LATimes looks at Egypt; sees only signs of Islamic life

Over the past two years, your GetReligionistas have frequently urged (one example here) journalists to cover news from Egypt in a way that draws some lines between that complex land’s many clashing religious camps, especially the Muslim groups that take different approaches to blasphemy and tolerance when dealing with religious minorities.

It helps that the Pew Forum team has offered solid poll data on precisely these issues. Click here for a Google search linked to that information. Dig deep.

Needless to say, I had high hopes when I saw the majestic double-decker Los Angeles Times headline that said:

God is everywhere in Egypt

The social and cultural mix is highly complex, but among Islamists, progressives and conservatives, the many faces of piety are rarely absent from discourse.

Finally, I thought, we are going to get a story that delivers the goods!

Uh, not really.

Instead, we got a story that offered insights into the political and religious differences between Muslims in Egypt, especially the divide between urban centers and rural regions, and that’s that. Believe it or not, the piece says next to nothing about the crucial issue I mentioned earlier (and a central issue in the Pew Forum data), which is the complex nature of beliefs in Egypt about liberal values such as freedom of religion, women’s rights and social tolerance. Here’s the opening of the report:

CAIRO – In politically fractured Egypt, there’s one belief that almost every faction seems to hold in common: God is on our side. (And not, therefore, on yours.)

Egypt’s social and cultural mix is hieroglyphic in its complexity: Islamists, progressives, conservatives, and those marching in lock step with the powerful military. But in the Arab world’s most populous and influential country, the many guises of piety are rarely absent from discourse.

For me, the first red flag went up with the use of the term “Arab world.” Was this going to be yet another piece that confused being Arab with being Muslim? And what about the millions of Egyptians who stress that to be an Egyptian is not the same as to be an Arab?

This leads us straight into what I think is the crucial passage in the story. Pay close attention.

More than two months after the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood was driven from power and the country’s army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, surged to the fore, Egypt remains deeply divided about the role of religion in public life. Whether in fiery mosque sermons, slow-moving constitutional deliberations or triumphal military statements, the banner of heaven is being waved by all sides.

“Religion is being more or less used the same way by the military as it was by the Brotherhood,” said Ahmad El Azabawy, a former political science professor who is now an independent analyst. “Just with more subtlety, because now, of course, people are just coming out of a bitter experience with an Islamic regime.”

Religious minorities make up about 15% of the population, and Islam is the state religion. It pervades daily existence in Egypt as surely as the muezzin’s call echoing through dusty streets. But the Brotherhood, during its tumultuous year at the helm of government, managed to rankle many who considered themselves good enough Muslims without its relentless exhortations on how best to serve God.

Here are some words that do not appear in this story — “Coptic,” “Orthodox,” “Jews,” “Shiite,” “blasphemy,” “sharia,” “church,” “burn,” “mobs,” etc., etc.

Yes, I realize that we are talking about religious minorities in this complex land. That’s the point. It’s impossible to talk about the challenges facing Egypt without discussing how its clashing Muslim camps tolerate, or fail to tolerate, the presence of the single largest Christian minority remaining anywhere in the greater Middle East. Events since the fall of Morsi — with 100 Christian sites being trashed or burned — underline this point.

The story, of course, does offer insights into Egypt’s tensions on other important religious topics. For example.

… (The) Brotherhood’s particular brand of piety, casting censorious eyes on everything from ballet performances to maternity leave for working women, had chafed almost as hard, particularly in cosmopolitan cities such as Cairo and Alexandria. …

For the authorities, a particular point of concern is that devout and uneducated conscripts in the security forces, especially the police, could be swayed by Brotherhood rhetoric urging them not to turn on fellow Muslims. The group’s teachings are still widely disseminated, even though most of its leaders are imprisoned and the interim government is moving to root out what it considers rogue elements among the country’s hundreds of thousands of imams, or mosque preachers.

Even there, the ghost of Coptic Orthodoxy and other religious minorities hovers just out of the picture.

Why would the generals worry that “devout” soldiers and police might not consent to fight against other Muslims? Might this have something to do with refusing to oppose mobs that are attacking either (a) sites representing a government that they believe is not true to Islam or (b) attacking Christians and other groups that Jihadists believe represent Western values, as opposed to a church linked to two millennia of Egyptian history?

In the end, editors at The Los Angeles Times seem to think that Egypt is a remarkably religious country, yet one in which the only religion practiced is Islam.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    . . .the first red flag went up with the use of the term “Arab world.” Was this going to be yet another piece that confused being Arab with being Muslim? And what about the millions of Egyptians who stress that to be an Egyptian is not the same as to be an Arab?

    And all over the Magrab, Egypt and the Lavant, for the media there is the habit of calling people Arabs if they speak Arabic. Jeez, we speak English here and we aren’t English!!! Many of these people were the indigenous folk who were conquered by the people from the Arabian Peninsula. They aren’t Arabs even if most of them are now Muslims.

    Check it out. The Arabian Peninsula was sparsely populated at the time of the Muslim conquest. The areas they conquered had large numbers of Christians, Jews, Samaritans, Zoastrians, Zahidis, etc. who were Persians, Assyrians, Lebanese, etc. None (or very few) of the conquered people were Arabs. The Muslims of Egypt are mostly Copts (indigenous Egyptians) with a small admixture of Arab from inter-marriage.


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