He extends a bridge to the other side, while standing firm in his convictions
Religion and reason
photo: Randa Shaath
A favourite visual image of Fahmy Howeidy with photographers is of him standing near a painting or work of art in his elegantly decorated home. The caption will typically read "Fahmy Howeidy, Islamist writer, standing next to a work of art in his house". This simple line might perhaps, more than anything else, conjure up the paradox that at times seems to beleaguer people's perceptions of who, exactly, Fahmy Howeidy is.
One of the Arab world's leading columnists, writing in the national daily Al-Ahram and syndicated to seven Arab publications, Howeidy over the past two decades has made his mark as a political analyst specialising in contemporary "Islamic" countries. He has produced articles and books, considered ground-breaking in Arab journalism, focussing on contemporary Iran, Afghanistan and Bosnia and shedding light on hitherto unknown terrain for the Arab reader, such as contemporary Islam in China and in African countries such as Senegal.
Bolstered by an analytical approach and by procedures of logical deduction based on facts, he espouses a world view in which Islam is a basic frame of reference for society and politics. For his many admirers, his reputation transcends that of the journalist to that of an intellectual "visionary" heralding a moral and political message. For his adversaries, mostly "secularists" and "liberals", Howeidy's unique combination of rationality and a religion-based disposition inspires more mixed reactions, from respect for his integrity and his desire to "engage in dialogue", to suspicions that beneath his logical discourse might, perhaps, be concealed some insidious agenda of militancy.
People who meet him for the first time are thus surprised to see, not a moralising pedant, but an unassuming, rather reserved man, whose wry humour and keen sense of the absurd made him start out his career as a cartoonist. An art-lover, his imprint is everywhere in the home he has filled with art-pieces scouted out on countless trips to China, Persia and Africa, and, when he had more time, the galleries and old antique shops of Cairo. Sitting in his home in Heliopolis, the 66-year-old Howeidy appeared to frown upon being, as he expressed it, "put in a slot".
"We have this thing about 'seals' in Egypt, you know, wanting to put a stamp on everyone, and say: this is an Islamist, this is a leftist, and so on. Look at any 'religious' programme on television and you will see the inevitable 'mediaeval' decoration, the 'oriental lantern' hanging in the background."
He poured out the tea, asking how much sugar to add. "But what is an 'Islamist' writer anyway? What should he look like? Must he be formidable looking with a beard? Should he be sitting in a cave with one eye and a dagger between his teeth? Should we all be Bin Ladens and Zawahris? Why can't a Muslim be a person like everyone else? It is a stamp that has been put on me."
He graduated from Cairo University's Faculty of Law. And, like the lawyer he was trained to be, he measures his words, honing his writing to persuade and to confront. He "never really thought of becoming a journalist", he says, "let alone an Islamist writer for that matter. But one thing just flowed from the other." While he is perceived as having several persona, he sees himself first and foremost as a journalist, his business card still carrying the simple word "reporter".
Howeidy started his career by drawing cartoons "by way of political commentary" for Al-Da'wa, a publication issued before the 1952 Revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood. His father, an employee in the Ministry of Justice, had participated in founding the Brotherhood along with its leader Hassan El-Banna. Although Howeidy himself never joined the organisation, he was thrice imprisoned during the rule of the late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the first time at the age of 16 for two years, because of his father's affiliation. He will not elaborate on an experience that appears to have been traumatic for him. Nor does he attach much significance to the impact that his father's inclinations might have had on him.
For Howeidy, like the greater part of his generation of intellectuals, socialist and pan-Arabist ideas also had a strong impact on his intellectual formation. He joined Al-Ahram in the late 1960s, and it is telling that the man whom he considers to be a mentor, who guided him towards an interest in the contemporary Islamic countries, was the secular, left-wing writer Ahmed Bahaaeddin, a journalist in the vanguard of the intellectual and journalistic scene of 1960s Egypt.
In the mid-1970s, Bahaaeddin, as Al-Ahram's then editor-in-chief, assigned Howeidy to establishing the daily's first ever "religion" page. "It was called religious, and not Islamic, because the idea was to have a comprehensive outlook, to invite a national dialogue on religion, where clerics and laymen, Muslims and Copts, would participate."
Al-Ahram's religion page swiftly broke out of narrow bounds, he recalls, tackling topics like marriage, divorce and life insurance, on which "the views of respected authorities in fiqh (Islamic law) such as Sheikh Ali El-Khafif were solicited". However, the mid-1970s were also a politically turbulent era, where confrontations between the late President Anwar El-Sadat and a number of prominent intellectuals led to their ostracism and transfer from their positions.
Howeidy left Egypt for Kuwait in 1979 to become managing editor of Al-Arabi, a monthly cultural magazine edited at the time as well by Ahmed Bahaaeddin, who had also moved to Kuwait. Assigned to undertake a series on the contemporary Islamic countries, it was in Kuwait that Howeidy first witnessed Iran's Islamic Revolution in books written by Ayatollah Al- Khomeini and spirited under various pen names into the Shi'ite district of Beneid Al-Gar where Howeidy lived. He was the first Arab journalist to visit Iran after the 1979 Revolution, boarding a plane transporting Shi'ite clerics to Iran to congratulate Khomeini after the fall of the late Shah Reza Pahlavi.
Howeidy's book Iran from the Inside, published in 1987, was an instant best-seller, its three editions sold out. It boosted his readership and with it, his reputation for being "Iran's man". He recalls, with a hint of irony, that he would be asked "to attend functions and speak in the name of the revolution, as if I were some kind of spokesman". He sympathised with the revolution, based on his well-researched understanding of the ideological and religious outlook which became its catalyst. However, he never lost sight of its "non-religious" causes which he diagnosed as social inequality, political repression under the Shah, and forced westernisation. His outlook was never one of unquestioning admiration nevertheless. Indeed, he "stopped", he says, "regarding the Iranian Revolution as an 'Islamic model' a long time ago".
Today, Howeidy sees the Iranian regime as undergoing "pressures that will ultimately lead to its changing some of its fundamental concepts, such as wilayat al faqih (government by men of religion) and the mullahs' tight control over political life". He sees "the conservatives" in Iran as needing to "work together with the reformists. However, they don't want to, and this is where the problem lies."
In his 1979 book, Howeidy also took issue with the political repression exercised by the mullahs against their political opponents. He questioned the enforcing of the veil on Iranian women, "which would induce them, the minute they boarded a plane, to take it off".
A personally devout man, who characterises himself as an "orthodox Muslim", he perceives religious ordinances, such as donning the veil, to be "one more step along the path to piety, but not one that should be enforced".
"I feel that our society is becoming too fixated on what you wear, what you look like, more than how you are, how you act, as a Muslim. I would like to see my daughters veiled," Howeidy admits, but the way in which he and their mother have brought them up, he says, places paramount value on their "independence and their freedom to make a choice". His whole outlook is driven by a desire "to engage in dialogue, to accept differences", yet this has never deterred him, when he felt the need, to brace himself for challenges, and to engage in intellectual onslaught.
In his book The Discourse of Secular Militancy in the Balance, he turns the tables on what he describes as "the group of extremist secularists and Marxists who show intolerance and incite hatred and fear towards all that is Islamic."
Today, he argues for the principle of "the Islamic state, which is different from the religious state. In the Islamic state, God is the source of law, 'Shari'a', but the nation is the source of authority, holding its rulers accountable to it." Howeidy also believes that the formation of "an Islamic political party" is imperative "as part of a civilisational and political project in countries where Muslims are the overriding majority and where non-Muslims participate also, based on the principle of brotherhood. The Islamic state is a democracy where faith becomes a basic frame of reference, and it is one that will not violate the principles of Islam, by legalising what is religiously prohibited."
The formation of an Islamic political party is important, Howeidy argues, "because of Islam's strong historic roots, its sanctity as a faith, and its overriding influence in the lives of Muslims. It is important, because it represents the mainstream." Secular, even Marxist parties, could operate in an Islamic state, Howeidy says, despite their reservations over the degree to which religion should govern public life.
"The final judge must be the ballot box. The Islamists need have no fear, as long as we go about things according to our constitution, which states that Islam is the main source of legislation and as long as there is no derision of the principles of religion." His arguments sound much like those of secularists, and he concedes that for him, "what is at stake is the defence of Islam as a faith, of the right to uphold it as a frame of reference."
Howeidy's acclaimed book Citizens, not Dhimmis also endeavoured to develop a modern concept of political participation and citizenship based on the Qur'an and Sunna (the Prophetic Traditions), upholding the premise that Christians in the Islamic state are citizens with rights and duties equal to those of their Muslim compatriots. They should not be considered as "dhimmis", a minority of subordinate status falling short of parity with its Muslim brethren, as had developed over the centuries in the body of religious law. In his book, Howeidy called for "a discriminating look at fiqh, excising from it elements of militancy and the alienation of non- Muslims, which resulted from historical circumstances of self-defence."
Today, in the aftermath of the US-led war on Iraq, he sees the future of the Arab region as "quite dim", because of the "secular despotisms that are no less repressive than those of the 'men of religion'. We have an obsession with criticising the rule of the mullahs, people governing in the name of religion. I am against this, because the idea of wilayat al faqih, government by men of religion, is not even part of Sunni Islam. None of the Al-Azhar clerics ever ruled. But what about the rule of secular regimes like the Ba'ath? What about governance by family and inherited rule? What about all the secular despotisms? I don't think the crisis of democracy lies in Islam, inasmuch as it does in the Arab world. Why is Islam not seen as antithetical to democracy in Malaysia or Pakistan?"
He adds "in all cases, I don't think that 'Islam is the solution' should be the motto. It should be 'democracy is the solution'. When a ship is sinking, you don't go seeking one of the passengers -- the Islamists -- and let the whole vessel sink."
His relationship with 'the Establishment' has not always been smooth. No stranger to having his articles censored, especially when they have dealt with "political sensitivities related to Arab regimes", he has learnt "to manoeuvre, to hit at the ceiling of freedom, but never quite to break it. You can say what you want in pieces; it does not all have to be one hundred per cent. One can say 80 per cent in one article, the rest in another, for example." Howeidy's articles written for the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Wafd in 2002 boosted the paper's sales and dealt with issues such as corruption in the media, and Howeidy continued to write for the publication until he felt that "the margin of freedom had been lowered and the Wafd Party had been coopted by the Egyptian state, which today has totally nationalised the opposition."
Because of his wide readership and his critical and unequivocal outlook, Howeidy's articles reverberate in a manner that he himself sees as "attaching to them more than their real significance". A recent article in the Saudi daily Asharq Al- Awsat criticised him, he says, "for wanting to please all trends: men, women, left, right. Sometimes I end up pleasing no one 100 per cent. They can't believe the issue is not about 'wanting to please everyone'; rather, it is about trying to exercise some balanced thinking."
Howeidy's detractors have accused him of being an "apologist" for militant Islamist groups, who has never explicitly denounced their violent acts. "When you talk of the militancy of extremist groups, why not also talk of the violence of the state versus these groups, and of the vicious circle that this is creating them?", he retorts.
He had written a book entitled Taliban, God's Soldiers in the Wrong Battle. In 2001, he coordinated a visit to Afghanistan undertaken by Muslim scholars and intellectuals in an attempt to dissuade the Taliban regime from destroying the statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan in the south of the country.
He remains, in the end, a combative writer who, though rarely naming his adversaries, will almost inevitably provoke them into responding to him. In the aftermath of the US-led war on Iraq he wrote of "the infiltration of the Arab media by the US, aimed at re-shaping the Arabs' perceptions of their identity, religion, and of the Arab-Israeli conflict to fall into line with what America considers its interests." His writings implied that writers favouring the US intervention in Iraq, or espousing its proclaimed "liberal" agenda, were "unpatriotic" to a degree bordering on treason.
"One can sometimes go off the mark, like any person who has his emotions and 'slip' sometimes," he admits. "When one is angry, this can happen." But then again, "I attack ideas, not persons. I think this is decisive in determining whether one is being objective or not."
"But I feel that those 'American' writers are writing with extreme audacity, and quite prolifically at that. Just as we condemn [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein, we must also condemn those who 'play' with the Americans. I feel one has to be 'harsh' because the wound they are probing is a deep one. It has to do with national dignity, and the fundamental principle of independence, which now, after 50 years, is being called into question."
He sees the concerns harboured by Muslims today as having made them "lose their sense of humour. As if you cannot be a Muslim and enjoy life." He speaks of a Canadian Muslim artist working in films, a girl "who is veiled and prays five times a day, but is also a comedian. She was interviewed and spoke about how Muslims need to bring fun into their lives, how they must bring the humour back into fundamentalism."
Today, his time is "totally closed", he says, "totally taken up with writing".
His only respite is when he travels on self- imposed assignments, or, more rarely, when he spends vacations by the sea with his family. He sees, in the visits paid to his home by his grandson, "which my wife and I wait for every day", a new lease on time, a chance to recapture moments he could have spent with his own son and two daughters, when they were younger "but never had the time to".
As his children matured, however, he became closer to them, appreciative of their differences and supportive of their desire to find their way, much as he himself has done.