Pod people: What’s religion got to do with Egyptian tourism?

In the wake of the events of 9/11, I had the honor of taking part in a forum on religion and the news at the University of Nebraska that, no surprise here, featured a keynote speech by historian Martin Marty, an omnipresent scholar who has probably done as much as anyone to promote serious work on the Godbeat.

The point of the talk was that it is getting harder and harder to say what is religion news and what is not. To illustrate, he took one day’s worth of paper and ink from The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and then led the audience on a guided tour of some of the headlines he saw in their pages. As I described this in a column for Scripps Howard:

A former WorldCom CEO kept teaching his Sunday school class. A researcher sought the lost tribe of Israel. Believers clashed in Sudan. Mormon and evangelical statistics were up — again. A Zambian bishop said he got married to shock the Vatican. U.S. bishops kept wrestling with clergy sexual abuse. Pakistani police continued to study the death of journalist Daniel Pearl.

Marty tore out more pages, connecting the dots.

Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey feared an Anglican schism. Public-school students prayed at flagpoles. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explored the border between church and state. And there were dozens of stories linked to Sept. 11, 2001.

“When I read newspapers, I see religion all over the place,” said Marty, whose University of Chicago Divinity School career has led to 50-plus books and countless media appearances. “This has always been the case. I simply think it has been easier for others to see this reality during the past year.”

At one point, Marty noted that the lines were even blurring on beats that editors would be tempted to see as totally secular — like business. We are living in an age, he said, when it’s even hard to talk about oil prices without knowing what is happening with religious trends, tensions and conflicts in the Middle East.

The same thing, I would argue, is true right now in Egypt. Thus, this whole “what is religion news and what isn’t religion news” theme dominated my conversation this week with Todd Wilken for the Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to that).

Take, for example, all of those references in the news right now to the role that a failing economy has played in the chaos in Egypt. In particular, a collapse in the tourism industry has drawn some coverage. Consider this from a new Los Angeles Times story:

At least one in eight Egyptians rely on tourism for their livelihoods. But the industry, which had provided up to 20% of Egypt’s foreign-currency income, has been sliding since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak. The bazaars and pyramids around Cairo are quiet, and tourist boats from Luxor to Aswan are empty and docked along the Nile.

While governorates across the country have suffered from constant political unrest, southern Sinai had remained a haven for many tourists traveling from Europe. But a rise in militant attacks on the peninsula and the military’s violent nationwide crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood organization — which killed at least 900 people in the last two weeks — have drawn travel warnings that have sharply reduced tourism.

Statistics in Egypt are often unreliable. The state agency for statistics reported that the number of tourists has edged up since 2012, but that the length of their stays has so far dropped by 16% this year. The numbers do not reflect the effect of the most recent unrest on the tourism industry.

The spread of violence meant that Sharm El Sheik had to abide — even if just for one day last week — by an 11-hour curfew.

Now, the story notes that the decline began after the fall of Mubarak and that things have — naturally — gotten much worse with the current waves of violence, in the wake of the fall of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. That’s certainly a huge part of the picture.

But might the tourism woes also have something to do with the debates among Egyptian Muslims about how to apply sharia law at, well, bars, beaches and hotels? Might the rise of more powerful and outspoken forms of Islamist activism have played a role in this crucial corner of the economy?

Look for even a hint of that in the Los Angeles Times report. Try to read the story with the eyes of Martin Marty.

Good luck with that. And enjoy the podcast.

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  • Kodos

    This is definitely an area that deserves more analysis by journalists who are “on the ground” in Egypt. Having lived there myself, I can tell you that every Egyptian knows that tourism is a bedrock of their economy — and not just tourism from the West. Where do Saudis come to gamble, drink, wear European fashions, hire prostitutes (“temporary wives”), and visit nightclubs?

    Egypt. And every Egyptian knows it.

    I don’t mean to start a debate about hypocrisy. What I’m trying to point out is that this is common knowledge in Egypt, and journalists who are there can certainly connect some of the religion dots that form the very interesting and complex picture of the tourism culture of Egypt and how there is a kind of “give and take” with the religious beliefs of even the most devout Muslims there. They will condemn such behavior but turn something of a blind eye to it because it brings desperately-needed money into the country.

    There is also the Egyptian culture of tolerance that must be considered. Egypt was a cultural crossroads for millennia and Egyptians are very cosmopolitan in that sense. But they’re still Muslim, and that cultural and religious combination is fascinating and worth spilling some journalistic ink over in regard to the tourism industry there.

    Having said all that…

    …there was one MB member of Parliament last year who wanted to demolish the pyramids because they are idolatrous. 🙂

    (The Egyptians we knew – secular and devout – considered him something of an embarrassing kook, and his proposal was met with derision. And more significantly, his proposal went nowhere, politically.)

    • tmatt

      All of this fits into one of the most important stories in Egypt right now, which is the clash between Egyptian nationalism and a kind of global Islamic vision, among some — repeat some — Muslims, especially Islamists.

  • Julia B

    [I wish I could read Kodos’ first paragraph. Covering it is a “Visit Orlando” ad that will not go away. If you click on it, it just expands to cover more area. I don’t see an exit buton to click. Aha. If I expand the comments’ box it moves up and no longer cover Kodos’ comment. I left this in my comment in case anybody else has this problem.]

    I read a secular book the connection of climate changes over time to events in history, such as famines in Mesopotamia and Europe that wrought political changes.

    [Now the ad covering part of the comments box – so there will be a big blank]
    The writer of that climate change book I mentioned above, credited the discovery of Greenland to Rome’s decision that Catholics should eat fish on Friday. The Norse headed out to catch cod to get in on the new market in the newly ice-free upper Atlantic. Previously, they had not been in the business of exporting fish. Yes, religion is all over the place.

  • Julia B

    That would be Iceland, not Greenland whose discovery came later.