Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'An issue of identity'

Gihan Shahine examines how the religious fervour now sweeping Egyptian society will stay on until further notice

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Masses of worshippers performing their Eid prayers

In the small hours of the Eid Al-Adha, one can hardly ignore the masses of worshippers rushing to mosques to perform their prayers. Once the prayers are over, people greet each other warmly and children hurry to distribute sweets to poorer children. Worshippers rush to slaughter sheep in order to feed the poor.

In Ramadan, the mosques are even more crowded with worshippers and acts of charity even more in evidence. Just go into the street before the devout break their fasts in Ramadan, and you will find charity tables on almost every street corner serving free meals to the poor, while people race to hand out dates and juice to those who have not been able to catch Iftar at home.

Religious tapes are bestsellers in Egypt, and it is estimated that up to 80 per cent of women are now wearing the veil. Orphanages and government hospitals are flooded with alms, while many children and adults are opting to attend the sermons and Quran classes that dot almost every mosque in Egypt. Reciting the Holy Quran is a common activity among passengers on public transport, while posters carrying religious slogans are all over the place -- in clubs, on public transport, in schools and at universities.

Such scenes of piety are perhaps one reason why a recent Gallup poll has ranked Egypt the most religious country in the world, followed by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, with 100 per cent of respondents saying that religion occupies an important place in their lives.

"An Islamic revival is reshaping Egypt and other Arab countries in ways beyond violent politics," writes journalist Caryle Murphy in Passion for Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East. In her attempt to explore Islam's contemporary revival through her observations of Egyptians encountered during her five years as Washington Post Cairo bureau chief, Murphy concludes that "just as the Nile runs through Egypt for almost eight hundred miles, giving it life, so also the Straight Way, the way of Allah, runs through it, beckoning its people. The search by Egypt's Muslims for a modern understanding of the Straight Way is the essence of today's passion for Islam."

Many would agree with prominent writer and expert on Islamic affairs Fahmy Howeidy that a wave of religiosity has swept Egyptian society since the 1967 setback in particular, when people resorted to religion as an outlet for their political frustrations. "That was the time when Sufism boomed in Egypt," Howeidy said. An Islamic revival ensued, and in Howeidy's view this "occurred as a natural evolution in the course of history and is an issue that is too complicated to be attributed to any one single reason."

Whereas some analysts might explain religious devotion as an outlet for people's political and economic frustration -- as a kind of personal solace at a time when unemployment and poverty are rife and when political and human rights are curtailed -- Howeidy would rather see it as "an issue of identity".

"The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 provided an example of how people could fight despotism and achieve liberty through adhering to an Islamic identity," Howeidy said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has also perhaps deepened religious fervour across the Middle East and made people more attached to an Islamic identity as a symbol of resistance.

But whether Egyptians are religious in the true sense of the word remains an issue of public debate, since some would also argue that at the same time as religious fervour is taking Egyptian society by storm, corruption is also taking an unprecedented toll. Secularists and leftists are among the staunchest critics of the current religious fervour, which has also swept through Egypt's estimated 10 million Coptic Christians, arguing that it has created tensions that are a far cry from the cosmopolitan Egypt of the 1960s.

Yet, any answer to the question of whether Egyptians are truly religious or not "depends on how you define religiosity," according to Samir Naim, a professor of sociology at Ain Shams University in Cairo. On the level of observing religious rituals, Egyptians may perhaps appear to be more religious than they were a decade or more ago. Mosques and churches are full of worshippers, charitable acts are more common, and more people fast and go on pilgrimages.

"But if we look at public ethics and people's personal conduct, which lie at the core of any religion, then religiosity may almost have reached zero point," Naim comments.

His argument is based on the fact that "corruption is rife in almost all domains of life. Bribery has become the rule of the day. People hardly work, or take pride in their work, and they are suffering from the onslaughts of poverty, oppression, lack of democracy and social justice, nepotism, child labour, sexual harassment and the whole economic, social and political system."

The worst results of all this, in Naim's view, is that people tend to observe superficialities or are attracted to extremist views. Naim is a staunch critic of the spread of the hijab and niqab among women, which he describes as a symbol of "pretentious" rather than "genuine" religiosity. His argument is close to that of many secularists. "If you look back at Egypt half a century ago, you would not find a single veiled woman and yet ethics and morals were much better, and there was no such thing as sexual harassment," he says.

For Howeidy, however, the recent rise in incidents of sexual harassment and corruption in Egypt is the result of other social ailments and it cannot be taken as a pretext to abandon modesty and religion. "Young men are already prey to a wave of nudity on satellite television channels, and this has come at the same time as unemployment is rife, the economy is bad, education is corrupt, and in the absence of any example to follow," Howeidy argues.

The fact that corruption is on the rise does not mean that people are not truly religious or that religiosity is superficial, he says. After all, "we are in a country of 80 million people, and in the same way that there are people who are corrupt, there are also other people who are truly religious. There is no study that shows that corruption is prevalent among those who appear to be pious."

"Those who are corrupt and are stealing the country's funds mostly fall into the category of the political elite, away from worshippers and mosque- frequenters," he says. Men who harass girls in the streets are definitely not among those who pray in mosques. "If those people who appear to be religious prove to be deviant, then there must be something wrong with their understanding of religion and the prevalent religious discourse and not the religion itself," Howeidy says.

For Sarah, a strictly veiled housewife, "people sometimes think that those who appear to be religious are angels, but we are all human beings, and, as such, we can still sink into sin in our attempt to follow the path of Allah. There is no utopia on earth." However, there might be a problem in understandings of religion itself since, as Sheikh Gamal Qotb, former head of Al-Azhar's fatwa committee, puts it, "the Islamic revival has been rather sudden and unsophisticated."

"We sometimes see women, for instance, wearing the veil without fully understanding the values it stands for -- in other words, that they should first purify their tongues, minds and hearts before they succumb to God's religious obligations and cover their heads," Qotb explains.

A superficial understanding of religion of this sort could be "a reaction to the media's antagonism towards whatever is Islamic," Qotb says. "This animosity on the part of the media has backfired on people who have decided to defend their religion and themselves in ways they see as possible, even if this means only adopting religious symbols such as the hijab or wearing beards."

For his part, Howeidy concurs that the discourse the state tries to spread is one that sees religion as being confined to the performance of rituals, in other words a discourse that "confines religion to mosques, outside of which people are encouraged to do whatever they want."

According to Moataz-Bellah Abdel-Fattah, an expert on Middle Eastern politics and Islamic studies and a professor of political science at Central Michigan University in the US and Cairo University in Egypt, this discourse is often adopted by secular leftists, and it is one that "limits Islam to the personal domain, depriving it of any role as far as legislation and political action are concerned."

At a time when people are looking to religion to provide an outlet for their disappointment at the government's failures to improve quality of life, Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's most prestigious seat of learning, is perhaps losing its credibility with the public and is being perceived as merely the mouthpiece of the government.

According to Qotb, this has left a vacuum into which religious waves can flow.

Sufism has proliferated, and Shia and Wahhabi trends have gained popularity. For Qotb, the danger of these "foreign schools of thinking resides in the fact that they were born in other cultures. As such, they carry thoughts that are sometimes alien to Egyptian society."

"Religious edicts should be grounded in the environment of the society in which they are born, and as such should conform to both time and place," Qotb said. Some of these religious discourses also tend to focus on the ritualistic part of religion at the expense of the broader meaning of religious observance, and this has reflected in public withdrawal from political participation and cultural activities, Qotb says.

The fact that some of these schools of thought "reduce religion to issues of the niqab, beard and galabiya makes those who belong to them feel outside their own society and causes them to indulge in fantasies of other societies more in line with their ways of thinking," Qotb says.

He adds that such people may now have little faith in Al-Azhar, and their feelings of alienation have sometimes driven them to seek solutions in foreign forms of Islam, such as Shiism. Meanwhile, "the propaganda surrounding Sufism has lent it further popularity, which again is dangerous since it encourages its followers to close themselves off in mosques and to devote themselves to ritual practices without becoming involved in the wider society," Qotb says.

By contrast, in his book Islam without Fear, the American writer Raymond William Baker refers to a new trend of wassatiya, "a movement [which] rejects both Islamist and secular extremists and offers a modern perspective of Islam that also departs from the traditionalists."

This movement, spearheaded in Egypt by the late Mohamed El-Ghazali and adopted by such figures as Youssef El-Qaradawi, Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd and Fahmy Howeidy, attempts to strike a balance between "Westernisers" and "those who feel threatened by this and retreat into Islamic movements. They are very opposed to individuals concentrating on their own personal reform and argue that societal reform should take a greater place."

A perhaps broader understanding of religion of this sort did indeed flourish in the late 1990s with the emergence of a new style of young lay preachers, the most prominent of whom was Amr Khaled, who adopted a discourse that attempted to reconcile Islam with modern lifestyles. This new discourse was seen as one reason behind the religious fervour that swept through young people of middle and upper-middle class origin, as well as behind the spread of the veil among women.

Khaled was the first Islamic televangelist whose moderate preaching, charismatic personality and clever use of barrier-breaking technology influenced the lives of millions of young Muslims across the world. His message has always been directed at young people and the higher strata of society, his discourse witnessing a gradual shift from a purely spiritual message of piety and devotion to God to social development based on faith, and most recently, to dialogue with the West.

Khaled's religious discourse promotes social activism, job creation and development as the only means to fight despair, unemployment, extremism and injustice. Today, young people are told that giving up smoking, fighting drug addiction, cleaning the streets, planting their building rooftops, educating the public, and even engaging in fitness exercises are all part of the worship of God.

A discourse of this sort has been adopted by many other younger preachers, such as Mustafa Hosni and Moez Massoud, and, according to a study by the Danish Institute for International Studies, it has inspired an unprecedented boom in voluntary work by young people.

The phenomenon of Muslim youth organisations appeared around the year 2000, and these engage young volunteers who "use Islam as inspiration and motivation for active engagement in society" and for changing and developing their countries.

Such young people, according to the Danish study, "assign Islam an important role without applying the language of Political Islam, which propagates the establishment of an Islamic state. Instead, they view Islam as instrumental in helping the individual to become an active and useful citizen, and as a religion which is not confined to rituals, but one that promotes social activism, improving oneself and one's community."

Young people involved in such organisations were often inspired by Khaled's satellite TV programme "Life Makers", and they represent "a new and somewhat different understanding and application of Islam," the Danish study says, which focuses on making "Islam a natural part of [the volunteers' and their target groups'] daily lives."

However, Khaled was banned from preaching in Egypt, as "was every moderate voice", Howeidy says. In the same way, "the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed, and Al-Azhar was weakened by turning it into a government mouthpiece, leaving a vacuum that could easily be filled with distorted thoughts."

On the prospects for religion in Egypt, Howeidy provides a dim outlook. "When lions are absent, monkeys jump in, and if this state of vacuum persists, we will be in a state of chaos -- a mishmash of all trends and schools of thought."

For Naim, however, everything will depend on how far Egypt is able to develop economically, socially and politically. "Only if a national development project achieves prosperity, productivity and social justice, and only when health, education and housing services are improved, will religion be applied in its essence and Muslims be able to adhere to the true teachings of Islam," Naim said.

Otherwise, he expects "morals to get worse and religion to be reduced to a matter of appearances and to serve as an outlet for people's frustrations."

Experts' viewpoints aside, a middle-aged veiled woman who talked to the Weekly on her way to a Quran lesson in one of the mosques in Nasr City, provided a different outlook, which may be that of many of those today attending the sermons in mosques.

"More and more children of the higher strata of society are now studying and memorising the Quran and, in the meantime are receiving quality education," she said. "I foresee a new generation of Muslims with a correct understanding of religion, who will be able to combine ethics, religious rituals and success in academic and professional life."

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