There’s more to Egypt’s pain than secularism vs. religion

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Many GetReligion readers have, I am sure, spent some time today following the urgent news bulletins out of Egypt, where some of the largest protests in the history of the world have been taking place.

It’s hard to know, precisely, what is happening — because there are so many different groups involved in the coalition that is revolting against the nation’s first democratically elected leader.

As I write, this is the latest from The New York Times:

CAIRO – Egypt’s top generals on Monday gave President Mohamed Morsi 48 hours to respond to a wave of mass protests demanding his ouster, declaring that if he did not, then the military leaders themselves would impose their own “road map” to resolve the political crisis.

Most reports earlier in day pivoted, as usual, around one crucial, but still undefined word — Islamist. It’s clear that religion is playing a crucial role in these events, but mainstream journalists continue to struggle when it comes time to define the differences between the goals and the beliefs of the competing Muslim camps in Egypt.

For the most part, journalists are saying this is a battle between liberal secularists and the Islamists symbolized by the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, these liberals — are they Muslims? What are the beliefs that define them and separate them from Morsi & Co.?

How about the military leaders — are they Muslims? They represent the old guard, which offered its own approach to Islam. What defined that version of Islam?

And Morsi, of course, leads a group that, only a month or two ago, was being called the “moderate” Islamist party — since the Salafi Muslims are to the president’s cultural and theological right. At some point, will the Salafists turn on Morsi? If so, what are the defining beliefs and policies that separate these two camps?

Then there are various religious minorities who play a crucial role in Egyptian life, led by the Coptic Orthodox Christians (who, with other Christians, make up about 10 percent of the population).

That’s a pretty complex landscape. Yet in the main Los Angeles Times story today, readers are — once again — told about a simple contest between secular liberals and Islamists, with the military (religious affiliations, unknown) looming in the background. Here is a key slice of that:

The battle for Egypt lies between these two poles, divided by sectarianism and driven by economic despair. These emotions were evident at anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square and the presidential palace, and amid prayer rugs and open Korans carried by Morsi loyalists in front of one of Cairo’s main mosques.

“Egypt is our country, the land of the Nile that carries us all, and it’s our duty to protect it without violence or committing assaults,” Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, whose Christian minority has been increasingly persecuted by Islamists, said on Twitter. “The blood of every Egyptian is precious, please participate, but respect others.”

And that is pretty much that.

The New York Times team, led by the omnipresent David D. Kirkpatrick, briefly attempted to hint at divisions INSIDE the Islamist world, cracks and schisms that clearly are threatening Morsi and the future of his government. Here is some crucial material more than halfway into the summary story earlier in the day:

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Syrian sniper offers thoughts on life, death and faith

Anyone who has been to the Middle East, or who has spent much time talking to natives of that troubled region, knows that there is much more to its conflicts than religion.

At the same time, anyone who has visited the region, and talked to Jews, Christians and Muslims from its lands, knows that there are few subjects there that can be discussed at length — especially controversial issues — without religious beliefs and traditions coming into play.

That’s just the way things work over there.

Now, when these topics show up in the mainstream press, it seems that the conflicts and horrors that plague the Middle East are rooted in everything EXCEPT religion. Oh, journalists will mention Islam, Judaism or Christianity from time to time, but it seems that the issues that are really real are all economic, political or ethnic. Those that are linked to religion are referred to as “sectarian” conflicts and that is that.

Your GetReligionistas, through the years, have urged journalists to let the people involved in these conflicts speak for themselves and then turn to a variety of insiders to help readers understand what the words mean. When people in Syria, for example, talk about the revolution that’s going on there, one of the first things they talk about is the need to defend Islam and to stand up for justice (often expressed in Muslim terms). Meanwhile, members of religious minorities often talk about the need to protect themselves and the right to live their faiths in daily life.

However, rather than criticizing yet another mainstream report for a lack of human voices, I’d like to note that Time magazine recently ran a piece (to my amazement in this firewall age, I eventually found it online) that let one participant in the Syria speak for himself. The result is both fascinating, moving and, at times, appalling.

The headline: “The Confessions of a Sniper: A Rebel Gunman in Aleppo and His Conscience.” Here is the lede that sets the stage:

To the other men in his Free Syrian Army unit, he’s simply known as the Sniper, a 21-year-old army-trained sharpshooter who defected on Feb. 21 and joined their ranks. Few of his colleagues know his first name let alone his surname — and that’s the way he wants to keep it.

He hails from a Sunni military family in a town on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital. His uncle is a serving general in President Bashar Assad’s army, several of his other relatives are also high-ranking military officers. Apart from his parents and siblings, his relatives all think he’s dead — and that’s the way he wants to keep it. …

He may look calm, but he’s deeply troubled. After some nine months of fighting with several Free Syrian Army units, first on the outskirts of Aleppo and then in the city itself after the rebel push into it in late July, he has grown disillusioned with the fight and angry with its conduct. “I did this when it was clean,” he says. “Now it’s dirty. Many aren’t fighting just to get rid of Bashar, they’re fighting to gain a reputation, to build up their name. I want it to go back to the way it was, when we were fighting for God and the people, not for some commander’s reputation.”

The sniper expects his land to be torn into warring camps, with the new reality being “many Somalias in every province.” At the time the article was written, this young man said he had killed 34 people — including, possibly, a childhood friend who as “dearer to me than a brother.”

That’s the setup.

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‘Moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian power grab

Protests broke out in Egypt in recent days over President Mohamed Morsi’s unilateral decree assuming widespread powers that may not be challenged or questioned. The Associated Press carried a list of some of those powers, beginning with:

- All laws and decisions by the president are final, cannot be appealed, overturned or halted by the courts or other bodies. This applies to decisions he has made since taking office in June and any he makes until a new constitution is approved and a new parliament is elected, expected in the spring at the earliest.

- No judicial body can dissolve the upper house of parliament or the assembly writing the new constitution. Both are dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamists and several cases demanding their disbanding were before the courts, which previously dissolved the lower house of parliament.

Cairo’s English-language paper Al Ahram reports that “the decree also protects the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of parliament) and the Islamist-led Constituent Assembly (tasked with drafting a new constitution) against dissolution by court order.” Al Ahram is a great source for news right now if you’re interested in what’s going on in Egypt. It was there I learned that the chairman of the Shura Council said Morsi went too far with his declaration. He’s a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Faith and Justice Party, so his disagreement was something of a surprise.

Morsi, a long-time Muslim Brotherhood activist and the first Islamist elected as head of an Arab state, says not to worry, that the decrees are totally temporary. Somehow the non-Islamists of Egypt aren’t convinced. I’m just wondering if dictators always insisted that their power-taking was temporary or if that’s just a 20th-century innovation.

Morsi’s timing for the power grab wasn’t totally off. He just brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, leading to plaudits from a variety of leaders. Morsi has enjoyed significant support from the United States, ever since he ran against even stricter Islamists.

Which leads me a larger journalism question. I wonder if journalists have been led off their game a bit because Morsi is supported by the United States and/or because the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed less strict in tone an substance than certain Islamist elements in Egypt. I first noticed this earlier in the year when some media types described the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate.” I noticed that others were resisting that description, even while acknowledging that the Muslim Brotherhood was less strict.

The New York Times has covered the Egypt story thoroughly throughout the year and I appreciate the way reporter David Kirkpatrick has focused on specific examples to define the Muslim Brotherhood’s particular niche within Egyptian Islamism. I had wanted to highlight this Q&A the paper ran between readers and reporters after a brief interview of Morsi was published in September. Kirkpatrick’s answers really show his reportorial style. It’s clear he has a good grasp of the Muslim Brotherhood perspective, as evidenced in this weekend’s story about judge’s revolting:

What set off the battle was the year-end deadline for the Constitutional Assembly chosen last spring to draft a new constitution. There had been rumors that the Supreme Constitutional Court was poised to dissolve the assembly in a ruling next Sunday. Top courts had already dissolved both an earlier Constitutional Assembly and the Parliament. All three bodies were dominated by Islamists, who have prevailed in elections, and many of the top judges harbor deep fears of an Islamist takeover.

As the deadlines loomed in recent weeks, the assembly’s Islamist leaders began to rush the debates. The assembly had already beaten back the efforts of ultraconservative Salafis to significantly expand the role of Islam in government. But in the last two weeks, many members of the non-Islamist minority began complaining of strong-arming and quit the assembly, slowing its deliberations and hurting its credibility.

Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said he issued his decree to give the assembly a two-month extension and protect it from judicial dissolution, so that its members could work out compromises and avoid the formation of yet another assembly. His supporters accuse many in the assembly’s non-Islamist minority of deliberately dragging their feet in order to obstruct the path to a constitutional democracy because they cannot accept their electoral defeat.

“They are afraid of democracy, really,” Essam el-Erian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said in an interview this month. “They only debate to block the way, to stop the constitutional process.”

Mr. Morsi’s critics say he could have found a less confrontational tactic to achieve his goal. But in denouncing his decree on Saturday, the Judges Club and some others in the secular opposition, including Mr. Moussa, called for a new assembly less dominated by Islamists.

If interested in an alternate view about which party has trouble with the difficulties of democracy, read this EUObserver analysis from Koert Debeuf. Reuters had more over a week ago about the Christian and liberal opposition within the Constitutional Assembly, leading to resignations. While only 10 percent of the population, stories this weekend seemed to give short shrift to the Copts in Egypt who have voiced significant concern about their fate under growing Islamist power.

What do you think about media coverage of the situation in Egypt, both from this weekend and throughout the year? Do you think media outlets have had blinders on about the Brotherhood or the ease with which Islamism blends with democracy? Have you seen any other good coverage worth highlighting?

Are Salafis the most orthodox among Muslims?

The New York Times published a riveting piece about Salafism in Tunisia. From the beginning, the reader is transported to Kairouan:

On the Friday after Tunisia’s president fell, Mohamed al-Khelif mounted the pulpit of this city’s historic Grand Mosque to deliver a full-throttle attack on the country’s corrupt culture, to condemn its close ties with the West and to demand that a new constitution implement Shariah, or Islamic law.

“They’ve slaughtered Islam!” thundered Dr. Khelif, whom the ousted government had barred from preaching for 20 years. “Whoever fights Islam and implements Western plans becomes in the eyes of Western politicians a blessed leader and a reformer, even if he was the most criminal leader with the dirtiest hands.”

Mosques across Tunisia blazed with similar sermons that day and, indeed, every Friday since, in what has become the battle of the pulpit, a heated competition to define Tunisia’s religious and political identity.

The piece is packed with information. The 5,000 mosques in the country used to have every prayer leader appointed by the government. They were given sermon topics. Under that model, Islam was apolitical and moderate. We’re told that “ultraconservative Salafis” seized 500 mosques but that the government took back all but 70.

We hear from some of the players — including a prayer leader at the Grand Mosque. And then there’s this:

To this day, Salafi clerics like Dr. Khelif, who espouse the most puritanical, most orthodox interpretation of Islam, hammer on favorite themes that include putting Islamic law into effect immediately, veiling women, outlawing alcohol, shunning the West and joining the jihad in Syria. Democracy, they insist, is not compatible with Islam.

OK, so we have “ultra-conservative,” “most puritanical” and “most orthodox interpretation of Islam.” I always find it interesting the use of “ultra-conservative” (no matter the topic) as compared to “ultra-liberal.” It’s not that it’s never used, but it’s just interesting how rarely it is. And I’m a bit confused by the use of terms such as “puritanical” or “fundamentalist” to describe non-Christian religious groups. But it’s the use of the phrase “most orthodox interpretation of Islam” that surprised me.

Even if “most puritanical” and “most orthodox” didn’t strain at the tension with each other, isn’t this a value judgment that might be best avoided?

But the piece is great and quite helpful. We get examples of the conflict, quotes from people involved and some helpful “so-what?” context:

The battle for Tunisia’s mosques is one front in a broader struggle, as pockets of extremism take hold across the region. Freshly minted Islamic governments largely triumphed over their often fractious, secular rivals in postrevolutionary elections. But those new governments are locked in fierce, sometimes violent, competition with the more hard-line wing of the Islamic political movements over how much of the faith can mix with democracy, over the very building blocks of religious identity. That competition is especially significant in Tunisia, once the most secular of the Arab nations, with a large educated middle class and close ties to Europe.

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, and its ability to reconcile faith and governance may well serve as a barometer for the region.

The article gets somewhat depressing after that, with a discussion of Mali, Benghazi, the Sinai and anti-American mobs in Tunis. And while the groups aren’t all officially coordinating, they help each other out.

I did appreciate this description of Salafis that shows that while they are the major force behind violent Islam, they aren’t all supportive of that approach:

The word Salafi encompasses a broad spectrum of Sunni fundamentalists whose common goal is resurrecting Islam as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad when he founded the faith in the seventh century. Salafis range from peaceful proselytizers to those who spread Islam by force.

We hear from Salafi critics who oppose the recruitment of fighters in Syria, since they are used to kill other Muslims. For their part, Salafis have beefs with more moderate Muslims in Tunisia:

Salafis repeatedly try to chase tourists from the Grand Mosque; have threatened to level the popular shrine of Sidi Sahbi, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad buried here, although so far they have only fought with worshipers trying to pray there; and imported Saudi Arabian clerics who demanded that Tunisians confront the West. At some mosques, traditional prayer leaders were threatened with beatings or even death if they did not leave, Sheik Ghozzi said. In others, the locks were changed to bar them.

There is much, much more. A great read.

Economist offers rare insights into Salafists

I have a friend who once worked for Time (actually, several people fit under that umbrella) who once made a very interesting observation about the state of foreign news in that newsweekly, which was once famous for its excellent, sweeping coverage of world affairs.

This correspondent noted that for several years, as Time coverage of foreign news declined, it was rather easy to chart a corresponding rise in the subscription totals over at The Economist. In other words, if you subtract this form of serious news in THIS publication, then it is highly likely that you add people who are seeking that form of news to the subscription rolls over HERE.

This equation, alas, doesn’t work very well for religion news because, well, nobody in the news-magazine world is blazing a bright religion-news trail, at the moment.

Still I wanted to note a recent Economist article (yes, after several decades I recently cancelled Time and subscribed to you know what) that offered a few paragraphs of real, life, informative material about the doctrinal and lifestyle implications of one of the major conflicts that is shaping modern Islam. As frequent GetReligion readers know, this is something that this blog has been pleading for journalists to do for the eight-plus years we have been in business.

The goal, in this typically crisp and newsy Economist piece, was to describe some of the conflicts between the old Islamist guard (think the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) and the rising tide of fervent believers who are being called the new “Salafists.” As is often the case, the Economist team opens with an essay-form, summary lede that sets the scene:

TO SELL an idea it helps to keep it simple. This explains the appeal of Salafism, an increasingly wide, bold-coloured stripe on the very broad spectrum of modern Islamism. Its most garish manifestation has been painted in blood by the jihadist brand of Salafists, most notoriously by the holy terrorists of al-Qaeda. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan have deep Salafist roots, as do the rowdy gangs in Tunisia that have lately trashed bars, cinemas and the American embassy. Yet while Saudi Arabia’s dour Salafist version of Islam, Wahhabism, shuns political life and abhors democracy, the Salafists’ Nour Party in Egypt has played politics eagerly and effectively, capturing a quarter of the votes in last year’s general elections.

What links these groups is a belief that Islam has been weakened by centuries of accumulated intellectual baggage. Muslims should dump most of it, the Salafists say, and revert to the ways of their salaf, or forebears.

So here we are: What are “the ways” of the past?

God is in the details. Thus, what do the old ways look like in practical terms? This one-page article offers an short, clear, summary of how the 5,000 or so sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad are being interpreted by these strict believers:

In some matters this makes life easy. One should obviously eat with the right hand only, as Muhammad reportedly did. Men should grow beards. Women should cover up. And one should abhor such “innovations” in Islam as Shiism and also Sufism, with—in Salafist eyes — its silly rituals and unhealthy adulation of sainted leaders. Yet choosing which 1,400-year-old saying to apply, or which venerable act to follow, is not always easy. This is particularly so when it comes to the ever-changing intricacies of politics.

For instance, whereas one of al-Qaeda’s better-known tactics has been suicide-attacks, plenty of Salafist scholars condemn the act of suicide itself as an abomination. Some rejected the uprisings that overthrew the “infidel” rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, just because they were sparked by the suicide of Muhammad Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor. Other Salafist preachers agreed with Saudi Wahhabists that it is a sin to go against the wishes of any ruler. But more pragmatic Salafists embraced the Arab spring as a God-given opportunity.

The experience of Egypt’s Nour Party is telling. Though educated, city-dwelling Egyptians were shocked by the success of a party founded only last year, Nour has built on a tradition of Salafist sermonising and mosque-building that goes back a century. Long popular among the poor for their uncompromising views, Salafist preachers had lately been boosted by a surge in private cash from the Gulf. This financed not only fancy websites and some two dozen satellite TV channels, but also a network of charities rivalling that of the milder-mannered Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, Economist readers will not be surprised at this tide of information — backed with few if any specific attributions from sources. That’s a problem, from my point of view, but the publication speaks with this kind of authoritative voice and its readers accept that.

Clearly, if would be easy for other newsrooms to back up this kind of reporting with a wide, balanced array of sources linked to names and titles. The American model of the press is a plus, when doing that kind of work.

The article goes on to show, in practical terms, what Salafist faith looks like today. There are glimpses of Salafist hypocrisy as well.

It’s very basic, informative material. It’s also the kind of reporting that one rarely sees about the divisions and complexities that exist inside the Muslim world. Non-Muslims need to know more about this complex reality, in order to make sense of some of the world’s conflicts. This is what journalism is supposed to do.


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