Sunday,18 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Sunday,18 February, 2018
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Drawing the veil on simmering disputes

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has intervened to deny claims by Islamists and conservative groups that the state is sponsoring a war against religion. Khaled Dawoud reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Over the past two weeks daily terrorist attacks in Cairo, Sinai and elsewhere which claimed dozens of victims, and regional wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria, have been all but ignored by television talk shows and the opinion pages of newspapers in favour of one journalist’s call for veiled women to organise a demonstration at Tahrir Square on 1 May in which they remove their veils to protest oppression by men and decades of propaganda by Islamist groups.

Sherif Al-Al-Shobashi, who spent years working as Al-Ahram’s correspondent in Paris and also served as an official at the Ministry of Culture, made his call in a recorded video message. He stressed he was not asking all Egyptian women to take off their veils, only those who had been forced by their parents or husbands to cover their heads. Girls as young as 4 years old were being asked to veil at some schools, he said. He also criticised arguments which Islamists and other conservative groups use to back up their demand women wear headscarves and cover their bodies: that it somehow spreads morality in society.

“If the hijab (veil) is a sign of leading an honourable life why do so many women serving time in prisons wear the veil?” asked Al-Al-Shobashi. He then went on to claim that “99 per cent of Egypt’s prostitutes are also veiled.”

Al-Al-Shobashi’s ridiculous claim quickly rebounded. Popular news website Al-Youm Al-Sabei twisted his words and reported the journalist had said 99 per cent of Egypt’s veiled women were prostitutes. The cynical headline spread like wild-fire, and Al-Shobashi soon found himself cast as public enemy number one.

Al-Shobashi’s basic position — that religious and conservative groups use the hijab for political purposes, forcing women to veil and then claiming their veiling is an expression of support for a religious state — is a familiar one. It has been repeated for years by secularists who, in Egypt, also claim the growth in influence of conservative oil-rich Arab Gulf states — millions of Egyptians spend time in the Gulf working — has deformed local culture.

Since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi as president on 3 July, 2013, Islamists have argued that what they term the military coup was directed not at the Muslim Brotherhood but any attempt to establish an Islamic state. They charge that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s repeated calls for “a reform of Islamic thinking” — calls that are believed to have encouraged men like Al-Shobashi to stake out their own positions — constitutes a “war against religion.”

But the simple fact is that the Muslim Brotherhood is not alone in pushing for the identification of Egypt as a conservative Islamic state.  Salafist groups, including the Nour Party, and the religious establishment of Al-Azhar — often promoted as the representative of a moderate, tolerant Islam — were also outraged by Al-Shobashi’s call.

Secular intellectuals in Egypt, they say, are abusing Al-Sisi’s call to renew Islamic thinking and reject extremist ideas that tolerate terrorism.  Instead they are using it to attack the key tenants of Islam, which they believe includes the veil.

They point to recent incidents in which a television presenter on a private channel, Islam Al-Beheiri, has devoted his talk show to attacking Islamic scholars who lived in the early centuries of Islam and whom Al-Azhar reveres as unquestioned authorities. Al-Beheiri has also attacked Al-Azhar itself, claiming many of its teachers are religious reactionaries, and the institution is riddled with extremists.

The Brotherhood, and other conservative Islamist groups seeking to promote the idea that Islam is under attack, were handed a propaganda gift when Bothaina Keshk, the deputy minister of education for Giza, took it on herself to organise a book burning session at a school previously owned by a Muslim Brotherhood businessman but now under government control. Keshk said her decision to burn books was part of the effort to confront extremist ideas, and that the volumes consigned to the flames were not included on the official list of texts provided by the Ministry of Education to school libraries.

The scene of books being burned in front of students as nationalist songs played and the school’s headmaster and other teachers were joined by Keshk in waving Egyptian flags provoked uproar among secular writers, including many supporters of Al-Sisi. Keshk might have thought she was supporting state effort to fight extremism, they said, but what she had really done was engage in an absurd action that would provide the government’s Islamist critics with ammunition.

The arguments reached such a pitch that Al-Sisi himself apparently felt a need to intervene. In a speech delivered at the Military Academy on 17 April, the president said that when he called for a renewal of Islamic thinking he had intended the task to be undertaken by “enlightened, respected scholars”.

“The manner in which this issue has been treated by some media outlets does not serve the cause of renewal. Religious discourse will not be reformed overnight. It needs the efforts of enlightened scholars. The issues are complex and have been ignored for too many years,” he said.

Al-Sisi, whose wife and daughter are veiled, asked those dealing with the issue of religious reform “to be careful”.

“Do not pressure public opinion and scare people in their homes. People hold nothing more dear than their religion. This issue should be addressed delicately and responsibly.”

Ibrahim Eissa, who presents a popular television talk show and has long been critical of the Brotherhood, Al-Azhar and Salafists groups, said Al-Sisi’s statements could only be interpreted as pulling the carpet from beneath the debate on religious reform that he had initiated. The conservative religious establishment, claimed Eissa, had clearly convinced Al-Sisi that an ongoing discussion on the role of religion in Egypt could harm his popularity.

Al-Shobashi and Eissa are both products of a generation that maintains Egypt enjoyed a generally liberal culture towards religion until the mid-1970s. The problems began, they claim, when President Anwar Al-Sadat decided to distance himself from the socialist, progressive policies of his predecessor, Nasser, and attempted to use Islamists as a counterbalance. He released Muslim Brotherhood leaders from prison, and began to be referred in the state-owned media as the “faithful president”.

Perhaps Sadat failed to anticipate that, in the absence of any political space for a coherent opposition Islamists would fill the vacuum. Soon they were a dominant force on university campuses and in professional syndicates.

As the state increasingly retreated from welfare provision, under Sadat and then, at an accelerated pace, under Mubarak, the Brotherhood, along with Salafist groups that enjoyed generous support from the Gulf, established a network of charity and health services in poorer areas that, alongside whatever good works they did also insisted it was a duty for women to veil and thus confirm the “Islamic identity” of Egypt.

Many Al-Sisi supporters have criticised Al-Shobashi’s call for women to protest against forced veiling, arguing that it hands a propaganda weapon to the Brotherhood and other extremist groups.

“Modernity doesn’t mean that we clash with religion,” says Suleiman Gouda, a columnist who supports Al-Sisi. “Such calls will not benefit the ongoing debate on the role of religion. They only provided ammunition for the enemies of the state and those who support terror.”

Criticism of Al-Shobashi was not limited to Egypt. Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al-Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, said any demonstration by women to take off the veil would be “a satanic gathering that violates God’s orders”.

“Muslims must be aware the hijab is an honour for the Muslim nation and a sign of dignity. Those who call for taking off the veil are enemies of Islam,” he said.

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