The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Religious discourse in Egypt

This is the key paragraph in Maria Golia's Daily Star column:

That [popular preacher Amr] Khaled and others like him have found scores of followers suggests less the emergence of a new breed of religious guides than proof of the lack thereof. Imaginative leadership - secular or religious - is not the forte of paternalist autocracies like Egypt. The job of eliminating competitors and ensuring the populace's dependency has been so thoroughly done that individuals capable of mobilizing energies and talents, or providing constructive outlets for their expression, are rare indeed.

This is the crux of the issue. Religious discourse and debate here is dominated by a conservative elite, Al Azhar being the most obvious and influential bastion for this elite (in Egypt at least). The permissible scope of religious debate here is kept within narrow confines, where opposing views are aggressively silenced. No where has this silencing been more visible than in the case of Nasser Hamed Abu Zeid, the Cairo University Islamic thinker who fled Egypt in the mid-1990s after Islamist lawyers forced him to divorce his wife on the grounds that he was not a true Muslim. (The outrageous ideas he had the gaul to propogate: that the Koran should be interpreted in the context of place and time.) For more on this issue see Tunisian journalist Kamel Labidi's recent column in the Daily Star. Of course it's also evident in Al Azhar's continuing efforts to ban books (80 in the past decade, according to Labidi).

The absence of true debate on religious issues, and the muffling of those thinkers whose views extend beyond the acceptable confines of debate is a significant factor in the increasing visibility of public religiosity in Cairo and elsewhere. Take for instance the example of the hijab, one of the more frequently cited indications of this increasing public religiosity. An average Egyptian Muslim girl who is considering whether or not to start wearing the hijab (head scarf) has few, if any, public religious figures to turn to in Egypt who will tell her that the hijab is NOT a religious obligation. There are simply no voices (that I know of) in Al Azhar or elsewhere in the religious establishment here that argue that the hijab is not a religious duty. This despite the fact that a very reasonable, and in my opinion convincing, argument exists that the Koran and the sunna do not require women to veil. Of course, disagreement in interpretations of the text are a fundamental part of any religion, but those differences should be debated publicly. That is not happening here. The Egyptian girl debating whether or not to wear the veil has no one telling her she can remain an obedient Muslim, and also remain unveiled.