ISIS, Iconoclasm and Islam

Right around Luxor the Nile seems to change its mind about flowing north and makes a dash east toward the Red Sea. After 30 miles or so it gets its nerves back and continues its northward journey to its destination with the Mediterranean.  The “knee” of the great river is home to many ancient Egyptian small temples. Few are as grand or iconic as Luxor or Aswan’s, but they give a sense of the deep religiosity that must have pervaded the land with multitude of temples. If you know where to look you will find evidence of crosses chiseled onto the faces of these temples. Early Egyptian Christians (and Christianity sprouted roots in Egypt very early and with little assistance from the original Jewish followers of Jesus) must have used these temples for worship. Strictly speaking the chiseling of Crosses is an act of vandalism, or more severely Iconoclasm of the ancient pagan temples. There is a certain irony, but no surprise, that the modern descendants of these Christians seem to include the ancient Egyptian key of life, the Ankh, frequently as part of cultural celebrations.

Iconoclasm is the act of destroying religious icons. The term derives from two periods of the Byzantine Empire that experienced a reversal of fortunes against the rising Arab (mostly Muslim) forces in the east and against the Slavs in the Balkans.  The destruction of religious icons was done ritualistically to denote rejection of their worth, and perhaps even theological deviancy.  Any attempt to relate iconoclasm to Christian theology is bound to fail. For example, Nestorians did not particularly venerate icons, nor did Egyptian Monophysites (as all Copts are), reject them. Equally problematic is the attempt to imply that the Byzantine Iconoclasts were influenced by Islamic thought or the opposite, that Islam’s iconoclasm is borrowed from Byzantine practices. Islam’s prohibition on images was never absolute, and was observed mostly in the Levant, Arabia and Egypt. Persia and India continued their rich tradition of colorful human imagery.

The colloquial interest in Iconoclasm is motivated by the horrific destruction of ancient heritage in the Levant by the loose bands of armed men on behalf of the so-called “Islamic State”. The frequent interpretation is that ISIS is being rigorously Islamic and the destruction follows Islam’s prohibition against images. Another more nuanced interpretation is that ISIS is acting from a more modern resistance to Western hegemony in taste, which dictates that respect and preservation of ancient artifacts is a sign of civilized behavior.  Neither is truly satisfactory, and there is a more ready explanation.

First, it is counter-empirical to insist that Islam is hell-bent on destroying ancient heritage. It has had 1400 years of near dominance in a broad region. Yet, there have been few recorded instances of systematic destruction of ancient heritage. Some Muslim thinkers even took the initiative to attempt to understand and admire the mute witnesses to ancient empires, or read in them historical lessons. The attitude of the average faithful Muslim for many centuries was to either ignore or profit from the heritage.

The attempt to interpret the destruction using the now canonical discourse of “Orientalism” and “post-colonial” discourse is also unsatisfactory. The ideas of preservation and conservation are now intrinsic to many indigenous efforts at social reform, including those most hostile to the Western cultural influences. It is not uncommon for the cultural elite (of all religions) to hector their fellow believers into conservation by shaming them though highlighting of similar Western efforts. The removal of the Genizah records from Jewish Cairo 100 years ago was occasioned by bitter arguments within the community there.

The most intelligent and scholarly example of the above argument was advanced by Elliot Colla in a blog posting. We can respect Colla’s scholarship and still disagree with three of his arguments. First, that there is “nothing uniquely ‘Islamic’ about the ISIS attacks”. While not unique to Islam, it is rooted in many orthodox views of it. Anti-Semitism is not uniquely Christian, but Christianity sometimes helped and even fueled it. Second, that we need to take “autocratic and colonial legacies” into account when discussing such destruction. Again, the evidence is against such a view. The most systematic “Salafi” destruction has been in Saudi Arabia, ironically against Muslim heritage. Mecca and Medina are rebuilt to resemble Las Vegas. This is in a region that experienced little or no colonialism and where such destruction is supported by religious authorities that cow the political autocrats. Third, that we must compare the destruction of ancient statues with the toppling of Saddam’s massive statue prompted by American troops. Are we to say that the toppling of the statue of Mussolini can shed light on a potential destruction of Coliseum?

The explanation of ISIS behavior is not to be found in complex and intricate scholarly arguments. These are simply attempts to assert dominance within the faith using particular concepts that are genuinely within it but not intrinsic to its continuation. A fair comparison would be the rise of virulently anti-Semitic group within the Christian community which revives the old charge of deicide against the Jews to gain dominance over other Christians, especially those in the mainstream of modern liberal societies. It would be a tough sell in today’s world, primarily because of the strength and legitimacy of many of these societies, and because most of the major Christian denominations have long rejected, or at least avoided, the ugly charge.  ISIS is attempting to tweak other Muslims into following it. By positing the challenge in stark and violent terms, which are bound to generate strong response, they are hoping that the Muslim community at large will be bitterly divided, with ISIS garnering the larger portion. The ISIS cycle of increasing violence and destruction is Salafism carried to its logical ends. The challenge is primarily not to the West, but to other Muslims.


— Maged Atiya

ISIS Costume Drama

The White House conference on “Countering Violent Extremism” represented an expected response. In the face of gruesome killings the gathering asserted the American values of openness, tolerance and faith in the healing power of bureaucratic acronyms.  There is much to admire there. It came amid an intellectual debate on whether ISIS represents or subverts Islamic values. Much of the debate seemed like neo-Scholasticism.  First we need to define “Islam”, which is as difficult as defining any religion that has more than a handful of faithful and has lasted more than a few years. A report in the New York Times is typical of the current debate. It presents the tale of a young man from Middle Class Heliopolis in Cairo who has recently joined ISIS. He was motivated by many difficulties and frustrations, including the inability to get a decent job as a physical trainer in a good gym. It has the air of the standard morality tale, which is to say that it contains more than a hefty dose of instruction. This kind of “there but for the grace of God go I” story is a bit like Chocolate Cake, enticing to sample and impossible to digest. We can find equal or better instruction in another tale from the Heliopolis of decades ago.

In the month before the 1967 war Egypt was whipping itself into war frenzy. A physical trainer at the Heliopolis Sporting Club decided to join in by turning his platoon of unruly boys into a “Kata’b Salah-Ed-Din”, or the Divisions of Saladin. He told the boys they will forgo the usual pushups and weight lifting in favor of battle training, with swords. He asked that they come dressed in historically appropriate uniforms as well. They had for guidance a hoary Egyptian epic of recent vintage (by the great director Youssef Shaheen), the story of how Saladin captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders. The boys suddenly came face to face with the difficult art of historical costume design. At the next meeting most came in a random array of ill-fitting Galabyyias. One boy showed up in his older sister’s sun dress. The coach equipped them with sticks for swords, and when he ran out, threw in a couple of golf clubs. At the end of training he gave a short pep talk and asked for questions. The most difficult of boys inquired “Ustaz, where do we find the Yahood?”.  The coach gave no answer (years later the boy was to find his first Jews on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where they proved unexpectedly likable and more disputatious than violent). In any case, the irritated parents quickly ended the farce. They had paid to have their boys’ energies drained, and possibly ward off bullying. Weeks later the boys would learn that success in modern warfare demanded more than courage and a uniform, it required advanced technical training, organization and close connection to higher cultural values. It is a lesson that most of the surviving members have not forgotten.

The same cannot be said about the various inheritors of that mantle. In the decades hence, excepting possibly Egypt’s credible performance in 1973, many regional military efforts have been deadly farcical. We can tick off all the various battles that should have instructed the participants in the above lessons, but never did. In fact, the most potent of efforts still seemed to lean toward that poor coach’s perception of how to succeed in modern warfare. They are cargo-cult historical re-enactments. Whether it is a Pediatrician from Ma’adi who dresses up as a Pashtun tribesman, or a Saddam army general who imagines himself a reincarnation of a seventh century warrior, the aspiration has been to retrieve greatness by imitation of form, rather than the progress of culture. Like any bankrupt ideology, every failure causes a doubling down on the original premise. The result is ISIS. When that fails, we should expect a worse incarnation, unless the entire ideology is ditched.

This brings us to the question of whether the ideology will be ditched. It is the relevant and difficult question, and history gives no easy answers. It is possible that the current Salafism rampant in the region will render it a vast recreation of the Aborigines in Van Diemen’s land, who, under the influence of religious thought, willed themselves into extinction by ratcheted atavism. If so, it will be an expensively deadly denouement. Alternatively, the region could dust itself out of this religion-besotted state and decide to chart a different path. If it were to do so, it will not be by consensus or pluralistic decision making. It will be at the behest of tough leadership with a clear vision, and little patience for drivel. If that leadership exists, it is currently in some disguise.


— Maged Atiya


Nahda and Its Ills

It is curious that when the MB declared its executive vision for Egypt “Mashrou’ El-Nahda” no one has bothered to look closely at that word, but rather it was accepted through its generic meaning : “Renaissance”. “Nahda” is a word with a history and its choice by the MB is the most flagrant of their  “dog whistles”. It is useful to view the evolution of the word and contemplate what the MB has in mind.

The first person to use that word in a political sense was Rifa’a el-Tahtawy, who in the mid 19th century used it as a generic reference to an improvement of education and culture to match European standards. After his visit to Paris he remained a Francophile to the end of his life.  The word was hijacked by Gamal-El-Din El-Afghani, who reduced its meaning to a revival of Islamic power to oppose Western  power. His Nahda was a response to the Ottoman reforms of the 1850’s, specifically the replacement of religious affiliation by citizenship. He clearly and unequivocally viewed Nahda as an Islamic effort. He downplayed national references in favor of a pan-Islamic identity. But it was Rashid Rida who gave the word its full meaning in the 1920’s and 1930’s. His Nahda was explicitly an Islamic state, achieved through gradual effort and across national boundaries. Rashid Rida, a Syrian, worked mostly in Egypt. He had no sympathy for any innate national character. He saw the world through the lens of the tribal and fractured Levant. The unique Egyptian character, so strongly espoused by Saad Zaghloul and most of the liberal Egyptians of the time, was anathema to him. El-Banna knew Rida from the 1920’s to the end of his life. It is clear from reading them side-by-side how much the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood owes to Rida. While Rida claimed Muhammad Abdu as a mentor, he lacked Abdu’s open mind and sense of intellectual exploration and limits. Rida was a Salafi in the narrowest sense of the word. In the handful of books he wrote, and on the pages of his magazine El-Manar, he outlined a clear and unambiguous vision which the MB has yet to unequivocally repudiate.He spent the last few years of his life promoting Saudi Wahabism. In 1935 he went to Suez to meet a Saudi delegation that included Al Wahab, He died on his return trip to Cairo. Rida’s Nahda is an uncompromising philosophy that would deny full citizenship to non-Muslims, dis-empower women and liberal Muslims and place the interests of any specific state as secondary to the interests of the movement.

Whether it is sincere belief or rank opportunism that made the MB adopt Nahda as its reigning slogan and philosophy, the result is disastrous for the political discourse. Effective governance requires flexibility and the Nahda is an ideological straight jacket. For a long time communists and fellow travelers argued that  communism, properly implemented, is a perfect system. The only ills of communism resulted from “improper implementation”.  With hind sight we now see that communism was an inherently totalitarian vision with no possibility of a democratic implementation.  Likewise, Nahda is a failed governing philosophy that makes no room for differing visions, creativity, dissent or the useful human enterprise of trial and error. As with any all-encompassing systems that promise paradise, Nahda will deliver repression and failure. Its opponents are placed in the curious position of trying to build a democracy with partners who are fundamentally anti-democratic.

Let it not be said that the MB did not make its intentions clear. Rida’s vision is currently on full display in Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Nahda is a one way ticket to a failed state.

Backward !

The first few weeks after the revolution saw many  prominent Egyptian scientists and thinkers, mostly from the United States, working toward a revival of Egyptian education.  It is, of course, a worthy project and perhaps the only way to guarantee economic progress and social mobility for all Egyptians. Today, the picture is gloomier. The parliamentary committee on Education is chaired by a member of the Nour party, a conservative Salafi. If Education is to become the Salafis plum then let us not expect too much from Egypt in the near future. In fact, we can look at Afghanistan or Pakistan as a possible model.

Egypt does not have oil and can not prosper as a “rentier” economy. The education imagined by the Salafis will hobble Egyptians for decades to come, if not centuries. We can expect education that is narrow in more ways than one. Narrow in the sense that the glorious history of Egyptian prior to the Arab invasion will be marginalized and ignored. Narrow in the sense that modern scientific theories will be ignored or given a short shrift. Narrow in the sense that literature and the arts will be limited to the narrowest and most radical vision of Islam. Narrow in that sense that Egyptian youth will be indoctrinated in arcane minutia and given few tools to compete in the modern world.  Narrow in the sense that the well-off will seek advanced private education while the majority will suffer the mediocre fare doled out by the narrow minds of the Salafis further condemning them to economic marginalization. And soon this marginalization will give rise to the basest form of politics, driving most productive members of the society away. Giving this committee to the Salafis is an act of pure folly and calls into question the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, who make all the right noises, but whose actions speak louder. Giving this committee to the Salafis is an act of base vandalism.

The case against Naguib Sawiris

The news that a Salafi lawyer is suing Naguib Sawiris for “insulting Islam” as a result of a cartoon he tweeted some time ago is distressing. The cartoon had a bearded Mickey Mouse and Veiled Mini Mouse. Many Muslims have found it funny and tweeted it. They are not being sued. There are three disturbing factors:

1- The cartoon made fun of the Salafis, not Muslims in general or Islam as a religion. The Salafis seem to equate their habits with Islam as a whole. This is clearly their mindset: narrow and intolerant. Any protestations from the Nur party that they are “normal” should be ignored unless they come out against the suit.

2- No Muslim who tweeted the cartoon is being sued. In the mind of the Salafis,  Copts have inherently less rights than Muslims. This is exactly what Copts fear, the reduction to a second rate form of citizenship.. in their own country no less.

3- Thundering silence from the FJP & MB. They make all sorts of tolerant noises when it suits them, but they can not be bothered to live up to these promises, even in words.

If the courts do indeed rule against Sawiris it will be a thunderous decision. It will set Egypt back decades in economic and cultural progress.

We should all watch this one.

Salafis and the politics of resentment

There are many dangerous aspects to the Salafis, none perhaps more than their lethal brew of anger and resentment. The Egyptian elite has often looked down on the rest of the population. And the Salafis are adept at presenting the views of the liberals as yet just another foreign “bid’a” or innovation. They practice a thoroughly effective form of “us against them” politics. Effective since it plays on real slights that much of the population has suffered from the government and the well-off classes.

As much as the majority of the population is indeed a victim of condescension and exploitation, the politics of resentment is a dead end.  Unless the liberals combat this trend effectively, but involving themselves in the daily struggle of the people, it will magnify with every downward economic trend. And many such trends are in the offing before the situation can be turned around.

The Salafis recycle justified anger into isolationism and paranoia. Their politics will be effective only in furthering their goals, and isolating Egypt, leading to economic and cultural collapse. Saudi Arabia minus the oil. The Salafis are not innovators in this respect. Nasser used very similar methods, and Salafis are either consciously or unconsciously are aiming to follow in his footsteps. But Nasser, as incorruptible and serious as he was, was also unsuccessful in providing Egypt with a long range strategic model for progress and development.

As much as the “Khawagas” have humiliated Egyptians, they have also benefited them. There is no real path forward to Egypt without a thorough integration with the West and Asia. When humiliation is turned into productive energy Egypt will have achieved moral and economic victory. Egyptians will gain when they reach for the universal in themselves.


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