Fouad Zakariyya, 1927-2010

Fouad Zakariyya, a leading Egyptian philosopher and sophisticated critic of Islamist thought, passed away on Thursday after a long illness. Born in Port Said, he earned his doctorate in philosophy at Cairo's Ain Shams University in 1956, as the four-year-old Nasser regime took a sharp turn into nationalist populism. His career took him away from Egypt, to Kuwait University, for much of his life. 

While I am not very familiar with Zakariyya's political involvement as a man of the left (Hossam perhaps can fill in), as a scholar he was a leading advocate for secularism in the Arab world. He saw secularism as a historical necessity for the Arab world, the only possible path to advancement, but was not anti-religious. At the core of his argument was that Islam was too pervasive in the public sphere, and should become a private matter. He was painfully of the way religion was manipulated by both the state and religious groups, whether by Azharites or movements like the Society of Muslim Brothers. He was also scathing about Sadat's embrace of these groups, and accused him of giving them the false expectation that Egypt would turn into an Islamic state — indeed, by the late 1970s many Islamists were already disappointed with Sadat's duplicity and would turn radical, eventually assassinating him.

To make his case, Zakariyya became a leading deconstructionist of the intellectual production of Islamists, and engaged in passionate debates with Islamist thinkers such as Hassan Hanafi, notably over the latter's critique of the European origins of secularism. Not only did Zakariyya not see the European influence on modern secularism as a problem, but he argued that secularism had been an integral part of Islamic culture since its early days, and called for the revival of the secularist tradition in Muslim thinkers like the Mutazallites and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Without secularism, he argued, the Arab world would not catch up with modernity — and to do so, Arab intellectuals must treat standard Islamic history critically rather than with traditional deference.

Zakariyya leaves behind an oeuvre crowned by Myth and Reality in the Contemporary Islamist Movement, as far as I know the only book of his translated into English, which is one of the best books on Islamism I have read. I particularly appreciated his critique of groups like the Muslim Brothers, which he sees as authoritarian, closed to new ideas, and as promoting groupthink. He was unfortunately vindicated by the arrival of the Muslim Brothers to power in Sudan, where the Numeiri regime enacted the most retrograde policies in the name of Islam. He was also critical of the Islamism of the Gulf elites, which he saw devoid of social justice, and saw the combination of these elites and oil wealth as the "tribalization of Islam." These local elites, he wrote, allied with the US to maintain power, but gave Westerners political hegemony over the Middle East in exchange. Most of the book, though, engages with the ideas of Islamists, their internal contradictions, and the vagueness of terms such as shura to denote democracy.

Zakariyya also took positions that, among some Arab intellectuals at least, were controversial. He defended Kuwait when it was invaded by Saddam Hussein, a position many saw as pro-imperialist. In 2004, he wrote that the Iraqi insurgency was no national resistance movement, but a bunch of violent ex-Baathists thugs. 

At a time when, against all odds, there is the inkling of a revival of secularist thought in the region, it's sad to think that most of Zakariyya's adult life was marked by an Islamic revivalism that, at times, has been terribly destructive. I am curious what Asa'ad AbuKhalil made of him — AbuKhalil shares Zakariyya's critical take on Islamism (read for instance his The Incoherence of Islamic Fundamentalism [PDF] article) but probably not his politics.

Sheikh Tantawi, 1928-2010

Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi

This morning, Muhammad Tantawi, Sheikh of al-Azhar, passed away in Riyadh from a heart attack. He was one of what may be, symbolically at least, the three most important men in Egypt, along with President Hosni Mubarak and Coptic Pope Shenouda III. All three were about the same age, and ill.

Tantawi leaves a mixed legacy behind him: overall, the immediate verdict may be that he was too liberal for conservatives, too conservative for liberals, too compliant with the regime for those who want al-Azhar to be independent, and too independent for those in the regime who needed Azharite support to enact policy changes on issues as varied as Palestine, banking and TV game shows. The overall image is of a man besieged on all sides, but adept at fighting bureaucratic battles in the bloated, clerical civil service that al-Azhar has become.

Tantawi was of the generation of men that have ruled Egypt for at least three decades, and had an incredible influence over twentieth century Egypt. He came of age in the 1940s, and considered himself privileged to have been a young Muslim Brother and benefited from direct contact with the movement's founder, Hassan al-Banna. He shared with al-Banna and many other Brothers at the time a provincial origin, a fierce nationalism and disdain for the cosmopolitanism of Egypt's ruling elite under the monarchy. He would eventually grow into one of the Brotherhood's favorite targets, accused of selling out Sunnism's most hallowed institution of learning to the regime. His record as the state Mufti between 1986 and 1995 was, in the Islamists' eyes, an era of unprecedented politicization of religious institution, and they never forgave him for it (never mind that they were fighting a battle to politicize these institutions against the regime all throughout that time.)

When Tantawi became Sheikh al-Azhar in 1995, replacing the conservative Gad al-Haqq, he immediately began what would amount to an internal purge. Al-Haqq had promoted the al-Azhar Scholar's Front, a conservative group opposed to the co-optation of al-Azhar, since 1992, in part in reaction to the murder of the leading secularist thinker Farag Fouda, whose martyrdom he feared would boost secularists in the regime. The Scholar's Front had been set up in 1946 as a group of anti-secularist scholars and thinkers to counter the ideas of Taha Hussein. Tantawi immediately broke with the front, and instead leaned on the Islamic Research Academy, seen as marginally more reformist, to sanctify his ideas.

Sheikh Metwalli ShaarawiThe context of Tantawi's rise in al-Azhar is important. Tantawi's career had been from government post to government post, and he had never distinguished himself as an opponent of the regime. Some saw him as too pliant, including the person who is perhaps Egypt's most influential religious figure of the late twentieth century, Sheikh Metwally Shaarawi. Shaarawi, who died in 1997, was a populist TV preacher whose posters still adorn many shops in lower-income neighborhoods. His influence — in my opinion for the worse, as his brand of religion, while accessible, was often crass and small-minded — cannot be under-estimated, and Tantawi had to deal with it. The story is that Tantawi chose to placate Shaarawi by appointing his son at the head of the Academy. With his help, Tantawi eroded the authority of the Scholars' Front, eventually succeeding in getting the government to withdraw its license. He also pursued some of its leaders — his main critics — in the courts, winning libel trials against them. But he would also clash with Shaarawi Jr.

Throughout his tenure at al-Azhar, Tantawi would provoke controversies, and he could not always count on the support of the Academy and his fellow Azharites. His detractors accused him of blindly supporting government policies, no matter what Islamic traditions said. For instance, he decreed that banks could charge interest without this being riba (usury), but rather ribh (profit). Later, he would also sanction the mortgage law, allowing Egyptians to borrow to finance home purchases (a major, and many think necessary, reform to avoid other types of loans or only being able to buy property with cash.) Some reformist thinkers, like the "red Sheikh" Khalil Abdel Karim, backed him tentatively because he agreed (but not all the time) that new ijtihad (re-interpretation of Islamic tenets) was necessary.

Other clashes with conservatives were more esoteric, or mundane. Tantawi was the first Sheikh of al-Azhar to attend conferences hosted by groups such as the Rotary Club, which have long been considered as suspect by many conservatives Muslims who consider them as beachheads for Freemasonry and its deism (and also because of the role Freemason-inspired secret societies played in politics under the monarchy.) He was tut-tutted for approving of TV game shows like "Who wants to be a millionaire?" Most recently, he became controversial for ripping a young girl's niqab of her face and saying no girl should wear the full-face veil. He was also constantly battling influential clerics like Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy — "Sheikh al-Jazeera" — on women's issues, as for instance when he decreed that women could be eligible for the presidency (an issue the Muslim Brothers still fight over). It was under his tenure that al-Azhar finally, without reservation, condemned Female Genital Mutilation, although his critics say that took longer that it should have.

Peres and TantawiPerhaps most public was his battle with al-Qaradawy, Islamists, nationalists, and many on the left over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1996, Tantawi became the first major Sunni figure to oppose suicide bombings in reaction to a particularly bloody attack on Israeli civilians that year. But within weeks, he backtracked in the face of a press campaign against him and called the bomber a "martyr." He battled the Mufti at the time, Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel, over whether suicide bombings were acceptable. His meetings with Israeli figures, such as Israel's head rabbi or Shimon Peres, made many indignant, particularly after the Oslo process collapsed. It made it worse that he constantly waffled on the issue, pretending not to have recognized Peres. In the context of the war in Gaza and Egypt's shift of policy towards the Palestinians, as well as Peres' bloody past, this was seen as outrageous. The irony is that there has long been a rumor that Tantawi's doctoral thesis, titled "The Children of Israel in the Quran and Sunna", is believed to have been removed from al-Azhar's library because of its un-PC views of Jews.

It is likely that Tantawi will be remembered for these controversies and his clashes with journalists — he frequently yelled at them and is said to have hit one — as well as his sometimes coarse language. He leaves behind an unreformed al-Azhar — an institution that includes a university and a school system as well as a theological center — whose credibility has hit rock-bottom. This may be because Tantawi was too pliant towards the regime, or because of the growth of various trends in contemporary Islam that reject al-Azhar's centrality. While the Muslim Brothers dream of restoring al-Azhar to its former (imagined?) glories, Salafists and groups like the Quranists would do away with its mediation of religion altogether. The debate over al-Azhar and the trahison des clercs is far from over. Whoever replaces him — perhaps Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, another tentative modernizer — will have much work to repair al-Azhar's standing and its vitality as a place of learning. It will also have to make difficult political decisions, especially on the issue of presidential succession, at a time when clerics are beginning to voice an opinion on the prospect of a Gamal Mubarak presidency.

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Links for 11.09.09 to 11.12.09

Report: Angelina Jolie planning to adopt child from Syria - Haaretz - Israel News | Jolie and Pitt thinking of adopting an Iraqi refugee baby in Syria. They also met with Bashar and his wife, apparently. United Colors of Adoption... this will cause a stir. ✪ Israel & Palestine: Can They Start Over? - The New York Review of Books | Malley & Agha's latest, in which they criticize the two-state solution, criticize alternatives to it (notably one-state), and sketch out the alternative: a hudna, a long-term interim truce while work on fundamental questions is carried out. Not entirely convincing, too vague at times, but there's something interesting there nonetheless. I wish they could be more straightforward. ✪ UN: Gaza needs construction material before winter - Yahoo! News | Even greater humanitarian crisis looming. ✪ Palestinian borders could solve settlements row: Fatah - Yahoo! News | Muhammad Dahlan picks up Daniel Levy's line about deciding on borders. Worrying. ✪ Israeli flights over Lebanon break resolution: UN - Yahoo! News | "UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – All Israeli military flights over Lebanon break a resolution aimed at ending the 2006 hostilities between the two neighbors, a UN envoy said Tuesday." So let's have the UN set up air defenses, then! ✪ Abbas slams Israel on settlements at mass Arafat rally - Yahoo! News | Funny pic of Abbas alongside this story. Well he's shown he can have some balls, at least, and highlight the dismal failure of the Israelis and Americans on the settlement question. ✪ Israel mulls draft refugee law - Yahoo! News | "JERUSALEM (AFP) – A draft law stipulating that any Middle East peace treaty must mention compensation for Jews forced to leave Arab states has passed a preliminary reading in the Israeli parliament, a spokesman said on Wednesday." ✪ Gaza, Gilad Shalit, Hamas, and Israel : The New Yorker | Somewhat flawed piece by Lawrence Wright, but nice descriptions of the misery of Gaza. Too much Gilad Shalit for my taste. ✪ Arab Reform Bulletin - Brotherhood Faces Leadership Challenge | Ibrahim al-Hudaiby about the MB's internal dispute and its need to institutionalize decision-making. ✪ Memo From Riyadh - Influence of Egypt and Saudi Arabia Fades - NYTimes.com | An interesting story on Egypt and Saudi Arabia's dwindling relative power to influence regional affairs. Except I would not put Cairo and Riyadh in the same basket: Egypt is in absolute decline, Saudi in relative decline. Also interesting stuff on differences between the two on how to handle Syria. ✪ 6 Guantanamo detainees resettle in Palau Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | The absurdities of the war on terror: "KOROR, Palau (AP) - Six Chinese Muslims released from Guantanamo Bay but still wanted at home as separatists arrived Sunday on their new tropical island home of Palau after the tiny Pacific nation agreed to a U.S. request to resettle the men." ✪ Géopolitique des médias arabes (1/2) : Rotana, mondialisation et normalisation | Culture et politique arabes | First post in a series of the geopolitics of Arab media. This one largely focuses on Kingdom Holdings and Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal. ✪ الرئيس جمال عبد الناصر، الصفحة الرئيسية | Gamal Abdel Nasser archives at the Alexandria Library. ✪ In Turkey, fertile ground for creationism - washingtonpost.com | On Islamist creationists in Turkey. ✪ Al-Ahram Weekly | Egypt | Obituary Amin Howeidi (1921-2009) Vexed, not villainous | Gamal Nkrumah's obituary of former Egyptian spy chief Amin Howeidy.
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Links for 10.18.09 to 10.20.09

Egypt's Moussa does not rule out presidency run: report| International| Reuters | Moussa throws his hat in the ring, sort of, and does not discount a Gamal Mubarak presidency either. ✪ Report: Israeli cafe boycotts Turkish coffee amid tensions | Because Turkey's cancellation of joint military exercises with Israel... hilarious. ✪ Can Egypt protect its Copts? | Khaled Diab | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk | On growing sectarian tensions, Hassan and Morqos, etc. ✪ Al-Ahram Weekly | Features | Time to give back | "According to economist Abdel-Khaleq Farouk, Egyptian business people spent more than an estimated LE300 million in 2008 on what he described as "publicising their provocative and socially irresponsible lifestyles," with money spent by business people on social programmes not exceeding LE50 million per year." ✪ Arab League says US donations used to finance settlements - Yahoo! News | This should be pursued much more aggressively. ✪ Al-Ahram Weekly | Front Page | Obituary: A beautiful mind Mohamed El-Sayed Said (1950-2009) | Obit of the late Egyptian scholar, leftist and founding Kifaya member. ✪ Khalil Bendib interviews Shlomo Sand « P U L S E | Author of "The Invention of the Jewish People." ✪ Orascom Is Building Hotel Of Doom | In North Korea...
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