the age of unreason

It’s a truth not universally acknowledged that most Muslims, if not all, believe that there is a  link between piety and rizk (which roughly means the wealth assigned to you by Allah — that could be  your daily or monthly income; some even use it to describe offspring).  The more pious, the greater the rizk.  And if that does not materialise here and now, it is bound to happen in the hereafter. Disputing that is tantamount to blasphemy.  

Now, it so happens that my father’s name is derived from that word rizk.  But I recently found out that his name is not quite so Islamic as I have always thought.

The cashier at the car service centre refuses to write it as I have always spelt it,  because, he informs me, Razik is not one of Allah’s ninety-nine names ! I explain politely that’s how the name has always been spelt in all official documents –  he reluctantly changes it back. ( The father’s name appears on all official documents in Egypt)

Luckily, this is not the only way Egyptians choose to demonstrate their piety. Some worship in a quiet  way, others (like the cashier above) are hell bent upon turning their faith into a public statement,  an overbearing campaign with little or no regard for  others.

In fact,  this kind of micro-vigilantism is closely associated  with the rise of Islamism,  as the personal history of its founding father himself shows.  Al-Banna,  he tells us in his autobiography,  started his career in the business of political  Islam as a young vigilante sending anonymous threatening notes to neighbours who were, in his view, not observant Muslims.

And this has been the hall-mark of Islamism since  it reared its ugly head again during the nineteen seventies to claim more and more of the public space in Egypt and elsewhere.  Thia is a way of marking territory (the Islamist  version of lebensraum)  and cowing others into submission.  If you oppose it, then you are either a heretic or a heathen who should be executed.

I don’t recall how many times Egyptian girlfriends told me about the taxi driver who harangued them about covering their hair. When one of them once pointed out to the driver that she was in fact Coptic, that didn’t deter him. Virgin Mary had her hair covered, he retorted triumphantly.

The most vocal example of this belligerent assertiveness is the spread of private mosques.

My neighbour who has turned his garden into a small mosque with a loudspeaker strung up on the lamppost outside his house has been joined by yet another neighbour,  a few blocks away,  with TWO loudspeakers perched on the roof of his villa and pointing to two different directions. He occasionally lets his little boy exercise his call-to-prayer skills on the neighbourhood —  which could mean four in the morning with the added exhortation that “prayer is better than sleep”.

I suspect the local council official could not enforce the law after I lodged a complaint , either because he,  like my neighbours,   believes they are right and the state is wrong, or that he couldn’t care less. Or both.  I may never find out. However, when I again called to remind him that the problem has not been resolved,  I noticed he had an Islamic ring tone on his mobile.

My neighbours are apparently people who believe their fellow Egyptians have lapsed into a state of jahilyya (pre-Islamic Arabia ) and it is their duty to shock them out of their idolatrous slumber — a cornerstone of the Muslim Brothers’ ideology and Islamism at large.

For those who don’t know, the call to prayer is actually broadcast on Egyptian state radio and TV (and most private networks). The prayer times are also published in all daily newspapers. You can also get a smartphone App with recorded calls to prayer with the exact timing for each athan five times a day for your entire life.

So there is something else at work here other than reminding people. It’s more about bullying and claiming the public space.

The moral of these fairly common stories from daily life in Egypt is that kind of authoritarianism runs deep in society,  and has only gotten worse over the past few decades.

What did the Egyptian state do in response ?

It has completely failed to challenge it.  Instead,  it has been  trying  to prove that it is more Islamic than the Islamists  – and continues to do so as it seeks to dismantle the Muslim Brothers. The army for example is building a massive mosque (named after the former defence minister, Mohamed  Tantawi, ) to demonstrate its Islamic credentials in the face of  mounting Muslim Brothers propaganda that the soldiers are not true Muslims and killing them is halal.  How much does that mosque cost ? Is it a social or economic priority given the dire state of the country’s economy?  No one is asking such questions.

The state has also enlisted the support of the official religious establishment, namely Al-Azhar, which,  as I have argued elsewhere,  is as conservative as the Islamists.

And both responses are in my opinion  the best way to lose the battle against political  Islam.

Summoning the forces of state-sanctioned authoritarian Islam  has been tried before and failed.   In fact,  the two authoritarianisms  reinforce one another, because they have a lot more in common than they publicly admit. The main difference being one is loyal to the state while the other is not.  One wants to seize political power and turn the clock back by force , the other is gradualist which  thinks it can reach  the Islamic utopia by piecemeal.

The state will not be able to defeat the Muslim Brothers ideology by competing with it on who best can represent authoritarian Islam,  it’s a self-defeating strategy.

Note that there is no shortage of ideas or scholars who can deconstruct the Islamist ideology. The state does not for example call upon the considerable work by progressive scholars such as judge Muhammad Said Al-Ashmawy (who died recently without many noticing) or professor Nasr Hamed Abuzeid (who the bigots declared apostate). These are thinkers who both have the knowledge and the ammunition to dismantle the Islamist ideology. But the auhtoritarian mindest is drawn to the hyper-conservative official religious establishment, assuming, wrongly I think, that it has enough symbolic capital (much of it is eroded) to stand up to our latterday khawarig (khawarij). It’s a mindset that never learns from past mistakes.

A state that tries to appear  more Islamic than the Islamists, cannot fight Islamism. A state that prosecutes citizens for blasphemy cannot fight Islamism,  because that is the ultimate victory of political Islam. Faith enforced by the state can only lead to tyranny.

If Islamism feeds off injustice, then rule of law is the answer and not brutal force.  Force is for the violent or those who incite violence,  but the ideology itself can only be defeated by intellectual labour.

The best antidote to Islamism is  freedom and  open debate that questions the basic tenets of Islamism.

Islamism has thrived all those years under authoritarian rule, and will do so again if authoritarianism was to become the norm again.

Fighting political Islam and its associated phenomena  by security means alone will not succeed.  Dismantling the organisation and its finances is a necessary component in the fight. But  not enough.

Egypt and other states that have designated the MB as terrorist organisation should address the core ideas themselves.  That is the difficult part,  because some of those ideas are part of main stream Islam, which the MB uses to justify its own existence and  seize  power.

Foremost among the Islamist ideas is that Islam has proscribed a special political order — a fallacy that has been allowed to fester for all too long.

Another is the totalitarian interpretation of  Islam as a religion that has a solution to all of life’s or society’s problems – an idea that is recycled in text books, radio and tv  day in and day out.

No less fallacious is the belief that applying Sharia would automatically lead to Nahda (renaissance).

and prosperity for all Muslims, which can arguably be described as one of the biggest  ideological swindles  in history.

It is strikingly similar to the linkage between piety and rizk, that plays down the value of hard work  and the mastery of modern scientific methods. It is even blatantly counter-intuitive.

It flies in the face of known facts and one of the most salient features of our age :  hundreds of millions of non-Muslims have created their own Nahda without Sharia.   And that even Muslims living among the non-Muslim nations of Europe and the Americas enjoy a level of legal protection and freedoms (to proselytise is one among many) they have never enjoyed in Muslim majority states, or even in states that apply Sharia, like Saudi Arabia or Iran.

(Slightly different version was published by IslamistGate : )


Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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