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"Geneive Abdo chronicles Egypt's contemporary moderate Islamist movement with clarity and insight.... [She] has a firm grasp of the history of which she writes and an obvious empathy for her subjects. She is a fine journalist and a sensitive analyst."--The Washington Post Book World
"A fascinating look at an Islamic subculture mostly unknown to the Western non-Muslim. Abdo presents fruitful cross-cultural undercurrents that provide hope for peace and understanding between secularism and religion." --Booklist
"Abdo...conducted hundreds of interviews within previously closed segments of society 'to present the true face of Islam.' Along the way, she discovered a great diversity of religious expression in a social transformation that poses a greater challenge to Western interests than the military movement now in decline.... This firsthand account will serve as a role model for Islamic reform in the 21st century."--Library Journal
"Western observers and regime apologists tend to oversimplify social or political activism when it exhibits an Islamic coloration, casting it as monodimensional, uncompromising, and reactionary. No God But God debunks these one-dimensional depictions of Egyptian Muslims by offering an incisive, fresh, and richly drawn canvas. Yet, Abdo's book is not simply a riposte, but a congenial, informed, and often affectionate account of Muslims seeking to redefine themselves, their politics, and their society. If her subjects are groping for meaning, and recreating themselves in the process, the same may not be said of the government. Abdo's material is devastating, not least the image of an inept, uncreative, but often brutal government with a limited repertoire of tactics." --Augustus Richard Norton, Professor of International Relations and Anthropology, Harvard University
"Geneive Abdo has produced a remarkable volume. She makes the dynamics of Egyptian society come alive. Combining sound scholarship and observation with an engaging style, readers will be given an insight into Egypt today and tomorrow that cannot be found elsewhere. The author's long and in-depth experience in Egypt, particularly her access to sectors of society that are often inaccessible to outsiders, gives this volume a depth and authenticity that cannot be found elsewhere. It is also the reason why she avoids so many of the pitfalls to which others succumb." --John L. Esposito Director, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding Georgetown University
THE NEW FACE OF ISLAM
The scene from my balcony, in one of Cairo's wealthiest districts, offered a view the world had somehow failed to notice. Each Friday, within minutes of the awe-inspiring refrain of Allahu Akbar, God is Great, dozens of men flocked to a small plaza below, each clinging to a green prayer mat. They laid them out in unison, turning a small triangle in the street into a sea of green—the color of the Prophet Mohammed. They removed their shoes and prostrated themselves toward the mosque and, far beyond, toward Mecca itself. I was intrigued not by the sound of the muezzin, whose eloquent echo can be heard in various keys across most Muslim cities five times a day, nor by the instant field of green, which I soon learned was commonplace wherever Cairo's faithful gathered to pray. Rather, I was struck by the fact that the worshippers hunched over their mats were not the kind of men commonly seen in the streets and coffeehouses of Cairo. One glance revealed their social class: The smooth feet of this well-groomed set stood in sharp contrast to the rough calluses many Egyptian men develop from dragging their bare heels over the edges of their ill-fitting shoes.
I was stunned that middle and upper middle-class men would leave their luxurious apartments and villas in Zamalek, once home to Egypt's pashas and kings, to pray on a dusty corner of Ahmed Hishmat Street. Nearly everything I had read before coming to Egypt in 1993 described the Islamic revival as a movement reserved for the poor. The common explanation in press accounts andacademic circles for Egypt's return to its Islamic identity had become a cliché: After experimenting with socialism, Arab nationalism, and capitalism under successive leaders Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, a vast majority of Egyptians were left poverty-stricken and embittered toward the West. The failures of Western-oriented ideologies and economic development, went the argument, fueled a rejectionist movement—hence, the nostalgic search for Islamic "roots."
But as I watched the men dressed in imitation Pierre Cardin sweaters and fine starched cotton shirts sprawled out along the green mats in the street, that theory rang false. In the months that followed, I met wealthy women from Dokki, another upper-crust district, who followed the teachings of a conservative sheikh, known for bringing wayward actresses and wives of government ministers back into the Islamic fold. After attending his religious lessons and listening to his Friday sermons at the local mosque, women who were once slaves to fashion took the veil and gave their expensive French wine to the secular friends they left behind. Instead of preparing lunch for their husbands in the mid-afternoon when the workday ends, they fasted and prayed, provoking tensions within their families.
There were ample outward signs that religion was penetrating nearly every sector of society. At Cairo University, a campus that is representative of middle-class Egyptian society, a majority of female students were veiled. And no matter where I went at noontime, whether it was a bank, an athletic club, the central telephone office, the grand bazaar downtown, or even the government press center, all business stopped for prayer.
The overwhelming Islamic sentiment on display begged an obvious question: What effect, beyond the symbols of veils and prayer mats, was the Islamic revival having on the spirit and values of ordinary people? I found my first clues in the two or three taxi drivers I met each day as I roamed the city. The behavior of the drivers, who were always male and most of the time no older than forty, followed either one of two predictable patterns. If I heard cassettes on the tape player of popular sheikhs or religious music, if the drivers were dressed in a gallabiyya, the long Islamic tunic, I felt at ease. Unlike those who played Egyptian pop music, attached photographs of bikini-clad women to their dashboards, contorted their necks to stare at my legs as I sat in the back seat, or adjusted their mirrors to fix their eyes on my face, hoping the unmanned steering wheel would find safe passage through the chaotic traffic, the men of religion were interested only in driving. When I heard the Koran playing as I hopped in a cab, I knew I would not be peppered with the questions Egyptian men typically toss at foreign women: Was I married, did I have children, would I go on a date? I also knew a reasonable fare would suffice. There would be no haggling over money.
Thus began my search for the underlying causes of the Islamic revival in Egypt. It was clear from the beginning that the "economic determinist" theory, redolent of nineteenth-century European philosophy and so readily accepted in the West, particularly in the United States, did not hold up. Egyptians were clearly more concerned with bringing about social reform than they were with establishing economic equilibrium between the rich minority and impoverished majority. The Islamic revival was broad-based, touching Egyptians in every social class and all walks of life. All you had to do was look at the feet of the faithful on Ahmed Hishmat Street.
Two potent factors have allowed this revival to proceed largely unnoticed. It has been obscured on the one hand by the West's need to cast Egypt as a "democratic" and "secular" outpost in a bewildering and hostile Arab sea, and on the other by the distraction of Islamic militant groups waging a persistent, but ultimately ineffective, twenty-year challenge to the state. The 1979 Iranian revolution and the bloody struggles under way in Algeria, in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in southern Lebanon, have left a lasting impression in the Western consciousness of what to expect from the "Islamic threat." For a time, Egypt's own militants, led by the al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, did their best to fulfill these expectations and reinforce Western stereotypes. From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, militants killed dozens of foreign tourists, bombed banks, tour buses, and a cafe in a five-star Cairo hotel, assassinated cabinet ministers, attempted to kill president Mubarak himself, and carried out the bloodiest massacre in modern Egyptian history in the Pharaonic town of Luxor, in November 1997. Fifty-eight foreign tourists and four Egyptians were killed, some hacked to death with knives.
Generally, however, the militant movement inside Egypt has largely succumbed to the tenacity of the state security forces, the enmity of ordinary pious Egyptians, and the poverty of its own proclaimed ideology. Groups such as al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, which emerged from the student protest movement in universities in the late 1970s, now find few supporters today on college campuses. Their leaders, the ideologues who vowed after the 1981 assassination of President Sadat to overthrow the secular state, have been killed by the security forces, thrown in jail, or forced to flee abroad.
In place of the militant threat, a new type of Islamic revival, untested in the casbah of Algiers, the mountains of Afghanistan, and the back alleys of Tehran, has quietly taken shape and poses a far more significant challenge to Western interests in the Middle East. Egypt's "Popular Islam," a grassroots movement emerging from the streets, aims to transform the social structure of Egyptian society from the bottom up, creating an Islamic order.
Leading institutions, once under complete government control, have begun eroding the state's secularist policies. Universities, the courts, the official religious caste, or ulama, and in fact much of the middle class, including doctors, lawyers, and engineers, have created their own avenues to apply religious values in society. Students have kept political and religious activities alive on campuses, despite a state ban, by organizing underground Islamic-oriented groups and unions. Middle-class professionals developed a syndicate movement that offered hundreds of thousands of doctors, lawyers, and engineers a system of social services and an Islamic way of life independent from the state. Likewise, the ulama at al-Azhar, a thousand-year-old institution of Islamic learning, have shed their historical role as henchmen for the state and have challenged government policies on social issues ranging from female circumcision to birth control. They have asserted themselves as the moral and political guardians of Egyptian society. In doing so, they have extended their authority beyond the strictly religious sphere to ban books and films that they deem offensive to Islam and the Muslim community of believers.
The judicial system has also fallen under Islamic influence. In recent years, the courts have banned from cinemas films that were considered blasphemous to Islam. A film directed by Yussef Chahine, Egypt's most famous filmmaker, was withdrawn after years of legal wrangling, with one court instructing the parliament to issue a law banning the depiction on screen or stage of the lives of Islamic holy figures. The ruling argued that while existing Egyptian law was ambiguous on the matter, religious law, the sharia, was not. Perhaps the most celebrated case involved a university professor who was declared an apostate for his writings about Islam. A court agreed with the charge against him and ordered the professor to divorce his wife, citing a law that a non-Muslim is prohibited from marriage to a Muslim woman. In both cases, the judges set what secularists regard as dangerous precedents. They exceeded their civil authority by interpreting religious texts, an exercise generally reserved for Islamic scholars.
The current religious revival has evolved from three waves of Islamic activism in Egypt, beginning in the nineteenth century. At that time, Jamal Eddin al-Afghani and his disciple, Mohammed Abdu, argued that Islam was a rational religion and should be interpreted in ways that could be applied directly to modern life. They believed tradition-bound Muslim leaders had led society astray, and that religious thinking should instead be reformed and used as a vehicle for progress. Their movement emerged in response to foreign intervention in Egypt, first through the Napoleonic invasion and later through British colonialism. Afghani and Abdu viewed the West as both a rival and a model, and offered a formula for Muslims that would incorporate some aspects of foreign culture and achievements while adjusting Islam to compete with the advances made in the non-Muslim world.
A second phase of Islamic revivalism occurred in Egypt in the early part of the twentieth century with the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, it is still the Middle East's most venerable such group. Unlike the ideologues and theorists Afghani and Abdu, al-Banna aimed to apply religion directly to politics and popular life. A special apparatus was created within the Brotherhood to fight the British in Egypt and the Jews in Palestine. The Brotherhood's strategy was based on proselytizing and spreading the word through al-dawa, the Islamic call. It sought to gain political power, if necessary, by force. The Brotherhood became increasingly radical during the 1940s and 1950s. It demanded that women wear the veil, and ruled that nightclubs, cinemas, and theaters were sacrilegious and must be closed. Committed to the scriptures of Islam, to an Islamic social and political identity, and to the adaptation of religious principles to the demands of the modern world, the Brotherhood sought to reform Egyptian values, the economy, and the political system in order to create a Muslim society.
For a time it seemed that the Brotherhood would take control in Egypt, but the group was eclipsed by the Free Officers' coup in 1952, which brought Gamal Abd al-Nasser to power. Ideologically, Nasser's regime aimed to satisfy the desires and needs of society through a secular, rather than a religious approach. With the Soviet Union as his financial patron and sometime ideological model, Nasser sought to establish a state based on socialist principles that would address the economic needs of people. Through policies based in pan-Arab nationalism and state domination of the economy, he held out the promise of social mobility through education and economic development.
Nasser banned the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoned hundreds of its members in the largest crackdown to date on the Islamic movement. To neutralize public criticism, he also coopted members of the ulama, the official religious caste, to certify the policies of his government as "Islamic socialism." Nasser drew a clear separation between religious and social matters, which he largely ignored, and political and economic reform, which he promoted, resting his legitimacy on his ability to improve the standard of living for the average Egyptian. With the subsequent failures of his economic policies, society at large began shifting its focus back to religion, and Nasser's credentials as a ruler of a Muslim country were called into question.
In 1967, Egypt's disastrous war with Israel was enough to expose the major social and ideological fault lines in Nasser's Egypt. When the Israeli military humiliated the Egyptian army, the country entered into a period of soul-searching and began to question the principles upon which its national identity was based. There were no foreign powers to inflict defeat, no imperialists depriving the masses of the economic gains they were promised under the veil of Arab socialism. Egyptians had only themselves to blame. It was natural then for the country to seek to reestablish its national collective identity as a way to heal its wounds. That identity was Islam, summed up in the absolute profession of faith: There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet.
The third wave of Islamic activism, beginning in the 1970s and still under way, benefited greatly from the experience of the previous decades. The Islamists leading the revival were more organized and methodical than their predecessors had been. By the end of the decade, the movement had split into those who advocated the creation of an Islamic society by peaceful means, and those who believed force was the only method by which to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. The moderates joined the Muslim Brotherhood, which by that time had renounced violence, and focused their efforts within the universities. They took over student unions that were once controlled by leftists, organized a network of religious activities, ranging from summer camps to meetings in mosques and dormitories, and provided affordable textbooks and religious literature on campuses. The radicals, meanwhile, carried out their first in a series of violent attacks in 1977, when militants kidnapped and then killed Egypt's minister of religious endowments. By 1981, the militants had gained enough organizational strength to assassinate President Anwar Sadat.
With radicals operating along the fringes, the moderate Islamists set about building widespread support within the broader society. Unlike the period of Afghani, and, later, Hasan al-Banna and the early days of his Muslim Brotherhood, contemporary Islam has penetrated deeply into the Egyptian consciousness. Now, there is a widespread feeling that the cause of society's malaise stems primarily from a betrayal from within, rather than a domineering force from without. Here lies the greatest difference between the past and current revivals: Islamic thought in the late 1800s, and again in the 1940s and 1950s, focused on anti-imperialist sentiment and socioeconomic concerns, while the contemporary Islamic fervor emphasizes family values, traditional sexual mores, and cultural authenticity.
This new focus is reflected in a change in the players leading the revival. Where society once looked to those with prophetic zeal, such as al-Banna, to lead them along the Islamic path, today's revival is more evenly diffused throughout Egyptian society. It relies neither on one man, nor one group, nor one institution. At the center of this new religious milieu, a powerful alliance of sheikhs, informal street preachers, scholars, doctors, lawyers, and women are groping their way toward a new, Islamic order. Today, the middle class, not what remains of the upper-class cultural elite, is defining social and religious norms. This broad base in turn supports a potent social movement that represents a formidable challenge to the secular state.
Contemporary Islamic movements can be plotted on a scale between revolutionary Iran, in which violent insurrection overthrew a secular regime and replaced it from the top down with an Islamic republic, and quietist Egypt, in which social reform is leading toward the Islamization of society at large from the bottom up. To date, the revolutionary path has left little lasting mark on the Arab world. The Iranian revolution, once regarded as a model for Islamic renewal, lost its credibility in the eyes of Muslim Arabs when the ayatollahs fell into internal power struggles and became bogged down by economic crisis and isolation from much of the Western world. Similarly, the Arab world's moderate Islamists have dismissed insurrections in Algeria and Afghanistan as being un-Islamic for the brutal and savage tactics adopted by the leaders of the Islamic Group in Algiers and the Taliban in Kabul.
Egypt stands alone today for the progress it has made along this second path, characterized by moderate Islamists challenging state policies, rather than the state itself. Followers of radical Islamic movements maintain that living a fully integrated religious life will only be possible if their rulers govern by the word and law of God. Moderate Islamists in Egypt, however, are willing to live with a mixture of man-made laws and Koranic law, the sharia, which, according to Egypt's constitution, should be the "primary" source of legislation but in reality is not strictly applied. The flexible nature of Egypt's revival stands to make a profound contribution to the development of Islamic movements in the twenty-first century and will chart a new course for other countries to emulate in much the same way that the Iranian revolution captured the imagination of the Muslim world twenty years ago.
The Egyptian experience reflects centuries-old conflicts and contradictions among Sunni Muslims over the idea and role of the state. According to religious doctrine, the state was a divine institution responsible for carrying out God's intentions. However, the state was also perceived as a source of evil, and the less the citizenry had to do with it the better. The division of labor between the caliphs and the sultans came down to distinguishing between two kinds of authority, one prophetic and the other monarchical, but both religious. In modern terms, the struggle under way in Egypt among moderate Islamists is how to make state policy coincide with religious doctrine laid out by the ulama at al-Azhar and the thousands of independent and unlicensed sheikhs.
Egypt's nonviolent approach to integrating a modern state with God's laws reflects the historical influences of the country's earliest political culture and, later, its relationship to Islam after the Muslim Arab conquests of the seventh century. Egyptians under the rule of the Pharaoh had few individual rights. They were not allowed to question the form and nature of the state. Unlike the Greeks, they were excluded from participation in the political process; they could not debate, discuss, or oppose government. The Pharaoh's divine status placed him above the law; all functions of government were religious, not civil. The ruler's divine nature meant that obeying him and the laws he imposed was an act of faith. As a result, society was divided between believers and nonbelievers, not between citizens and noncitizens. This political experience wherein the citizenry survived by avoiding or ignoring, rather than confronting, an alien state has existed since time immemorial.
The Arab invasion of the seventh century shaped Egypt's character as an Islamic and Arabic-speaking nation, and for centuries loyalty to Islam was supreme over devotion to the state. For three centuries, between 1250 and 1520, Egypt was the center of religious activity in the Arabic-speaking part of the Islamic world. It remained the focus of spiritual and intellectual life until the Ottoman conquest, when Istanbul replaced Cairo as the center of religious authority.
Egypt's relationship with its new Muslim rulers was consistent with its history. Once Egyptians embraced Islam, Muslim leaders were no more interested in the welfare of the citizenry than their pagan predecessors had been. Until the nineteenth century, Egyptians identified with Islam on a broad scale, independent of their ruler, and tended to their economic needs on a community and personal level. Under Ottoman rule, the hierarchy of the religious establishment, the ulama, stepped in to offer religious guidance through their interpretation of religious texts, even when they had no influence on the rule of law in the state. Lower religious functionaries, such as the leaders of prayer and religious teachers in the countryside, led the faithful and helped establish a traditional, religious society independent from the state.
The political culture of Egypt has prompted some historians to conclude that revolution on a massive scale, whether politically or religiously motivated, is alien to the country's experience. Even when Egyptians were ruled for centuries by foreigners, from Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. to the fall of the last monarch, King Faruq, in 1952, they rebelled infrequently against their alien oppressors. Thus, the submissiveness and docility often associated with Egyptian citizens in their relationship to the state is not new; it remains firmly entrenched in the Egyptian psychology. More to the point, out of need during periods of foreign rule and out of inertia during Muslim dominance, Egyptians learned to rely on themselves and institutions outside the state for religious interpretation and moral guidance.
No God But God documents and analyzes the religious transformation of contemporary Egyptian society. Separate chapters detail how central pillars of the state—the universities, the professional unions, or syndicates, the ulama at al-Azhar, the courts—have become influential players in the grassroots religious revival. The book will introduce the activists leading this quietist revolution, who are virtually unknown in the West, and allow them to speak in their own voices.
Other chapters will show the great diversity of religious interpretation in Egyptian streets and neighborhoods. In the impoverished district of Imbaba, activities deemed "Islamic duties" are dismissed by members of the ulama as based in peasant tradition, rather than religious doctrine. In the upscale Cairo community of Dokki, however, nouveaux riches women under the influence of a radical sheikh have taken the veil, surrendered their material possessions for Islam, and drastically altered their family lives to accommodate their new religious lifestyles.
The Islamists featured in the following pages defy nearly all the conclusions, theories, and generalizations put forward about Islamic movements over the last few decades: They believe in coexistence with the secular government of President Mubarak, and they are willing to wait years for their vision to materialize. They have eschewed violence to concentrate their energies largely on changing the individual through preaching and worship, in a gradual process of enlightenment known in Arabic as tarbiyya.
My first objective is to present Egypt as a new model for the transformation of a secular nation-state to an Islamic social order without the violent overthrow of the ruling power. Western academics, who have written about this process from a theoretical point of view, have given this phenomenon different labels. "Re-Islamization" from below, a process of changing individuals rather than states, is one such description. Other scholars label it "neo-fundamentalism."
My second objective is to provide a human dimension to the Islamists often described in the Western media simply as "fundamentalists." Debate has raged for years within academic circles over the use of the word "fundamentalist" to describe this aspect of modern Islam. Nonetheless, it is generally used indiscriminately in the popular press and in Western political discourse to refer to any Islamist, no matter whether his aim is violent revolution or peaceful transformation. The origins of the term further belie any utility it may retain; it was first applied in the early 1890s to conservative Protestants seeking a return to what they saw as the "fundamentals" of Christianity. Its current usage to describe activist Muslims is almost always pejorative and obscures their thoroughly modern views on society and religion. Egypt's Islamists do not wish to return to the Islamic period under the Prophet; they seek to adapt their religious values to the modern world. For these reasons, the term "fundamentalist" is best avoided.
Instead, I will call the activists featured in the following pages "Islamists," a word that reflects their unique blend of religious and political motivations. My aim is to move beyond their rhetoric and bring understanding to their value system—notions of the role of religion in daily life, social justice, the function of the family, and ideas concerning male and female sexuality. These values, sharply different from those of the West, lie at the core of why Islamists are often demonized and dismissed as repugnant in Western circles. This value system underlies the central thrust of the current revival: to reestablish morality and reclaim social and moral life from what Muslim critics deride as jahiliyya, the pre-Islamic period characterized by ignorance, godlessness, and injustice.
The third aim of No God But God is to show how this grassroots movement in Egypt poses a far greater challenge to Western interests than the militant movement now on the decline. Since the Iranian revolution, Western governments have taken a practical approach to curtailing what they perceive as a formidable challenge to their political and economic interests. They have pumped energy and resources into combating Islamic militancy, even at the cost of backing repressive secular governments that lack popular support.
The United States has deposited billions into Egyptian government coffers, hoping to douse the Islamic flame. Since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, Washington has continued to believe the money is well spent, casting Egypt in the comforting role of the "good Arab" nation. Rewarded with $2.1 billion in annual U.S. aid for mediating between Arabs and Jews, Egypt has emerged as a symbol of secular moderation in a terrifying and unstable region. But how accurate is this picture?
The precepts outlined previously do not hold up under scrutiny. Because the West has been so blinded by a narrow definition of Islam, it has failed to notice that the one nation long considered an outpost of democracy and secularism in the Arab world is quietly being transformed into an Islamic order.
But how can a society, saddled with a secular regime since the Free Officers' coup in 1952, undergo such a profound transformation without violent upheaval?
The answer lies in the flexible and realistic approach of today's Islamists. The figures leading the revival have matured since their forefathers led a crusade to oust the British from Egypt, beginning in the 1930s. Today's Islamists do not reject modernity; instead, they are searching for ways to marry their religious value system with the contemporary needs of their adherents. They intend to achieve this goal through the application of the sharia. This demand is not new to Egypt; it has been the core of the Muslim Brotherhood's program since its inception in 1928. As a concession to the Islamic movement, the Egyptian parliament in 1980 passed an amendment to the constitution making the principles of the sharia the main source of legislation. But despite the change, the law of the Koran has yet to be enforced.
The founders of the Muslim Brotherhood at one time favored a rigid interpretation of sharia. But today's Islamic modernists, some of whom have left the Brotherhood, generally believe Islamic law should be adapted to contemporary society. Egypt's Islamists, for example, say that if they came to power they would not require all women to be veiled, nor would they advocate cutting off the hands of thieves as is done in Saudi Arabia, where a strict interpretation of sharia is enforced.
The ideas of Egypt's Islamists during the last half of this century stem from thinkers such as al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, the Trotsky of the modern Islamic movement. Unlike al-Banna, who believed in creating an Islamic society within the existing Egyptian state, Qutb advocated transforming society through proselytization and militant jihad, or holy struggle. This harder line later helped inspire the militant offshoot of today's Islamic movement, which took Qutb at his word. But both thinkers took as the starting point of their philosophies the all-consuming nature of Islam, which unifies religion and politics, the state and society.
"Islam cannot fulfill its role except by taking concrete form in society, rather, in a nation, for many do not listen, especially in this age, to an abstract theory which is not seen materialized in a living society," Qutb wrote in his landmark manifesto, Milestones. This volume stands alongside Lenin's What Is to Be Done? as a classic of the revolutionary genre and remains widely read in Egypt despite an official ban.
Many of Egypt's Islamists say they now find Qutb's ideas too radical and out of step with the times. Still, his books, as well as those of al-Banna, are eagerly consumed among university students, and serve as symbols of political resistance. At the very least, the ideas of Qutb and al-Banna have had an indirect influence on today's religious revival. Both men argued, for example, that Westernization of Muslim society and Western models for modernization should be rejected because they had failed the Muslim world and were responsible for political corruption, economic decline, social injustice, and spiritual malaise. This theme has clearly struck a chord with Egypt's professional classes, traditional engines of Western modernity, now turning against what they see as a flawed value system that undermines family and social bonds.
The power of such thinking, and its potential to mobilize political and social protest, should not be underestimated. In fact, similar sentiments provided significant impetus, particularly among disaffected intellectuals, for the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the greatest upheaval in this century carried out in the name of Islam. The Iranian intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad could just as easily have been referring to Egypt when he warned of "the fundamental contradiction between the traditional social structures of the Iranians and all that is dragging our country toward colonial status, in the name of progress and development but in fact as a result of political and economic subordination to Europe and America." Writing in the 1960s, Al-e Ahmad went on to identify what he called the disease of gharbzadegi, often translated as "occidentosis" or "Westoxication." The term, refined and popularized a decade later, became a permanent fixture of the Iranian, and later the global, vocabulary of Islamic dissent.
In Egypt, the deep penetration of Muslim sentiment beyond state control first emerged during Sadat's presidency, in the late 1970s. This religious revival expressed itself in many ways: increased attendance at the mosque; the broad adoption of Islamic dress by men and women; a proliferation of religious literature and taped cassettes; and a burgeoning of Islamic organizations. Sadat encouraged the Islamic movement in universities to counter socialist and leftist holdovers from the Nasserite era opposing his government, until it became evident a decade later that the militant strand of the revival could no longer be contained.
Declared an apostate for making peace with Israel and condemned for aligning Egypt too closely with the United States, Sadat was assassinated by the same Islamic radicals he had helped strengthen a decade earlier. Sadat's assassins denounced his government as illegitimate primarily because it did not enforce religious law, and they determined the only solution was direct, armed confrontation. The assassins heralded the murder as a great Islamic victory over an infidel ruler. "I have killed Pharaoh and I do not fear death," proclaimed the lead gunman as he sprayed the president with automatic rifle fire.
The assassination inspired the militant groups, and the Gama'a al-Islamiyya turned its fire on cabinet ministers, foreign tourists, prominent intellectuals, and President Mubarak himself. But by the time the militant movement reached its apogee in the early 1990s, ordinary Egyptians had come to reject the radicals who killed in the name of religion. As the masses embraced Islam and a renewed value system, they became more and more alienated from the militant movement and more determined to tell whomever would listen that their religion had little to do with violence. In a rare opinion poll conducted at the end of 1994 by al-Ahram weekly, an English-language newspaper, 86 percent of Egyptians surveyed declared that Islamic groups that resort to violence do not work to the benefit of the country. Conversely, 73 percent of the respondents said nonviolent Muslim groups did benefit society.
The populist Islamic revival indeed charted its own course, free of violence and coercive tactics. According to government estimates, four thousand new mosques were constructed by the early 1980s, at least one thousand of which were erected through private initiatives, outside state supervision. Religious programming on state radio and television exploded, with both moderate and radical sheikhs spreading their message more effectively than ever. Koranic and religious schools mushroomed, and Islamic mystical orders increased fourfold.
President Mubarak's government has responded to the populist-led Islamic revival by conveying a conflicted message that is overreactive and tolerant, aggressive and compliant, often at the same time. The Islamic resurgence has made significant gains as a result of this schizophrenic policy toward religion. On the one hand, Mubarak's government has brutally attacked the militant trend, arresting thousands of suspected radicals, some of whom were tortured in prison and held for years without charge, according to human rights lawyers. The state has also imprisoned on minor charges moderate Islamists who never engaged in violence and tried to choke off informal channels feeding popular Islam, such as closing unlicensed mosques and banning unorthodox preachers from the pulpit.
Yet, like his predecessors, Mubarak has also sought to accommodate the Islamic tendency and earn a religious seal of approval. Like them, he is paying an increasingly steep political price, as a changing society pulls the president and the rest of the secularist ruling elite along in its wake. Firebrand preachers, for example, now spread their word on state-run television programs, and the government has turned a blind eye to members of the ulama at al-Azhar who have effectively replaced state censors as arbiters of which books and films violate accepted social values. In the spring of 1998, the Minister of Higher Education banned a textbook being used in a course at the American University in Cairo, a bastion of Egypt's secular elite. The book, a biography of the prophet Mohammad written by a renowned Marxist, was outlawed twenty-four hours after Islamists complained in state-run newspapers. There was no review of its political content, and no discussion concerning the book's role in providing intellectual balance in the course. The ban was issued immediately to prevent a scandal that would certainly spark anti-American rhetoric and raise questions over why the state would allow such a Western-style institution to exist on Egyptian soil.
Although state repression has led to victory over militant groups trying to overthrow the government, this same policy also produced a backlash within society and helped feed the nonviolent Islamic revival. The state's fatal flaw lies in its inability to distinguish the militant, who seeks its violent overthrow, from the peaceful Islamist, who seeks accommodation. By 1994, the rhetoric unleashed by authorities had one message: "All Muslim activists are terrorists." The tough talk soon became deed as thousands of students in universities across the country were arrested for participating in peaceful activities in the name of their religion. Dozens of Islamic engineers, lawyers, and doctors were also imprisoned after they swept to victory in professional union elections. As Egyptian students and the professional classes watched their nonviolent peers arrested for peaceful protest, they became increasingly determined to challenge the state's Islamic credentials. The state was winning the battle against the militants, but it was simultaneously losing the support of the common man and forcing society to create autonomous institutions through which to express its religious loyalties.
Mubarak's regime has clung to power by closing down all avenues of political participation. The Islamists have been banned from forming political parties, and impeded from election as independents through widespread fraud and vote rigging, according to Egyptian and international human rights organizations. The professional unions, of which they took control in free and fair elections, have been placed under state guardianship and effectively closed. But while the political process is not within the Islamists' reach at the moment, the social transformation of Egyptian society continues unabated with or without accommodation from the regime.
Despite its underlying power and dynamism, "grassroots Islam" remains very much a phenomenon of the shadows, hidden by the sheer difficulties of penetrating Egyptian society and obscured by the accumulated weight of the country's postcard image. For centuries, the West has been drawn to Egypt as a romantic land of pyramids darting up toward a desert sky at sunset. It is known as the home of the ancient Pharaohs who mobilized entire populations to build lavish tombs filled with gold and jewels.
The first European explorers to venture into Egypt in the sixteenth century endured arduous trips by sea to comb the Valley of Kings in Luxor and Aswan. One of the country's most seductive attractions is the Nile River, which unites Egypt's two cultures, the African-oriented southern rim and the Mediterranean traditions of the north.
Gustave Flaubert, in a letter from Cairo dated January 15, 1850, captured something of the Western fashion for what was then known as the Orient: "So here we are in Egypt, `land of the Pharaohs, land of the Ptolemies, land of Cleopatra' (as the sublime stylists put it).... What can I say about it all? As yet I am scarcely over the initial bedazzlement. It is like being hurled while still asleep in the midst of a Beethoven symphony ... It is such a bewildering chaos of colors that your poor imagination is dazzled as though by continuous fireworks as you go about staring at minarets thick with white storks, at tired slaves stretched out in the sun on house terraces, at the patterns of sycamore branches against walls, with camel bells ringing in your ears."
Much of that sentiment, stripped perhaps of its lavish romantic style, retains its hold on the Western visitor of today. Travel brochures and package tours to the Land of the Pyramids still peddle the same tired picture, updated for modern tastes but largely unchanged since Flaubert's time. I was determined, however, to chart my own Egyptian experience through a society that remains virtually invisible to the outsider. So began my five-year search for the roots of today's Egypt, the country foreigners rarely penetrate.
As a modern-day traveler through Egypt's back alleys and congested streets, I encountered the unexpected. Many of the hundreds of people I interviewed had never before met a journalist. Depending on their occupation and social status, their reaction ranged from pleasant surprise to suspicion to downright reluctance and fear. In many cases, repeated phone calls over several months were required to convince them to meet me. In poor neighborhoods, Egyptians assumed I was working for the mukhabarat, the state intelligence police who often went undercover in their communities to gain information about Islamic militants. If I were not a state agent, they thought, I must be working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which they believed was determined to quash the rising strength of Islam across the world.
If I were indeed writing a book about Islam, many were reluctant to cooperate; they assumed I would be promoting the Western media image of Muslims as violent, militant, and medieval people who work to overthrow secular governments. When I explained that my mission was to unshackle the stereotypes from the Western consciousness and present the true face of today's Islamists, some found it inconceivable that a non-Muslim would hold such a point of view. "Are you planning on converting to Islam?" they asked. They assumed my Arab-American background had brought me halfway down the Islamic path, and that my research was the final stage toward conversion. When asked about my religion—one of the most common questions put to any outsider in the Middle East—I always answered truthfully. I explained that I was born into a Maronite Christian family and had no plans to adopt a new religion. My reply generally sparked disappointment among those who were willing to cooperate with my research in the hope that I would become a Muslim.
During the years of my research, a radical sheikh accused me of costing him his job as the editor of the magazine published by al-Azhar, which at the time was critical of the state. A former actress who took the veil and led weekly Koranic lessons at a neighborhood mosque charged me with working as a "Zionist spy." A doctor who performed female circumcisions as part of what he described as a duty under Islam was convinced I would file a report of our conversation with the CIA.
Despite these and other setbacks, a generation of moderate Islamists, Egypt's only hope for a brighter future, shared their lives and dreams with me during many interviews over the years. They were courageous enough to take the risk of exposing themselves to a Westerner. They were patient at my initial lack of knowledge about their aspirations, and delighted in a foreigner's determination to tell their story to the world. They were sharp enough to correct false conclusions I reached early on, which they identified as "Western prejudice," and helped me step outside my own Judeo-Christian orientation to understand their value system. And, contrary to the popular notion among outsiders that Islamists treat women as second-class citizens, the hundreds of men I interviewed, sometimes alone in their offices or homes, treated me with the utmost respect and, in fact, may have been more cooperative because of my sex. Their only reluctance was in opening up to self-analysis and introspection. I argued that this was necessary for readers to understand their motivations, but such an approach is alien in Middle Eastern cultures. Yet some did their best to help me understand how their family backgrounds and personal histories contributed to the development of their political and religious ideas.
Through them my insights into the application of modern Islam became more sophisticated with each new encounter. For every clue into the Islamic revival, there existed a counterpoint, a caveat that served as a warning to its complex nature. By the time my research ended, I realized, for example, that the national struggle was not only between the Islamists outside government and the state, but also involved Islamists inside the system who were trying to establish a religious society through institutional channels. Seemingly independent nongovernmental organizations created to promote family planning and improved legal rights for women, in fact, perpetuate the state's ideas and political goals. Islamists inside the state on the other hand have designed unofficial organizations to promote what they see as society's broader interests, which may be in conflict with those of the secular government.
I understood that religious symbols dismissed as distasteful by Westerners reflected self-esteem and collective identity. For women these included loose skirts, headscarves, and long-sleeved shirts. For men, the zabeeb, a dark callus formed on the forehead from touching the ground in prayer, was a sign of piety. When I witnessed Egyptians glued to their television sets, their faces drenched in tears, the day the country's most popular sheikh died, I observed the public loss other societies reserve for royalty or sports heroes. But just as readily as they mourned the demise of a spiritual hero, they changed the channel to worship the commercial idols of the temporal world.
From experiences such as this, it is clear that Islamic revivalism in Egypt does not fit neatly into categories of premodernism or postmodernism. The new Islamists in Egypt seek to pick and choose from that which the outside world, including the often demonized West, has to offer. As an ayatollah in the Iranian holy city of Qom told me, explaining an official state ban on satellite television: "We are not against satellite television. We just want to pick and choose the types of programming that can enter the Islamic Republic. Because this is not possible, we must ban it all together."
The national struggle under way in Egypt cannot be simplistically classified as a clash between "Jihad" and "McWorld," as the scholar Benjamin R. Barber has described the confrontation he sees between Islam and modernity. Instead, the goal is a marriage between the two. When Islamist leaders in Egypt's medical union, which represents hundreds of thousands of middle-class professionals, designed a health insurance program for its members, they used an American model. But they adapted it to fit their moral and religious beliefs. "Our insurance is American and Islamic at the same time," the architect of the program told me. "It's American because we have instituted a payment system for those who suffer from terminal diseases, such as cancer. It is Islamic because we never cut off the payments, no matter what happens. We keep paying until the patients are either cured or dead."
|Note on Transliteration||xi|
|1 The New Face of Islam||3|
|2 Streets of Green||19|
|3 The Fount of Islam||41|
|4 The Professionals||71|
|5 School of Revolution||107|
|6 Taking the Veil||139|
|7 Court of Public Opinion||163|
|8 To Iran and Back Again||187|