Allow me also to provide some more context for Tuma’s comments. I talked to him by phone on Jan. 30. When he said, “They don’t know about democracy,” he was referring to people who have not been educated enough to be literate. He was not referring to Egyptians as a whole ethnicity. What he meant in this sentence was that because so many Egpytians are undereducated, they have never been exposed to democracy, which will make it extremely difficult for a true democratic republic (if that is ultimately the outcome of all of this) to survive.

Now, we can disagree about whether you need to have an educated populace in order to sustain a democratic republic, but is it racist to acknowledge that illiteracy might be an obstacle to achieving the goals these revolutionaries seek? I do not think it is.

And even if it were racist to say such a thing, it seems these commenters would have me pretend that such a thing was never said. To disagree with what Tuma and Farzin said is one thing. To suggest that it should not be printed is quite another. Censoring disagreeable opinions does nothing to make them go away.

Moreover, at no point during our conversation did Tuma suggest that being Egyptian made Egyptians undeserving or incapable of democracy. That would have been truly bigoted, but it bears no resemblance to what he actually said.

I realize now that I could have avoided some of this misinterpretation by formatting the quote differently. “[Many of the most illiterate] don’t know about democracy,” would have clarified the antecedent of the pronoun. That would have made it seem less like Tuma was making a blanket statement about the entirety of Egyptians. Lesson learned, I suppose.

On the issue of inaccurate illiteracy rates: It came to my attention after writing the article that the U.S. State Department’s numbers on Egyptian illiteracy are wildly inaccurate. The CIA Factbook and other reliable sources put the literacy rate in Egypt at about 71 percent. I have contacted the State Department to notify them of the discrepancy and to find out what their source is (since it’s obviously not the CIA). A public information officer said she would work on it; I have not heard back from her yet.