Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 April 2006
Issue No. 790
Press review
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Take it down

Dina Ezzat fails to understand the significance of the debate

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At a time when the Egyptian press, even in its most pro-government set-up, is heralding non-stop news about the crisis in containing bird flu, the drop in the quality of university education and the increase of corruption, this very same press found it significant -- for a reason it failed to share with the reader -- to engage itself in an endless debate on whether Islam, the religion of the majority but not all Egyptians, allows Muslims to keep statues for purposes of interior decoration.

This was not an issue confined to the pages of fikr deeni (religious or rather Islamic) thinking -- since they offer nothing about Coptic matters. The issue was discussed in the opinion pages, columns and even letters to the editor. Top religious authorities, who have now become regular features of the press and all forms of media, had much to say. Some suggested it was wrong to keep statues for any purpose and even called for the elimination of statues from the capital's main streets, not specifying whether this should include the Ramses II statue in the heart of Cairo, leaving the reader wondering whether it was a religious mistake to stop a taxi driver and ask him to drive to Ramses Square.

Other religious figures, more moderate, the reader was inclined to conclude, suggested it was alright to have small statues or half statues, arguing that since Arabs prayed for full statues prior to the revelation of Islam, then practising Muslims should refrain from keeping statues in their homes.

Luckily enough, in the middle of this debate, some commentators had the courage to speak out against the absurdity of the discussion, especially at this time of serious national and for that matter religious issues that merits dedicated attention from Arabs and Muslims, especially the tarnished image of Arab culture and Islamic civilisation in many parts of the world.

Other commentators had an interesting and profoundly intellectual contribution to make what was otherwise turning into a most irritating debate (after all, any feature writer could have easily told all concerned parties that the price of the ugliest statue goes way beyond the means of the vast majority of Egyptians).

In her regular column in the weekly Al-Qahira, that comes out on Tuesday, Safinaz Kazim, a culture critic who applies strict Islamic standards to her views, offered some sense. "It is a fact that Islam as a religion preaches a conduct of 'abstraction' and this does not match with the concepts of figuration as applied in art," Kazim elegantly explained.

The debate continued to consume column inches to the extent that it prompted a man, as the crime pages reported, to enter a sweets shop and attempt to knock down the sugar-made dolls and horses that are traditionally meant to celebrate the birth of Prophet Mohamed which was marked on Monday. And the debate evolved into a more disturbing fuss on the religious implication of keeping photo albums and putting paintings on the walls of homes of good Muslims.

The reader who found no fun in following the issue must have enjoyed the furore inspired by the bombshell by Sudanese religious/political figure Hassan Al-Torabi earlier in the week when he contradicted every single Muslim scholar known for the past 15 centuries by saying that Muslim women are entitled to marry Christian and Jewish men. Moreover, Al-Torabi's views, which were front-page in a good segment of the Egyptian press, argued what very few Muslim scholars dared to argue over the centuries: women's Islamic hijab is meant to cover a woman's chest, not her hair.

When it comes to contemplating less restrictions, not to mention more freedoms for women, the entire apparatus of chauvinism was geared to remind the reader that Al-Torabi is simply going mad. This was perhaps one of the very few, if not rare moments, when journalists could forget about their political affiliations and join forces to stress what all Muslim scholars would underline: a good Muslim woman need not even think about what Al-Torabi said.

"Islam is the highest religion. As such it has to be above, not below, a lesser religion; it is therefore impossible for a Muslim woman to allow a kitabi (Christian or Jewish) man to marry her; what is higher cannot go below what is lower," controversial cleric Youssef El-Badri told Al-Masry Al-Yom in a front page story it ran on Tuesday to reflect on the reaction of Muslim scholars to Al-Torabi's "shocking words". Its humble back page box on Sunday covered the unusually visionary statement by the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa who lamented the decline of women's status and prominence in the Muslim world of today.

Better still, the daily Rose El-Youssef offered the best religious debate of all. In a two-page spread on Sunday with the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, the hard-core anti-Brotherhood daily managed to provoke Mahdi Akef to argue that when it comes to Islam there is no national or religious border and on that basis he does not care very much about Egypt. "Muslims are one nation. There is no Malaysian, Saudi, Egyptian; there is nobody from the East or the West; there are simply Muslims. We are one nation divided by the imperial powers that gave us nationality that are now ours. Our nationality is Islam and forget about Egypt and those who live in Egypt."

Akef's interview, which prompted a debate in the following days, especially in Rose El-Youssef, included other gems, especially in relation to highlighting the lesser status of Christians in Muslim countries -- Egypt included.

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