In Translation: Alaa al-Aswany on bigotry

As every week, we bring a selected commentary piece from the Arabic press translated into English, courtesy of Industry Arabic, a full-service translation company founded  by two long-time Arabist readers.

Alaa al-AswanyThere was not enough time to wait for the reaction to the sad events of October 9 — and in any case many commentators are simply speechless, as are so many Egyptians — so instead we picked an op-ed by the novelist Alaa al-Aswany published last week. It touched on the issue that motivated last week’s Coptic protest: a lack of government reaction to an attack on a church in Aswan governorate by local Islamists, with the governor preferring to impose a negotiated solution between the Salafists and Christians rather than impose the rule of law, which would have protected the Christians.

Al-Aswani gives his interpretation of the growing intolerance of Egyptian society (in a work: Saudi Wahhabism) but then takes the SCAF to task on not standing up for Christians’ rights. In many respects it foreshadows the events at Maspero.

As always, al-Aswany ends his columns with “democracy is the solution”. To read some of his Mubarak-era columns, pick up his book On The State Of Egypt or the new Kindle version, translated by our friend Jonathan Wright.

Muslim, Coptic or Human?

By Alaa Al-Aswany, al-Masri al-Youm, October 4, 2011

What is your primary way of looking at the world? As a Muslim, or as a Christian? Or as a human being? Do you see yourself as belonging, first and foremost, to a certain religion, or to humanity? How you answer this question will determine your worldview and how you interact with others.

If you see yourself as belonging to humanity first and foremost, than you are definitely amongst those who respect the rights of others regardless of religion. The correct understanding of religion will undoubtedly make you a fierce adept of humanity, since the essence of religion teaches the defense of human values: justice, freedom and equality.

If, however, you feel your religious affiliation takes precedence over your belonging to humanity, then you’re on a dangerous path that will more often than not lead you to bigotry and violence. By its nature, religion is not a point of view, but rather a restrictive belief which excludes the truthfulness of other religions.

This dangerous path takes shape when we see the truth exclusively through our own religion and when we see in “others” a group of misguided people by a false or distorted religion which is not divine in its essence. This abasement of other religions will definitely lead us to downplay their followers. If you think that those “others” are in fact after illusions and superstitions, while you’re the only one believing in “authentic religion,” then you will not likely see those others as enjoying the same human rights as yourself. This will gradually lead you to see those who don’t belong to your religion as dehumanized. You will tend to view people of other beliefs as a collective whole, without any consideration of their individual personalities.

If you’re Muslim, you will see your Coptic neighbor as someone deprived from the human sense which grants him independence and individuality; for you, he’s just one of those Copts. You will see these Copts as a collective with a distinctive conduct and nature. This is where you’ll be stepping further towards hatred and you’d say something like, “These Copts are a wicked bunch of fanatics… I don’t like them.”

The degree of hatred you may feel towards people of other beliefs might yield a sense of repulsion. For you, these people are not just infidels; they are immersed in an impurity that are not removed in the same ways yours are. If you approach any of them, you will probably realize that they have a distinctive smell as they use different incense or they eat a different kind of food as you. If you reach such a level of repulsion, dear reader, then you have become, unfortunately, one of those religious extremist fanatics who may be willing to commit crimes against others. Indeed, you have misunderstood religion and this has led you to feel hatred towards those you contempt…

This is where a basic question must be answered: how did Egyptians [previously] practice their beliefs…?!

The truth is that Egyptians count amongst the most pious societies; but their civilizational heritage has enabled them to develop a correct understanding of religion. Egyptians have always respected the various religions and their country has always been a safe haven for all. The country welcomed immigrants from all sects and races. Armenians, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Baha’is… Not to mention that Egyptian civilization grants the fullest extent of personal freedom. In contemporary Egypt, you are the one who defines your lifestyle. If you want to go and pray, go. If you want to go commit sin, go. Do whatever you feel like doing. You’re a totally free person but you’re also totally liable for your actions before God and the law.

In 1899, the great Imam Mohamed Abdou defined the Egyptian approach to Islam and relieved the Egyptian conscience from bigotry and superstition once and for all. Despite the British occupation of Egypt at that time, the country took off in its journey towards assuming a leading role in almost every field. Such a tolerant Egyptian approach to Islam persisted until the October war broke out in 1973. Because of the sacrifices of both the Egyptian and Syrian people, oil prices flew sky high, thus giving the oil-rich Gulf States an unprecedented economic power. Since the political stability of the Saudi regime depends on its alliance with the Wahhabi sheikhs, millions of dollars were spent to spread the Wahhabi understanding of Islam throughout the entire world.

Add to that the Egyptian economic crisis, which at that time forced millions of Egyptians to migrate to Saudi Arabia for work, thus making many of them the perfect prey for Wahhabi doctrine that is totally alien to Egyptian society. Indeed, the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, in comparison to the tolerant Egyptian approach, preaches an extremist, anti-democratic dogma that is unfair towards women.

At the expense of religion’s essence, Wahhabism sees religion as a set of rituals and actions that concentrate on the form of the religion. Thus, an Egyptian man returning from a Wahhabi country would feel he would be deterred on the spot by members of the Committee for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue (The Mutawa) — those responsible for imposing what they consider good morals by force — if ever his wife’s hair was left uncovered in public. At the same time, any Egyptian living in Saudi Arabia knows that such laws can never be imposed on Americans, Europeans, princes and “nobles.” They will be strictly and solely applied on Egyptians and nationals from non-powerful countries.

Any Egyptian living in Saudi Arabia learns that failing to perform prayers is a major sin. At the same time, however, it is not a major sin to see the Saudi sponsor humiliating his Egyptian employees, denying their financial rights and throwing them in jail if ever they dare to claim any kind of rights. This is another issue that has nothing to do with religion, according to the Wahhabis.

For decades, the Wahhabi doctrine spread in Egypt. What’s worse is that the most dangerous ideas this doctrine inculcated to the Egyptian society was the obligation of hatred towards the Coptic people who should be despised. If we go back to issue 4327 of Rose al-Youssef magazine, we’ll read an article written by Professor Issam Abdel Gawad in which he examined the statements of some Salafi Wahhabi sheikhs on Copts.

Sheikh Saeed Abdul-Azeem says: “There will be no love and no friendship with the Christians and one should not socialize with them nor congratulate them on the occasion of their holidays, as they become even greater infidels during their religious festivities.”

Sheikh Abu-Islam says: “Christians must return to rationality as all their beliefs are contrary to truth and reason.”

Moreover, Sheikh Yasser Barhamy confirms that “it is not permissible for a Muslim to participate in religious rituals of the Copts, as they are polytheists.”

And Sheikh Ahmed Farid declares that “it is not permissible for a Muslim to comfort a mourning Copt, nor should he confirm that the latter would find compensation in the afterlife, as the afterlife of Copts is merely a journey to the fires of hell.”

These are a few examples of what one could hear in the daily speeches of Wahhabi sheikhs in Saudi mosques and satellite TV stations. If such statements are to be formulated in a respectable country, they would be considered as a crime for inciting hatred towards fellow citizens whom it is permitted to offend simply because they have different religious beliefs. Now, because Wahhabi Sheikhs corrupted the minds of some Egyptians and filled their hearts with hatred and intolerance, without any kind of ethical or legal deterrent, what would you expect from those who believe in such a doctrine…?!

Having said all this, one could understand, and expect, the happenings of the recent days in the village of Marenab, in Edfu, in the province of Aswan. Marenab is the home for St. George Church which is visited by Copts living in the village since 1940. Because the church is an old and damaged construction, those in charge decided to apply for a construction permit for renovating it. So far, all seems normal… However, and out of nowhere, a sudden problem was declared: a group of Salafi Wahhabis emerged and objected to the renovation of the church. This being the case, and instead of seeing the authorities enforce the law and protect the church, police and army officials called for an unofficial meeting during which the Salafis imposed their conditions upon the custodian of the church for the sake of accepting its renovation. They requested that the church be built with no loudspeakers, no domes and no crosses. Which leads us to ask: How could a church be built without a cross, the symbol of Christianity?

This was the wish of the Salafis, that was said to be the answer. Moreover, that condition was approved by the police and army officials, which led the custodian of the church to concede in order to get the approval to restore his church. Surprisingly, the custodian’s acceptance of such unjust conditions did not save the church from the Salafis. On the following Friday, the Wahhabi mosque preacher went on inciting the worshipers against the renovation of the Church. As a result, as soon as the prayer ended, a group of fanatics surrounded the church, attacked it, burnt it to ruins.

The attack went on for hours, during which neither the military nor the police interfered to protect the house of God. In addition, the Governor of Aswan, an ex-sympathizer of the Mubarak regime, adopted the good old way of denying responsibility and declared that there wasn’t any church in that village in the first place (that is to say that what happened was a mere fantasy by some Christians). Criminal attacks on Egyptian churches have become a repetitive, strange and suspicious act in the post-revolution era. What happened in Edfu has happened before in Fayoum, Ismailia, Imbaba, Ain Shams and Atfih…

Such attacks lead us to ask: First, since the Military Council serves as the transitional President and Parliament of our nation, and is thus solely responsible for governing the country, what reasoning could one give to the fact of seeing the military police brutally beat, torture and insult protestors in the least human way while, at the same time, one could also see other members of the military police keeping aside while watching the Salafis burning churches and shrines, cutting off the ear of a Coptic citizen, and blocking the railway for some ten days, as happened in Qena?!

What makes the rudeness of the military police turn into softness when dealing with the Salafis…? What pushes the army and police officials into negotiating with the Salafis and abiding by their rules as if they belonged to a nation stronger than Egypt…?! What are the legal grounds that grant the brotherhood of Salafis the right to inspect churches and allow their renovation on their own conditions or prevent such action and order their demolition and burning if they wish to…? Does the Military Council allow certain political advantages to these Salafis or do security, chaos and sectarian violence work towards the political interest of the Military Council, since they justify their staying in power under the pretext of maintaining security and protecting the Copts from extremist attacks…?!

Second, ever since the nineteenth century, the Egyptian people have struggled and offered thousands of martyrs for the sake of achieving two goals: independence and the constitution… in a search for ending the British occupation and building a democratic civil state which was the hope of all Egyptian leaders, starting with the ascent of Saad Zaghloul and till the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser… These leaders were not anti-Islamic secularists, as alleged by the Wahhabis. Instead, they had enough of a cultural and civilized spirit to realize that the civil state which preaches equality among its citizens, regardless of their religion, is the only way to achieve progress. Any attempt to change the structure of the civil state in Egypt will definitely lead to a real disaster… If the Wahhabis cannot stand the sight of a church while they are mere members of the society, how would they behave towards us, Muslims and Copts, be if they ever take power in Egypt…?!

The truth is that Islam, once properly understood, makes us more humane, tolerant and respectful of the beliefs of others. The truth is also that acts aiming at despising and abusing the Copts are heinous crimes that have nothing to do with any religion.

Democracy is, no doubt, the solution!