Sunday, July 18, 2010
A special report on Egypt: Saving faith
Written by Economist
16 July 2010
Islam seems to be fading as a revolutionary force
Who needs hairdressers?
EDWARD LANE, an English orientalist, published a classic account of Egyptian society in the 1830s. Impressed with much else, he had this to say about religion in Egypt: “It is considered the highest honour among the Muslims to be religious; but the desire to appear so leads many into hypocrisy and pharisaical ostentation.”
The same observation might be made today. A generation ago it was rare to hear the Koran recited, except on formal occasions such as funerals or during the fasting month of Ramadan. Nowadays the word of God is a constant companion, wafting from taxi cabs and buses, barber’s shops and fast-food outlets, dental clinics and supermarkets.
The call to prayer not only sounds five times daily from minarets but all the time from everywhere: millions of Egyptians have downloaded it as a ringtone for their mobile phones. Step into many shops at noon and you will be told to return after prayers. Call in to the main control room of Egyptian State Railways and you may find the chief operator similarly disengaged, as one panicked signalman did last year when a train stalled on the tracks. He was unable to prevent the next train from crashing into the first, killing 18 people and prompting the resignation of Egypt’s transport minister.
Tune to one of 400 Arabic-language channels carried by Nilesat, a satellite owned by the Egyptian government, and the chances are you will come across a bearded sheikh, such as one who recently berated youths for knowing the names of more football players than of the prophet Muhammad’s companions. Millions of Egyptians thrilled by the World Cup clearly ignore such advice. But plenty observe it in spirit: a sample of 10-29-year-olds questioned in a national survey claimed they spent an average of 40 minutes on religious devotions every day. That makes 243 hours a year, or more than a full year in an average lifetime. And that leaves out other devotions, such as fasting in Ramadan, or the pilgrimages to Mecca which draw nearly 700,000 Egyptians a year.
What goes for Islam also goes for the Coptic Orthodox church, whose 7m or so Egyptian adherents make up the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Its services are packed and the number of novices in dozens of Coptic monasteries is at record levels. Well-funded by rich patrons, the Coptic church remains extremely conservative. Pope Shenouda III, its patriarch since 1971, makes the Catholic one look like Dr Phil, a TV psychologist. Not content to ban divorce, his church will not condone a second marriage for anyone who might actually have managed to get out of the first one.
Turning to higher things
The current generation of Egyptians is living through a full-scale religious revival. Scholars ascribe the trend to many causes. Some say the shock of defeat in the 1967 war prompted a return to older traditions. Others speculate that rapid population growth and rural migration overwhelmed the secular-minded urban elite of the 1960s. Yet others point to the return of Egyptian workers from rich Arab Gulf countries, having acquired their conservative mores. And there is the influence of world events, with the never-ending plight of the Palestinians, plus Western incursions into other Muslim lands, serving to reinforce attachment to a faith that is seen as under threat.
Some say that Egypt’s revived religiosity reflects not a return to old ways but a move to more modern ones. If more Egyptians read the Koran, perhaps it is because more are literate. Bible-reading and religious study similarly swept Europe when literacy first spread. If more Egyptian women don the veil, it is for temporal reasons as much as religious ones. Unlike their grandmothers, they travel on public transport to work or school. Headscarves keep hair clean, declare seriousness and modesty to pestering men and are a cheap way to make oneself look presentable.
It is only natural that religiosity should extend to politics, particularly given Islamic traditions that, in the absence of a Muslim “church”, see defence of the faith as a duty of the state. The Muslim Brotherhood has promoted this notion since its founding in 1928. Under the severe repression of the Nasser years the movement splintered, fostering radical offshoots that helped seed the global jihadism of al-Qaeda. Such developments were responsible for the assassination of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981, and for later terrorist attacks against tourists.
These, mercifully, have grown much rarer in Egypt in recent years. Mass arrests in the 1990s put thousands of extremists in jail, chased others offshore and convinced most Egyptian jihadist leaders to renounce violence. The mainstream Brotherhood has long since done so, espousing a gradual Islamisation of society and political pluralism, albeit within a hazily defined Islamic framework. It has never come close to power in Egypt, but exerts subtle influence through social work and has been a strong force in trade unions.
The Egyptian state, ostensibly secular, pretends to be a bulwark against the Brotherhood’s ambitions. It earns fat revenues from alcohol taxes and hotel casinos. Yet in other ways the government outbids the Brotherhood in championing Sunni orthodoxy. President Sadat amended the constitution to enshrine Islamic sharia as the “principal source” of legislation, which leaves matters suitably vague. Police hound Shias, Ahmadis and other “deviant” Muslim sects.
The central government vets the qualifications and pays the salaries of most of the preachers in the country’s 75,000 mosques. Egypt’s president appoints the head of al-Azhar, Cairo’s 1,000 year-old seat of Islamic learning, an institution that includes Egypt’s largest university, with 335,000 students, as well as a network of schools with nearly 2m more. By law, al-Azhar has the right to censor books that touch on religion. It recently launched Azhari TV, a satellite channel promoting centrist, moderate Islam in a bid to stop the encroachment of Saudi-inspired fundamentalism.
The state has often seemed to prefer tokenism to real equality for Coptic Christians, who serve at many levels of government but remain starkly under-represented in the security establishment. The police have proven peculiarly inept at stemming sporadic but recurrent bouts of sectarian strife. Typically, such episodes end with burned churches, mass arrests and a government-imposed “reconciliation” that leaves Muslim antagonists unpunished. Such incidents often have their roots in petty local squabbles, but their tendency to take nasty sectarian turns has left Copts feeling vulnerable, making them cling even more tightly to their church.
Some observers detect signs that the wave of religiosity which started in the 1970s may have crested. They note, for instance, that fashions in veils have switched from frumpy wimples in sombre shades to colourful headgear, often combined with make-up and tight jeans. Less plain to the eye is a shift in ideological fashions, away from activist and public kinds of Islamism to quieter and more private pursuits of faith. The symbols of commitment among today’s radical youth are no longer guns and beards but pious conduct and knowledge of scripture. The religious wave has certainly not passed and may still carry a lot in its wake. But in Egypt, at least, it no longer looks like a revolutionary force.
In this special report
•The long wait
•The best man always wins
•A favoured spot
•A slow learning curve