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