Letter From Cairo: Behind Mubarak

The Mohandessin section of Cairo is a fashionable district on the west bank of the Nile that contains a number of embassies, boutiques, and American fast-food restaurants. It also houses the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, which is named after a physician and Islamic television personality who founded it, twenty years ago. On Friday, September 21st, I arrived at the mosque just as the first worshippers were making their way there, and the egalitarianism that is one of the great virtues of the Muslim prayer service was evident: they were dark-skinned and light, rich and poor; one man drove up in a blue Jaguar; others, wearing grease-stained galabiyas and crude sandals, came on foot, or by donkey cart. (Women, as is customary, prayed apart, in another, smaller hall.) I had arranged to meet the mosque's imam, Sheikh Nasser Abdelrazi. A slight, anxious man, he preemptively offered up the observation that "Muslims are gentle and Islam is peace."

Many in Cairo are on the defensive in the wake of the terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Greater Cairo, a city of sixteen million people, is the intellectual capital of the Arab world-home to its moviemakers, many of its great writers, and some of its most respected interpreters of Islam. Muslim leaders here are sensitive to the image of their faith-especially now, because Egyptians are among those allegedly involved in the attacks. Muhammad Atta, who is believed to have flown one of the hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, is the son of a middle-class Cairo lawyer. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a former leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a fundamentalist group that sought to turn Egypt into an Islamic state, is said to be second-in-command to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile who is suspected of directing the attacks.
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