On Piety: Egypt, Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood

Cairo, June 24, 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood, celebrate in Tahrir square and in streets near the official victory of their new president. Photo © Stephen Dock/Corbis.

Cairo, June 24, 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood, celebrate in Tahrir square and in streets near the official victory of their new president. Photo © Stephen Dock/Corbis.

By Maurice Chammah

“The first thing he asked me was to make wearing the headscarf mandatory in Egypt,” said Gamel Abdel Nasser, addressing a crowd from behind a bank of microphones. The first Egyptian president was describing a meeting with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953. At this point their relationship was still cordial, although his government would later arrest and torture members of the movement.

The crowd, however, was not cordial. “Let him wear it,” someone shouted. Others laughed. Nasser grinned. Egyptian women, especially in cities, seldom covered their hair.

“If you cannot make one girl — who is your own daughter — wear the headscarf,” he said, “how do you expect me to make 10 million women wear the headscarf, all by myself?”

While I was living in Cairo last year, many Egyptians, Americans and Europeans shared links to a film of the speech by email and on Facebook. Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen it pop up again and again, as the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters battle the secular military establishment. Well before the current violence, Nasser’s speech had already sounded outdated — the vast majority of Egyptian women choose to wear headscarves — and the laughter he once prompted has evaporated. Over the last two months, fighting between Brotherhood supporters and the military has intensified. The New York Times reports that at least 1,100 people have been killed in the violence.

In the American and European press, the country appears divided neatly in two, with friends and families broken apart by an intransigent stalemate; democracy was either trampled by the army, which kicked out Morsi, or it was undermined by Morsi when he pushed through an Islamist constitution. It’s the inevitable catharsis at the end of a rise in political Islamism, a final make-or-break point for the movement that spent decades mobilizing political power.

But that symmetry obscures a more subtle story about Egypt over the last several decades. As the Brotherhood grew in popularity in the 1970’s and 1980’s, more Egyptians became religiously observant. Arguments for why this happened vary: some say it was a spiritual response to the Western-style consumerism championed by Sadat, others point to increased numbers of Egyptians working in the more conservative Gulf countries.

As with any big historical shift, there is no definitive answer, but nevertheless, most of the newly pious Egyptians were not affiliated with ‘official’ movements like the Brotherhood. Women donned the headscarf—a move that Nasser would have never expected—just as men dug their foreheads deeper into their prayer mats. Mosques sprung up on street-corners, with loudspeakers piping the call to prayer five times a day. Informal prayer groups gathered and sermons were recorded onto cassette tapes and distributed by the thousand.

Gamel Abdel Nasser, 1953. Via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TX4RK8bj2W0

Gamel Abdel Nasser, 1953. Via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TX4RK8bj2W0

Numerous academics have chronicled the process, including the anthropologist Saba Mahmood. “’Islamic Revival’ is a term that refers not only to the activities of state-oriented political groups but more broadly to a religious ethos or sensibility that has developed within contemporary Muslim societies,” she wrote in “The Politics of Piety,” a 2005 study of women’s religious movements in Egypt. “This sensibility has a palpable public presence in Egypt.”

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood dovetailed with this general turn toward greater piety. Islam is enshrined as the state religion in the 1971 constitution. President Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, encouraged Islamic activities on college campuses to counterbalance leftist and socialist opponents of his move towards free market capitalism. Some of these activities spawned the radical movements that conspired to assassinate him in 1981. “By the time the militant movement reached its apogee in the early 1990’s,” the scholar Geneive Abdo wrote in “No God by God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam,” “ordinary Egyptians had come to reject the radicals who killed in the name of religion.” A 1994 poll by the newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly found that 86 percent of Egyptians surveyed believed that violent Islamic groups did not benefit their country while 73 percent said that nonviolent Islamic activities did.

Mubarak responded to the Islamic revival by conveying a “conflicted message,” Abdo explains, that was “overreactive and tolerant, aggressive and compliant, often at the same time.” By 2009, when I first arrived in Egypt, it was easy to see the contradictions. Women news anchors were not allowed to wear headscarves, even as the vast majority of their audience did so. The Muslim Brotherhood was officially banned, but members of the group were unofficially allowed to run for parliament, and win.

I attended the American University in Cairo, the bastion of the Egyptian secular elite where both Mubarak’s wife and son had studied. In 2007, the school’s administration tried to ban the niqab, or the veil that fully covers a woman’s face, claiming it created security problems. The High Administrative Court (very much a part of the Mubarak-appointed state apparatus) ruled against the ban, writing that “women should not be discriminated against because of the clothes that they choose to wear.” A secular legal body had ruled against a secular university in favor of a religious activity abhorrent to the secular establishment and very clearly connected to the Islamic revival. And they had done so using the language of democratic pluralism.

More than forty years after Nasser’s retort to the Brotherhood leader, while researching his 2006 book “The Ethical Soundscape,” the American anthropologist Charles Hirschkind got into a taxi in Cairo and found a teenage boy and a young woman in a headscarf already inside, headed to different destinations. The driver wore a gallabiya, a long robe usually associated with Islamic piety. They were listening to a cassette tape of an Islamic sermon.

When it ended, Hirschkind writes, the boy asked the driver to put on music instead. The driver sat in “awkward silence,” and then told the boy that Islam forbids music.

The boy was clearly irritated, and the driver noticed. “Tell me what’s you’re thinking,” the driver said. “We can talk, there’s no problem.” A discussion ensued between the boy, the driver, and the woman, about whether the prophet Mohamed really had forbade music. Each had a different argument grounded in Islamic teachings.

Discussions like this are common, Hirschkind argues, and transcend age and gender to become a “common moral project,” wherein “to speak publicly on ethical issues is one of the ways one both hones and enacts ethical knowledge.” References to “authoritative Islamic sources” open rather than close the space for debate.

Gamel Abdel Nasser, 1953.

Gamel Abdel Nasser, 1953.

That’s a radically different way of looking at the role of Islam in Egyptian public life than the view presented by political analysts you currently see in the mainstream Western news media. Since the 2011 revolution, it’s more common to hear about Egypt as a game of ten-way chess, with the military, the Brotherhood, the secular youth activists, the Salafis, and others as political actors making deals against the background calculus of the “street” and how it will react. The Brotherhood and the Salafi movements are seen to represent Islamism, jostling against the secularism of youth activists and the military.

But in daily life, the relationship between politics and religion is constantly being negotiated. The decision to vote Morsi and his Brotherhood colleagues into the presidency and parliament was just one moment in an ongoing rhythm of history. Since Nasser’s revolution in 1952, Egypt has undergone a tremendous number of social developments.

In the past several months, words like ‘democracy’ and ‘legitimacy’ have been constant refrains, even when the interpretations are divergent. “The current conflict reflects the vastly different responses that groups can have to a fledgling democracy after decades of dictatorship,” journalist Peter Hessler notes in a recent post at The New Yorker website.  “For the Brotherhood, this means stubbornly following what it believes to be the correct and legitimate political path, even if it alienates others and leads to disaster; for the military, it’s a matter of implementing the worst instincts of the majority. In each case, one can recognize a seed of democratic instinct, but it’s grown in twisted ways, because the political and social environment was damaged by the regimes of the past half-century.”

In other words, there are trends in Egyptian public life that have been imposed from above. The state bureaucracy, which has become a grinding machine of inefficiency, was set up by Nasser and allowed to decay further into corruption by Sadat and Mubarak. Under Sadat’s rule, the rich started eating more meat, meaning that more domestic crops were fed to livestock than to people. In 1977, increases in the price of food staples led to riots. The rich kept getting richer, the poor poorer.

Under Mubarak, that trend continued until it was almost farcical. In 2007-2008, bread prices rose 37%.  One morning in early 2009 I watched a young man try to negotiate the price of a sandwich down from roughly 25 cents to 12 cents so he could afford a bus fare with the savings. Later that day, I heard about a birthday party for a son of the elite. He had received his fifth Ferrari as a gift from his parents, and he planned to have the vehicle cut in half so he could put it in his room and use it as a closet.

The Islamic revival has been a grassroots trend in this context of extreme opulence and deprivation. It is too simplistic to take the common view that the poor became pious because Islamic charities stepped in to alleviate fuel and food shortages, because now the Islamic revival has penetrated even the middle and upper classes. While Mubarak kept Islamic political organizing to a minimum, his government allowed the rise of popular Islamic televangelists, who combined the self-help book style of American Christian evangelists like Joel Osteen with their own readings of the Qur’an. The best known is Amr Khaled, who in 2007 was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. The magazine compared him to American evangelist Rick Warren, who has built a religious business empire around the “purpose driven life.”

“Khaled doesn’t talk politics and declines to issue religious edicts (fatwas),” explained journalist Lindsay Wise, “preferring instead to emphasize salvation, God’s love, and issues of personal piety, such as dating, family relationships, veiling, daily prayer, manners, and community responsibility.” Watching Khaled’s sermons, which packed out auditoriums throughout the country, you could see perhaps the form of what Hirschkind called the “common moral project” most recognizable to Americans.

Several years ago, I interviewed one of Khaled’s early producers, a businessman named Ahmed Abu Haiba. He was in the process of founding a music video channel called 4Shbab (“For the youth”), which would combine the glitz of high production music videos with the moral content of popular Islam. Women would wear headscarves. Men would not be seen drinking or dancing with women other than their wives.

Abu Haiba was a religious moralist, but he was also a businessman. He told me the channel would be successful because of a “political trend”: the youth of Egypt had already chosen on their own to follow Islamic teachings and help each other become more moral. But they still wanted to watch music videos, so he would help them become “in harmony with themselves.”

Seeing the Islamic revival as part of a “common moral project,” while keeping in mind public figures like Abu Haiba and Khaled (who, it was reported in the Times, supports the military), sheds a different light on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood that is not just about savvy political operators biding their time. Instead, the Brotherhood appears as a social movement that found political expression in a specific organization. Egyptians responded to Nasser’s secular project of military leadership and developed their own concepts of morality and religious meaning. They felt that religion should have some place in their personal lives and in their society. The Brotherhood slowly became one voice of this feeling, and though the group might lose popularity in Egypt, this unresolved tension between secular and religious visions of Egyptian society’s future will continue. A resolution  won’t come from one election or one power grab. And sadly, it’s hard to imagine how it might come without more violence.

‘Democracy’ is always a work in progress, never perfected or even coherent (take the U.S. electoral college, for example), and so it is not an ideal that the West has mastered and Egypt is struggling to attain. Egyptians are not the “world’s worst democrats,” as Time magazine boldly claimed on a recent cover. It’s common to criticize the tone of much Western media for being Orientalist, for suggesting implicitly that Islamic-majority societies are incompatible with democracy, or that the ‘street’ always rules. But there’s also a problem with ignoring the broad cross section of opinion in favor of a narrative that frames politics as a zero-sum war between powerful groups, instead of a negotiation between social forces.

Of course, the decisions made by Egypt’s generals and senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have a greater impact than those of individual Egyptians, but more often these leaders are responding to the perspectives of the many, as they are expressed by protests, elections, and media, both social and traditional. The military forced Mubarak out in February 2011 following popular protests. I remember one night in November 2011 standing among Egyptians tightly packed around a television perched high on the wall of a café. They were about to watch a speech by Mohamed Tantawi, the general who was then the de facto president. He was either going to meet their demands or flout them, and in that brief moment they were prepared to answer whatever he might say with either more unified protest, with splintering based on varied opinions, or even — though this was a long shot — with unified acquiescence. It was democracy in its purest form.

That moment was one of many that made it clear that the future of the country is not solely dependant on the political maneuvering of the groups in power. Instead, it has a great deal to do with the public developing a way forward that ties together the conflicting internal streams that swirled through Egyptian society over recent decades, including a secular, pluralistic bureaucracy (pluralistic because in theory it aspires to treat all citizens, whether Muslim or Christian, as equal) and a rise in Islamic piety.

The aim of the Islamic revival’s social movement, Hirschkind writes, “is not to stop the movement of history but to render the historical present, in all of its indeterminacy and flux, amenable to ethical deliberation and action and to organize it in ways that give the present purpose and value from the perspective of an inherited tradition.” In the end, that does not sound so different from the way Americans must constantly renegotiate the role of Christianity in our political system. It was not so long ago that the idea of a Catholic president, or a Mormon president, seemed unthinkable, and we still fight over whether the ten commandments have a place in schools and public places. Since Egypt has been crippled by corrupt leaders, the subsidizing of some of those leaders by the U.S., and a generally weak position within the economic history of globalization, these issues of religion have not found a stable forum in which they can find resolution without violence.

Nasser’s sly grin is haunting in that speech so many years ago; presenting an image of secular pluralism while foreshadowing a brutal crackdown on dissent. His successors have continued that trend, leading to the farce of Mubarak’s rule, in which the state completely failed to address the role of Islam in daily life throughout Egypt and let resentment grow. Now that farce is over and Mubarak is gone; the religious politics that always bubbled under the surface are in plain sight and they must be resolved in the open. There’s a feeling of inevitability, not just in the day-to-day events, the actions and reactions, but also in the big picture; dictatorship breeds disaffection, however expressed, and the result is tragedy.

Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at http://www.mauricechammah.com. He writes regularly for The Revealer.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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