A man in the religion business issued a Fatwa declaring it permissible to keep antiquities as long as it is done with proper tithing. This has outraged many. As Fatwas go, this is a pointless one; about as useful as urging a diet of meat on a lion. Egyptians have taken to robbing the tombs of their ancestors since time immemorial. As soon as a ruler or a rich man is laid in his grave the treasures within attracted the attention of the next ruler or quick witted and daring thief. As late as the 1970s Hussein Abdel Rasul reigned supreme in his family compound in Gourna. The wiry, sharp-eyed patriarch entertained his guests with grace and charm, ordering coffee, tea and sweets for them without so much as a word or gesture. His minions bustled around eager for his favor or fearful of his wrath, it was never clear. Ali was not given to anger, except when it came to the matter of Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, whom he faulted for having his grandfather beaten for robbing tombs. Decades after that event he still seethed that his grandfather was undone and humiliated for engaging in the family business. Ali usually neglected to mention that it was his great uncles who betrayed their sibling. The point of this anecdote is that the Fatwa was scarcely needed to assuage the conscience of current tomb robbers. The real purpose was to fire yet another shot in Egypt’s culture war.
Scientist and public official Rushdi Sa’id noted in his memoirs that in 1953 he could not convince a simple farmer that he is “related” to the builders of the monuments that surrounded his field. They were after all pagan and evil, according to the farmer. Sa’id, an educated member of the elite who mentions how an English woman favorably compared his physiognomy to a statue in the British museum, was keen to establish the connection as a way to promote progress and elevate the nation. Like many nationalists of his time Sa’id was a firm Egyptianist, and an uncompromising enemy of Islamism. He notes how, given its history of invasions, Egypt can not be isolated to a single ethnic or cultural thread, but according to the logic of his Egyptianism the conclusion is that Egypt, and its river and soil, sublimates all, making them Egyptian beyond doubt. This mysticism of blood and soil has been a useful weapon against outsiders, and increasingly against proponents of political Islam. But it has done little to provide a vision of a common national project. Its gaze is so firmly fixed on the past that it regularly stumbles among the pitfalls of the present. It has certainly allowed Islamists easy victories through simple pandering. Sa’id’s failure to convince the farmer echoes more than 60 years later in the current controversy. Zahi Hawas, a pseudo-Egyptologist and a reality star, claimed that the Fatwa is illogical, since the state has rights on anything in its lands. To the sin of being tone-deaf, he added a measure of coercive statism. In fact, it is the Fatwa issuer who seems more logical, arguing that he has not encouraged anyone to rob tombs, but to simply take what is in their lands, and use some of its proceeds for charity. This clever refrain should not blind us to his real purpose. Others pointed out that the objects are the heritage of all of Egypt, without checking whether the majority would in fact agree with that statement. What was left unsaid is the real reason why antiquities should be preserved, even going to the length of paying those who find them. These artifacts belong to a common culture, one that transcends Egypt and belongs to all of humanity. To say so would be the first step to build a national identity on a foundation of shared values, rather than past greatness or imagined kinship.
— Maged Atiya
All generalizations are suspect. But as such things go, this one is reasonably accurate. Concern about the suffering of Eastern Christians at the hands of Muslim extremists is more prevalent among the West’s political right, while concern about the less dangerous, but no less odious, bigotry toward Muslims in the West is taken up more vigorously by the political left. How this came to be is worthy of a book-long study, and mostly because to speak of the effect of “culture” is now taboo on the left. But the manifestations should be cause for alarm.
What used to be called “the Christian West”, a term now in disfavor, has not always been kind to its eastern coreligionists. But recently there has been a major change in these attitudes, in opposite and polarizing directions. The Russian Church, with its long and rather dangerous association with secular power, seems attractive to many white supremacists. Some are even converting from mainline and Evangelical Protestantism to Eastern rites. This blogger has warned about such Russification publicly, and privately even more vehemently. Putin’s cynical display of crocodile tears about the decline of “Western morality” serves as a magnet for such groups. On the opposite end of the spectrum, so-called intersectional warriors, are making hay with faux Muslim identities. A woman, of any skin complexion or ethnicity, who dons a Hijab is suddenly a “woman of color”, whatever that means. This is a dangerous polarization for all involved. Painting political polarization with a religious tint ends badly, especially for those in the numerical minority. It is silly, and wrong, to allocate blame equally on all sides. It is far more productive to urge change mostly where it is possible and realistic to expect it.
There is nothing to say to white supremacists. They are beyond the pale. One can only urge Eastern Christians to reject false friends and not join them outside the limits of tolerance and common humanity. More is expected from Western liberals. Their eagerness to end denigration of Islam and Muslims in their countries is commendable, although at times it finds them in uncomfortable embrace of suspect company, especially when coupled with superficial understanding of Muslim-Christian relations in majority-Muslim countries. The statement “America is a White nation” is hateful and inaccurate. Yet it is not uncommon to hear the even less statistically and historically accurate “Egypt is a Muslim country” without anyone batting an eye. Dog-whistle extensions of that statement are even more prevalent. Consider the now fashionable promotion of “illiberal democracy” by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings institute. In Egypt of the 1930s and 1940s Communists were disproportionately Jewish, while Christians were over-represented among liberals. The congenitally antisemitic and anti-Copt Muslim Brotherhood attacked “heathen Communists and dissolute Liberals” with vehemence, arguing that such views should be anathema to all Muslims. It is surprising to see such discourse repackaged for polite company as insisting that “illiberal democracy” is acceptable for Muslims. Panels on tolerance in the Middle East often include a combination of Islamists and Western or Muslim seculars with no representation of Eastern Christians who are most affected by intolerance. The liberal West is disappearing Eastern Christians, and is largely uncomfortable in the presence of their testimony, in many cases literally martyrdom, and their fervent devotions. They smell too much of incense, perhaps.
It was the privilege of this blogger, upon first arrival in America, to read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, urged on him by a kind teacher who was a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, at a time when the Church’s teachings about African-Americans were coming under scrutiny. As with all great works of literature, it has multiple readings. But the most obvious one is how invisibility facilitates oppression. It is understandable how hateful groups in the Middle East seek to render Christians invisible. It is puzzling why such discourse of supremacy hoodwinks Western liberals.
— Maged Atiya
Subway systems in most major cities have information Kiosks to guide the lost or confused travelers to their desired destinations. Egypt does things differently, as Herodotus noted some centuries ago. New Kiosks at the Cairo subway guide the travelers not to Sarayat Al Qoba or Demerdash, instead the way is pointed to a more pious life and perhaps a better afterlife. These “Fatwa” Kiosks are manned by nattily dressed Sheikhs experienced in such matter as how to divide inheritance, start a business or handle finances. The idea is to provide fast advice to the harried commuter by dispensing religion quickly on the trip home. Egypt does not lack for public expressions of religious fervor so the Kiosks fit in nicely in a country soaked in public piety. The entire idea is the brainchild of Al Azhar which is well-endowed with taxpayers’ money. And although the Kiosks are dedicated to Muslims, one suspects, nay is sure, that many Egyptian Christians would follow suit if they could. The Kiosks are meant to combat religious extremism; a sort of homeopathic cure where a lesser bit of the poison inoculates against the bigger danger, similia similibus curentur. We should not be quick to believe it. Al Azhar is an enterprise in the business of religion, and the Kiosks are its latest startup effort or growth fund. The government also sees them as a quick way to curry favor with the public, certainly easier than delivering services effectively. A state that has trouble keeping trains on tracks or ferries upright advertises itself as fit to guide souls to higher places.
The Fatwa Kiosks are not a harmless bit of nonsense. They are a manifestation of a deeper problem behind Egypt’s recent stagnation and social divisions. There is the widely held belief that religion, appropriately defined, is the solution to many, if not most, ills. The evidence for that belief is scant, and most of it points to the opposite. In his time in Parliament, former President Morsi, thundered against corruption and when running for president claimed that it can all be cured by appointing the pious to office. During his short term the men of his party came ready to grab with both fists in a time-honored, but hardly religious, attitude of “my turn now”. Preachers long urged women to cover up in order not to excite men’s passions. But a woman walking the hot streets of Cairo in the summer of 1967 in a flimsy sun dress could do so unmolested. Today her granddaughter, fully sealed in flowing garments, will all too often run a gauntlet of sexual harassment. There are even more serious consequences. Lower fertility is necessary for Egypt to improve the economic lot of the people and deal with scarce resources of land and water. But religious ideas, sotto voce, stand in the way of proper population control. And the mother of all problems is cultural stagnation and diminution. It is a chicken-and-egg question as whether cultural stagnation manifests as false piety or whether false piety causes cultural stagnation. We do know, regardless, that the current atmosphere has made it easy for a minority of moral busybodies, snoops and snitches, to operate freely in the country. Any man can drag a fellow citizen to court on account of perceived offense to their delicate religious sensibility. A professor who reads poetry and joyously belly dances in private celebration is immediately labeled a threat to religion. Few note the absurdity of the charge; and certainly the courts do not laugh off the suit. These cases represent the most obvious and egregious offenses, but lesser offenses pass unnoticed every day. Egypt has become a country of small daily coercions, and religion has played an unhappy role in that development. Culture matters; both in the lower and upper case. Public religious acts and the government implicit or explicit support of them is no laughing matter. The growth of religious fervor is not without cost. It displaces other forms of culture. It is no coincidence that the last 40 years of public whipping up of religious fervor saw a general decline in cultural output. Some causes are clear and direct, as artists, writers and poets are regularly accused of blasphemy on account of their work. Increased religiosity shifts the norms and allows for discordant and divisive voices to find homes on the fringes of the mainstream. These voices in turn pull the mainstream further towards them and suppress reasoned dissent. All of this is nasty feedback loop, and unless it is broken the race is to the very bottom.
No one has the right to ask Egyptians to forsake their God or deny their religious expressions. Herodotus also noted that Egyptians are inordinately fond of their religion. That may very well be true. But what we have witnessed in the last few decades is not the triumph of native spirit, nor the failure of “modernity”, but the result of a culture war waged by determined and disciplined ideologues (again of both religions), who wanted religious expressions to have primary, even exclusive, role in defining culture and even politics. When it comes to the latter there is discernable confusion. Politicians race around offering religious advice while Sheikhs and Popes comment knowingly on politics. It is a classic case of how mixing of religion and civic politics hurts both. An anecdote was related to this author some years ago by a man who witnessed it first hand. In 1950 the Egyptian Ministry of Education wanted to revise the school curriculum to a more native and nationalistic bent. It sought opinions from within its ranks. One man, highly regarded and armed with a recent graduate degree from America, offered his views. Religion must be weaved into all aspects of the curriculum, language, history, arts and even sciences. A skeptical member of the committee offered a rebuke “mish kulu el deen ya ustaz Sayyd” (It is not all religion Professor Sayyd). The comment earned a hearty chuckle from other members. More than sixty years later, Egypt needs to make sure that Sayyd Qutb does not have the last laugh.
— Maged Atiya
The Children of the Promise
Life was getting back to normal, except for the news of fresh fighting at Port Fouad. School was out and the upcoming summer promised to be less cordial than previous ones. Word passed around that the annual vacation in Alexandria is unwise this year. This would mean a long hot summer in Cairo, with the Liddo pool as the only relief. Sunday July 9 was to be like many other Sundays during school holidays. A morning liturgy in the Church followed by an afternoon of Sunday School. But at the last minute there was a change. The favorite Sunday School teacher was not at the Church and a rumor drifted among some of the boys that he could be found at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Qubba Street. Later a few of the boys headed there to find him.
When the boys found their teacher he was volunteering to repair the electrical works in the basement of that Church. Still he decided to hold a impromptu teaching session, which proved to be first of many before the Adventists wised up to his doings and asked him to cease. The chairs were arrayed in a circle as they usually were, and the half dozen boys listened to him explain the meaning of Romans 9:8 “That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” He began conventionally enough with a simple assertion, that God’s chosen people were no longer just the physical descendants of the Jews, but anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Displacing the Jews from a favored status seemed in tune with much of Egypt a month after the war. But he did not stop there. Soon he was encouraging the boys to look beyond what their parents teach them and what their country asks of them. Those who love Christ should love no nation above his message. What you must love above your nation is each other, he insisted. The message must have had a special resonance for him, for within a few months he would reveal his plans to leave for America. He ended the lesson with a wink. “I have a present from America”. On the record player which the Church normally reserved for imported sermons and carols he played a rare and precious commodity, a copy of the “The Doors” recently released album. The boys sat and listened quietly without a sound, as if in prayer. Nearly an hour passed between the first urging to “Break on through to the other side” and the final “This is the End”. For some of them it was a time of precious freedom.
— Maged Atiya
The immigrant’s first reading of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” was aloud to an eager child nearly two decades after arriving in America. It struck him immediately that the book, with a minor but critical tweak, could be made a tale of his immigration. The boy in the wolf suit, feeling constrained by his home rules, travels to a land far away. He runs with the Wild Things, roars like them, is terrified and thrilled by them. But in this tale he never becomes homesick, but grows even fonder of the place and stays.
Sometime in the late 1960s when Egypt was a far different place, a man came back from Canada where he had immigrated some years before to speak of his new home and its advantages. He first started by pointing out its flaws. It was devilishly cold at times. Aside from that, it was a great place; tolerant, prosperous, peaceful, decent and full of promise. But his excitement about Canada rose when he began to compare it to the United States. A visit to New York City convinced him that America is unfit for any Egyptians. The streets were patrolled by rats. A trip to experience the Metropolitan Museum was disrupted by the sight of youth cavorting near naked in the fountains in front of it; and even worse, the park behind it was the scene of sexual licentiousness set to music nearly indistinguishable from noise to his ears. The list of horrors grew until the speaker exhausted himself in describing the ills of America compared to Canada. One boy in the audience listened anxiously. His fear was that the account would persuade his parents to change the destination of their impending immigration from America to Canada. As luck would have it, they kept to the plan. It must be said that America lived up to the man’s account, and more. The “more” is a shorthand for all the freedom that America promises in exchange for its madness.
Every 4th of July is a time to celebrate American “exceptionalism”. What is exceptional is not always good or even desirable. What is desirable is often not exceptional, as others too wish it for themselves. What remains astounding about America is that is has survived its contradictions, even if at times it paid for them dearly. Sendak’s land of the “Wild Things” was meant to be eternal, a place of chaos and delight that manages to hold together and beckon to others. Most critics have seen the entire story as a psychological allegory. It may very well be. But so is America. It is a state of mind made actual by everyone’s participation in it. Its flaws are advertised in the most visible fashion and yet it continues to attract. Just to the north of it stands Canada as a reprimand to what America could have been if it had not unreasonably revolted against a relatively mild rule by England (by the standards of the time), and if it had not nearly immolated itself in a violent civil war fought for great ideals. But somehow against great odds the country continued to exist and expand its franchise of freedom. Somehow America brought order out of wildness, decency out of the basest feelings of many of its citizens, common prosperity out of individual selfishness, and reason out of madness. This is something to celebrate and feel uneasy about in equal measures.
— Maged Atiya
The year 1954 saw the establishment of a new state model in Egypt, and one that ran into trouble almost in its infancy. It was a remarkable year. Nasser assumed sole power as President and began a pattern of concentration of decision making at the very top that still holds today. He rose to his position by a combination of public appeals and negotiations among the top leaders of the Army; a template that every leader that followed found to be the necessary means of holding, or in the case of Morsi of losing power. It was the year the Muslim Brotherhood took a lurch toward grabbing power and failed miserably. Nasser started an economic movement based on native production and centralized government planning and system of ever larger public sector and creeping subsidies. Development was to be made with gigantic projects of prestige, such as the High Dam. It was also the year that the government began a massive reprogramming of education, ironically with the assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood that cashiered the elite of Egyptian university professors from their positions and pensioned off their leader Taha Hussein. It was also the year Nasser started to project Egyptian power onto the local and international scene. The last British soldiers evacuated from the Canal. Egypt was to be a leader of both the Arabs and the “third” and “non-aligned” world.
The failures of the 1954 state were many. Governance in Egypt remains problematic with centralization and repression as its most obvious flaws. Education is in shambles, risking future generations and economic prosperity. The public sector grew larger and more ineffective after the 1961 and 1964 waves of nationalizations. It remains a drag on economic development. Subsidies have created dependence but no prosperity. Egypt still relies unhealthily on foreign aid. It is nearly a rentier state which relies on its “strategic” value to extract support without economic production. Egypt’s bid to lead the Arabs ended in a series of failures: the demise of the union with Syria in 1961, the Yemen war with Saudi Arabia from 1961 to 1967, and finally the shattering defeat in 1967. Its prestige in the wider world is nominal more than real, like an old dowager that everyone respects in spite of her bizarre manner and tatty clothing. Many agreed with this observer’s rather obvious conclusion that President Sisi must pivot away from the 1954 or risk failure. The surprise, if it can be called that, is how the wider Egyptian public seems reluctant to let go of that failing model.
The late Mubarak years were an attempt to shift away from that model, albeit in a clumsy and ultimately unsuccessful manner. While the events of 2011 are always cast as a revolt against authoritarian governance, the reality is that it brought back the two most repressive forces in the Egyptian society, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, setting the stage for an even nastier clash between them than in 1954. The Army was called to power twice by the street in January 2011 and again on June 30 2013. The demand for “social justice” was a thinly veiled reprimand for any sensible effort to free the economy from the shackles of the public sector and ruinous subsidies. Attempts to wean the country from poor economic models are inevitably painful, but are often attacked not based on their merits but as a “cave-in” to the evil foreign bankers at the IMF. Prestige and projection of Egyptian power abroad remain popular no matter how ruinous. The left still tweaks Israel without any visible gain, following the model set by the DMNL since it became a patsy of Nasser in 1952. The “sacredness” of Egyptian land is proclaimed with scant attention to history or fact, most notably in the Tiran and Sanafir islands affair. Little effort is dedicated to cultural and economic progress that can lift the majority from misery and set the stage for civilian government based on civilian politics. Faced with the failures of the 1954 state, many Egyptians seem to yearn for its proclaimed promises without attention to its demonstrated failures.
— Maged Atiya
Faith and Anger
Sunday was a work day but the Cleopatra Church was packed beyond the usual Sunday complement of women and old men. Somber parishioners packed the pews and streamed out the back door. Pope Kyrillous had ordered that special liturgies be read for the souls of the dead and the deliverance of Egypt from under the heel of the Jews. Two men who had not been in Church for decades lingered in the back. Ustaz Fouad and Ustaz Magdy were both communists who were arrested together on January 1 1959 and spent time in the Al Kharga concentration camp in the Western desert. These were men accustomed to speaking about “Affyioun Al Sha’ab“, but during these days of pain even communists could use a dose of Opium. Magdy had additional reasons to be in pain. His beloved sister Aida departed this earth in the early hours of June 5, all too early on account of her emphysema.
The priest gave a short homily. These are difficult days and we need faith. Just as Jesus miraculously drove devils from the souls of stricken men, faith will drive out anger. Faith and anger can not coexist in one soul. We must choose between faith and anger. A row of Altar boys sat behind the priest in white smocks and blood red sashes. One of them stared at the back of the priest and the faces of the congregation. He felt he was not free to disagree with the priest. All things being equal he would choose anger.
— Maged Atiya