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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