- The wicked prowl on every side, when vileness is exalted among the sons of men. (Psalm 12)
- Knowledge will not give you a part of itself unless you give it your whole, And in giving your whole you are treading a dangerous path. (Abu Hanifa al-No'man)
- In our tongues so glib
Our very deaths reside
We have paid dearly for our gift of the gab
- No wonder the war ended in defeat, not victory,
For we waged it with all the Orient’s gift for oratory,
With quixotic hyperbole that never killed a fly,
Fighting in the logic of fiddle and drum.
- We have donned a thin veneer of civilization
While our soul remains mired in the Dark Ages.
- The wise man’s mind will even in bliss cause him misery,
While the fool in abject misery will a happy man be.
It is futile to separate from his ignorance
He who does not repent,
Or to address him who lacks sagacity.
- What distinguishes one thief from another
Is where he stands on the power ladder
On a low rung he faces a shameful death
On a high, he reaps honour with every breath.
Is Islam one of the most important shapers of the culture, mind-set, way of life, thought processes, opinions and reactions of Muslims? Most emphatically “YES”. But that is not a satisfactory answer for analysts concerned with both diagnosis and cure, and it to them that this article is addressed. So let us flesh out the answer by trying to define what is meant by Islam here.
Is it Islamic Scripture?
Is it how people interpret Scripture?
Is it Islamic jurisprudence?
If so, which school of jurisprudence?
Is it historical experience?
If so, what particular experience?
Indeed, which Islam?
Is it Islam as understood by the Umayyads or by the Abbasids?
Is it Islamic jurisprudence according to Abu Hanifa, ibn-Malek, al-Shafei or ibn-Hanbal and his disciples [notably ibn-Taymiyah, ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya and the proselyter Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab]?
Or is it Islamic jurisprudence according to the Imameya school (whose most prominent exponent was Ja'far Al-Sadiq) or to the Khawarij (who had four subdivisions, the most important being the Abadeya Khawarij)?
And can one talk of a single homogeneous Islamic experience? After all, the experience of Damascus under the Umayyads was very different from the experience of Abbasid Baghdad, while both were very different from the historical experience of Andalusia, where a unique bonding between Muslims and Jews produced such great thinkers as the Muslim Ibn Rushd [Averoess] and the Jewish Ibn Maymoun [Maimonides].
In truth, Scripture in and of itself means little when invoked out of context. Here the quality, mind and vision of the person dealing with the text is all-important. For example, Ibn Rushd deals with Scripture in a very different manner from ibn-Taymiyah, Al-Mawdoody and Sayed Qutb.
The practice of relying on one text while ignoring another is a destructive process that lends itself to abuse. As a student of the Torah and the Talmud, particularly the Babylonian Talmud known as the Gemara, I do not allow myself to take at face value the words spoken by Joshua, son of Nun, on a certain occasion in a given context. By the same token, I cannot accept that saddaq (dowry) is an article of Jewish faith just because King Saul demanded it from David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem (King David for the Jews, the Prophet David for the Muslims) for the hand of his daughter Michal. I cannot go around brandishing this text as a divine revelation outside its historical, human and chronological framework.
In short, we are dealing here with not just one single model of Islam but with a multitude of interpretations by different schools. For example, the number of the Prophet's Hadiths regarded as sources of religious doctrine and practice varies widely from one school to another. The great jurist Abu Hanifa accepts just over a hundred as apostolic precept, while the conservative theologian Ahmed ibn-Hanbal accepts over ten thousand in his book Al-Musnad.
Sources of jurisprudence also differ from one school to another, with the Hanafites relying on istihsan [using few traditions and extracting from the Qur'an the rulings which fit their ideas] and the Malakites on istislah [public advantage].
Then we have those who insist on a dogmatic interpretation of holy texts and others who, like Ibn Rushd, eschewed narrow interpretation in favour of deductive reasoning [al ta'weel].
Even when it comes to the drinking of spirits, we have different opinions. While most jurists interpret the text addressing the subject as banning drinking altogether, others like Abu Hanifa believe the ban applies only to intoxication. He makes his views on the subject clear in the following passage:
"If it gets me thrown into Hell I will not drink it,
But even if I am thrown into Hell I will not call it sinful."
Side by side with all these different trends, creeds and schools, Islam has had its share of fanatical hard-liners through the ages, from its inception up to the present. Among the earliest was Hamdan ibn Qarmat, who carried away the Black Stone of the Ka'bah, and the latest is the man now living in the caves of Wazirstan, Osman bin Laden. In between these was Sayed Qutb, who came up with a theory that will remain a wall separating Muslims from the rest of humanity and from any hope of progress until it is torn down. Known as the "theory of divine dominion," it postulates that mortals are not ruled by mortals but by God. And who, you might well ask, will make God's wishes known to us? The answer is, of course, "we, the 'ulamas"! It is a theory that holds Muslims hostage to a theocracy overtaken by the march of human progress and places them at the mercy of a power structure dominated by a caste of clerics, even though we have repeatedly stated that there is no such thing as a clergy in Islam, no intermediaries between Man and God. As to the farcical notion of men of religion passing themselves off as men of wide learning, which is the English translation of the word 'ulama, a recent incident illustrates just how limited their fund of knowledge really is. In the course of a debate a few weeks ago, someone asked one of these 'ulamas, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whether he knew who Bill Gates was. His reply: "I don't, and it is not important to know!" This amazing reply also shows how insular and isolated from the realities of modern life these self-appointed authorities are.
Islamic texts are amenable to many interpretations. Some of the earliest converts to Islam admitted as much some one thousand four hundred years ago when they said "The Qur'an displays many faces." In other words, what counts is not the text but the person who reads, understands and presents it.
Muslims have known extremely tolerant societies, but always outside the Arabian Peninsula, in Egypt, Syria, Andalusia and the Arab Maghreb. As Bernard Lewis said, the Jews played their greatest roles in history twice:
Once under the Muslims (in the past)
And once under the Christians (in the present).
There have always been people like Al-Mawdoody, Sayed Qutb, Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahery and Mus'aab Al-Zarqawy in the history of Islam, but they were a renegade and marginal minority - until recently. The tragedy today is that they are no longer marginal: their message is now reaching huge numbers and they are gaining new supporters and sympathizers every day.
Because under the yoke of tyranny, corruption and despotism, the Muslim societies that once accepted to live in peace with the rest of humanity [Egypt, Syria and the Arab Maghreb] are caught in a downward spiral. The sharp decline in living standards, coupled with a deteriorating political, economic, cultural and educational climate, rendered them vulnerable to the infiltration of alien ideas blowing in from the deserts of Najd, obscurantist and fanatical ideas forged in the intellectually barren landscape of the eastern Arabian Peninsula.
This Bedouin model of Islam produced the Saudi Brotherhood who waged war on King Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud [1870-1953] in the nineteen twenties. It has since metamorphosed into a powerful ideology thanks to the ideas of Sayed Qutb, petrodollars and a series of blunders on the part of international, regional and local players. One such blunder was what happened in Afghanistan at the end of the seventies. Another was the late President Sadat's ill-advised decision to give free rein to Islamic groups and consider them allies in his war on the Left. Not surprisingly, the move was orchestrated by senior members of the Muslim brotherhood acting through their mouthpiece, the wealthy businessman and close confidante of Sadat, Osman Ahmed Osman.
And so the world, having rid itself of Fascism and Nazism then of Communism, now finds itself locked in yet another confrontation, this time with a brand of militant political Islam. This relatively recent phenomenon is the direct result of a shift in the centre of gravity in the Muslim world, where the leadership once enjoyed by the moderate and tolerant brand of Islam that prevailed in Egypt, Syria, Turkey and the Arab Maghreb has been taken over by the obscurantist and fanatical model spawned in the harsh deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. An ideological blend of Wahhabism and the ideas of Sayed Qutb, and with a vast reservoir of petrodollars to draw on, this model of Islam has become a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, a force that is opposed to progress, civilization and cultural and religious diversity.
This Part deals with the reasons why Muslims are moving away from tolerant and moderate mainstream Islam and embracing the fanatical and xenophobic message of militant political Islam, which preaches hatred of the Other and calls for a return by Muslim societies to the Dark Ages where tyranny and despotism prevailed and women and non-Muslims were treated as lesser beings.
The Future of the Muslim Mind.
I- The Big Change in Islamic Societies.
A comparison between Islamic and Arab societies today and those of a century ago reveals how much more widespread the ‘mentality of violence’ has become in today’s societies. But the real danger lies less in the mentality of violence that has come to permeate many, if not all, sectors of Islamic and Arab societies than in the spread of the culture that is conducive to its growth and development. This culture is what spawns militants who promote the mentality of violence and the general climate that allows it to take hold. I believe five factors are responsible for the phenomenon: political oppression (at the hands of autocratic forms of government marked by a lack of democracy); the rise of the Wahhabi brand of Islam (along with the retreat of the tolerant model which had prevailed for centuries); the spread of tribal values which came with the spread of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam; educational systems that are completely divorced from the age; and, finally, widespread corruption, which is the inevitable result of political oppression.
Possibly the most dangerous of the many negative effects of political oppression is that it kills social mobility, in the sense that it denies the best elements in society the opportunity to rise to leading positions in various fields. The death of a healthy process of social mobility makes for a static situation in which inept and mediocre elements come to occupy top positions by dint of accepting, indeed, of supporting, oppression and through unquestioning loyalty to their superiors. As oppression kills social mobility, so does the lack of social mobility kill competence in all fields. Oppression produces followers, not competent people, with the result that widespread mediocrity becomes the norm. This produces a general climate of despair, and from this comes the mentality of violence, with its attendant devaluation of the value of human life, whether of oneself or of others. In other words, Arab and Islamic societies in general are today caught in an equation which I call ‘the equation of destruction’: autocracy kills social mobility; lack of social mobility destroys competence at all societal levels; lack of competence at all societal levels creates a powerful evil energy which is despair; despair breeds a mentality of violence, cheapens the value of human life and creates a desire for revenge.
Over the last four decades, many have written about the rising violence in a large number of Islamic and Arab societies; strangely enough, none of them used the terms ‘competent’ or ‘incompetent’ in their analysis of this phenomenon. This is as true of eminent professors in top-notch universities, like Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington, as it is of journalists. I have never come across this key word in all my readings on the subject. This calls to mind a talk I gave a few years ago to MBA students at the American University in Cairo, in which I remarked that in hundreds of conversations I had had with various interlocutors about public figures, both local and international, the word competence never came up. It is an incomprehensible omission, especially for a management man like myself, who knows that problems are created by lack of competence while success in all its forms comes from competence. In fact, I believe the despair felt by so many in Islamic and Arab societies, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that breeds anger then violence, stems from the fact that these societies are run by human resources selected not for their competence but for their subservience and allegiance. After all, competence, as defined by modern management science, is of no great concern to an autocratic political system.
Educational systems that are out of step with the age are a vital link in the chain of destruction. Educational systems in most Islamic and Arab societies encourage insularity and reinforce a sense of isolation from the rest of humanity, promote fanaticism and lay down, without any scientific basis, religious frameworks for struggles that are purely political. By invoking religious texts taken out of context they not only promote intolerance, non-acceptance of ‘the Other’, and a lack of belief in pluralism, but consecrate the lowly status of women. Moreover, most of the curricula are designed to develop a mentality of ‘answering’ rather than of ‘questioning,’ in a world where progress and development are driven by the dynamics of questioning. In most Islamic and Arab societies, educational programmes fail to instill in the minds of the young that ‘progress’ is a human process, in the sense that its mechanisms are neither eastern nor western, but universal. This is borne out by the fact that the list of most advanced countries in the world includes some that are Western/Christian, like the United States and Western Europe, and others with a Japanese, Chinese or Muslim background (like Malaysia). There is a clear and growing tendency in the humanities and social sciences to disengage, as it were, from the common fund of human experience, the cumulative legacy built up over the ages by various civilizations. In a lecture I delivered recently at a British University, I said that in the sixties I had read most of the classics, from Homer to Sartre, passing through hundreds of names, languages and backgrounds. Like many of my contemporaries, I read these works in Arabic. The unfettered access we had at the time to the timeless classics of world literature linked us to humanity in a way that is inconceivable today, with the paucity of translations in the cultural arena in Arab and Islamic countries. My audience at that lecture were amazed to learn that, along with others of my generation, I had read Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Racine, Moliere, Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, all the Russian classics, Flaubert, Balzac, Bernard Shaw, Pirandello, Albert Camus, Steinbeck, Faulkner and the gems of German philosophy in Arabic, translated by people predominantly from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and published mainly in Egypt and Lebanon. Today, the gap between the minds of young people in Islamic and Arab societies and the masterpieces of human creativity has increased dramatically. In addition, the new generations have become increasingly ‘local’, setting themselves still further apart from humanity and increasing the mentality of violence and its culture.
II - Muslims and the Clash of Civilizations.
The mentality of violence is the product of internal factors, a variable that has emerged only in the last four decades, and its inclusion as a constant in the ‘clash of civilizations’ paradigm is not only forced but belongs more to the realm of science fiction than political analysis. A case in point is the famous book by Samuel P. Huntington, whose theory is closely linked to the issue of mentality of violence. First published as an article in 1992 under the title “Clash of Civilizations?” it was expanded into a book and published the following year under the same title – but without the question mark. The significance of the omission will not be lost on the reader. The book was a publishing event, selling more copies and provoking more controversy than any other book that year (with the exception of fiction bestsellers). While I cannot pass the same kind of sweeping judgment against the author, his motives, aims and intentions as those passed against him in various parts of the Arab and Islamic world, I will say that I found the book to have three major flaws:
The first is that the author talks of Islam as though the Wahhabi model is the only Islam. In fact, Wahhabism was not a major trend in Islam until the alliance that took place between Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab and Mohamed ibn-Saud in the second half of the eighteenth century. Prior to that, there were ideas similar to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam but they were completely marginal. Mainstream Islam was quite distinct from the Wahabbi interpretation of Islam and its culture. The only relationship between the Ottoman Empire, which represented Islam politically as a superpower for several centuries, and Wahhabism was one of extreme animosity. I would have been willing to accept most of what Huntington wrote about the probable clash between the West and Islam if he had used the term ‘Wahhabi Islam’ instead of Islam. I can only conclude that Huntington is not very well versed in the history and factors which led to the rise of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
The second is that he did not present any evidence to support his theory of an impending clash between the West and what he calls ‘Confucian’ societies, making the theory closer to fiction, specifically the writings of H.G. Wells, than to political analysis. It also owes much to Noam Chomsky’s equally unfounded theory that the United States needs an enemy to survive, and that this role was filled by the eastern bloc from 1945 to 1990. Following the collapse of communism, Chomsky believes Islam is now the prime candidate for the role! But if so, how to explain the enormous progress made by the United States between 1500 and 1900, without any external conflicts and without any clear enemy during this period of the development and completion of the American Dream? How to explain that despite Winston Churchill’s efforts from 1939 to 1941 to convince the United States to join the war on the side of the Allies, it was only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 that his efforts were crowned with success? How could the United States have resisted the opportunity to benefit from the existence of a ready-made enemy which, according to Chomsky, it needed for its very survival?
The third is that he did not devote enough space in his book to the largest conflict in the history of humanity, World War II, which was fought between forces belonging to the same Western civilization. It was also a conflict within the Christian world, but nobody ever mentioned religion as a factor in this huge conflict, which was primarily a conflict between European Fascism and European democracies.
III- The Mentality of Violence …. and the Games Nations Play!
Although I believe the mentality of violence is caused primarily by internal factors, I also believe that an external factor contributed to its spread, namely, the misguided attempts by some to use the forces produced by the mentality of violence for political purposes. A case in point is the support offered by the India office of MI6 to a group that was attempting at the beginning of the twentieth century to unify the Arabian Peninsula under a political system deriving its legitimacy from a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. The Najdi movement, known as the Ikhwan or brotherhood, was a prime example of this trend during the twenties of the last century. King Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud, founder of the third incarnation of the Saudi state, was forced to go to war against them after they accused him of deviating from the tenets of real Islam by accepting such Western abominations as radios, cars, telephones, etc. During the same period, Egypt saw an alliance formed between the British and the monarchy, who both had an interest in creating an alternative political entity, deriving its popularity from the popularity of religion in Egypt, to counterbalance the influential Wafd Party, which spearheaded the Egyptian struggle for a Constitution, a parliamentary life, and independence. Forged in secret, the alliance is now known to any student of Egypt’s modern history. An example of the dangerous game politicians play with the mentality of violence in the hope that they can use it to further their own ends, the game was played again in Egypt in the nineteen seventies and repeated by the United States in Afghanistan. All these cases illustrate how an external factor helped the mentality of violence reach such a level of political and military growth. Had it not been for the Cold War and for the short-sighted belief by some that religion could be used as a winning card in the confrontation, the mentality of violence could never have reached its present proportions. Thus although it is largely a product of internal factors like political oppression, lack of social mobility, disappearance of competence, prevalence of despair, reinforced by obsolete educational and information systems, the mentality of violence was given a huge boost by an external factor which can only be described as the greatest miscalculation of the twentieth century.
IV- Implications of the Cairo/Al-Dir’iyah Confrontation.
In the second decade of the nineteenth century, Mohamed Ali, who introduced Egypt and the entire region to the modern age, sent a huge army to the Arabian Peninsula. Led first by the Egyptian ruler’s son Tousson then by his son Ibrahim, the army had as its objective the destruction of a newly established state in the Eastern Province of the Arabian Peninsula. Based in Najd, it was governed according to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. In 1818, Ibrahim Pasha defeated the enemy, destroyed their capital, Al-Dir’iyah, and captured their leader, who was later executed in Istanbul. The war was an expression of the confrontation between two very different models of Islam: the Egyptian-Turkish model, based on an understanding of Islam that was shared by the Muslims of the Levant on one side versus the Wahhabi model on the other. But although the moderate, tolerant, mainstream version of Islam, which accepted to coexist in peace with others and was not pathologically opposed to progress and modernity, emerged victorious in that particular round of its confrontation with the forces of obscurantism, it was later forced to retreat before the internal factors I have previously mentioned, namely, oppression, absence of social mobility, spread of incompetence, despair, reactionary educational systems and corruption.
As to the other version of Islam, it found unprecedented opportunities to spread its uncompromising message to every corner of the world. International conditions (and lack of vision) allowed what had once been an obscure sect confined behind the sand dunes of Najd to impose itself on the world stage and boldly proclaim its brand of Islam as the one and only true Islam. As the drama played out, some of the spectators chose to look the other way because the sword-wielding hero of the piece was playing the role required of him at the time. Thus they failed to realize that the hero was no longer sticking to the script set for him, and was now playing a much more central and dangerous role.
V- A Movement Bred in the Isolation of the Desert.
The man who founded Wahhabism was not a theologian but a proselyter who was determined to convert the faithful to his harsh brand of Islam. Intellectually close to the dialectical Islamic theologians who asserted the primacy of tradition (naql) over reason (aql), Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab was a disciple of ibn-Taymiyah, a strict traditionalist who allowed little scope for reason or independent thinking. He was also a product of his geographical environment, a remote outpost of history. Unlike Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, where ancient civilizations had flourished and made their mark on human history, or places like Dubai and Hijaz, which lay on trade routes and dealt extensively with the outside world, the desert of Najd in the Eastern Province of what is now Saudi Arabia had no civilization to speak of before Islam. Nor did it ever become a cultural centre like the capitals of the Caliphate, Medina, Damascus and Baghdad. Thanks to its arid, barren landscape, Najd remained a cultural backwater, its sole contribution to the arts a traditional form of poetry that spoke of narrow tribal matters.
The harsh and unforgiving environment in which the Najdis lived explains why Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab found a receptive audience for the equally harsh and unforgiving brand of Islam he preached. The same environment that produced the founder of Wahhabism later produced the radical Ikhwan movement which challenged the authority of King Abdul Aziz ibn-Saud. In the nineteen twenties, the king took on the Ikhwan, who were openly accusing him of deviating from the true faith. When he returned to Riyadh after joining Hijaz to his kingdom, the Ikhwan said he had left on a camel and come back in an American car! This was just one of many clashes between the movement and the king over such issues as whether the radio was sinful or the telephone an invention of the devil, in short, over any of the fruits of modernity which threatened their fundamentalist vision of the world. It is a vision that can only be understood by studying what is known as the secret sects of Islam (radical fringe movements that never became part of mainstream Islam), as well as the message of Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab, the product of many factors, including the sociological and geopolitical environment of the deserts of Najd. These factors allowed the Wahhabis, after they invaded Hijaz, to impose their austere understanding of religion throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Among other things, they banned headstones and any structures identifying burial sites, insisting on unmarked graves flush with the land. They combated Sufism in Mecca and elsewhere as contrary to the teachings of Islam. They even entered into an armed clash with the Egyptian mahmil, a splendidly decorated litter on which the Egyptians sent a new cover for the Ka’bah every year. The mahmil ceremony was a merry occasion celebrated by the Egyptians with their traditional love of music, dancing and revelry. For the Najdis, who had launched their puritanical revival movement to purge Islam of what they saw as deviations from the straight and true path of orthodoxy, such unseemly displays of levity could not be tolerated.
What I want to cast light on here is that, throughout its history, the desert wasteland of the Arabian Peninsula’s Eastern Province had suffered greatly from its geography. However, it contained the richest oil fields and, following the oil price boom that turned the desert kingdom into a major financial power, it was inevitable that this part of the world should try and market its ideas. This it did with missionary zeal in the second half of the twentieth century. With a virtually endless supply of funds at their disposal, the Wahhabis were able to successfully propagate their model of Islam throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Disillusioned populations, facing massive internal problems caused by political oppression, lack of social mobility, widespread corruption, institutions run without any competence and deteriorating educational systems were easy prey, and mainstream Islam gradually lost ground to the austere, puritanical Wahhabi model that was now presenting itself as the one and only true Islam.
In short, while under non-Wahhabi Islam the Muslim communities in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey were forward-looking, in tune with the times and living in harmony with large Christian and Jewish communities, it is inconceivable that Wahhabism would have tolerated the kind of cosmopolitan and tolerant societies that flourished in Alexandria, Cairo, Istanbul, Beirut, Damascus and Aleppo at the turn of the twentieth century. On the contrary, the Najdi version of Islam exhorts its followers to remain in a constant confrontation with others, with the age and with modernity. Under Wahhabism, the word jihad is interpreted as the need to carry a sword at all times, although mainstream Islam for centuries understood it as requiring them to resort to force only to defend themselves from outside aggression. Even semantically, the word jihad is totally unrelated to the notion of armed violence. Mainstream Islam also accepted the possibility of Muslims merging with the rest of humanity (especially before the chauvinistic tribal culture of Najd gained ground), while Wahhabism regards this as impossible and unacceptable. Indeed, it is regarded as synonymous with subservience, a term that is widely used by those whose thinking is shaped by the Wahabbi model of Islam. If Noam Chomsky’s theory is valid, it applies just as much to the Wahhabis who need a strong enemy in order to survive.
VI- The Fall of the Oppressors and the Emergence of the Sword.
Over the last few decades, many Islamic societies were subjected to various types of despots who ruled their countries with an iron fist in the context of widespread autocracy. This led in many cases to the downward spiral I described previously. Oppression killed social mobility; the absence of social mobility led to a widespread lack of competence; lack of competence resulted in the collapse of all institutions; this engendered feelings of despair and rage out of which was born the ‘mentality of violence’ that came to permeate many of these societies. The problem is that no sooner are there changes that cause the downfall of the despotic ruler in these societies (Suharto in Indonesia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq) than there emerge on the scene symbols of the Wahabbi interpretation of Islam putting themselves forward as saviours! Some people are fooled into thinking that they are the only political power produced by those societies. There is a compound error here: what produces this state of affairs is the despotic rulers and their autocratic regimes that kill social mobility, prevent the growth of civil society, generalize incompetence and divide political life into two levels: a level above ground (which belongs exclusively to the rulers and their cohorts) and a level below ground (which belongs to the symbols of Wahabbi Islam, who receive the best possible training in the art of growing underground in secrecy). As soon as the despot is removed, the only political force which existed underground emerges and, in the absence of civil society, the lack of social mobility and the prevalence of incompetence, the stage is set for a new set of oppressors who are at the same time incompetent. They will lead their societies to greater depths of backwardness, distance them still further from the modern age and sink them even deeper into social problems.
In short, both sets of oppressors, those operating above ground and those belonging to clandestine underground organizations, are products of the equation to which I have repeatedly returned in this article: an autocratic political system that paralyses social mobility and allows incompetent elements to take over the running of society’s institutions, thereby causing standards to deteriorate, despair to prevail and the mentality of violence to take hold. The educational and media institutions are incapable of righting this tragedy, because they too have been corrupted at the hands of incompetent elements. A valid question here is why this is the only model that emerges whenever an oppressive regime falls in a Muslim or Arab country. The answer is simply that this is a natural result of the widespread despair felt by those living under an autocratic regime that allows no political activities above ground, so that the only organizations that can survive in its shadow are those operating underground. The cure must start with the first link in the chain, not the last.
VII- Muslim Societies a Hundred Years Ago.
To disprove the allegation that the violent groups and trends which turn their backs on modernity and call for a return to the Middle Ages are the true representatives of Islam, one has only to consider how some of the principal Islamic societies were functioning at the turn of the twentieth century. Countries like Egypt, Greater Syria (which included Lebanon at the time) and Turkey were models of tolerance, their majority Muslim populations living peacefully with minorities of other faiths. Famously cosmopolitan cities like Alexandria, Beirut and Cairo were home to a wide diversity of minorities. Acceptance of the ‘Other’ and of modernity, as well as a hunger for the great masterpieces of human creativity were features shared by all these societies. Intellectuals translated Homer, the plays of Ancient Greece, the best of modern European literature and the great philosophers like Descartes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Diderot, Locke, Hobbs, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Although they were in complete harmony with the scientific, philosophical and artistic consequences of the Renaissance, they retained their identity as Egyptians, Turks and Syrians. It was a time when Muslims saw no contradiction between their religious faith and their enthusiasm for the material and cultural fruits of European civilization.
The peaceful and harmonious coexistence of devout Muslims with the religious minorities living in their midst, their equally harmonious relationship with the fruits of Western civilization proves conclusively that the adherents of real Islam are not violent fanatics and that mainstream Islam has nothing to do with the Wahhabi model of militant Islam, whose success in winning over converts is due to the declining conditions in many Islamic societies (an autocratic political system leads to the total paralysis of social mobility which leads to the spread of incompetence which leads to a drop in standards which leads to despair which, in the context of backward educational systems, creates the mentality of violence and a cultural climate that accepts it.)
Thus it is not the Islamic system of belief that leads inevitably to violence and clashes with the ‘Other.’ Violence and fanaticism are features of only one fringe sect that was virtually unknown outside the deserts of Najd as recently as one century ago. Non-Wahhabi mainstream Islam prevailed in Islamic societies until two cataclysmic developments forced it to retreat: the first was the eruption of the violent model of Islam from behind the sand dunes, the second the decline in living standards in many Islamic societies which allowed it to spread.
VIII- The Crisis Facing Non-Wahabbi Islam.
There are no permanent social phenomena; they are the result of circumstances and factors. Therefore the fear that non-Wahabbi Islam, which was the main trend among the majority of Muslims for several centuries, is being edged out of its central role is a legitimate one. The moderate brand of Islam will not be reinstated in its former position unless the factors making up the equation of internal collapse to which Islamic societies are exposed are solved (starting with autocracy to the mentality of violence to lack of competence to declining living standards to despair to the collapse of educational systems) and unless the outside world in general and the world’s only superpower in particular realize that adopting hostile stands against Islam and Muslims indiscriminately can only provoke negative reactions. This is all the more true given that they were partners with those responsible for the downward spiral and helped bring about the series of external factors that allowed the cycle of violence to attain its present level. Humanity’s failure to support and reinforce the gentle, non-militant brand of Islam to which most Islamic societies until recently belonged by helping remove the internal and external ‘landmines’ which eroded the ability of those societies to stand up to the assault of militant Islam is a crime committed by humanity against itself, a crime for which we shall all pay an exorbitant price. I fear that the primary cause of this is the ‘infantile culture’ of the world’s foremost superpower. The United States, despite its great achievements in tens of fields suffers from what I call in my lectures the “cultural infantilism of American policies”. If we liken humanity to a body, the spinal cord of that body would be culture, a rare commodity among most citizens of the United States and a large portion of its intellectuals. The only explanation for this is the gap between material/scientific/technological advances and ‘cultural richness’, and the confusion in all intellectual and cultural centres in the United States between ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’. Perhaps a comparison between “A Study of History” by Arnold Toynbee and the writings of most of the famous American writers on politics and the struggle of civilizations would clarify the point I am trying to make.
IX- Islamic Societies and Problems with the Meaning of ‘Progress’ and ‘Modernity’.
A combination of closed autocratic regimes, outdated educational systems, state-controlled media, and a rigid, often extremist, understanding of religion renders many Muslims and Arabs wary of notions like ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’. The internal factors I have mentioned coupled with a number of external factors, such as the infantile culture in some highly developed nations, have led the Muslim Arab mind to think that the call for progress and modernity is a call for dependence and the loss of cultural specificity. What exacerbates the situation is that many Arabs and Muslims feel that the values of Western civilization are for westerners only, not for everyone. I have exerted tremendous efforts to make it clear to my readers in Egypt and the Middle East that modernization is a human phenomenon first and foremost. The prescription for progress has no nationality or religion, as borne out by the different cultural backgrounds of such developed societies as the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, and South Korea. I devoted one of my books, “The Values of Progress”, to demonstrating to the young people in my society the fallacy of the argument that progress and modernization will result in the loss of our identity and cultural specificity. As a man who has applied modern management techniques on a large scale, I know that there is ‘successful management’ and ‘unsuccessful management’, but I have no knowledge of Arab, Chinese, African, or French management. Japan developed in leaps and bounds over the last fifty years, but Japanese society, especially outside the capital, is still quintessentially Japanese. Whoever denies that progress is a purely human phenomenon and that the process leading to it is also human has obviously never seen the mechanics of progress at first hand - which may be the reason most academics are not interested in the issue.
Oppressive regimes are matched by the local citizen who lacks any connection with the outside world and who thinks that modernity is the other side of the coin of dependence. He would not believe that democracy is a human product, and a human right and not a Western commodity for westerners, nor realize that the maxim that “for each society, there is the brand of democracy that suits it” is misleading. For while it is true that there are many forms of democracy, it is equally true that they all contain mechanisms of accountability designed to bring rulers down from the realm of masters to that of servants of society.
The question over the future of the Muslim mind is the same as the question over the future of Islamic societies: is it a future of freedom, democracy, prosperity and progress, or the opposite? The answer to this question will determine the answer to the question about the future of the Muslim mind: will it follow the route of moderate Islam or that of Wahabbi Islam?
Islam between Copying and Thinking.
In the years between 1967 and 1973, when I was studying towards a degree in law and a Masters in comparative law, I acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. Later, while teaching at universities abroad, I set out to develop a wider knowledge of the subject. My readings took me beyond the circle of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence to those of the Shiites (the most important of which is the Ithna’ashariyya or Imammeya), and the four main doctrines of the Khawarij (the most important of which is the Abadeya school prevalent in a small region of Algeria and in most of the Sultanate of Oman), as well as to other schools, such as the eponymous Al-Tabri and Al-Laith interpretations. Nor did my readings stop there. I found myself exploring other worlds closely linked to the field of Islamic jurisprudence, the most important being the doctrine of the Mutakallimun, or dialectical theologians, and delving deeply into the philosophical teachings of the Mutazalites and the Ash’arites. There was also the world of the Bateneyites in the history of Islam, to which I was introduced by a close friend, Dr. Mahmoud Ismail, whose writings on the thinking of the Khawarij, the Qarametta and of what he calls the other ‘secret sects’ of Islam served as one of my primary sources while studying the history of Islamic jurisprudence.
In the course of a journey extending for over twenty years, I developed a strong aversion for those I call “worshippers of the word” and “prisoners of tradition”, and a profound admiration for the proponents of reason, most notably, of course, Ibn Rushd (Averoess), whose championship of the primacy of reason was adopted by Europe and rejected by the Muslim world. Europe’s gain was our loss: in turning our backs on Ibn Rushd, we lost a historic opportunity for development. A close reading of all Ibn Taymeya’s works, as well as the works of his disciples, from Ibn Qaiym Al-Juzeya to Mohamed bin Abdul Wahab at the end of the eighteenth century, only deepened my aversion towards this trend and my admiration for the Mu’tazalites, who emphasized human responsibility in matters of religion, and for liberal thinkers who chose the path of reason over that of dogma, like Ibn Sinna (Avicenna), Al-Farabi and the leading exponent of this school, Ibn Rushd.
When I compare some of the works of Al-Ghazali (Algazel), like “The Revival of the Religious Sciences” (Ihya’ Ulum ad-Din), “The Criterion of Knowledge” (Mi’yar al-‘Elm), “The Criterion of Work” (Mi’yar al-‘Amal), “Salvation From Perdition” (Al-Monqeth Men al’Dallal), “The Essence of Orthodoxy” (Al-Mustafsah Men Elm al-Osoul) and the “Incoherence of the Philosophers” (Tahafut al-Falasifah), which are distinctly lacking in rationality, with the writings of Ibn Rushd, in which rationality reigns supreme, I am amazed that the battle waged between the exponents of these two distinct schools ten centuries ago should have ended up in a clear victory for Al-Ghazali and a crushing defeat for Ibn Rushd. Nowhere is the difference in the approach of the two men more evident than in their defining works: Al-Ghazali’s “The Incoherence of the Philosophers” and Ibn Rushd’s “The Incoherence of the Incoherence.” I was also amazed at how historians of Islamic thought concealed the fact that Al-Ghazali was unfailingly supportive of despotic rulers, contrary to Ibn Rushd, who was a constant source of irritation for despots determined to keep their subjects in a state of intellectual inertia, thereby guaranteeing the perpetuation of the status quo and their continued unchallenged authority. For an active mind is the source of questions and questions lead to accountability and, as an enlightened friend put it, questions have eyes and answers are blind!
I spent years trying to understand why the Muslims had chosen to follow the line advocated by Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, the proponent of orthodoxy and tradition for whom knowledge meant only knowledge of religion and who cancelled the role of the mind altogether by denying the possibility of acquiring knowledge through intuition, over the line advocated by Ibn Rushd, who upheld the primacy of reason and sowed the seeds of a renaissance we chose not to reap. Why were Al-Ghazali’s ideas so readily accepted while Ibn Rushd’s were rejected? I believe the answer to this paradox can be summed up in one word: despotism. At a time despotism in our part of the world was at its height, it is not surprising that Muslim rulers should have found Al-Ghazali’s ideas more appealing than those of Ibn Rushd. The orthodox line was also more appealing to their subjects who, under the yoke of tyranny, found it safer and less demanding to go along with the views of those who required nothing more from them than a suspension of their critical faculties. In Europe, where the forces of enlightenment were locked in a confrontation with the clericalism that stifled intellectual initiative and rational thought, despotism was in retreat. This explains why, in the thirteenth century, a prestigious centre of learning like the University of Paris supported the ideas of the Arab Muslim Ibn Rushd over those of the European Christian Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic philosopher famous for his two-swords doctrine.
Meanwhile, the Muslim world continued to be ruled by despots who brooked no challenge to their authority and an equally despotic religious establishment which decried the use of reason and demanded blind adherence to the authority of tradition. Closely linked as to methods, motivations and goals, these two factors created an atmosphere that was inimical to the unhindered pursuit of knowledge. Still, things were not only either black or white. True, the Muslims lost a historic opportunity to use Ibn Rushd’s ideas as a springboard that could have placed them on a path similar to the one which took Europe from the obscurantist thinking of the thirteenth century to the vigorous intellectual climate which encourages debate, free thinking, general freedoms and creativity in literature, art and science. But it is also true that Muslims have known two “Islams”, as it were, one that can be described as the Turkish-Egyptian model and one as the Bedouin model. While the former cannot claim to have attained the level of enlightenment, progressive thinking and freedom that characterizes the ideas of Ibn Rushd, it was nevertheless a gentle and tolerant Islam that could and did coexist with others. Indeed, non-Muslims living in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed more protection that any other minority living anywhere else in the world at the time. Under the Ottomans, Christians of the Levant and Jews in Arab countries lived in conditions very similar to the ones in which the Muslim subjects of the empire were living. Even when they were persecuted by certain rulers, like Al-Hakem bi Amr Allah, it was part of a general policy that made no distinction between non-Muslims and Muslims. Although this model of Islam can in no way be described as secular, it adopted an enlightened approach to religion, dealing with it as a system of spiritual beliefs rather than as a system that ruled all aspects of life and governed the affairs of society.
Meanwhile, an altogether different model of Islam was taking shape among geographically isolated communities living far from coastlines and hence from exposure to the outside world. Their insularity provided an ideal breeding ground for the ideas of Ibn Taymema, Ibn Qaym Al-Juzeya and, towards the end of the eighteenth century, those of Mohamed bin Abdul Wahab. A collision between the two models of Islam was inevitable, and, in the second decade of the nineteenth century, they confronted one another on the field of battle. Under the command of Mohamed Ali’s son, Tousson, then of his other son, Ibrahim, arguably the greatest of the Egyptian ruler’s sons, the Egyptian army, and with it, the more enlightened Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam, emerged victorious.
But the winds of change were blowing throughout the region, and the years that followed were not kind to Turkey and Egypt. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I brought an end to Turkey’s ascendancy, while Egypt’s influence receded as its economy and educational system declined. Meanwhile, the proponents of the model of Islam which demanded a strict adherence to the letter of scripture and slammed the door shut in the face of rationality, suddenly found themselves in control of vast wealth unprecedented in history. This gave them an enormous edge over their moderate rivals and allowed them to extend their influence into the traditional strongholds of the Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam, where they waged a systematic campaign to co-opt establishment personalities and institutions. The success of this campaign found its most salient expression in the emergence of fanatical movements like the Taliban, who interpreted the doctrines of religion on the basis of tradition alone and imposed a scholastic, doctrinal brand of Islam that left no room for the exercise of reason. This sorry state of affairs could have been avoided if the majority of Muslims had supported Ibn Rushd or if conditions had not forced the retreat of the Turkish-Egyptian model.
In numerous lectures I gave in Europe and America, I tried to familiarize people with what I call Egyptian Islam which, until the nineteen forties, stood as a unique example of tolerance and flexibility. Noted for its acceptance of the Other, it was not pathologically obsessed with the fine print of scripture. While recognizing the divine character of the prophetically revealed laws, it also recognized that some of their provisions were formulated in the context of a different time, place and circumstances. Thus divinity was reserved for religion and did not extend to how mortals understood or chose to interpret its strictures. It was tacitly understood that there is a subjective dimension to the interpretation of any text, and that interpretation is necessarily coloured by the interpreter’s cultural formation, knowledge and intellectual abilities.
The voices now raised in the West in general and in the United States in particular to warn against the menace of “militant Islam” would do well to ask themselves a number of important questions:
- Who shut their eyes for many years to a general climate which allowed the militant model of Islam to spread unchecked and forced the civilized, humanistic Turkish-Egyptian model to retreat in disarray as economic conditions and educational institutions declined, leaving the way open to an invasion by the militant model? Who turned a blind eye to these developments for close on thirty years and are today bemoaning the way things have turned out?
- Who in the nineteen fifties and perhaps even earlier invented the dangerous game of using political Islam to create a strategic balance with socialism? (In the seventies, Egypt played the same game with disastrous consequences.)
- Has the West only now realized that there is no room for freedom, democracy, human rights, women’s rights or civil rights in the militant model of Islam? Did it really believe this model to be a shining example of these noble humanistic values in the nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties?
- Why is the dossier of the honeymoon between the United States and the Afghan mujahedeen not being opened? Or, for that matter, the chapter of the close links which political Islam in pre-revolutionary Iran enjoyed with the West, particularly France? And, before that, the relations between political Islam in Egypt and Britain, the occupying power at the time, particularly during the two terms of the Mohamed Mahmoud government (1928 and 1938)?
The critical mind, which is the pride of civilized humanity, imposes an obligation on all of us to answer those questions. It also requires all parties to assume a share of the responsibility for what happened and is continuing to happen. It requires us, further, to look closely into the two models of Islam referred to in this article and ask ourselves which is more capable of joining the march of civilization and living in harmony with the requirements of the age, without abandoning the positive features of our cultural specificity. Is it the model engendered by the school of traditionalists, victims of their geographical isolation behind high sand dunes, or the moderate, tolerant, liberal Turkish-Egyptian model? Better still, could we adopt the enlightened model of Ibn Rushd, which helped Western civilization move out of the Dark Ages into the Enlightenment at a time we chose to adopt the thinking of his opponents, thereby allowing ourselves to fall prey to a culture which favours superstition, myths, ignorance and a rabid militancy over education, work, development and brotherhood?
Tolerant & Intolerant Islam.
(Or “Peaceful Islam” versus “Militant Islam”). As early as the first century of the Muslim calendar, Islam has known radical sects who demanded blind adherence to their rigid reading of the articles of faith, side by side with mainstream Islam, whose adherents eschew violence and extremism and do not profess to hold a monopoly on Truth. The phenomenon began with the emergence of the Khawarij (Seceders) in 660 AD, (the middle of the first Hejira century), a sect which preached a dogmatic interpretation of Scripture and practiced a version of excommunication by branding those who did not adopt its teachings as heretics. This was the first such sect but by no means the last, and throughout the history of Islam the quiet of religious life was broken many times by marginal groups who tried to impose their extremist views on the majority by violent means. A comprehensive history of these groups has been compiled by my friend, Professor Mahmoud Ismail Abdul Razzaak, in an authoritative reference work entitled “The Secret Sects of Islam.” The author devotes special attention to the Qarmatians, who carried away the Black Stone of the Ka’bah and kept it in a remote area in the east of the Arabian Peninsula for over a century.
Alongside the groups and sects whose members insisted on a literal interpretation of holy texts and laid down strict rules governing all aspects of life, there was the general trend represented in the main Sunni schools (the most important being the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafite and Hanbalite, and their offshoots, Al-Laith and Al-Tebarry), as well as the Shiites, who are split into a number of sects. The most important Shiite sect is the Imammeya, or Ithna’ashariyya, (i.e. Twelvers), so called because they accept as imams twelve of the descendants of Ali ibn-Abu Talib (according to their belief, the twelfth imam, who disappeared about 874 AD, is still living and will return). Within this general trend there emerged prominent proponents of deductive reasoning, like the great jurist Abu Hanifa, who accepted just over one hundred of the Prophet’s Hadiths as apostolic precept, as well as uncompromising champions of tradition, like Ahmed ibn-Hanbal, whose book, Al-Musnad, is a compilation of over ten thousand Hadiths. The conservative ibn-Hanbal served as the bulwark of orthodoxy and tradition against any intellectual endeavour, and for a time exerted a considerable hold on public imagination. Although his influence eventually waned, in its heyday tradition reigned supreme and very little room was left for reason. The two main disciples of ibn-Hanbal were ibn-Taymiyah and ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya, who, like their mentor, allowed no scope for reason or independent thinking, but insisted on a dogmatic adherence to the Hadiths as authoritative sources of all matters spiritual and temporal, laying down strict guidelines to govern every aspect of everyday life. In addition, the world of Islam was the scene of a battle of ideas between Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali (Algazel), a strict traditionalist who did not believe the human mind capable of grasping the Truth as ordained by God, and Ibn Rushd (Averoess), who championed the primacy of reason. The exponents of these two schools waged a bitter battle in which the first salvo was fired by Al-Ghazzali with his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Ibn Rushd answered with his brilliant treatise in defense of rationality, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. But despite his spirited defense, the outcome of the battle was clearly in Al-Ghazzali’s favour, and the great majority of Islamic jurists adopted his ideas, interpreting the precepts of Islamic law by appeal to the authority of tradition and spurning deductive reasoning altogether. Islamic jurisprudence was dominated by the Mutakallimun, or dialectical theologians, who asserted the primacy of tradition (naql), as advocated by Al-Ghazzali, over that of reason (‘aql), as advocated by Ibn Rushd. But though Ibn Rushd’s ideas were rejected by the Muslim world, they took root strongly in Europe, particularly France, which embraced his vision of the primacy of reason wholeheartedly.
Thus Muslims can be said to have known two different understandings to Islam, as it were, one based on a rigid, doctrinaire interpretation of holy texts and the violent repression of free thought, the other on a moderate and tolerant understanding of Scripture which allowed for the acceptance of the Other. The first was espoused by the secret sects (limited in number and influence) which emerged in remote areas of the Arabian Peninsula and can best be described as the Bedouin model. The second took hold in the more intellectually vibrant climate that prevailed among the peoples descended from ancient civilizations in places like Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and the Levant, which I call the Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model of Islam.
Until the mid-eighteenth century, this was the model adopted by most Muslim communities outside the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. But that was before the rise of Wahhabism, a puritan revival movement launched by Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab from Najd, where he was born in 1703. In 1744, he forged an alliance with the ruler of Al-Dir’iyah, a tribal chieftain by the name of Mohamed ibn-Saud, who became his son-in-law. The alliance led to the first incarnation of the Saudi state, which, by 1804, had expanded to control nearly one million square metres of the Arabian Peninsula. It was a short-lived incarnation, lasting only until 1819, when Mohamed Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha, led a military expedition which destroyed Wahhabi power and razed the capital of the first Saudi state, Al-Dir’iyah, to the ground.
Mohamed Ali’s decision to send first his son Tousson then his son Ibrahim Pasha, known for his military skills, to destroy the first Saudi state had implications going far beyond the political or military ambitions of one man. It was in fact an expression of a cultural/civilizational confrontation between the two models of Islam, a confrontation the enlightened Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model decided to take to the heartland of the obscurantist, extremist and fanatical Wahhabi model. Mohamed Ali, who was extremely impressed by the European model of development and saw no contradiction between the mechanisms by which it had come about and his Islamic beliefs, believed the Wahhabi understanding of Islam stood as a major obstacle in the way of the dream he had nurtured since coming to power in 1805 (and until he abdicated in favour of his son Ibrahim in 1848) to place Egypt on a similar road to development.
Years after the defeat inflicted on them by Ibrahim Pasha (who captured their leader and sent him to Egypt, then to Istanbul where he remained until his death), the Saudis reemerged as a political force in the eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula. Basing themselves in Riyadh, they began to meddle covertly in political affairs. This placed them on a collision course with the al-Rashid family in Ha’il, and the two sides were soon locked in battle. The Saudis, under the leadership of Abdul Rahman, father of the founder of the current Saudi dynasty, King Abdul Aziz, were defeated in 1891. Abdul Rahman fled to Kuwait with leading members of the House of Saud, where they remained in exile until 1902. During this period, they were the guests of Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabbah, who played an important role in the formation of the young Abdul Aziz. Born in 1876, Abdul Aziz, who came to be known as Ibn Saud, was encouraged in his dream to recapture Riyadh by the ruler of Kuwait. In 1902, Ibn Saud (Abdul Aziz) seized Riyadh and waged a 30-year campaign to assert his dominion over the Arabian Peninsula. In 1925 he entered first Mecca then Medina, and, in September 1932, the 56-year old proclaimed himself king over the Kingdom of Najd and Hejaz, later to become the first kingdom named after its ruling dynasty, Saudi Arabia.
Concomitantly with the birth of the new kingdom, which officially adopted the doctrine of Wahhabism, came the discovery of vast reservoirs of oil under its deserts. This provided the Wahhabis with a virtually endless source of funds which they used to propogate their model of Islam.
Three decades after the creation of Saudi Arabia and the discovery of oil, many things had changed in the world:
- One, Saudi Arabia had built up a huge fortune that enabled it to further the cause of Wahhabism not only within its own borders but throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Its efforts proved successful, as many once moderate Muslims were gradually won over to the harsh version of Islam preached by the Wahhabis.
- Two, beginning in the ‘sixties, Egypt suffered a reversal of fortune at all levels, including a decline in its general cultural climate, allowing Wahhabi influence to infiltrate the venerable institution of Al-Azhar. The defeat of June 1967 opened the door wide to groups which espoused the Saudi understanding of Islam and who translated their radical views into political action, often at the point of a gun.
- Three, in the context of the Cold War, the West in general and the United States in particular adopted a number of misguided policies towards the region, including turning a blind eye to the spread of Wahhabi influence in the Arab and Islamic world, and even occasionally supporting radical groups inspired by the Wahhabi doctrine to achieve their own political ends, such as ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The assassination of President Anwar Sadat by an extremist group was a wake-up call which alerted the world to the growth and spread of the Saudi-backed Wahhabi model of Islam and the retreat of the Egyptian/Turkish/Syrian model. A succession of similar events attested to the dangerous spread of this model in most societies with a Muslim majority, in Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia. On the morning of September 11, 2001, a group of fanatics belonging to the Wahhabi brand of Islam launched attacks on New York and Washington that illustrated how the members of this sect view the Other in general and Western civilization in particular.
For the average European or American unfamiliar with some of the facts presented in this article, it is easy to believe that Islam, violence and terrorism go hand in hand. But those who have a more thorough grasp of the issue know that this perception of Islam has taken hold only because a puritanical, fundamentalist model of Islam, which was marginal and ineffectual before oil wealth put it on the map, has managed, thanks to petrodollars, to make the world believe that its interpretation of Islam is Islam. The doctrinaire version of Islam propounded by the Wahabbis had no followers among the Muslims of the world before the expansion of Saudi influence following the oil boom. Millions of Muslims in Egypt, Turkey, the Levant, Iraq, Indonesia and throughout the world remained immune to the appeal of the fanatical, violent and bloody message of what was a small and obscure sect bred in the intellectually barren landscape of the eastern Arabian Peninsula. All that changed with the massive influx of petrodollars into the coffers of Saudi Arabia, which used its new-found wealth to propagate the message of its home-grown Wahhabi sect with missionary zeal. Hence the emergence of militant Islam as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, a force that now represents a dangerous threat to world peace, to humanity and to Islam and Muslims. Half a century ago, the Muslims of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey were models of tolerance who believed in a gentle and enlightened Islam that could, and did, coexist peacefully with other religions and cultures. Following the decline in living standards they have suffered since at the hands of despotic and corrupt rulers, they have become easy prey for the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
The perception of Islam today by many non-Muslims is that it is a fanatical and violent religion. That is a superficial view which ignores the fact that there are two models of Islam, one that is uncompromising and extremist in its views and another that is tolerant, moderate and humanistic. It is also a naïve view that can lead to dangerous decisions like the ones which informed the West’s policies when it turned a blind eye to the spread of Wahhabism and established close links with radical Islamic movements like the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Finally, there is no need to point out to the neutral reader that the existence of Qur’anic texts which can be used to evidence the violence of Islam is unimportant, because there are enlightened interpretations of the same texts which link them to specific circumstances and events. At the end of the day, any text, even if it is divine, requires a human agency to interpret it, and the real test is how the mind elects to interpret it. Moreover, there are also many Qur’anic texts which proscribe the use of violence and aggression against those belonging to other faiths and creeds, and calls on Muslims to treat them fairly and humanely. But texts should not be the focus of debate here, not least because this would allow extremists on the other side to justify their use of violence by invoking Old Testament texts exhorting believers to violence, notably in the Book of Joshua, son of Nun.
What needs to be done at this stage is to champion the cause of enlightenment by supporting moderates and promoting the humanistic understanding of Islam that once prevailed among the vast majority of Muslims. Efforts in this direction must go hand in hand with a counter offensive against the rigid, doctrinaire, even bloodthirsty, version of Islam that first appeared among isolated communities separated from the march of civilization by the impenetrable sand dunes of the Arabian desert. Geographical isolation coupled with a narrow tribal outlook is a lethal mix that cannot possibly shape a humane and tolerant perception of the Other. The time has come for the Saudi government to part ways with Wahhabism and to realize that the alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi dynasty is responsible for the spread of obscurantism, dogmatism and fanaticism, poisoning minds with radical ideas opposed to humanity, progress, civilization, cultural continuity and pluralism, the diversity of opinions and creeds that is one of the most important and enriching features of human life.
Saudi Arabia & the Inevitable Choice.
Following a lecture I had given at the Department of the Middle Eastern Studies at one of the top world universities, I was told by one of the professors: "In most academic circles here in the US, we take it for granted that the Arabs' hatred of the West is the result of the intrusion of western powers into the lives of Arab peoples, beginning with the colonization of Algeria in 1830, Egypt in 1882, Morocco in 1912, and so on. But it's quite clear that you see things quite differently?" I replied, "It's not that simple. There are several sides to the issue and what you just said lumps them all together in the same basket, as it were."
Actually, the hatred of the people of the region for colonialism is a healthy and legitimate phenomenon in itself; and does not by necessity mean hatred of all that is western or of western progress. In fact, countries with a rich heritage of civilization and history such as Egypt, Greater Syria and Iraq were able to combine a hatred of colonialism with a sincere admiration for progress, thus showing a true understanding of 'progress' as distinct from 'westernisation', and exhibiting a refined and enlightened social conscience. The alternative would have been to indiscriminately admire both colonialism and progress as one entity, which would have been a demeaning and humiliating phenomenon that could only lead to the death of many things that we hold dear. However, it would be a mistake to assume that all countries in the region are the same; what I said applies to societies with a history rich in culture and civilization, namely those I have mentioned and others in the Arab West (Morocco, Tunisia and Libya), and to a lesser extent, the coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula whose geo-political situation has rendered them more open to the outside world than those situated in nomadic fashion in the interior. The harsh geo-political conditions of the latter can only give rise to a rigid, inflexible and insular tribal mentality that xenophobically refuses the "Other" (whoever this Other may be). The history of hatred of these desert communities towards anyone who differs from them in religion or thought is common knowledge; this animosity, contrary to what some may think, is not a consequence of the Hanbali form of Islam (the Ibn Taymeya interpretation) that they embrace; rather, this rigid school that was categorically refused by the Muslim world at large could only find acceptance in this desolate region. Indeed, for more than a thousand years the ideas and edicts of Ibn Taymeya (with all their harshness, bigotry and hatred of non-Muslims) found no adherents in Egypt, Syria and the Arab West, for how could the descendants of such highly evolved civilizations accept isolation from the rest of humankind?
Mohamed Ibn Abdel Wahab had laid down the broad outlines of his call (I shall not call it a school of jurisprudence, for the man was simply a missionary, not a theologian) by 1798, a year which witnessed the first confrontation with the West in modern times, namely Napoleon's campaign into Egypt. The first years of the fledgling Saudi state (soundly crushed by Ibrahim Pasha in 1818), and the second Saudi state (which came to an end in 1891) were marked by an obdurate rejection of modernity and of all signs of modern civilization, combined with hatred of non-Muslims and indeed of all Muslims who did not follow the same tenets. The Egyptian or Syrian Muslim who saw nothing wrong in singing, for example, was considered by the first and second Saudi states to be no better than an infidel. And when the Brotherhood (the Brotherhood of Najd) fought against King Abdel Aziz for allowing the signs of modern civilization such as radio and the motor-car into the Kingdom, as well as permitting foreigners into the Arabian Peninsula (bearing in mind that this was during the twentieth century), they were simply giving vent to the archaic tenets and beliefs of a system of jurisprudence that had no place in modern times, and could have survived nowhere except in a terrain of this kind whose geographic features imposed its isolation. The ideas of the Wahabi school are typical of a superstructure (thought) born of a specific infrastructure (the geo-political and economic features of the Najd desert), and adherents to this school cannot conceive that no other place on earth would have put up with such beliefs. They are living proof of the truth of Marx's conclusion, derived from the theories of both Feuerbach and Hegel, that there is a definite link between the ideas and beliefs of a community and the infrastructure (geographical and economical) in which it lives.
In my hands at this moment is a Saudi edict stating that purchasing flowers to send to a sick person is "haram" - sinful - because it is a custom that has come to us from the "infidel countries". This is just one example, and might seem to some to be trivial but is not, because it discloses a mentality that blindly rejects anything that comes from outside its own narrow confines. It also reveals the laughable contradictions inherent in this type of thought: sending flowers is declared a sin because "it did not form part of the Islamic way over the centuries"! As if travelling by plane or car or using a computer - or indeed, using the sophisticated modern weapons that these people use against their so-called enemies - were part of the "Islamic way over the centuries"! Any Muslim (outside the insular world of Ibn Taymeya) would feel nothing but revulsion for the mentality that could spew forth this type of ruling - edict No. 21409 dated 29/03/1421 (the Hijri year according to the Muslim calendar) (2000 Gregorian) - and comprising terms such as, "this is but a custom that has come to us from the Infidel Countries and has been adopted by those of weak faith who have fallen under their influence..." A mindset that fights flowers, the symbol of beauty, goodness, friendship, innocence and love across all cultures. Flowers, the names of which in many languages denote a host of beautiful, uplifting meanings. Only the narrow-minded mentality of these nomadic tribes could wish to turn us into a culture of flower-haters! If this is the way these people view non-Muslims, it is no wonder that from time to time they should churn out warped individuals who indiscriminately open fire on the signs of modern civilization and on foreigners ("infidels") who are "desecrating" the soil of the Arabian Peninsula (using weapons made by the said infidels!)
To conclude, I can only repeat that a hatred of colonialism is a normal, healthy and positive phenomenon; any alternative would be shameful and demeaning. However, those countries in the region secure in a long history of civilization have no aversion to modernization and progress and certainly no hatred of foreigners; they simply do not want progress to become the equivalent of "westernisation", and rightly so; it is a positive stance that indicates both dignity and wisdom. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the followers of a certain sect do indeed unequivocally hate anything outside their own narrow world. Mohamed Aly (the founder of modern Egypt) sent an army led by his son to the Arabian Peninsula to fight these fanatics, and in 1818, their leader was brought back to Egypt, tried, and executed. In the 1920s, the founder of the third Saudi dynasty took up arms against them as a result of their psychopathic obsession with fighting any signs of modern civilized life.
What is needed today is for modern, enlightened Saudis to realize that their problem lies primarily in addressing a distorted mindset that has no place in today's world - or indeed in any place or time. It is not fitting that they should have to live with the kind of edict that prohibits a woman from driving a car - and that is just one example. I am not aware that there is any Koranic text that impedes Saudi Arabia from forming a new entity for jurisprudence that could select as its source far more enlightened and civilized schools than those of Ibn Taymeya and Ibn Hanbal. To compare the value of the said Ibn Taymeya with learned men of distinction such as Abu Hanifa or Averoess would be equivalent to comparing a camel as a means of transport with a Rolls Royce...!
This, in brief, was a general outline of the words spoken by me before a gathering of distinguished men and women of learning at one of the most prominent American universities in the North East of USA.
The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Islamism.
The current winds of change in the Middle East is a welcome whiff of fresh air in the region, but the hasty promotion of democracy, could plunge the region deeper into the ”dark side”, bringing the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere. While some in Washington are ready to take on this risk, many (of us) liberals in the region, worry about the dangerous unintended consequences.
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB’s) (established in Egypt in 1928), is the best organized political force in many Arab countries. It is a radical transnational organization which aims to take over the Islamic world in order to establish a Caliphate, is the best organized political force in many Arab countries. . Such a Caliphate, a religious militarized state will be the base to wage war against the infidel West.
And for our own societies, in the Middle East and Arab world, rule by the MB’s would undoubtedly result in: less freedom, increased state-ownership, segregated class-rooms, as well as the fact that a non-Muslim could never become president. It could also very well result in the reimplementation of punishments such as stoning, lashing, and cutting off the hands of thieves.
I have tried in this article to summarize the political thinking of the MB’s in thirteen points, in the hope that it will help shed some light on an issue many people in the world today need to understand.
Unlike Western democracies, which guarantee the political participation of every citizen regardless of ideology, opinion or religion, the MB’s makes the political participation of individuals in society subject to the principles of Islamic Shari'a. And while the legislative branch of government monitors the actions of the State to ensure that they conform to the rules of democracy, the actions of the State are monitored by the MB’s to ensure that they conform to the rules of Islamic Shari'a.
The MB’s guarantee freedom of belief only for the followers of the three revealed [Abrahmic] religions. The MB’s position on the question of religious minorities can be summed up in the insistence that a non-Muslim can never become president and that non-Muslims will be subject to the principles of Shari'a on which the entire legal system will be based.
While Western democracies guarantee the absolute freedom of the individual as long as it does not impinge on the freedom of others, the MB’s set freedom of thought within the strict parameters of a moral code derived from the Shari'a. They call for the restoration of hisbah, which allows a private citizen to prosecute any individual who commits an act he considers a breach of the Shari'a even if the plaintiff himself has not been personally injured by such act. The right of hisbah was recently exercised by a private citizen in Egypt against respected intellectual Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, whose writings he considered as running counter to the teachings of Islam. The court found for the plaintiff, ruling Abu Zeid an apostate and ordering him to divorce his wife.
In Western democracies, women enjoy the same political rights as men: they can hold public office and participate in political life without any restrictions based on gender. But as far as the MB’s are concerned, women's political participation would be limited to municipal elections; there is no question, for example, of a woman ever becoming head of state. To further marginalize women and exclude them from any meaningful role in public life, the MB’s call for educational curricula to include material that is appropriate for women, tailored to suit their nature and role and insist on a complete segregation of the sexes in the classrooms, in public transportation and in the workplace.
The MB’s call for the establishment of an economic system based on the respect of private property. At the same time, however, they insist that it be based on the principles of Islamic Shari'a, which criminalizes bank interest. They also call for state ownership of public utilities.
Contrary to the system of government applied in a democracy, which is based on the peaceful rotation of power through elections, the MB’s call for a system of government based on the principles of Shari'a and the revival of the Islamic Caliphate.
The freedom of association enjoyed by civil society organizations in a democracy would, in an Islamist system, be conditional on their adherence to the strictures of Shari'a.
The MB’s oppose the notion of a state based on democratic institutions, calling instead for an Islamic government based on the Shura [consultative assembly] system, veneration of the leader and the investiture of a Supreme Guide. In this they are close to the model established by Khomeini in Iran, which enables diehard conservatives (a group to which the Supreme Guide certainly belongs) to nip any process of reform or renewal in the bud.
Over the last fifty-seven years, the MB’s have opposed all attempts to reach a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The MB’s will never recognize the existence of Israel as legitimate.
The MB’s call for the establishment of a constitutional and legal system based on the principles of Shari'a, including the application of corporal punishments in the penal code [stoning, lashing, cutting off the hands of thieves, etc.]
The MB’s have never condemned the use of violence against civilians except when it is directed against Muslim civilians.
Finally, progress in the modern world is realized by two tools, science and modern management. These are two disciplines that the Brotherhood has not thea foggiest idea about. Instead, it promulgates a retrograde ideology, which can be deadly for sustainable economic development, growth in investment, and equality.
For liberals in the Middle East like myself, promoting democracy in the Middle East is imperative. It is something that will benefit humanity. And undoubtedly, if the right steps are taken, democracy has every chance to flourish in Middle Eastern societies. However, a hasty transformation, is likely to be disastrous for the forces of progress in Egypt and equally in the Middle East, and fits well with the words of the historian Daniel Boorstin, who warned that planning for the future without a sense of history is like planting cut flowers to humanity. If the right steps are taken, Middle East people (as Professor Bernard Lewis repeatedly expounded) are capable of enabling democracy to flourish in the Middle East societies. However, a hasty transformation is likely disastrous for the forces of progress in Egypt and equally in the Middle East.
The Drama of Islamists.
I have often tried to imagine a scenario in which what I call the ‘Islamists’ will have achieved all their objectives. The scenario assumes that Osama bin Laden or someone like him get their way and proceed to impose their vision of what the Muslim world should be on the rest of us. The principal features of this vision can be summed up in the following:
The departure of the West, particularly the United States, from Muslim lands.
The removal of the kings and presidents now in power for being what bin Laden and his ilk see as agents of the Great Satan, a.k.a. the United States.
The takeover of power by Osama bin Laden or someone like him, the reinstatement of the Caliphate, the annulment of organic law and the adoption of Islamic Shari’a.
I close my eyes and try to visualize where this would lead. Such a scenario can only unfold in one of two possible ways. One is that it will lead to the complete isolation of the Muslim world from the non-Muslim world in all spheres, scientific, economic, military and cultural. When I take the image further, I see Islamic societies transformed into vast seas of humanity with little knowledge of science or of how its application in various fields can improve the quality of life on earth. Of course, this matters little to a Muslim who is more concerned with what happens to him in the afterlife than he is with his lot in this life, which is but an instant in the greater scheme of things, a passage to the hereafter. Under political Islam, these societies will be densely populated because their rulers will tell them that the Shari’a enjoins Muslims to multiply as this will make the Prophet proud of them on Judgement Day. The living standard of the members of these societies, which will have boycotted sacrilegious Western science, will be dismal in all respects, economic, medical and scientific. But this too is unimportant, because the material world is of little significance to the devout Muslim, who considers life to be but a short bridge he must traverse to reach either Heaven (with its flowing streams, succulent fruits and black-eyed houris), or Hell (with its raging fires). So intensely do I focus on this imaginary scenario that I sometimes manage to conjure up actual images, when my closed eyelids become a screen on which scenes of pitiful suffering and insurmountable problems are projected. I see Muslims staging raids on the world of the infidels and the infidels retaliating in kind, their advanced weapons raining widespread devastation on the Muslim world and turning it into an empty wasteland where backwardness and chaos reign supreme. For the Muslims, who do not manufacture their own weapons but are forced to buy them from their more advanced enemies, have no way of defending themselves against the sophisticated weapons used against them.
I can practically hear the imams in the mosques assuring their congregations that God inflicted the defeat on them to test their faith, and that if they pass the test He would send them a miraculous victory. Thundering from their mimbars, they will paint a rosy picture of the Muslims triumphing over the unbelievers, ending their sermon by calling on God to wreak death and destruction on the pagan Christians and their Jewish lackeys.
As to the second scenario, it assumes that the leaders of political Islam, after achieving the objectives mentioned at the beginning of this article, will not set out to isolate the Muslim from the non-Muslim world. Instead, they will deal with the unbelievers in accordance with an established maxim of Islamic jurisprudence which holds that “necessity overrides taboos.” In this scenario, there will be extensive transactions with the non-Muslim world in all sectors: economic, scientific, social, industrial, services and agricultural. The acquisition of knowledge will be a high priority goal on the grounds that Muslims “must seek knowledge, even in China.” When I use my modest knowledge of politics, history and modern management to try and envisage where this scenario will lead, I find myself laughing aloud, because it will inevitably take Muslim communities back to where they stood a century ago when it came to dealing with non-Muslims: one party learning from the other, one party buying from the other, one party trying to catch up with the other.
But whether the first scenario prevails or the second, the big question remains the same: why the suffering, the spilt blood, the violence and destruction, the pain, anxiety and misery? I laugh bitterly to myself as I answer the question: for the sake of power! The only difference between the two scenarios I mention and other possible scenarios is who holds power. In the two scenarios, power will lie with the ‘Islamists’. In a scenario where things remain as they are, the answer is obvious. But there is a fourth scenario which assumes that Muslim societies will opt for development, progress and democracy, in which case power will lie with the people who will exercise it through their duly elected representatives. Unfortunately, this last scenario is not receiving serious consideration in political circles.
No to Theocracies.
Mahmoud Fahmy el-Noqrashy, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar el-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were the chief executives of Egypt throughout most of the last sixty years. All were targeted for assassination by Islamist groups who succeeded in gunning down two of their intended victims, Noqrashy and Sadat.
In the misguided belief that they could contain one of the most important leaders of those groups in Egypt, the Americans granted Omar Abdul Rahman an entry visa to the United States. No sooner had he settled down, however, than he orchestrated the first attack on the World Trade Centre. He is now serving life in prison.
Islamists in Kuwait are fighting to prevent the state from granting Kuwaiti women their political rights. Such is their power that they managed to defeat a bill submitted by the Emir to the National Assembly which would have allowed women to participate in political life.
These are only some of the depressing facts that come to mind when I hear people talk of the need to include Islamists in Egypt’s political life. My heart sinks at the prospect of giving these throwbacks to the Dark Ages a say in how we should run our lives when I think of their attitude to women, say, or Copts, groups to which they accord a status only slightly higher than that of prisoners of war or slaves.
Allowing a political party formed on a religious platform to participate in Egypt’s political life is tantamount to lighting a match in an ammunition depot. Whether its platform is Muslim or Coptic, a religious party would open the gates of Hell, ushering in an era of political instability, economic stagnation and educational and cultural regression. Moreover, there is no such thing as a religious party, only parties made up of men of religion.
Despite my strong feelings on the subject, however, I find the harsh and often illegal treatment to which they are subjected unacceptable and a crime against humanity. It is also self-defeating in that it hardens attitudes on both sides. In fact, the only way to resolve our problem with the Islamists is through dialogue, by opening channels of communication and engaging in a frank interchange of views. Debating the issues is the only way to transform a religious party in the long term into a civil political party that subscribes to the main tenets of democracy: acceptance of the Other, rotation of power, respect for other religions and for women. The transformation will be complete when political Islam abandons its distorted understanding of our religion, an understanding rooted in the Middle Ages and reflecting the mentality of Bedouins bred in a harsh and unforgiving desert environment. Civil society is entitled to protect itself from any group that remains locked in a time warp and would have us all retreat with it into a distant past.
Speeding up political, economic and educational reform is the only way to reduce the illogical popularity of Islamism in the world. Once people in Muslim societies start to reap the benefits of freedom and participation, coupled with a marked improvement in their economic and living conditions and real educational reform, their admiration for Islamist groups will wane and they will realize that their welfare will not come at the hands of groups whose leaders are fanatical, narrow-minded and out of touch with the requirements of the age.
Despair, deplorable living conditions, feelings of injustice, the harsh realities of life and rampant corruption constitute the ideal environment for converts to the ideology of political Islam, which offers ‘hope’ in an atmosphere of hopelessness. But offering hope is one thing, making good on the offer quite a different matter. The Islamists are selling dreams [mirages] and promises [false] that they have a formula to cure all of society’s ills. In reality, however, they lack the credentials, not to mention the competence, required to undertake such a task. As someone who has spent many years at the head of a large institution, I find it hard to see what the source of their competence can be. Progress is a modern management concept that can be achieved by Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists as long as its elements are available. These elements are political, managerial, economic, educational and humanistic, regardless of religion or nationality.
The new political term that begins this year and runs for six more years must and can put an end to the Islamists’ dream of coming to power and destroying all prospects of stability and prosperity in Egypt for centuries to come. This can only be realized if all political, economic and educational reform initiatives come together in such a way as to render the mirage presented by the Islamists no longer attractive by ensuring that the reasons for its appeal have been eradicated from our reality.
Religious Extremism in Egypt.
On the nineteenth of last February, Al-Akhbar carried an article I wrote on Saad Zaghloul's extraordinary political skills which enabled him to gain the full confidence of Egypt's Copts and Muslims alike. That confidence reached its peak when all Egyptians came to look upon Saad Zaghloul as the symbol of na-tional ssalvation and the rallying point for national aspirations in 1919, when the two elements of the nation forgot the bitter conflicts that were still fresh in their minds, for only eight years had elapsed since that somber time. I was honoured to receive words of praise for the article from several readers, including two whose opinions I particularly cherish: one from the most eminent religious personality in the Muslim community, the other from his Coptic counterpart.
Most of those with whom I discussed the article, including the two personalities referred to above, urged me to write a similar one on the subject of religious extremism in Egypt. I would have much preferred to tackle that phenomenon in an in-depth study to be published as a book, yet the regrettable flare-up of sectarian violence in the past few days makes it imperative for all Egyptian writers who believe in democracy as the supreme value attained by human civilization to address the subject. Another factor which helped convince me of the urgency of dealing with the topic in an article, pending a more comprehensive study, is the appearance of a spate of articles attributing the spread of religious extremism in Egypt today to external factors, such as foreign incitement and financing of extremist movements in general, and of fundamentalist Islamic groups in particular.
Such an interpretation is extremely dangerous for, by presenting the issue of religious extremism as a security problem that should be entrusted to the security organs and the police, it removes it from the realm of problems amenable to political solutions. Those who are quick to point an accusing finger at external forces should realize that if Egypt had been a haven of social tolerance, brotherhood and peace, it would not have been susceptible to interference from abroad and that it is other, local, factors which have created a climate favourable to the success of such attempts.
In fact, the roots of religious extremism in Egypt stem from three sources:
The first is the harsh treatment meted out to the Islamic trend in Egypt by Nasser's regime. Ever since the contradictions between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood erupted into open conflict, the regime resorted to the use of force and inhuman torture against the movement. It happened in the 1954 confrontation, and again in 1965 when the confrontation was even more acute. Certainly the methods used by Nasser against the Islamic currents, whose members were subjected to imprisonment, pursuit, exile and torture, created generations of extremists from among those who had suffered at his hands as well as from their progeny. The Muslim Brothers Party crushed by Nasser would never have produced elements as extremist, as reactionary and as insular as the militant Islamic groups we see today.
This confirms the theory that terror breeds terror, that the repression of ideas and beliefs produces unexpected forms of extremism, violence, terrorism and even crime. Significantly, the four largest terrorist groups in the world today emerged in countries which were subjected to repressive dictatorships for a period of time sufficient to produce those forms of organized violence: the Bader Meinhoff group in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army in Japan and ETA in Spain. All these organizations grew in the fascist countries which formed the Axis in World War II, with the exception of Spain which, nevertheless, was also a bastion of fascism under Franco.
In Egypt too, the many years of repressive dictatorship generated a climate of extremism in a country where it had never existed before.
The second source of extremism in Egypt today is the prevailing socio-economic situation. Poverty, the decline in people's living standards, the appearance of a very wealthy minority noted for its conspicious consumption, the harrowing problems of daily life and the social anarchy they create, not to mention a breakdown in the value system of society as the middle class, the cornerstone on which the system is built, is being forced down the social ladder by the economic crisis, all create the perfect climate for extremism and for the spread of totalitarian tendencies, whether towards the left into Marxist groups or towards the right into secterianism and religious dog-matism.
Karl Marx's famous appeal to the working class all over the world, "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!", graphically illustrates the link between extremism and the degradation of socio-economic conditions. Economic crises generate feelings of deep frustration among the young who despair of obtaining their legitimate right to a decent life. The advocates of extremism, whether communists or militant religious elements, find in such despair an ideal medium for their propaganda. Young people who find it impossible to get a decent start in life because of the economic crisis which prevents them from having access to such minimal necessities as a home, food and clothes are susceptible to the hardliners who claim that society is corrupt and doomed and that it should be destroyed to make room for a better society. The meagre quota of education they acquired, if any, coupled with the desperation they feel, does not allow these disenchanted youngsters to compare their society, whatever its shortcomings, to the insubstantial dream they are offered. Thus does the crushing economic crisis and the ensuing breakdown in social values provide an excellent opportunity for extremists to peddle their ideas.
Finding radical solutions to the social and economic problems besetting Egypt would certainly help extirpate one of the three sources of the extremism we are witnessing at present.
The third source can, indeed, be attributed to external factors. Egypt is in the eye of a storm of radicalism blowing from every direction in the Middle East, especially from Iran and Lebanon, and the contagion is helped along with foreign funding and incitement. This unhealthy climate pervading the region is due to internal as well as external factors, mainly that the region, which did not succeed in producing democratic regimes, has now fallen into the clutches of ruthless forces: Zionism, arms dealers and other parties with a vested interest in keeping the region in ferment.
The protection of Egyptian society from the scourge of for-eign intervention and financing is, of course, the task of the security forces. But important as it is, the role of the security forces in dealing with the phenomenon of religious fanaticism cannot eliminate its causes nor bring it to an end. The only proper cure is a combination of real democracy (as opposed to window-dressing) and firm action by eminent religious figures who should use their moral authority to contain the problem, not fan the flames of extremism as many seem to do. Last but not least, we need the vigilance of the security forces, particularly in Upper Egypt where traditional tribal values in conjunction with religious fanaticism are a highly explosive mixture.
Saad Zaghloul & Egyptian/National Unity.
To my mind, one of the most cogent signs of human progress and adherence to humanist values is the way a civilization treats its minorities. To the same extent that the protection of these minorities is a mark of human civilization, their persecution and the violation of their rights, particularly their right to per-sonal security, to private property and to freedom of worship, is a sign of backwardness and barbarity. Muslims can be justifiably proud that Islam has a noble tradition of treating religious minorities, especially Christians, according to the most advanced norms of civilized behaviour. In more than one passage, the great book of Islam, the Holy Quran, deplores as sinful the coercion of people to embrace a faith other than theirs, even if that faith should be Islam. According to the Surah of `Al Baqara'(The Cow), "There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error". The Surahs of `Yunes' (Jonah), `Al Anaam' (The Cattle) and `Al Kahf' (The Cave), are equally unequivocal in deploring the use of coercion to convert people to one single religion: "And if thy Lord willed, all who are on the earth would have believed together. Wouldst thou compel men until they are believers?" (verse 99, the Surah of `Yunes'); "If Allah willed, He could have brought them all together to the guidance. So be not thou among the foolish ones."(verse 35, Surah of`Al Anaam'); "Say: (It is) the truth from the Lord of you (all). Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve." (verse 29, Surah of `Al Kahf').
Quranic texts stating that, had it been God's will, he would have united all men in one nation, appear in more than one place and in almost identical words (verse 5, Surah of `Al Maeda' [The Table Spread]; verse 118, Surah of `Hud'; verse 93, Surah of `Al Nahl' [The Bees] and verse 8, Surah of `Al Shura' [Counsel]). In Surah of `Al Nahl', there is an ex-plicit provision on the need to preach Islam with kindness and not with violence and coercion: "Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the better way". Other texts forbid war against non-Muslims as long as they do not fight the Muslims.
In authenticated references of the prophet's sayings (Hadith), the prophet not only forbids oppression of Christians and Jews, but considers such oppression to be a very great sin. The Hadith states: "He who is unjust to a Christian or a Jew, I shall be his antagonist on the Day of Resurrection". The history of Islam is rich in examples of noble stands. One of the oldest of such examples is the refusal of the second Caliph, Omar Ibn El Khattab, to pray in a Jerusalem church during a visit to that city, lest it become a precedent for Muslims to emulate him, thus violating the right of Christians to their own houses of worship. One of the greatest contemporary Arab writers, Abbas Al Aqad, devotes a chapter in his book, "Democracy in Islam", to the at-titude oof Islam to other faiths. In this chapter, entitled "With Strangers", he writes: "Under an Islamic government, non-Muslim people of the Scripture who are subjects or allies of the Statehave the same rights and obligations as Muslims. The State will do battle on their behalf as it does on behalf of all its sub-jects, and will not judge them by the tenets of Islam in matters where their faith rules otherwise. Nor can they be called before the courts on their feast days, for the prophet, peace be upon him, said: "You are Jews, and you will not be summoned on the Sabbath". According to Al Aqad, a Muslim ruler is required to go beyond the letter of Islamic law in dealing courteously and fairly with non-Muslims, for theprophet said: "He who insults a Christian or a Jew shall feellashes of fire on the Day of Resurrection". He also said: "He who harms a Christian or a Jew harms me" and, on another occasion, "He who deals unfairly with a Christian or a Jew andlays a heavier burden on him than he can carry shall be my enemy on the Day of Resurrection". When Amr Ibn Al Aasbecame Governor of Egypt after the Islamic Conquest, the Caliph, Omar Ibn El Khattab, sent him a missive enjoining him to deal justly with the Copts, the majority of Egypt's population at the time. He wrote: "You have with you the people of the faith and the covenant...beware, Amr, of making an enemy of the Prophet". In his "History of Islamic Conquests", Al Balatheri tells of Omar's visit to the Levant, where he ordered alms to be given to needy Christian lepers. It was also Omar Ibn El Khattab who granted the Christians of the city of Iliah a treaty that stated: "They shall be secure as to their persons, their churches and their crosses. Their churches are not to be inhabited, destroyed or diminished in any way; nor shall they be coerced as to their faith."
In the same book, Al Aqad notes that Islam gave Christians every opportunity to build churches, practice their religious rites and engage in trade. What better proof could there be that Muslims protected religious minorities throughout their long his-tory, particularly Christians and Jews, he asks, than the fact that they were never coerced into embracing Islam. Even under the Abbasids, when the might of Islam was at its height, religious tolerance prevailed. It continued under the Ottoman State, which protected Christian and Jewish minorities, as borne out by the fact that these communities continued to thrive in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, all of which were under the complete domination of the Ottoman State at its strongest and greatest.
In short, history abounds with examples attesting to the im-portance given by Islam to the protection of religious minorities and their right to practice their faith freely. But this situa-tion did not last forever. When most of the Islamic countries, particularly the Arab ones, fell into the clutches of European colonialism, they became a perfect ground for the application of one of the major tenets of colonialism in general and of British colonialism in particular: "Divide and rule".
That notorious policy was to leave its mark on the modern history of Egypt. Immediately after Egypt was occupied in 1882, the colonialist authorities began to play Muslims against Copts and nationals against aliens. Inspired by the ideas of Ahmed Lotfi Al Sayed, the Umma party played a commendable role in en-deavouring to establish the unity of the two elements of the Egyptian nation, the Muslims and the Copts. But the one Egyptian leader who not only put a stop to all the tensions, grievances and conflicts between Muslims and Copts, but who found a new for-mula for brotherhood and profound unity between the two was Saad Zaghloul. His achievement in this area was a sign of his politi-cal genius and one of the noblest aspects of the 1919 nationalist revolution. No other leader before or since has been as success-ful in uniting these two component elements of the Egyptian na-tion.
The death of Saad Zaghloul tempered the enthusiasm of the Copts for the Wafd party he had founded and whose appeal was due in large measure to his personal charisma and unique leadership. Indeed, their attitude to all political parties since then, whether those that existed before the 1952 revolution or in the days of Nasser and Sadat, have wavered between uneasy resignation at best, and burning tension at worst. We all know that rela-tions between Nasser and the Copts were characterised by deep mistrust on both sides. We also remember that Sadat's relations with the Coptic community were severely strained, particularly following his shocking decision in September 1981 to remove the head of the Coptic Church by abrogating the decision crowning him Patriarch of the Copts of Egypt and all the territories falling under the jurisdiction of the patriarchal.
What then is the essence of Saad Zaghloul's political genius that led him to find the unique formula which united the two ele-ments of the Egyptian nation in 1919? To answer that question, we must examine the situation in Egypt at the beginning of this century.
Between 1906 and 1910, relations between Muslims and Copts had sunk to an all-time low. During those years, and as a result of the policies and practices of the representatives of British colonialism in Egypt, Sir Eldon Gorst and his successor, Lord Cromer, relations between the two communities were undergoing the worst crisis in the recent history of Egypt. British colonialism had sown the seeds of discord and tension through the clever ap-plication of their divide-and-rule policy in all areas, notably in the area of government jobs where violent competition between the two communities was actively encouraged. The British fanned the flames of fanaticism by leading the Coptic minority to feel that they were not getting their full rights nor the same oppor-tunities as those available to the Muslims.
Tensions were further exacerbated by newspaper coverage of the conflicting points of view. In a recent thesis for a Ph.D. in mass communication, Dr. Hassan Al Mougui discussed the posi-tion taken by the Syrian press in covering the problems of the Egyptian situation between 1900 and 1914 and gives a very inter-esting presentation of the manner in which the conflict was reflected in the Egyptian newspapers of the time.
The crisis reached a peak after the assassination of the Coptic Prime Minister, Boutros Pasha Ghali, by a young Muslim, Ibrahim Al Wardani, on February 20, 1910. Throughout the years of the crisis between Muslims and Copts, Saad Zaghloul had served in all the successive governments that ruled Egypt between 1906 and 1912 (under Mostapha Pasha Fahmy from 1906 to 1908, under Boutros Pasha Ghali from 1908 to 1910 and under Mohamed Pasha Said from 1910 to 1912). It was in 1912 that Saad Zaghloul tendered his resignation, refusing to be a puppet minister and the mere executor of the British Commissioner's orders and those of other representatives of the occupation forces. The fact that he was a lawyer, a judge renowned for his integrity and equity and a man of vast Islamic and French culture, enabled Saad Zagh-loul to understand the true nature of the crisis, its origin, its prime movers and their motives. His insight and years of ex-perience made him realize that an even-handed approach to the two elements of the nation would end the crisis and totally eliminate its causes. Thus he understood that if the majority were to take the initiative in providing a sense of security for the minority, peace between them would ensue, the Copts would no longer fear for themselves, for their property or for the future of their children and there would be no more cause for fanaticism.
Saad Zaghloul accumulated a vast store of experience from his participation in the Orabi Revolution, from his early im-prisonment, from this work as a lawyer, as a judge, as a minister and as an elected member of the legislative body (1913-1914) and finally from the years of World War I. He drew the necessary useful lessons and, when he became the leader of the 1919 revolu-tion, he put all his experience to good use to rally the Copts to his cause. Thanks to his moral stature, the two erstwhile protagonists became united under the banner of the revolution, fighting side by side for the cause of the Nation. Muslims and Copts forgot their differences when the man whom both sides trusted without reservation was arrested. Describing the massive popular demonstrations that swept the country on March 17, 1919, Mr. Ahmed Hussein (Almanac of Egypt's History, Part IV, page 1567) writes: "Perhaps the most magnificent feature that the demonstrations highlighted, a feature which dominated events from the very first moment, was the close unity between Muslims and Copts. To the surprise of the British, who thought they had succeeded in driving a wedge between the two elements of the na-tion, in that instant the two elements fused together and, Egyp-tians all, fought under the slogan: `Religion belongs to God, and the Nation to all'. The banners raised on March 17, 1919, bore the cross and the crescent together.
"Among Saad Zaghloul's closest and most loyal companions during the revolution and throughout the years of nationalist struggle from 1919 to 1924, were eminent Copts like Wassef Ghali, Wisa Wassef, Makram Ebeid and others. It will be remembered that when the British occupation forces arrested Saad Zaghloul and sent him into exile on December 22, 1921, two of the five com-panions exiled with him were Copts: Senewet Hanna and Makram Ebeid. Shortly after that, seven of Saad Zaghloul's companions were arrested by the occupation forces and sentenced to death on August 11, 1922. Of the seven, four were Copts. Following the arrest of this second group of Wafdist leaders, a new group of nine, including two Copts, took over the leadership of the party. These too were arrested and a fourth group of leaders was formed - composed of six prominent Wafdists. This group included two Copts. The prominence of Copts in the upper echelons of the Wafd bears witness to the broad national vision of Saad Zaghloul. Un-der his leadership, the Wafd won a sweeping victory in the first real elections held in Egypt. When he named the first popular cabinet in Egypt's modern history in January 1924, he did not follow the tradition of appointing only one Coptic minister: out of nine ministers, two were Copts.
Saad Zaghloul actively strove to eradicate fanaticism and bias by pursuing a policy based on the spirit of Egyptian nationalism and on respect for the members of the minority who became an integral part of his popular ruling party. A new spirit of brotherhood prevailed between Muslims and Copts, best exemplified in an incident which took place in the late thirties. When a soldier, using a poisoned lance, tried to kill Mostapha Al Nahas, who had become leader of the Wafd after Saad Zaghloul's death, one of the most eminent Coptic members of the party, Senewet Hanna, protected him with his own life and died of the poisoned wound a few days later. His sacrifice was an unforget-table symbol of the unity which bound the two elements of the Egyptian nation together. Such a degree of unity and brotherhood can only be destroyed when fanaticism invades the ranks in the form of reactionary ideas which are ill-suited to the age in which we live and to a nation such as ours.
National peace and harmony promise the only hope of salvation from the abhorrent storm of fundamentalism which has raged for the past twenty years in our part of the world.
Ali Shariati & The Istehmar Theory.
Dr. Ali Shariati (1933-1977), who wrote and published his works before the downfall of the Shah of Iran, is one of the most prominent Iranian thinkers of the twentieth century. While conceding that he is undeniably a man of considerable intellect, I nevertheless find it hard to agree with his views on several major issues, in particular his unswerving conviction that Western civilization is purely material in nature and not the outcome of a system of values that made it what it is today (notwithstanding its many defects). Contrary to what Dr. Shariati thinks, it is my belief that the intellectual spirit that was born during the Renaissance, and the political, societal and cultural values that prevailed in the West, brought democracy into being and did away despotism, creating an environment in which scientific, material and economic progress could be achieved. Dr. Shariati, however, believes that values and morals are a prerogative of the backward East, whilst material distinction alone prevails in the West. It would seem that Dr. Shariati (in spite of his keen intellect) could not think in terms of concepts such as "humanity", "universal knowledge", or "one civilization, sundry cultures". I doubt whether they even crossed his mind. Nevertheless, there remains his intellectual courage coupled with an intense hatred of those who set themselves up as "men of religion" (in whatever society, culture or religion), whom he saw as forming an 'unholy' alliance with the political and financial powers that be, manipulating the masses through an insidious form of mind control that he rather wittily calls "istehmar", where people are fooled into pinning their hopes on the hereafter rather than focusing on their own (often miserable) lives.
Yesterday I was leafing through a number of Shariati's works that have been translated into Arabic and English, and re-read a booklet of his entitled "Intelligence – Istehmar", translated into Arabic in 1991. He states:
"The fate of religion has fallen into the hands of the enemies of humanity, the "istehmar" forces who may refer to themselves as the "spiritual " or "moral" classes; or as "Sufis" or "the priesthood", but all of whom use religion as a means of controlling (and fooling) people, whether individually or collectively. I speak here of the misleading religion; the "ruling" religion, in league with authority, money and power; controlled by a class of officials who claim exclusive access to religion and who seek the authority, power and profit that accrue from maintaining the status quo. How does this so-called religion fool people? While it cannot rob one of one's intelligence or social responsibility, it can nevertheless insidiously infiltrate the mind with messages such as: "Forget the world, for it only ends in death", "Save your hopes and aspirations for the afterlife", "It isn't long – thirty or forty or fifty years: what value have they? When they are over, everything will be at your command". "Just a few years of life that have no value whatsoever…Leave the world to those who want it" – i.e. the "religious" men themselves and their partners in power."
The similarity with Karl Marx is obvious here, though their objectives differ: Marx wished to do away with religion altogether, while Shariati sought to radically change people's core understanding of religious issues. They both agreed, however, (openly in the case of Marx and only hinted at by Shariati) that religion was "the opium of the masses" – or rather, that the manipulation of religion by clerics to serve their own purposes may be thus described.
To my mind, the writings of contemporary Iranian thinkers, most of whom are Islamists, are infinitely more refined (though I disagree with many of them) than those of the Sunni Muslims, which have come to represent a miscellany of the thoughts of Ibn Taymeya, Mohamed Ibh Abdel Wahab, Abi el A'la el Mawdudi, Sayed Qutb and the literary output of the Islamic Group in Egypt (before the latest developments in their ideology).
It is my hope that the Sunni world will cease its flagrant injustice towards the Shiites, and that we will come to realize how very little we know of their intellectual contributions from the time of Gaafar el Sadek (Peace Be Upon Him) until the present day. We know nothing of their doctrines and jurisprudence (much of which is highly refined) or their contemporary literary output. Even the educated, intellectual individuals amongst us remain strangely ignorant of Shiite thought. This injustice has prevailed since the assassination of the most exalted of the Companions of Mohamed (PBUH), Aly Ibn Abi Taleb, and his son El Hussein Ibn Ali, up until the atrocities perpetrated by Saddam Hussein against these much-maligned people. Nevertheless, I believe that Iran, if left in peace without being attacked by external forces, will succeed in refining its political, social and intellectual life and could well become (after Turkey and Malaysia) the third democracy in the Islamic world, though if that were to happen, its share of democracy would far exceed that of Turkey or Malaysia, for reasons that the present article cannot cover.
Reflections on the Coptic Question.
My special interest in the Coptic question, which is known to many people, led me to conduct an in-depth study of the history of Christianity in Egypt in an attempt to acquaint myself with the source of Coptic culture in all its dimensions and aspects. This entailed establishing close relations with hundreds, not to say thousands, of Copts, including many prominent figures of the Egyptian church. A number of Coptic friends asked me to write my views on the so-called Coptic question, which some believe has reached a critical stage and others dismiss as an imaginary problem with no basis in reality.
Before going into the subject, I would like to state that the basic premise from which this article proceeds is that the Copts are (or should be) genuine Egyptian citizens, that is, first-class citizens. Egypt is their country; they are not living here by the grace of others but are fully entitled to enjoy the status and rights of nationhood, as full partners, not as charity cases.
If this premise is disputed, there can be no dialogue. This article is not addressed to those who regard our fellow countrymen of the Coptic faith as second-class citizens, allowed to live among us thanks to our tolerance and magnanimity, nor, a fortiori, to those who call for the imposition of the khezya (the poll-tax payment required of non-Muslims) on members of the Coptic community. To engage in a debate with anyone who rejects the basic premise of this article is to embark on an exercise in futility. No purpose would be served in trying to initiate what would essentially be a dialogue of the deaf. On the other hand, if the reader accepts the basic premise of this article as an incontrovertible truth, then there is room for dialogue, provided, however, that no one presumes to speak in the name of the Copts, whether in expressing their grievances or in denying that such grievances exist. Actually, not a single individual or entity in Egypt today, official or unofficial, can claim that the Copts have no problems or complaints. In writing these lines, therefore, I do not presume to speak for the Copts but only to convey to the reader what I have heard over and over again from ordinary Egyptian Coptic citizens who cannot possibly be classified as rebels or extremists. I am familiar with the allegations of the extremists, which I will not go into here. I will only write what I have heard – and believe to be true – over the years from those who can only be described as moderate Copts.
A major grievance over which there is complete consensus within the Coptic community is that the right to construct new churches or restore old ones has until recently been severely curtailed by legislative and bureaucratic constraints. Although these constraints have been somewhat eased, most Copts believe the situation is still far from satisfactory.
I believe the only way out of what is clearly an untenable situation is to unify the laws governing the construction and restoration of all houses of worship, whether they are called mosques or churches. These laws should lay down a set of rational rules applicable to all Egyptians regardless of creed. For it is totally illogical that one segment of society should be subjected to arbitrary constraints while another is allowed to enjoy unbridled freedom when it comes to constructing places of worship or congregating to offer prayer when and where its members choose. Indeed, even when, as is often the case, this leads to chaotic situations involving obvious violations of law, people are too intimidated to challenge the offenders, leaving them free to flout the law with impunity.
But while this is a major grievance, it is far from being the only, or even the main, reason for the widespread feeling among Egypt’s Christians that they are living a tense moment, not to say a crisis situation. They have a lot more to worry about than the need to obtain a license before they can build a new church. True, this is a flagrant case of institutionalized discrimination that is totally unjustified. After all, what possible threat can the construction of a new church represent? Churches are used either as houses of worship or as community centres where people congregate for weddings and funerals and banning or constraining their construction is an abridgement of a basic human right. Still, the Coptic community has other more serious complaints that can be summed up as follows:
-The existence of a general climate that allows for the resurgence at different times and in certain areas of the country of a spirit of religious intolerance. Copts are finely attuned to this phenomenon, as sometimes the mere mention of their name is enough to trigger a hostile reaction.
-There is a widespread feeling among Copts that their participation in public life has gradually dwindled over the last fifty years. Their sense of marginalization is borne out by the facts: in 1995, not a single Copt was elected to parliament.
-There is, moreover, the specter of communal violence, which can flare up at any time as it has done in the past, most notably in the Koshh incident.
A few analytical remarks on the feelings of unease these issues engender among the Copts may be useful here.
-With regard to the general climate which breeds a spirit of hateful fanaticism, this did not come about by a governmental decree or a political decision, but was a natural result of the defeat of the Egyptian revival project, especially after the June 1967 debacle. The vacuum was quickly filled up by a fundamentalist ideology and culture, which put itself forward as an alternative to the movement for a new Egyptian awakening. With the spread of the cultural values of this trend [whose members committed many crimes, most notably the assassination of Anwar Sadat], the general climate fell prey to the forces of conservatism and regression which inevitably bred a situation of hostility towards the Copts. As a noted Egyptian intellectual once put it, whenever the revival project is defeated in Egypt, this has negative repercussions on two groups of Egyptians: women and Copts. The opposite is equally true: in a vital and dynamic cultural climate, the attitude towards these two groups is enlightened and in keeping with the values of civilization and progress. It may be unfair to blame the current regime for creating an environment which breeds fanaticism and allows the resurgence of religious intolerance, with the attendant risk of communal violence. However, it is a fact that the government could, and still can, do much to limit the dangerous polarization that has come to characterize the cultural climate in Egypt today. To that end, it must adopt a policy aimed at the positive reinforcement of a culture of religious tolerance in place of the spirit of fanaticism threatening us all. While educational curricula and information media are the right place to start, we must not forget the importance of religious pulpits in shaping public perceptions. For there can be no hope of progress if Islamic religious institutions oppose a cultural project aimed at eradicating the spirit of religious intolerance which has taken hold in our society. That is why Al-Azhar must follow the vision of the regime, not the other way round. To leave matters to the men of religion is to accept the spread of a theocratic culture which logic and experience prove cannot possibly support a culture of tolerance and acceptance of the right of others to differ, nor accept the notion of unity through diversity.
I am well aware that what I propose is easier said than done, and that the government faces a daunting challenge. But I also know that the role of any ‘leadership’ [in the broad sense of the word; that is, the executive leaders], is to formulate a vision and work towards achieving it. To succeed, they must lead, not allow themselves to be led. It would be wrong to claim that the regime is by its nature unwilling to face up to the challenge or that it is responsible for creating the ugly spirit of fanaticism that has come to pervade our society. However, it turned a blind eye to this aberration for a long time, only slowly coming to realize that the ideology behind the culture of fanaticism is the main enemy of the regime. It is this ideology which spawned the assassins of Anwar Sadat, the would-be assassins of the Addis Ababa incident and the perpetrators of many other crimes.
-With regard to the widespread feeling among Copts that their representation in public life has shrunk considerably over the last few decades, this is borne out by official statistics. However, this should not be seen as a deliberate attempt by the regime to keep Copts out of public office. It should be seen, rather, as a negative phenomenon that grew insidiously over the years, unnoticed by successive governments and driven by its own dynamics, until it reached its present unacceptable proportions. But whatever the reason, the fact remains that the Copts are marginalized in Egyptian public life and this is a situation that merits serious study. I for one believe the explanation for the phenomenon lies in the mindset our public officials have developed in recent years, which is characterized by a refusal to admit to the existence of problems and an insistence on claiming that all is best in the best of all possible worlds. This mindset is rooted in another cultural specificity, which is a refusal to accept criticism and an inability to engage in self-criticism. To claim, as some do, that the situation is of the Copts’ own making, that they have become marginalized because they are too passive and too taken up in financial activities, is to put the cart before the horse. It is true that the Copts are passive and that they are involved in financial and economic activities but that is a result, not a cause: the result of having many doors closed to them despite their undeniable abilities.
Although I am deeply convinced of the truth of the above analysis, I am also aware that it is incomplete. The same doors that are slammed in the face of highly qualified members of the Coptic community remain closed to many highly qualified members of Egyptian society in general. The political game in Egypt today is open only to those willing to play by certain rules established over the last few decades, rules which by their nature are repellent to skilled professionals with any sense of pride, being based on personal loyalty, nepotism and other mechanisms having nothing to do with professional abilities.
- As to the violent communal clashes which flare up from time to time, most recently in Koshh and, before that, in Khanka, to mention just two of the many violent confrontations to which our recent history bears witness, these are the result of a number of factors, the most important of which are:
An official line that seems determined to play down the gravity of the situation in the mistaken belief that admitting to the existence of the problem would be detrimental to Egypt’s reputation. In fact, Egypt’s reputation would be better served by confronting the problem head on rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.
The spread of a culture pattern characterized by ignoring problems, extolling achievements and singing our own praises.
A failure to make use of the many worthwhile efforts made to study and analyze the root causes of such incidents, such as the famous report put out by Dr. Gamal Oteify on the spate of communal clashes which broke out in the nineteen seventies. His findings and recommendations could have been put to good use had it not been for a cultural propensity to dismiss the clashes as a minor problem instigated by external forces for the purpose of destabilizing Egypt.
The purpose of this article is not to accuse or blame anyone, but to present an objective and neutral study which aims, like the late Dr. Oteify’s report, to cast light on some elements of the problem. To accuse the government of persecuting the Copts would be both illogical and unwise. But it would be equally illogical and unwise to pretend that they have no legitimate grievances and that their situation is ideal.
I can think of no better way to conclude this article than with the following story: In the course of a debate on the Coptic question, someone asked me what the needs and demands of the Copts were. I began with their second demand, then moved on to the third, fourth and fifth. But what, he asked, is their first demand? I replied that what they needed above all was a ‘social embrace’, in the sense of being made to feel that there is a genuine desire to listen to them and hear their complaints and problems, in a spirit of brotherly love and sympathy based on the belief that they are equal partners in this land, not second-class citizens belonging to a minority that has to accept and bow to the will of the majority.
For a real and comprehensive solution to the Coptic question, we need only look back to the time of Saad Zaghloul, who established an exemplary model of communal relations that can serve as a glorious point of departure for a contemporary project to lay this nagging problem to rest once and for all.
There are good reasons why Saad Zaghloul is beloved of the Copts, and we would do well to emulate the example he set so many years ago. These reasons were exhaustively addressed in an old article of mine which was published in Al-Akhbar on 19 February 1987 under the title “Saad Zaghloul and the Unity of the Two Elements of the Egyptian Nation” and republished later as a chapter in my book, “The Four Idols”.