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Islamic world Tuesday, 16 July, 2002, 10:27 GMT 11:27 UK
Egypt: Crisis of identity
Cairo skyline
Egyptians are searching for a modern Islamic identity

There is a battle under way in the world of Islam - a battle for modernity. Many in the West think that, on issues ranging from terrorism and violence to democracy and women's rights, Islam and modernity are simply incompatible. Many Muslims retort that the West is trying to impose its own version of modernity on everyone else.

In Egypt the physical signs of modernity are everywhere. And nowadays that means fast food, mobile phones, satellite dishes - and the internet.

The offices of Islam Online are staffed by bright young women wearing the hijab, the Islamic headscarf.

"I see a modernist as a person that lives in today's world," Arwa Mahmoud, the editor of the Views & Analyses page on the site said.

"A modernist knows what's going on - the developments - and who can always associate between his own background and his own faith with the new challenges of the modern world, of today's world."

This young woman seems self-confident. But for many others, modernity has brought in its wake uncertainty, confusion - a real crisis of identity.

Falling behind

The basic dilemma is not new. It certainly did not begin on the 11 September.

Muslims have been wrestling with modernity for at least 200 years.

There's no contradiction between Islam and science. On the contrary, Islam encourages us to learn more about ourselves - our bodies, our anatomy. Only in this way can you know about yourself and God

Leading Egyptian Islamic scholar Sheikh Eid Abdel-Hamid Youssef
During the heyday of Islam, they were at the cutting edge of science and progress, even when Europe was in its Dark Ages.

But when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, and he brought with him scientists as well as soldiers, Egyptians could see how far they had fallen behind.

What should they do - embrace a form of Western modernity, turn their back on it or reconcile the Islamic tradition and this new thing called modernity?

A group of Egyptian reformers reached the conclusion that Muslims had to fight and win new battles.

Early reformers tried to convince their fellow-Muslims that Islam had to be re-interpreted in the light of modern conditions.

Bastion of orthodoxy

They had a tough time of it. Their conservative opponents accused them of being brainwashed by the secular West.

My major concern is that the laws are still far behind - they are related to the laws of the Middle Ages. The laws deprive women of every right

Iman Abdul-Wahid, Egyptian feminist
And standing behind the conservatives was an old and venerated bastion of Islamic orthodoxy.

Al-Azhar in Cairo is the most famous mosque and university, not just in Egypt, but probably in the whole of the Muslim world.

"There's no contradiction between Islam and science," one of the senior Sheikhs at al-Azhar, Sheikh Eid Abdel-Hamid Youssef, said.

"On the contrary, Islam encourages us to learn more about ourselves - our bodies, our anatomy. Only in this way can you know about yourself and God."

Al-Azhar has come under sustained criticism for its resistance to change. Only a few years ago, the most senior sheikh came out against family planning and in favour of female circumcision.

Secular or Islamic state

Iman Abdul-Wahid works with a women's rights group hidden away in a nondescript office block in Cairo.

She is a Muslim feminist working with secular feminists. They disagree a lot, she says, but what they agree about is that Egyptian women are getting a raw deal.

Cairo: A city of high-rise blocks, flyovers and mobile phones
"Actually my major concern is that the laws are still far behind - they are related to the laws of the Middle Ages," she said.

"The laws deprive women of every right. The laws that prevent me from being a judge, because I am a woman. Further, the laws of the family are still completely dominated by the patriarchal attitude that the man has the right to do everything, and the woman has no right whatsoever."

These legal issues - especially when they are about women's rights, marriage and so on - go to the heart of the modern Muslim dilemma.

Should a modern state like Egypt adopt secular law, or the body of Islamic law known as the Sharia?

It is an issue which has divided liberals and conservatives ever since Egypt became independent in the 1950s.

In the 1970s Egypt's oldest Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood made a spectacular comeback after years of suppression.

Rise of the Islamists

The Brotherhood championed a new idea - the idea that Muslims should replace their basically secular states with Islamic states governed by the Sharia.

With this revival the Egyptian Islamists were in the ascendant - and liberals suddenly found themselves on the defensive.

Muslim praying in a mosque
Egyptian Governments have alternated between suppressing and encouraging Islamists
Said Ashmawi is a well-known writer and former judge who infuriated the Islamists by writing a book which came up with a new interpretation of the Koran.

"I said the Koran is not a legal book. It is mainly a book for the ethical code and for the faith. And once we put a definition to the word Sharia, we realise that 90% of what we call Sharia is actually human, not divine," Said Ashmawi said.

The government has tried to handle the Islamist challenge in essentially two ways.

On the one hand, it ruthlessly suppressed the most violent Islamic groups - the groups who emerged in the 1980's with a campaign of assassinations, directed at government ministers, foreign tourists and members of the country's Coptic Christian minority.

On the other hand, the authorities have also tried to appease the religious conservatives by letting them ban books they disapprove of or harass secular intellectuals.

Political stalemate

The result of this is a political stalemate, and this is exacerbating a social malaise.

According to one of the lecturers at Cairo's American University, Mahmoud al-Lowzy, Egyptians are ill at ease with themselves.

"Egyptians no longer know who are they are. We've been told after several years of some sort of very perverse form of socialism, that was really more like state capitalism, we're told now that private enterprise is the way to prosperity, and everyone will benefit from it.

"The result is that some people have got richer while other people have got much poorer. We are told that peace is the key to prosperity, and we've been searching for an elusive peace for the last 25 years."

Anger with the West

The hijab - the Islamic headscarf - has become a potent symbol of the Islamic revival since the 1970s.

Many young Egyptians from a middle class background wear them. For them, despite all the confusion and uncertainty of modernity, Islam is still something secure, something familiar.

But they do not identify with the bearded old sheikhs of al-Azhar.

They do not see them as the figures of authority that they are really looking for.

There is a resistance to becoming carbon copies of the West, especially at a time when anti-Western feeling is running so high because of the bloodshed in the Middle East.

There is anger with the West, and with the failings of a society where freedom and social justice are in short supply.

For all its mobile phones and five-star hotels and internet cafes, Egypt seems to me in some ways less modern - certainly less liberal and less tolerant - than it used to be.

It is searching for a modern identity - but one that is, for the moment, out of reach.

Waiting for the dawn: Muslims in the Modern World will be broadcast on BBC World Service at the following times:

Programme One: Egypt
Programme Two: Turkey
Programme Three: Iran
Programme Four: Pakistan
Programme Five: Cairo to Brick Lane

Broadcast time: Fridays 1830GMT/1930BST

Repeats: Tuesdays 0930GMT/1030BST

The BBC's Roger Hardy
visits Cairo to see how Egyptians are responding to the challenges of modernity

See also:

16 May 02 | Middle East
30 Jan 02 | South Asia
19 Oct 01 | Americas
08 Jun 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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