Many in Egypt today are talking about two features that have come to dominate the country’s social landscape. The first is that manifestations of piety have become far more widespread in recent times than they were a century ago. The second is that there is a noticeable upsurge in behavioural aberrations at the societal level, where tension, violence, aggression and lack of civility in dealings between members of society have become the norm. While neither of these observations can be denied, there is an obvious contradiction between them. If the religiosity that has come to permeate society’s cultural climate and the manifestations of piety displayed by its members have not prevented the decline in moral standards, civility and social ethics, this can only mean that piety, or, more accurately, the understanding of piety that has come to prevail, does not serve the interests of society. This is by no means to deny that there are among those who subscribe to this understanding of piety admirable examples of moral rectitude. But I am talking here of a general phenomenon, not individual cases.
I believe we can only resolve the contradiction if we admit that what has come to be called piety is in fact not piety at all. This is the unshakeable conviction I have reached following an in-depth study of the phenomenon. We are swamped by such ostentatious displays of piety as women wrapped in what has come to be called “Islamic” dress and men sporting beards, wearing white – as opposed to gold – wedding bands and bearing marks on their foreheads attesting to the hours they spent prostrating themselves on prayer rugs. Not to mention how the senses are constantly assailed – in writing, from the pulpit and through the audio-visual media – by voices urging the faithful to observe the ritualistic aspects of religion. If some are entitled to consider that this constitutes piety then, by the same token, others, including the writer of these lines, are entitled to assert that rites and rituals have absolutely nothing to do with real piety.
To be pious is to have a strong moral code, to be helpful to others, and to display such noble character traits as altruism, tolerance and a strong work ethic. As to the manifestations of piety we have mentioned, they are due to a combination of political, economic, social, educational, cultural and psychological factors that can be easily identified. According to the Positivist school of philosophy founded by Auguste Comte, no one can claim that greater religiosity will set things right, because practical experience proves that excessive religiosity could further promote the decline in general standards of behaviour and the violence and anger in dealings among people.
The ubiquitous religiosity we are witnessing today in the form of a rigid adherence to the ritualistic aspects of religious observance stems from a variety of sources: More than half a century of no political participation or fictitious political participation is one. More than half a century of economic decline and the erosion of the middle class is another. Then there is the complete divorce between the Egyptian educational system and what is happening in the rest of the world, its isolation from modern systems of education and its reflection of all our cultural defects such as the growing tendency towards insularity and bigotry and the lack of critical thinking. The succession of oligarchies that have governed our political and social life for over half a century is also a source of the excessive religiosity to which society has succumbed. Added to all of the above is the deteriorating quality and standard of the religious establishment, which has been infected by ideas blowing from the East. Then there is the absence from the scene of anything other than religion that can nurture a sense of belonging among Egypt’s youth. Immersing themselves in the rituals of religious observance has become a psychological refuge for those who find nothing else to which they can anchor themselves in a time of uncertainty [hope, a class, an ambition, a party, a better reality or a specific cultural model.]
Every person on the face of the earth [with the exception of a small minority whose only allegiance is to their own ideas, principles and value systems] needs to feel he or she “belongs” to something or other. In advanced societies whose members enjoy a high standard of living, people’s sense of belonging can take a variety of forms. There are those whose allegiance is to their own personal successes, others to a political party, to a certain social class with its own culture and value system or to a specific ideological or cultural movement. Through this feeling of belonging, a person achieves the satisfaction and fulfillment necessary for the well-being of every human being. This can help explain the sense of belonging Egyptians felt for the national movement led by Saad Zaghloul some ninety years ago as well as why most of the Egyptian people identified so closely with the Nasserite project a few decades later. In both cases, there was a “front” that succeeded in gaining the allegiance of broad segments of society, irrespective of how successful either was in making good on its promises or living up to its slogans. With the disappearance of these fronts, which attracted the interest, energies, loyalty and allegiance of most members of society, the field was left wide open for a different kind of allegiance to take hold, one that is more appealing, comfortable and, because given to generalities and lack of precision, suitable for men and women of an average cultural formation. Where allegiance to Marxism, for example, requires an above-average degree of awareness, culture and intelligence, this does not apply when it comes to joining the front of religious slogans. I believe that religious slogans – which are in fact purely political, not religious at all – owe their appeal to the regression and erosion of the roles played by other fronts which were highly effective at earlier stages of our modern history over the last two centuries.
It should also be pointed out that ritualistic piety [as endorsed in the writings of men like ibn-Taymiyah and ibn-Qaiym Al-Juzeya and in the applications of Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab and the experiences inspired by his school] works on the outer, not the inner, person. It is like a particularly strict traffic system that lays down rigorous rules determining what people can and cannot do. It is a school of thinking that may be suitable for primitive communities with a limited store of education, culture and knowledge but not for contemporary, advanced and civilized societies. Communities governed by this strict code could appear to be disciplined on the outside but are riddled with defects and shortcomings. It treats people like circus animals trained with whips to follow the routine laid down for them. But piety in the sense it is understood in Sufism, Christianity and Buddhism works on the inner person and seeks to have what is good in human nature triumph over its aggressive and base aspects.
It is no coincidence that Islamic societies governed by the strictest religious rules, that is, rules designed to maintain an outer semblance of piety, are the most dissolute, the ones most obsessed with sex, women and all forms of sensual indulgence. The attempt to control these aberrations on the “outside” without trying to deal with the “inside” creates a kind of dichotomy, a pathological split between what is said in public and what is done in private that is perhaps without parallel in the world.