Egyptian women’s rights activist Samira Ibrahim was in the United States, about to become one of 10 recipients of the International Women of Courage award presented by Secretary of State John Kerry and first lady Michelle Obama.
Then the State Department announced it was withholding Ibrahim’s award while it investigated a series of tweets she purportedly made. One declared the suicide bombing of Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver a “sweet day.” In another, she described the Saudi ruling family as “dirtier than the Jews.”
Word of the tweets, which Ibrahim at first insisted were the result of her Twitter account being hacked but later admitted to making, reached the State Department from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The person who put the kibosh on Ibrahim’s March 2013 award was a fellow Egyptian, a Coptic Christian named Mina Abdelmalak, whose activism led him to flee to the United States where he is now the museum’s Arab world outreach specialist.
“His role was the critical role,” says Abdelmalak’s boss, Diane Saltzman, the Holocaust museum’s director for the initiative on Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. “He monitors the internet and social media where our issues are being talked about.”
She remembers being snowed in at home and hearing from Abdelmalak about Ibrahim’s tweets. “He contacted me and I contacted our contacts at the State Department,” she says.
Ibrahim did not receive her award.
For Abdelmalak, 27, the anti-Semitism in the Arab world that he monitors, studies and responds to is tied to the issue of human rights in his own Egypt :“I see myself as part of the solution, trying to create materials for Arabs and make [the Holocaust] relevant for Arabs.”
In its anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, the Arab world has found the same stumbling block on the way to modernity that the West faced, he says.
“The Holocaust was the biggest obstacle for modernity” – an event when the rationality and progress promised by the Western Enlightenment was overcome by irrationality. “The Holocaust came to say that human society is not developing.”
That irrational world is the one he left behind in Egypt.
“Arabs are still struggling with this,” he says. “Like finding a scapegoat for problems. For the most part, we blame everybody but ourselves. ‘ISIS is an American or Jewish conspiracy.’ What I do is try to indirectly or directly combat these narratives.”
He does this through printed material in Arabic that the museum publishes. But Abdelmalak looks for new ways to get the message out to Arabic-speaking readers. After the United Nations translated a museum-made film, Path to Nazi Genocide, into Arabic, Abdelmalak began promoting it using Google Ads. He’s researching how the contemporary Arab press covered the Holocaust for a possible online exhibit.
And when Arabic-speaking groups comes to the museum, Abdelmalak meets with them. “They come with some agendas,” he says, “but we seed the doubt in the anti-Semitic narrative.”
A current project is a pamphlet in Arabic answering the most basic of questions: “What was the Holocaust?” “What did the Nazis believe?” “Why were the Jews targeted?”
“In Egypt, whenever you go into a bookshop, the first thing you’ll see is Mein Kampf and the Protocols. “There is little knowledge of the Holocaust there, and most of it is mixed with denial.”
Enthralled by ideas
On a numbingly cold day in February, Abdelmalak appears in the museum’s Hall of Witness, having walked from his office in a nearby building. “This is my nightmare,” he says about the weather, about as un-Cairo-like as you could imagine.
Abdelmalak, it quickly becomes clear, is enthralled by ideas, particularly that of modernity and the Enlightenment – which have barely taken hold in the Arab world and were snuffed out in Europe under the Nazis. As an activist, he sees his role as nudging them a little further along at home.
“There is no one solution for the Arab world,” he says. “If you say democracy is the solution, I’m skeptical. Democracy itself is not a solution. It’s just a mechanism – it can get you the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The United States has given Egypt billions of dollars in military aid since the 1980s – but no ideas, he says. “There is no long-term vision.”
“He’s passionate,” says Hillah Culman, who is active in the American Jewish Committee’s Access group and calls Abdelmalak “one of my close buddies.” The two met at an interfaith event in 2013.
“From there a beautiful friendship came about.”
He was raised in Cairo in a conservative Coptic family, one brother to four sisters. Coptic Christianity predates the Muslim conquest of Egypt by centuries. Today, he says, “to be a Coptic in Egypt means you have to live in a shadow.”
It means that you cannot emerge in the light and be seen by the Muslim majority, or stake a claim in the public space and be seen by the government. Abdelmalak wasn’t suited for the shadows.
“By the end of high school, I couldn’t resist. So I started to contact human rights NGOs in Egypt. I got involved in Egyptian civil society.”
He received a bachelor of laws degree from Ain Shams University in Cairo and took advanced classes at the Academic University for Non-violence and Human Rights in the Arab World, in Lebanon. He went to demonstrations and with several friends “formed a think tank.”
These were the heady days of the Arab spring. But Abdelmalak and his friends “were skeptical of revolution. We believed that slow progress was the way to go.”
He won’t speak publicly about what caused him to move to the United States in October 2011.
It was before the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections that brought them to power for a time. “It didn’t take a genius to see that those people had a lot of support from the public,” he says.
The organizing idea for Abdelmalak is what he calls classical liberalism. It most resembles today’s conservatism, minus the focus on social issues. It’s the limited, pessimistic Enlightenment philosophy that helped shape the United States in the first place.
“We humans struggle to find the least evil model to survive,” he says.
In Washington, Abdelmalak found his first home as an intern at the House of Representatives, then as a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. Saltzman hired him at the Holocaust museum in July 2012.
‘More Jewish friends than Coptic friends’
“There are something like nine Jews in Egypt,” Abdelmalak says.
He never met a Jew until he came to America. In Washington, they are everywhere he goes. A friend who worked in Congress invited him to his first Passover seder. He’s been to Shabbat dinners. Saltzman has hosted him for Rosh Hashanah for two years running.
“The [Jewish] network is getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “Now I have more Jewish friends than Coptic friends.”
In Washington, Abdelmalak discovered that being a Copt is very different in America than in Egypt. He’s disconcerted by how his U.S.-born coreligionists have assimilated. “The second and third generation are very, very American.”
He’s disappointed, too, in what he sees as apathy toward the plight of fellow Copts in Egypt. “I’m not calling on them to all be Coptic activists. But when Copts are attacked, they could raise their awareness.”
On Feb. 15, the Islamic State released a gruesome video showing the beheading of 21 Copts. Days later, more than 70 people gathered in front of the White House for a silent vigil in memory of the victims.
The gathering was organized on Facebook by Abdelmalak, acting as an Egyptian activist, not an employee of the Holocaust museum.
“He promoted it. He got the permits. He invited people to come,” Culman says. “You know how you sometimes see protests and they’re screaming and pointing fingers? This was not pointing fingers. It was just unity.”
“It was cold,” Abdelmalak recalls.
“I think he really misses home,” Culman says. He missed his sister’s wedding and that really broke his heart.”
America – and particularly Washington – turned out to be nothing like what he saw in Cairo on Seinfeld, where the gang meets at the coffee shop to get into each other’s business and Kramer is forever sliding into the room.
“I thought America was like this,” he says. In reality, “to meet a friend of yours you have to schedule an appointment.”
He misses getting on the Cairo Metro and striking up a conversation with a stranger. “I miss the chaos of Cairo. When I feel like that I go to New York.”
“He’s definitely homesick and he definitely hates the winter,” Culman says.
But then there is the work. And with it the questions. “Anti-Semitism was a European phenomenon. So how did Arabs adopt this disease intellectually and give it an Islamic flavor?” he says.
The Middle East is emptying of Christians. As they’re now saying that France without Jews wouldn’t be France, the Egyptian activist who can’t go home right now considers his country without Copts.
“A pure Sunni Egypt would be a disaster,” he says. “Diversity gives liberal democracy rich layers.”