In Translation: Aboul Fotouh on culture wars and patriotism

For the last few weeks – not for a lack of more serious things to talk about – the Egyptian media has fixated on two different aspects of the longstanding culture wars the country has fought over religion and public life. One is the brouhaha caused by TV personality Islam al-Beheiri and his frontal attack on al-Azhar for needing reform; the other is the lament by the writer Cherif Choubashi that Egyptian women should take off their veils. These type of storms in teacups have been standard for decades, they used to be a favorite issue for the Muslim Brotherhood to champion and embarrass the government under Mubarak. But what now that the Brotherhood is exiled and underground, and that current strongman Sisi is himself issuing calls for religious reform?

In the piece below, former presidential candidate, pre-2011 Brotherhood leader and head of the Strong Egypt party Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh gives a stab at an answer, from what we would venture to say is a somewhat post-Islamist perspective. Translation from the original Arabic is provided, as always, by the stupendous team at Industry Arabic. Please give a go for your translation needs, you won't be sorry.

Freedom: Between “Compulsion” and a Culture of “Non-Compulsion”

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Al-Shorouq, 21 April 2015

Some people may be surprised to hear that the culture of “non-compulsion” is essentially a religious one. It constitutes one of the things that I have learned and come to understand from our great religion Islam. Religious texts clarify this beyond any debate or discussion, in a manner wide enough to embrace the meaning of freedom in its intellectual, behavioral and social understandings and applications. Matters of belief and disbelief are of prime importance due to their intimate association with man’s life and afterlife. Such matters are left to freedom of choice and free will: {Then whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve}.[1] Because religion always wants man to attain the highest possible perfections of his humanity, freedom of choice and free will are among the primary things that unite religion to human reason.

Egyptian women are currently on the receiving end of an aggressive assault to compel them to choose their dress and appearance in accordance with the preferences of certain figures who have used the media and particularly satellite channels in a provocative and incomprehensible manner. They have turned their discussion about such choices from being about a personal opinion to a social and national issue, ignoring the fact that social phenomena have their own determinants and circumstances that shape them and contribute to their perpetuation or disappearance. And indeed, various studies have dealt with this subject at an advanced level of understanding and interpretation.

However, those in the media who shrilly discuss the clothing of Egyptian women ignore these scientific facts and avoid approaching the matter from a scientific and cultural angle, because clothing is a social and cultural manifestation. For example, the sari worn by Indian women is a social manifestation of Indian culture, but the noble anti-imperialist leaders in India considered it a symbol of independence against British occupation – which not only sought to occupy the land, but also people’s minds and thoughts. And this is what has happened with some intellectuals here in Egypt, unfortunately.

Here I would like to raise several points:

  • Today, Egyptian women are becoming the object of ideological and political conflict. But women have full capacity and ability and freedom of choice just like men, and it is shameful and extremely degrading for society as a whole and not just women for a woman’s personal matter (her manner of clothing) to be exploited to settle political and ideological scores. Egyptian women have heard one man speak about the pain and bitterness he has felt seeing Egyptian women veiled since the late 1960s, and that the time has come to put an end to this pain and bitterness. But it is not clear what the Egyptian woman’s freedom to choose her own clothes has to do with this man’s pain and bitterness.

  • Every day confirms that there are many intellectual currents that do not understand the meaning of freedom and only apply or exercise it according to their own whim and choice. This is something disgraceful and shameful for us all. Societies have advanced and made great strides in their understanding of democracy and secularism to the level that they recognize free will and the freedom to embrace, advocate and implement ideas so long as they do not conflict with the freedom of others.

  • Intellectuals are still setting their own priorities on the basis of their intellectual and ideological choices and not national or patriotic grounds. In this context, I feel the need to raise the idea that national allegiance is an absolute priority, even amid various other affiliations and loyalties.

  • The nation is now going through a critical phase with regards to the unity and coherence of its ranks amid regional dangers that are multiplying and expanding every day.

  • Al-Azhar enjoys great prestige in the eyes of all Egyptians, as a mosque, university and national historic institution. This prestige has amplified the stances taken by it as an institution and by its renowned scholars, particularly with regards to the concept of moderation and refusal to excommunicate any Muslim whatever his political and intellectual positions. Attempts to impugn and assail Al-Azhar, its Grand Imam and its scholars are far outside the nation’s prevailing mainstream views.

  • Intellectuals and those with different views should lay their secondary disputes aside so that the entire national community may rally around matters, aims and choices of supreme importance. Of course people’s clothes are not among such crucial issues, especially at this decisive moment in history where we are engaged in building the political structure of the nation (strong political parties and a strong parliament), its economic structure (GDP growth and development), its social structure (eliminating illiteracy and hunger), and its intellectual structure (education and scientific research).

I will close by calling on everyone – the authorities, political forces, intellectuals and intellectual movements – to consider that the last group that engaged in exclusion, score settling and escalation of disagreement brought about a great loss that was suffered by only one side: the nation as a whole.

  1. Quran 18:29  ↩