The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Marriage, religion and idleness

As part of a new series on youth and religion, the New York Times ran an article today on young people in Egypt. The article, by Michael Slackman, basically argues that economic and social frustration and the inability to get married at a young age has driven many to become more pious:

The despair extends to rural Egypt, always a traditional, religious environment, but one that ambitious young people long to escape. In the village of Shamandeel, not far from Zagazig, it took Walid Faragallah six years after graduating with a degree in psychology to find a job in a factory, and his pay was less than $50 a month. That is an average period of waiting — and average pay — for new entries in the job market. Mr. Faragallah kept that job for a year, and recently found another factory job for $108 a month, two hours from his home.

“It brings us closer to God, in a sense,� Mr. Faragallah said, speaking of the despair he felt during the years he searched for work. “But sometimes, I can see how it does not make you closer to God, but pushes you toward terrorism. Practically, it killed my ambition. I can’t think of a future.�

So far so much usual socio-economic analysis of the religiosity of Arab youth. But it's interesting that when they provided an Arabic translation of the article and solicited young Egyptians' points of view on it, this is the reply they got:

After discussing the article with three of four different groups of students, I found that the answers were surprisingly uniform: yes, the government holds them back. Yes, it’s too costly to find an apartment, furnish it, get married and live a happy life in it. But they all asked pretty much asked: “What does this have to do with the religion mentioned in your story?�

“You say our religiosity comes from economical and social pressure,� Muhammad Salah, a 21-year-old engineering student told me. “This is not true. Of course, we are under heavy pressure, but this has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with the government.�

This was the point of contention — they enjoyed the article because it was critical of the government and raised issues they could relate to. But they did not see the connection between government failure and lack of opportunity with their emboldened faith. Being religious, they say, is about leading a good life. For them, it’s a gesture of free will, an individual choice disconnected from larger issues. Determinism plays no part in it.

The thing that struck most about the article, and which I recognized from everyday life in Egypt, is not so much the pervasiveness of religion but the central role idleness plays in young people's lives -- fear of boredom, empty hour to fill, the feeling that it can lead to trouble. From the end of the article:

There is a mosque a few steps from the front door of their house. But an Islamic tradition holds that the farther you walk to the mosque the more credit earned with God. So every Friday, Mr. Sayyid walks past the mosque by his home, and past a few more mosques, before he reaches the Sayeda Zeinab mosque.

“By being religious, God prevents you from doing wrong things,� Mr. Sayyid said, revealing his central fear and motivation, that time and boredom will lead him to sin. “This whole atmosphere we live in is wrong, wrong.�

If unemployed, prospect-less youth are indeed turning to the mosque, it might be less because of despair-induced spirituality than lack of anything better to do: as Franz Kafka said, idleness is the beginning of all vice and the crown of all virtues.

(And incidentally, there is an Egyptian proverb that says "the idle hand is impure" ( الإيد البطّالة نجسة), as well as passages and many interpretations of the Quran that warn against idleness as leading to sin-- one Saudi proverb claims "the devil tempts idle men, but idle men tempt the devil. And perhaps most beautiful of all, an old Middle Eastern proverb that may predate Arabic that claims that "The dust of labor is better than the saffron of idleness.")