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Alaa Al Aswany

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Are They Really Religious?

Posted: 02/22/2012 12:26 pm

Last summer a friend of mine was driving his elderly mother from the north coast to Cairo and on the way his mother, a diabetic, suddenly felt ill. He looked for a pharmacy and when he found one he went in and found a bearded pharmacist. My friend asked him if he would give his mother an insulin injection. Amazingly, the pharmacist answered, "Sorry, but I don't give injections to women because that's against sharia. Go find your mother a female doctor."

My friend tried his best to persuade the pharmacist, telling him they were in a remote area and it would be hard to find a female doctor, and that his mother, more than seventy years old, surely would not represent a sexual temptation to the pharmacist. Still, he refused to administer the insulin.

Another incident: A while back the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm published an article about hospitals in Ramadan where employees working in the intensive care, emergency and accident units left work after breaking their fast and wouldn't return for two hours, so that they could say the taraweeh prayers in the mosque. They left their poor patients alone during this time. They considered performing the taraweeh prayers much more important than anything else, even the life of an innocent patient for whom they were responsible. The patients' conditions might deteriorate and they might even die while the doctors and nurses worshiped in the mosque.

The same strange logic turned up this week in the Ministry of the Interior. For thirty years Hosni Mubarak used the police force as an instrument to suppress and humiliate Egyptians. Police officers tortured hundreds of thousands of Egyptians and took part in all the Mubarak regime's dirty tricks -- rigging elections, snooping on people's private lives, fabricating charges and recruiting false witnesses against opponents of the regime. During and after the revolution many officers committed horrendous crimes against demonstrators, including sexual abuse, blinding them with shotguns and killing them with live ammunition. The revolution should have led to a purge and restructuring of the police force so that it could resume its natural role protecting people and respecting their rights, but the Military Council insisted on preserving the police force as it was, including the same senior officers who belonged to the Mubarak regime.

In the midst of this sorry state of affairs, dozens of officers emerged last week to announce that they would let their beards grow in line with the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. When the ministry told them that shaving had been the established practice in the police force since it was founded, they rose in revolt, insisting they had a right to grow beards. The problem here is not whether they should or should not shave their beards. Rather, what is strange and saddening is that these same officers have witnessed and may have taken part in horrible crimes against ordinary citizens. We never heard these pious officers object to these crimes -- and now they announce their sacred campaign for the right to grow beards, as if religion ended with appearances, with no deeper significance.

Didn't they see how their colleagues killed demonstrators and how innocent people were tortured in police stations and in State Security premises? In Egypt there are thousands of mosques that are, thank God, often so packed that often people spread mats outside and pray in the street. But does this admirable commitment to performing religious obligations affect the way Egyptians behave towards others? The answer is often no. There are many Egyptians who observe the superficial aspects of religion and pray regularly, but in their daily dealings are far from truthful and honest.

If the disconnect between belief and behavior were a matter of a few individuals, we would dismiss them as hypocrites. But when it afflicts broad segments of society, it constitutes a social phenomenon that has to be studied. These religious people who are interested in form rather than substance are not necessarily hypocrites or evil people. They are merely applying religion as they have been taught it. The reading of religion now prevalent in Egypt gives form priority over substance and is much more interested in forms of worship than in personal conduct. This version of Islam is not Egyptian. Real and honest moderate Egyptian Islam has receded in the face of Wahhabi Islam coming from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.

For thirty years masses of oil money has been used to drown Egypt in Wahhabi ideas. The purpose of this support for the Wahhabi school of thought is basically political, in that the Saudi system of government depends on an alliance between the ruling family and the Wahhabi sheikhs. Hence spreading the Wahhabi ideology reinforces the political system in that country. At the same time millions of Egyptians have migrated to the Gulf seeking a livelihood and have then come back to Egypt full of Wahhabi ideas.

Egyptians go there and see a society different from Egyptian society. Men and women are completely segregated but rates of sexual harassment and rape are among the highest in the world. Alcohol is banned but many people drink in secret. The law does not apply to Princes, who can do what they like, confident that they are immune from punishment. Egyptians learn there that performing your prayers on time is not voluntary, as it is in Egypt, but a compulsory obligation and if you are late the police might arrest and harm you. They learn that if you are walking the street with your wife and her hair is accidentally uncovered, then a policeman may pounce on her, hit her with a stick and make her cover her head. Despite this strictness, many Egyptians are cheated financially by their Gulf sponsors, and when they submit legal complaints, rarely obtain what they are owed because the judicial system there favors locals over foreigners.

This disconnect between belief and behavior is a social malaise that has come to us from the oil countries and has spread like a plague, just as it has spread into Islamist groups. When the Egyptian revolution broke out most of those affiliated with the Islamist movement did not take part. The Muslim Brotherhood announced that they would not take part in the demonstrations but they joined the revolutionaries after the police withdrew (and to be fair, the young Muslim Brothers played a magnificent role defending the demonstrations during the Battle of the Camel). As for the Salafists, who are more numerous than the Brothers, they stood quite openly against the revolution. Their sheikhs in Egypt and Saudi Arabia issued fatwas that demonstrations are haram and that Muslims have a duty to obey a Muslim leader, even if he is unjust. They asserted that democracy is haram because it advocates government by the people, while they believe that God alone can rule, not mankind.

When the revolution succeeded in deposing Hosni Mubarak we found the Salafists suddenly changing their beliefs, forming parties and taking part in democracy, which had been haram a few days earlier. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists made a deal with the Military Council in which the council would help them control Parliament in return for helping the council stay in power from behind the scenes. The Military Council set the rules for the elections to benefit these groups and the high electoral commission ignored the frauds they committed. Strict Muslims who get angry if they miss Friday prayers or if they see a woman dolled-up have no problem with the exploitation of voters' poverty to buy their votes with cooking oil, sugar and meat.

In the end the Brotherhood and the Salafists won the majority of seats in Parliament through elections that may not have been rigged but were definitely not fair. Although we have reservations about the elections we have advocated supporting Parliament on the grounds that in the end it is the only elected body we can expect to protect the revolution and achieve the revolution's objectives. But day after day we discover that the Parliament is incapable of standing up to the Military Council and that there are 'red lines' it does not dare to approach. The Members of Parliament have ignored the Military Council's responsibility in the numerous.

The Parliament has become a debating platform, just a talk shop that does not lead to any useful or effective decisions. We have seen Members of Parliament in uproar, talking tough against the Minister of Supply because attacking him comes at no cost. But they are ultra-cautious when it comes to mentioning the Military Council, against whom they do not utter a word.

The disconnect between the form of religion and its substance appears in Parliament, where its members have done nothing to defend justice but have preoccupied themselves with inconsequential matters. Some refused to swear the constitutional oath without adding the word 'sharia' to it (as if the constitution had been written by the pagans of pre-Islamic Mecca). On another occasion, while policemen were hunting down demonstrators in the streets with shotguns and live ammunition, one member of Parliament gave the call to prayer inside the chamber in mid-session, which led to a long debate about whether it was right to give the call to prayer under the dome of the Parliament building. Another strange discussion arose when one Member, speaking metaphorically, said that "the government was not composed of angels". Other members jumped up and strongly objected to the use of the term "angels" in any such figure of speech.

The Military Council, having succeeded in forming a pliant and conciliatory Parliament, is now preparing to carry out another step in its plan to control the government. With help from the Brothers and the Salafists, it is looking for a consensus president whom they could control. The Military Council has issued by decree a presidential election law that has no equal in the rest of the world. Under this law a supreme committee has been formed whose decisions cannot be challenged in any way. If you saw election tampering with your own eyes, recorded it and submitted the evidence to the committee, and the committee said there was no rigging, you would have no appeal, because the committee's word is final, irreversible and incontestable. This denies Egyptians of basic right to appeal administrative decrees. But the pious Brothers do not see the importance of contest or appeal. On the contrary, they are helping the Military Council tighten its grip on Egypt.

True religion requires us to defend human values: truth, justice and freedom. This is the essence of religion and it is much more important than growing beards or giving the call to prayer in the Parliament chamber.