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

YouTube Preview Image

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:

[Read more...]

Some journalists waking up to Egyptian realities?

YouTube Preview Image

Day after day the news from Egypt seems to get darker and more confusing. This morning, in The Los Angeles Times, things were summed up like this:

CAIRO – Anger between Egypt’s rival political camps erupted into street battles Wednesday after Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi tore down tents belonging to antigovernment demonstrators, raising the possibility of widening violence over the nation’s proposed constitution.

Pro-Morsi factions overran about 200 protesters camped outside the presidential palace in north Cairo. The clashes came after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party called thousands of its members into the streets in a counter-demonstration to drive opposition movements from the presidential palace.

Shoving and punching spilled down a boulevard as hurled stones, swinging sticks and firebombs filled the dusk in one of the capital’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Pro-Morsi contingents, including Brotherhood followers and ultraconservative Salafis, chased opposition activists, shouting: “God is great! The people support the president’s decision!”

Through the years, I have heard journalists who work in these kinds of environments make one statement over and over: It doesn’t matter what a nation’s laws say about free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, etc., if the police will not stop a riot. Rioters often make their own laws and hold instant elections and the majority usual wins.

What we are seeing, on one level, is the collapse of the whole Muslim Brotherhood-as-moderate influence template that has driven so much of the mainstream news coverage in recent months.

While there have been stories that stressed the strategic differences between Morsi and the more traditionalist Salafis, the reports we are seeing now are united in their emphasis that, on the crucial question of Islamic law being codified into the new Constitution, the leaders of these two Islamist camps are merely arguing about a few details, not the big picture. Many journalists are responding with a kind of, “Oh my gosh, who knew?” wonder and awe.

It is also crucial for reporters and editors to realize that Egypt, as a whole, is not conflicted on the big questions. Believers in religious minorities are truly at peril, according to the numbers in a very important — but largely overlooked — Pew Forum survey a year or so ago. Writing for Scripps, I summed the numbers up like this, in the midst of a discussion of that vague and often meaningless term “fundamentalist.”

Take Egypt, for example, a nation in which conflicts exist between multiple forms of Islam and various religious minorities, including the Coptic Orthodox Christians who are nearly10 percent of the population. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project tried to find defining lines between political and religious groups in Egypt, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report. “About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances mesh easily with alternative “fundamentalism” definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood’s surging role in Egyptian life — a group long classified as “fundamentalist” in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in 1988.

So, how pragmatic and “moderate” has Morsi turned out to be?

Some mainstream journalists are starting to ask that question. This remarkable essay by NBC’s Jim Maceda stumbles through the wreckage and makes some rather bracing concessions to the reality of majority rule:

The era of the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have arrived. President Obama has hailed the Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi as a pragmatist who helped end the Gaza crisis. Egyptians here think the Brotherhood has conned Washington, just like it conned them.

“President Obama is supporting a terrorist,” a man told me amid chants of “Leave! Leave!” in Tahrir Square and “Down, down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader.” Before, it was “Down, down with Mubarak.”

Egypt was torn in half … when Morsi made himself more powerful than Mubarak ever was, and the kings before him. Morsi declared himself above judicial oversight, his decisions final and unassailable. He made himself, according to critics, a new pharaoh on the Nile. Imagine if, after five months in office, an American president announced that he could pass any law he pleased regardless of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine if he said his decisions were final and inspired by God.

And the bottom line? Read it all, including this sobering passage:

Protected by the president’s new-found supreme and unquestionable powers, Morsi ordered his Islamist allies to finish writing the constitution and get it on his desk by the end of this week. They did it, even though many independent legal experts, Christians and opposition politicians boycotted the drafting process. The Brotherhood called the new constitution “a jewel.” Many Egyptians say it leaves too much room for the implementation of Shariah law.

The constitution also empowers the people and government with a duty to uphold moral values, a vague clause that could pave the way for vigilante morality police. The constitution barely mentions protecting women’s rights. According to women who were originally involved in the drafting process, and who subsequently left because they felt they were being ignored, clauses specifically demanding that women be protected from violence and sex trafficking were dropped because Islamists feared it would conflict with their desire to allow child brides.

Journalists and others involved in researching these topics need to parse the Pew Forum numbers again. Are the current events surprising? Is the reality that Morsi represents a powerful majority that, with no need for the approval of the West, can proceed to act on its convictions? How will the American press deal with these realities, including the clear threats now looming for the large Coptic Orthodox minority, secular liberals, progressive Muslims, feminists and members of other religious minority groups?

Is the existing news template being crushed under the feet of the rioters?

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.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X