The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Religion
On the secular roots of "religious" conflicts

Leave religion out of it - Le Monde diplomatique - English edition

Georges Corm writes:

As European-style secular liberalism and socialist ideology (both of which had spread beyond Europe) have receded, conflicts have become reduced to their anthropological and cultural dimension. Few journalists or academics bother to maintain an analytical framework based on classical political science, taking into account demographic, economic, geographic, social, political, historical and geopolitical factors, as well as the ambitions of leaders, neo-imperial structures and regional powers’ desire for influence.

Conflicts are generally presented in a way that disregards the multiplicity of causes, caricatures the issues, and makes it a matter of “good guys” and “bad guys”. The main players are defined according to their ethnic or religious affiliations, as if opinion and behaviour were homogeneous within these groups.

. . .

Tibet, Xinjiang, the Philippines, the Russian Caucasus, Burma (where we have just discovered a Muslim population in conflict with its Buddhist neighbours), the former Yugoslavia (broken up along sectarian lines between Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians), Northern Ireland (Catholics and Protestants) and now Mali: can the conflicts in all these regions really be seen as a clash of religious values? Or are they in fact secular, anchored in a social reality that hardly anyone bothers to analyse, while self-appointed sectarian leaders seize the opportunity to realise their personal ambitions?

In contempt

Human rights organizations and the media in Egypt have reported on a worrying recent spike in "contempt of religion" cases. Most of them involve Coptic Christians, whether it is 25-year-old Albert Saber, who allegedly linked to the Islamophobic porn B movie The Innocence of Muslims on Facebook, or school teacher Bishoy Kamel, who has been sentenced to six years in prison for posting cartoons considered defamatory to Islam and Prophet Mohammed on Facebook and for insulting President Mohamed Morsi and his family. 

Now, according to this report by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, the charge is being used to settle domestic disputes: after a mother and daughter in Sharqiya got ito a fight about the daughter's unorthodox "ideas and views," the girl accused her mothering of threatening to kill her, and the mother accused the daughter and a male friend, who showed up at the police station to check up on her, of insulting Islam.  

At least the case against an 8-month-pregnant Coptic school teacher in Upper Egypt has been dismissed, after the student who accused her of insulting the Prophet turned out not to have been in class that day. 

Of course insulting religion -- or the president -- has always been a crime in Egypt. Laws that forbid it have been used before to persecute prominent secular intellectuals and artists. What may be new and disturbing about the recent cases is the indiscriminate and arbitrary targeting of regular, anonymous citizens (in the context of who-knows-what very local relations and tensions). 

It's great that President Morsi said in his speech yesterday that: "Any assault on Copts is an assault on me." But the recent cases are an assault on all Egyptians' freedom of expression.

Morsi has also called for an international law against insulting religion. Islamists have long amalgamated Western wars in the Middle East with the idea that Islam needs to be protected from offense domestically, in Muslim-majority countries. And who better to act as its protectors than they? Yet Islamists have a hard time admitting that they have, for political advantage, contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and belligerance or that there is a double standard in the way Islam, versus all other religions, is protected from contempt.

The Battle for al-Azhar

The Battle for al-Azhar

Hisham Hellyer writes in Foreign Policy of the coming changes in the role of al-Azhar in Islamist-dominated Egypt, after PM Qandil decided not to appoint a Salafist in the position of minister of endowments after al-Azhar staged a revolt over the matter:

"There are difficult times ahead for Al-Azhar's establishment. There appear to be three options for it, the first being the obvious one of sacrificing its independence from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements, and allow the 'Salafizing' of the establishment to take place. As noted above, this has serious implications. The second would be to align with the non-civil forces in the deep state whose aim is to minimize MB and Salafi influence in Egypt, which would also involve sacrificing its independence in the process. The more difficult route would be to chart another course, where it is engaged in critique of both the deep state and the MB. This would be, of course, the path chosen by individual prominent Azharis, such as Sheikh Emad Effat, who was popularly recognized as the 'Sheikh of the Revolution.' He was killed in the midst of clashes with military forces on Cairo's streets in December 2011."

To me these questions are another aspect of the resurgence of corporatism in post-Mubarak Egypt I recently wrote about for The National, with al-Azhar essentially playing the role of the corporation of the ulema. Nathan Brown had written about these issues several months ago in a paper on Post-Revolutionary Al-Azhar for Carnegie.

On "morality police" in Egypt

I did not get a chance to blog about the reports of Islamist morality vigilantism said to have caused the death of a young man in Suez a couple of weeks ago, but below are some links on the story. While it's not clear how widespread the phenomenon is, and there has been some alarmism, I do believe that such events are happening more frequently. I would not look at a conspiracy by the new Islamist president for now, though — this problem has much more to do with the collapse of authority in areas where there the state already has problems to impose itself. No wonder the worst instances of such morality police (but the least reported) is Sinai.

  • No morality police in Egypt: Morsi spokesman - Politics - Egypt - Ahram Online
  • A noisy discourse on sexual harassment : EgyptMonocle
  • Egyptian Youth’s Murder in Suez Puts Islamists on Defensive - Bloomberg
  • Fears of 'morality vigilantism' in Suez - YouTube
  • After Suez murder, questions linger over vigilante 'morality police' | Egypt Independent
  • Egyptian student fatally stabbed by militants - SFGate
  • Hamza Kashgari, social media and the Saudis' dual monarchy

    Hamza KashgariThe National reports that the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has “issued a fatwa against Twitter, demanding that ‘real Muslims’ avoid it, calling it a ‘platform for trading accusations and for promoting lies’.”

    The pretext for this condemnation of social media is the case of the Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari, who was extradited from Malaysia to the Kingdom after tweeting about the Prophet Muhammad in a manner that the religious authorities deemed blasphemous. If the Saudis wish to make an example, he will be facing blasphemy charges, and possibly death, rather than a lesser (though still absurd) sentencing that would end in him paying a fine. There’s also talk of taking action against anyone who retweeted his messages.

    But considering that thousands of Twitter users called attention to Kashgari’s tweets, literally demanding his head, it’s ironic that the Grand Mufti says Muslims should stay off Twitter, since clearly, many salafis are using, and policing it.

    And, as The National notes, it’s even more ironic that the Grand Mufti’s issuing a ban since Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the King’s nephew and reputedly the richest man in Saudi Arabia, purchased 3.6% of Twitter’s stock for US$300 million this past December.

    The fact that the Grand Mufti wants Twitter gone while a prince wants to buy its shares up nicely illustrates the uneasy dual monarchy that has defined clerical-royal relationship since the 18th century. The monarchy set up in 1923 is actually a dual monarchy because the royal family must maintain the approval of the Wahhabi ulema to rule, and there are those who question this “right” - one of the first crises of the Saudi state occured when the monarchy and ulema, fearing the Ikhwan tribal militias who had won control of the Hejaz for them, turned on the militiamen. The House of Saud procured the British machine guns, the clergy produced a justificatory edict for the crackdown.

    As Toby C. Jones notes, “the ulema’s support for the regime is not unconditional. They remain controversial, provocative and confrontational.” Oil wealth and investment portfolios allow Saudi princes to study at Sandhurst and hobnob with French socialites, but they also subsidize the religious-dominated educational system and the social welfare net, which the Saudis have been working to expand in the wake of the Arab Spring, that help hold society together on the al-Sauds’ behalf. “The rebel in you” Kashgari refers to with respect to the Prophet Muhammad is precisely the sort of Islamic value that the Saudi status quo cannot handle — hence the sharp responses from the government against anyone urging reform, including Salafis and secularists. The Sahwas — former Islamist radicals who have become “partners” of the establishment — are the closest thing to a political opposition Saudi Arabia has, their presence is limited by the government and they must be careful not to push too far in the Islamist direction that Osama bin Laden fell in with. One promiment Sahwa spiritual leader has argued in the past that “sovereignty belongs to God alone,” which is indeed “a challenge both to the idea that Saudi citizens should enjoy more participation in governance as well as to the royal family itself.”

    Hamza Kashgari’s case is one of free speech. The religious establishment, wanting to remain the arbiter of social norms in the Kingdom and hold onto the power it has accrued, is hoping to denigrate a medium that they fear because of its prominent — though exaggerated — role in the “Arab Spring.” They can’t reconcile themselves to globe-spanning electronic mediums that might lead their congregations to start thinking thought crimes. A chilling message has been sent already through the extradition from Malaysia; it will depend on the royal family if the intended message stops with a fine, or with Kashgari’s execution.

    In Translation: Will the real Ibn Taymiyya please stand up?

    This week’s In Translation piece is a departure from the usual focus on commentary on current events in the Arabic press. I chose a piece recommended by As’ad AbuKhalil, aka Angry Arab, that takes a scholarly look at the key inspirations of the Salafi movement, the theologian and thinker Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 AD), who was born in Harran in what is today Turkey and lived most of his life in what is today Syria. Ibn Taymiyya’s times coincided with the destructive Mongol invasions which razed Baghdad and, from his perspective, must have appeared as an end-times event. He is considered to be a key inspiration inspiration to the Wahhabi and contemporary Salafi movement.

    Angry Arab wrote of this piece:

    This is an interesting discussion of the thought of Ibn Taymiyyah and how it differed from Hanbaliyyah on some theological issues. Ibn Taymiyyah warrants a lot of academic attention (given his influence on today’s Islamists): French Orientalists of the 20th century did pay attention to him but the reason that he is not studied as, say, Sayyid Qutb, is because he left a vast body of literature and access to this text requires a deep understanding of Arabic. He was a dangerous but effective and sophisticated polemicist.

    That’s an important point: a deep understanding of Qu’ranic exegesis necessitates advanced study as a grammatician and even etymologist. For more on Ibn Taymiyya and how the democratization of religion in the Arab world that has given rise to new forms of fundamentalist Islamic thought, I recommend reading As’ad AbuKhalil’s critical essay The Incoherence of Islamic Fundamentalism: Arabic Islamic Thought At The End Of The 20th Century [PDF 2.6MB]. It includes his usual verve against the late Saudi Mufti, Abdel Aziz Bin Baz, who counts among the handful of founders of contemporary Salafism.

    This is a difficult piece, but I thought it might be enlightening not only for the learned (and unorthodox interpretation) the writer gives of Ibn Taymiyya, but also in the second degree as telling of some of the discussions taking place in the quality Arab press in reaction to the electoral success of the Salafis in Egypt and the rising intellectual and spiritual influence of the Salafi movement more generally.

    As always, this translation is possible thanks to Industry Arabic, which provides multi-lingual translation of many different types — media, technical, legal, etc. — and really did a great job on this difficult piece.



    The other side of Ibn Taymiyya – on the occasion of the political ascent of Salafis and Islamists

    By Abdel Hakim Ajhar, al-Quds al-Arabi, 14 December 2011

    The terms and concepts that have achieved wide circulation with the Arab revolutions – those such as democracy, tyranny, civil society, and citizenship – have no place in the writings of Islamist thinkers before the Nahda period. However, the writings of one such pre-Nahda1 thinker, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), contain material that could enable his followers to adopt a different mentality, one that would guide them – with a little effort — to these prevailing concepts of the age.

    The Ibn Taymiyya whom we read about is not the real Ibn Taymiyya: he is a theoretical reproduction and refabrication that has made him into one of the authorities for religious extremists among both his supporters and detractors alike. The real Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, the one who needs to be read by Islamists ascending to the political forefront, is one who will help these Islamists adopt a flexible, rationalistic mode of thinking, and perhaps change many of the intellectual assumptions these forces still live by and consider to be fundamental tenets not subject to review.

    Ibn Taymiyya theoretically belongs to the Hanbali school, which is held to be synonymous with, or the basic source of the contemporary Salafi movement in one way or another. In reality, however, Ibn Taymiyya criticized the Hanbali school2 more than any other thinker – whether from within the Hanbali school or without – and his criticisms were profound enough to affect the foundations of the whole school. For example, he criticized the literalism of the Hanbalis’ reading of the text of the Qur’an, which is one of their major tenets, and called for an interpretation of the Qur’an that differs from traditional interpretations such as the those of the Mu’tazilites and later Ash’arites3 who applied the theory of figurative language in this matter. Ibn Taymiyya resorted to a different theoretical foundation to explain his principle of interpretation, which relies on the idea of the “meaning of the text,” or the “intention of the text.” Not only does Ibn Taymiyya’s interpretation — which derives from a consideration of the text’s intention — differ from linguistic interpretation, but it also differs from the theory of exoteric and esoteric meaning that Sufis and some other religious groups employed.

    Ibn Taymiyya announces his stance supportive of interpretation when he accepts the explanation of the well-known Qur’anic verse that states:

    “None knows its interpretation, save only God. And those firmly rooted in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it.’”4

    Ibn Taymiyya makes “those firmly rooted in knowledge” grammatically conjoined with “God,” thus refusing to split the verse and limit interpretation to God alone. This reading is the interpretation of a minority of thinkers in the history of Islamic thought who possessed great intellectual daring, such as Ibn Arabi and Ibn Rushd, and it contradicts the views of most conservative schools in Islam. Ibn Taymiyya rejects the Hanbali position, which says that “those firmly rooted in knowledge” do not “know its interpretation,” and that God alone is the one who knows this: He monopolizes it for himself and will reveal it on Resurrection Day. Those holding this view back it up with a verse that says:

    “Do they look for aught else but its interpretation? The day its interpretation comes…”5

    For the Hanbalis and many conservative currents, the Qur’an is a text that is closed-off on many sides, which adds a sort of secrecy and ambiguity to it. This is in contrast with Ibn Taymiyya, who thought that the Qur’an was an open, completely comprehensible text, and that human beings – to whom this text was sent – are able to understand it through reflection and uncover its intended meanings. Moreover, this understanding is not the exclusive possession of specific religious or spiritual authorities, but rather is granted to any educated or learned person. Ibn Taymiyya says on this point:

    God gave an absolute command to reflect on the Qur’an, and did not exempt anything from reflection. He did not say, “Don’t reflect on the obscure passages, and reflection is impossible without understanding.”6

    In this context, he criticizes the Hanbalis and some Sunnis who

    without complete experience… supposed that only God knows the meaning of the obscure passages” and who would say: “texts conform to their external sense, and they reject any interpretation that contradicts the external sense.”

    Ibn Taymiyya levels harsh criticism at this understanding and accuses those who hold this belief – who are mostly Hanbalis and Zahiris7 – of contradiction, lack of experience and of holding a literal understanding. He asks the, “What virtue lies in obscure passages such that God keeps the knowledge of their meaning to himself?” Ibn Taymiyya didn’t stop there; rather, he provided all the philosophical premises to justify his theory of interpretation, as he considered the Qur’an to be “originated”8, and that its words originate in God’s essence little by little according to the needs of revelation, before they emerge from the Divine Essence as audible expressions able to be spoken and recorded by human beings. Ibn Taymiyya confirms his view with a Qur’anic verse that is explicit on this matter:

    “No Remembrance from their Lord comes to them lately renewed.”9

    Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, adopted interpretations of the Qur’an whose boldness exceeded that of Muslim philosophers preceding him, since he believes that the world has no beginning and no end and is an eternal process of creation and re-creation, and that the world moves according to its own nature, and according to necessity and the principle of causality. In this way, he breaks with one of the most pervasive ideas in Islam – creation ex nihilo – as is held by Hanbalis, Ash’arites, Mu’tazilites and the jurists.10 He backs up his perspective by interpreting the Divine Intention, as he says when he treats a group of Qur’anic verses that prove his theory. According to Ibn Taymiyya, the Qur’anic verse that says

    “Surely thy Lord accomplishes what He desires”11

    means that God is eternally accomplishing things, since it is impossible for God’s efficacy to be posterior to His will, and for His will to be posterior to His very existence. Therefore, there are three necessary things that are co-eternal: God, His will and His efficacy. This is what puts the world in a state of eternal creation. This eternal creation is proven by the Qur’anic verses that refer to this gradation in the creation of one thing after another with no beginning, such as:

    “Then He lifted Himself to heaven when it was smoke”12

    “His Throne was upon the waters”13

    “Then [he] sat Himself upon the Throne.”14

    All this confirms the existence of a chain of creation and its lack of a beginning. Ibn Taymiyya here seems very close to Ibn Rushd’s understanding of the same issue, but he is even bolder, since Ibn Rushd has decided that the transition from God’s eternity to the process of creation requires intermediary entities, such as planets and spheres, as Aristotle before him had hypothesized. Ibn Taymiyya rejects intermediary entities, and argues that the transition from eternity to the corporeal world takes place through origination within the Divine Essence. His interpretation of origination is that it is the transferal of the Divine Attributes from their whole position as genera and species to individual intellectual potentialities within the Essence, then these potentialities are transferred to external essences and sensory existents. Ibn Taymiyya believes that the true intention behind the Qur’anic verse that says of God “Every day He is upon some labour”15 is that origination within the Essence is an eternal process.

    The Qur’an is not too obscure for human understanding; it is completely comprehensible by the person able to reflect upon it and uncover its various meanings and intentions. Without this belief about understanding the Qur’anic text, the entire heavenly message becomes meaningless, because the message is aimed at mankind, and it would be futile for God to bar mankind from knowledge of all its details, especially its obscure and ambiguous passages.

    Mankind enjoys the highest value in the universe because the Divine Attributes have been transferred to him in varying amounts. They exist in God in their capacity as attributes of perfection, whereas they exist in human beings as relative attributes of varying degree. Therefore, Ibn Taymiyya accepts the Prophetic hadith that says: “The Merciful created man in His own image,” and he allows that the pronoun “his” refers to “The Merciful” and not to man.16 Ibn Taymiyya does not intend anthropomorphization, as his followers and his detractors understood it, but rather he means something close to Ibn Arabi’s understanding of the hadith, where man is in a certain sense the image of God. It is through this image that man recovers the attributes that he has lost, and thereby recovers his central status.

    Because of mankind’s status, Ibn Taymiyya rejects the view that man is incapable of attaining the truth by his own faculties. For him, mankind is capable of knowing the truth through his natural powers known as his “innate disposition,” as mentioned in the prophetic hadith: “All human beings are born with innate disposition….” This is the human nature that enables a person to attain the truth without the help of anyone, and even without the help of heavenly inspiration.

    Ibn Taymiyya here appears in complete agreement with the Arab Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufayl (d. 581/1185) in his story “Hayy ibn Yaqdhan.” The child Hayy, who grows up outside of human society and is ignorant of any language to communicate with, is able to attain the ultimate truth of the world just through his natural capabilities as a human being.

    Human nature is disposed to seek knowledge and to will this knowledge, despite people’s varying levels of will in seeking and attaining it. Because of this variation in the will to knowledge, there are a number of people who cannot or do not want to reach the truth through their own powers, and it is for this reason that God sent prophets. Even those people for whose sake prophets were sent do not accept this truth because it comes from heaven, but because their innate disposition accepts it, since the success of prophets is connected with the preparedness of man’s innate disposition to accept their message and for no other reason. If not for this disposition, prophets would not succeed in the first place, since the innate disposition itself that guides some people to the truth is also what causes heavenly inspiration to be accepted.

    On the other hand, human beings act on the basis of this truth, and are the originators of their actions and responsible for them, because these actions are the natures themselves that God placed within everything, including mankind. Man is capable of freedom, and in his human activity he proceeds according to the principle of “seeking benefit and avoiding loss,” and this is the Qur’anic concept of divine guidance. Consequently, all human actions are explained according to their actual conditions in terms of benefits and losses. This is what causes the universe, the world, and mankind to be governed by cause and effect, including natural objects, which must be understood on this basis.

    The world is governed and ordered by its laws, which makes everything in the universe comprehensible. What we do not know today is merely something we ourselves have not been able to figure out, but we will find it out tomorrow. The world is not obscure or a secret, and God does not veil any wonders from human understanding. The universe and its major truths are subject to our human nature, and the knowledge of all this comes about because of our will to knowledge. Not even God’s acts are of the secret and obscure type, as God’s actions are justified by wisdom and by cause. God does nothing in vain, nor does he conceal anything from mankind. His actions are subject to interpretation like anything else.

    With these profound conceptions, Ibn Taymiyya breaks the secret about that complex trio in Islam — the Qur’an, prophecy and God — and narrows the circle of the sacred that Muslims have woven around it for a long stretch of their intellectual history. Ibn Taymiyya leaves the world and all its relative and absolute truths open to human knowledge governed by reason. Everything that occurs or will occur tomorrow is in the grasp of our perceptions and our knowledge: there is no wide circle of sacred things, no secret world, and no ambiguity surrounding the facts of the world. Ibn Taymiyya completely rejects the belief held by some people that only God Himself understands His own actions, and that we cannot use logic to understand them — which is a widespread view in the popular understanding of Islam. Contrary to this, God’s actions proceed from his wisdom and are necessarily in harmony with the laws of things and the universe; consequently, they fall within the field of our perception and our intellectual aptitudes.

    Ibn Taymiyya, who is considered the spiritual father of the Salafi movement and one of the major authorities in Islamic thought, needs to be re-examined, since there is another aspect to his thought that trains his followers and others to think rationally and to reach a new understanding of Islam. This is an understanding that restores to man his status and his ability to penetrate the world’s secrets, and which pushes him to think about everything, and about the fact that he possesses a degree of truth – however much people may disagree in their conceptions and creeds.

    1. The Nahda: a period of culture awakening that took place in the Arab world in the late 19th and early 20th century, which witnessed modernizing reforms in many fields, including the Islamic intellectual heritage. ↩

    2. Hanbali: one of the four schools of law within Sunni Islam. Usually regarded as the most conservative and literalistic. ↩

    3. Mu’tazalite and Ash’arite are two major schools of theology within Islam. The debate the author is obliquely referring to here is over how to handle passages in the Qur’an that pose a certain difficulty, whether because they are obscure or are in apparent conflict with Islamic doctrine (for example, verses that use anthropomorphic language to describe God). Contrary to the Hanbalis, who clung to a rigid literalism in dealing with such passages, the Mu’tazalites and the Ash’arites referred to interpreted these verses on the basis that they are employing figurative language, and so managed to resolve any ambiguity or discrepancy. This type of interpretation, which was not without controversy as it involved what some considered an unlicensed deviation from the Qur’anic text, is known in Arabic as ta’wil, in contrast to the more straightforward explanation of unambiguous passages, which is called tafsir. Throughout this translation, “interpretation” is rendering ta’wil and not tafsir. ↩

    4. Qur’an 3:7; the Arabic text is ambiguous, and could also be read as “None knows its interpretation, save only God and those firmly rooted in knowledge. They say ‘we believe in it’…” This was evidently Ibn Taymiyya’s reading of the verse. A. J. Arberry’s The Koran Interpreted is the translation used throughout for Qur’anic citations. ↩

    5. Qur’an 7:53 ↩

    6. Tafsir of Surat al-Ikhlas, p. 263 ↩

    7. The Zahiris, at one time, were a fifth legal school in Islam, known for their emphasis on adhering to the “external sense,” or zahir of the Qur’an and other religious texts. The school is now considered extinct. ↩

    8. “Originated”: in Arabic, muhdath. The idea that the Qur’an is not coeternal with God, but rather was created by God at a certain point in time. This view, whose most prominent exponent were the Mu’tazilites, is now a minority view in Islam, having been displaced by the Ash’arite belief that the Qur’an is uncreated and hence coeternal with God. ↩

    9. Qur’an 21:2. “Lately renewed” is how Arberry renders muhdath here. ↩

    10. Regarding the world to be eternal is a belief most commonly associated in the Islamic intellectual tradition with the philosophers – those such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, who follow Aristotle in this matter. Most orthodox theologians reject this view, and consider it to be heretical.  ↩

    11. Qur’an 11:107 ↩

    12. Qur’an 41:11 ↩

    13. Qur’an 11:7 ↩

    14. Qur’an 7:54 ↩

    15. Qur’an 55:29 ↩

    16. The Arabic pronoun in the hadith is ambiguous. Interpreters who wished to avoid the anthropomorphic connotations the hadith implies argued that “his” referred to “man” and not “the Merciful,” thus giving the hadith the sense: “The Merciful created man in man’s own image.” ↩

    What does religion have to do with voting in Egypt?

    Dalia Malek send this dispatch from London on the experience of registering to, one day, be able to vote in Egypt's elections.

    After months of protests at Egyptian embassies around the world, SCAF announced that Egyptians abroad would have the right to vote. However, at least in the United Kingdom this has been more challenging than it would seem.

    A delegation went to the Egyptian consulate in London between 18 and 22 November to issue Egyptian IDs, while online registration for voting closed on 19 November. This overlap of dates appears intentional, but in fact, no one with an Egyptian ID issued after 27 September 2011 could register to vote.

    Egyptian IDs and the “new” versions of the Egyptian birth certificates and passports have a serial number (raqam qawmi) that is identified with a citizen’s records, and this is not present on the “old” birth certificate or the “old” passport. Religion is also not written on the passport. Although both of my parents are Egyptian and I have had the old version of the Egyptian birth certificate since I was born, and the old passport since 2007 (valid until 2014), I have chosen not to request an Egyptian ID until now because of the privacy issues.

    While it may not be immediately apparent for those who have habitually had their religion written on official government documents like the Egyptian ID for most of their lives, voting for Egyptians is inherently the laying down of the right to privacy. For those who practice or identify with religions other than the three recognized religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism —- or no religion, it is also the laying down of the right to freedom of religion.

    An Egyptian passport and/or birth certificate is not considered enough proof of citizenship to vote: and an Egyptian ID is required. Dual-national Egyptians like me who are asking an ID for the first time will have to prioritize their rights before deciding whether to keep religion out of public government documents or to vote in the upcoming elections. While I have the option to make a nuisance of myself regarding my opposition of this practice at the consulate or the Mogamma because I have dual citizenship to fall back on, for those who do not have that option this is also an issue of citizenship rights. Religious minorities like Baha’is have been embroiled in lawsuits over the issue of religion on the Egyptian ID for years, while others have simply said they are Muslim to save themselves the trouble. While many Egyptians do not see the harm in having what is normally an aspect of their public lives written on government-issued documents, for these reasons it is still a form of repression.

    When I went to the consulate in London to issue an ID, I said that I did not want a religion stated on my ID. I was shuffled between three or four members of staff who wanted to know my reasons for not wanting to declare a religion on the application form. One asked plainly, “Are you Baha’i?” I was also told that if I wanted to convert, I needed to provide documentary evidence from the mosque, church or synagogue in which I had converted. It seemed that the ideas of renunciation of religion and the concept of privacy, or simply declining to state a religion, were being conflated conceptually.

    Since I had already paid a non-refundable fee of £55 for the application form, I submitted it with a vertical line through the field that asked for a religion. Interestingly, on the old birth certificate, it does not say what religion I am, but rather the religion of both of my parents. It is implied that the religion is inherited from the parents, and at some point, their religion has been attached to my own records. Just before visiting Egypt in October, I had someone issue a new version of the birth certificate for me and sure enough, on a separate line it says that I belong to the religion of my parents, in addition to stating their religion. Just to be sure, when I tried entering the raqam qawmi on the new birth certificate into the online voter registration form, it gave an error message that said that my information was not in the system.

    I was told at the consulate in London that even if I were to strike through the “religion” field on the application form, or even write a different religion than that of my parents, when it reached Cairo for processing, my ID would still have the religion of my parents on it. Changing religions is a separate process that needs to be done before issuing an ID, and declining to state one at all is not an option. At the consulate I was told that if I wanted to do this, I would have to make a case before a court in Egypt. It was also suggested to me to put down the name of a contact in Egypt to chase after my application before it is processed to see what will happen with the religion category on the ID. Although I was given a lot of conflicting information from different staff members, I was also told that processing should take a month.

    The voting process for those who successfully registered has also been confusing. Deadlines have been extended with little notice, and sometimes this has been announced by emails that only a few people have received. For example in the US, the Elections Committee in Egypt sent a circular to consulates announcing an extension of the deadline to have votes mailed to Washington, D.C. In Texas, for a deadline of 25 November, the consulate did not receive this circular until Friday 25 November at 17:30, and the consulate distributed the email at 19:25 that day.

    This Eid, Saturn is ascendant

    Love this story from al-Masri al-Youm:

    Based on Thursday’s headlines, it seems the biggest news story on the third day of Eid concerns the question of whether or not it really is the third day of Eid. Making the front pages of independent dailies Al-Shorouk, Al-Dostour, and Al-Tahrir are reports claiming that millions of Muslims around the world have “broken their fast early by an entire day, based on a sighting of Saturn.” Traditionally, the holy month of Ramadan ends at the sighting of a new moon; a role that, this year, might have gone to Saturn instead.

    “The sighting of a new moon last Monday would have been simply impossible,” Maged Abou Zahra, president of the Jeddah Astronomical Society, states in Al-Shorouk. “Saturn is visible this time of year, and can be easily observed with the naked eye. Either way, the new moon could not have been visible under Monday’s circumstances because the glare from the sun was too strong to observe the moon at that particular moment… this has been confirmed by the most prominent astronomers in the region.”

    The mistake has inspired a wave of jokes and sarcastic tweets, as independent dailies such as Al-Shorouk and Al-Tahrir are quick to point out, Al-Tahrir carrying the headline: “Today is the second of [Islamic month] Shawal and the third of Saturn."

    Oh, the multiple ironies. One is that Saturn is the planet of the goat-horned devil in many mythologies — something that religiously-minded conspiracy theories will be sure to point out. The other is that this stupid tradition of waiting for sightings of the moon, which sometimes yields different beginnings and ends of Ramadan (with Saudi Arabia often setting the pace for others), yet again proves its anachronism. Anyone can get hold of a computer program that will indicate with great precision when the new moon arrives. I would suggest a little bit of science and ijtihad is in order: let the astronomers rather than the imams tell us when the moon is new.

    Tammam: The revolution and religion

    For my money there is no better Egyptian analyst of the religious scene than Hossam Tammam — he's a specialist on Islamists, but what he writes here goes for the Coptic Church too.

    Any discussion of the status of Islamists in a new Egypt makes little sense if it’s based on the same data that was previously used to study religious movements, and if it ignores the fact that Egypt has witnessed a revolution that destroyed many of the old features of its religious scene.

    The revolution was not just directed against the autocratic, repressive and corrupt Egyptian regime, which relied on an alliance of money, power and corruption. It was also directed against the official religious establishment and its discourse that supports this regime, either directly or indirectly.

    The Egyptian revolution has completely reconfigured the religious scene and clarified the public’s position towards religious institutions and discourses in the country. The result has been surprising. No one expected that religious Egyptians are capable of overriding the powers of religious institutions and of challenging religious discourses that they suddenly perceived as part of a corrupt and repressive regime.

    The official religious establishments--both Islamic and Christian--have been the biggest losers in the revolution.

    Personally, I hope this episode gets people to consider their religious leadership and moves them to move to either change church (or for Muslims ignore al-Azhar) and ignoring religious issues when addressing politics.

    Pork, piety and the nature of reality

    Pork rinds, known in the American South and the English North as crackling, are a delicious beer snack consisting essentially of the roasted skin of pigs. In the video below, the Muslim owners of deli in New York receives a consignment of the snack and ponders and whether or not they should sell it. A particularly interesting point is that the pork rinds appear not to contain any pork (indeed most ¢99 renditions of pork rinds consist of salt and flavorings imprinted on a soy wafer). Before this ontological conundrum can be resolved, the package of pork rinds is recalled... and taken to the Jewish deli across the road.

    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 Dec.24.09
    LRB · Adam Shatz · Wanting to Be Something Else | Adam Shatz on Orhan Pamuk.
    UN gives mud brick huts to Gaza war homeless | I'm not sure Hassan Fathi-style mud brick homes will work in Gaza - doesn't it rain a lot there? This story also does not say whether they are building with mud bricks because the blockade makes other materials unavailable.
    Renewed Lebanese drug trade hikes Mideast tensions - Yahoo! News | Return of cannabis and poppy cultivation in the Bekaa (but had it really ever gone away?)
    الآراء من الغرب Views from the Occident: 'Ashura Artwork: Part I | Graphic posters from Shia martyrology.
    BBC News - Lockheed secures $842m Morocco contract | For a bunch of F-16s. / UK - Moussavi sacked as pressure mounts for a trial | Challenger to Ahmedinejad targeted.
    Cameron under pressure to explain £100,000 funding linked to Lebanese former arms dealer | Politics | | Those European politicians sure love Arab money.

    Links for 11.19.09 to 11.24.09
    Middle East Report 253: Beyond Compare by Julie Peteet | On the similarities of the Israeli occupation to Apartheid, its differences, and a call for a new advocacy strategy.
    Newsweek Reporter's Ordeal in Iran | Newsweek International | | Maziar Bahari's story.
    The sixth war - The National Newspaper | Greg Johnsen on the Huthi-Saudi-Yemeni war(s), and their socio-political underpinnings.
    Daily News Egypt - Shalit Release Imminent, Claim Egyptian And Israeli Press | Heard that before - who will be the spoiler for prisoner exchanges now?
    Morocco: Endangered 'Model'? | Human Rights Watch | HRW's Eric Goldstein on Morocco's slide to more and more rights abuses.
    MEI - Middle East International | Another new issue.
    Saudi Arabia goes to war | Mai Yamani | On Riyadh's attack on Huthis marks the first solo military venture for the Saudi army.
    Hey, preacher – leave those kids alone | Ariane Sherine | Comment is free | | I'm a rabid atheist and even I think this goes too far. People can choose sooner or later anyway, parents have rights over their kids. But of course religious schools should get no state funding.
    Syria's crusade for tourism | Travel | The Guardian | Damascus wants to double the number of tourists that visit it. Quick, get there before the country is ruined...
    Homeland Security Today - preparedness and security news - Obama Dilutes Power of Top Intel Officer; Elevates DCI | Interesting piece on failed attempts to restructure US intelligence community, caused by fight between CIA and DNI.
    International Journal of Žižek Studies | It would be funny if this was satire, but it's not.
    Interview / Reporter Helen Thomas criticizes Obama's Mideast peace efforts - Haaretz | "I don't think they are working very hard for peace."
    Will Turkey benefit from Ergenekon? - Le Monde diplomatique | Remnants of Turkey's deep state and Cold War networks.
    Le Figaro - La lutte des princes saoudiens pour succéder au roi Abdallah | As Sarkozy visits, creepy old geezer princes fight for kingdom.
    Little behind Obama's tough Mideast talk: analysts - Yahoo! News | In foreign as in domestic policy, Obama has no balls.

    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 - | 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 - | 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.