Saturday, February 03, 2007

The closing of the Egyptian mind

People of different persuasions have noticed a sudden turnabout in Egyptian opinion on many social levels, from Sunni-Shiia openness during and after the Hizbullah defence of Lebanon against the Israeli attack, to a new outbreak of sectarianism recently. Some think the Saddam execution video had a lot to do with this; some think it is a natural manifestation of a latent tendency; others point to regime encouragement the new sectarianism as part of the US strategy against Iran.

An op-ed in Al-Quds al-Arabi this morning (Saturday February 3) tries to put this in regional perspective, and at the same time tries to explain what lies behind this phenomenon from a domestic Egyptian point of view. His points include: (1) Although the new sectarianism is a directed thing and part of the runup to war with Iran, that doesn't mean it doesn't have roots and staying power. (2) Creating a sectarian atmosphere not only helps to disenable any organized opposition to the continuing colonialism, it also creates a convenient domestic scapegoat should people demonstrate following the attack on Iran.

Muhamad Abdel Hakam Diab, the op-ed writer, says he visited Egypt recently for the first time following a visit last summer, and he was amazed by the turnabout in opinion. For public consumption, he says, everyone is still talking about tolerance and political change, but in private, discussions quickly turn to "takfiir"-ing anyone who disagrees with the prevailing opinion, even if the discussion has nothing to do with religion ("kufr" is heretic; "takfiir" is to make or call someone that; the expression is really untranslatable). There are still those who advocate tolerance and openness, he says, but they are increasingly opposed by those who think belonging to a particular religious group or sect is paramount, and overrides all other considerations. What is going on?

The writer says you would normally expect people to be guided by their cultural traditions and so on to adopt reasonable opinions, such as being able to distinguish friend from enemy, but what has happened is that this cultural patrimony has been in effect emptied of meaning, and the empty space has been taken up by religion in the narrow-sectarian sense. He writes, differences in schools of thought, political parties, religious groups, cultural organizations, have been voided, and religion in the narrow-sectarian sense, has taken the place of culture, politics, art and literature, and thought. And instead of religion being something magnanimous and uncomplicated, they have made it a vehicle for taassub (another untranslatable expression; aasab is a gang, taassub is forming into exclusive gangs, meaning bigotry or fanaticism), and an instrument for exaggeration and extremism. And the sect takes the place of the nation...
If I may interject, this might sound like a platitude to some, but probably that is only because in America and elsewhere we have seen the same phenomenon and so we now think of it as trite. On the contrary, it is an important point, for one thing because of the risk of underestimating the potential force of this type of sectarianism in the Mideast in the coming period of time. And that is the point that this writer turns to in his concluding remarks.

The writer continues: This mindset, where the sect takes the place of the nation, has two sides to it. One side is represented by Saudi Wahhabim, which offers optimism to disaffected youth, and which, by means of financing, public relations and other forms of pressure, has been able to gain tremendous influence even in Egypt's own Al-Azhar University, where Wahabism has become a prestigious thing among the students. But the other side of this is fitna and a tacit or implicit acquiescence in the foreign aggression and colonialism which relies on continuing and never-ending fitna in the Arab world, exemplified in the intra-Iraqi fighting, the same thing in Palestine, and the beginnings of the same thing in Lebanon.

The new Egyptian sectarianism is part of that. It is a directed thing, part of the preparations for war with Iran, because it divides Muslims into two opposing camps, with the "quotation marks Sunni" camp bringing together groups that had been opponents of aggression with those that support it, in other words disabling any opposition. More than that, the writer suggests Mubarak is looking ahead possible popular reaction to an attack on Iran. Not only does the focus on sectarianism help cover over regime corruption and so on, it also creates a domestic scapegoat or sacrificial lamb, in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, should people demonstrate following an attack on Iran, as they did following the attack on Iraq, only this time probably more violently.

Also today, in Al-Akhbar, Joseph Samaha takes up the question of the relationship between American manipulation and domestic sociology, but his focus is on Palestine, and he he is at his sarcastic best:
The fighting we are seeing in the streets of Gaza is part and parcel of the American policy for the region. The Americans can allege that they have been surprised by the scale of the splits in Iraqi society and the degree of slaughter this has led to; and the US administration can claim that it is not contributing tension to Lebanon as a direct target. And we have our Americanized Arabs flooding us with their hackneyed "analysis", alleging some kind of a "sociological necessity" that makes domestic fighting our only prospect, not to mention all of those forever ready to flog themselves with our inability to get beyond always hanging our problems on the Americans' clothes-rack, and our refusal to acknowledge the failings of our society and our culture and our politics... But no one can argue that the split in Palestine is not a basic building-block of current American policy...
There's more, but I mention the Samaha piece here merely to alert readers to the idea that understanding American policy in the region can also have as a corollary the understanding that there is such a thing as quack sociology that can be used to try and shift attention away from the American role.


Blogger Helena Cobban said...

Badger, this is a really great post-- especially welcome because I am actually in Egypt now, though I haven't gotten out and about much to meet people yet.

Regarding a translation for "takfir" I would say something like "intense, religion-based repudiation" might do it?

Anyway, again, big thanks for your work!

12:47 AM  
Blogger badger said...

shukran. and look after yourself

6:21 AM  

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