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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
The Islamic revival in Egypt

By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC Arab affairs analyst

The call to prayer billowing out of loudspeakers atop of Cairo's mosques five times a day has become a landmark of the city's soundscape.

Even the smallest mosque is nowadays equipped with a loudspeaker - a major culprit in the city's ever rising noise pollution.

At times, you could hear raucous voices coming at you from all directions against the constant cacophony of car honks, street vendors and general street noise in one of the world's most densely populated metropolises.

Gone are the days when the call to prayer came from a mellifluous tenor or baritone unaccompanied by the crackle of a rusty loudspeaker. It used to be the beauty of the voice that was part of the seduction to pray.

The magnified call to prayer, the building of mosques are all symptoms of a relentless rise of Islamist politics

It is not only volume which has gone up over the years in Egypt, but numbers too.

During the early 1970s when I studied in Egypt, I used to walk by a man with a long beard on the corner of a busy street in downtown Cairo, a loudspeaker in hand urging passers-by to donate money to build yet more mosques.

Nearly 30 years later, I found him still standing there. His beard is now grey, but little else has changed. I wonder how many mosques he has collected money for!

Palpable transformations

Estimates of how many new mosques have been built in Egypt over the past few decades vary a lot, from tens to hundreds of thousands, depending on whom you ask: the government or its critics, who say it has done little or nothing to stem the tide of Islamism sweeping across the country.

The magnified call to prayer, the building of mosques are both symptoms of a relentless rise of Islamist politics and general religiosity over the past three decades.

Cairo bus
Colourful headscarves are now combined with Western-style dress
The government has dealt decisively - some would say brutally - with the militant Islamist threat during the 1980s and 90s, but left the ideological march totally unchallenged.

As a result, the social landscape has undergone some palpable transformations, which raises the question whether that is only a prelude to a more comprehensive change yet to come.

Remaining faithful to tradition

Writing in the semi-official Al-Ahram, a regular columnist reproaches today's Egyptians for failing to commemorate an ancient Pharaonic ritual of thanksgiving to the Nile.

Egyptians should remain faithful to this tradition, she writes, not least because "Egypt is the gift of the Nile" as the great Greek historian, Herodotus, once wrote, but more importantly because the Nile was mentioned in the holy Koran.

The argument epitomises a common view in Egypt now - the need to justify and sanction all forms of human endeavour - from the socially trivial to the deadly serious - within a Koranic framework.

This has long been a byproduct of the Islamist discourse, but the tendency has gained unprecedented proportions over the years.

Even the usual Egyptian "hello" and "goodbye" (ahlan, ma'a al-salama) appear to be giving way to "There is No God but Allah", a phrase used only in religious contexts before.

Return of the veil

Probably nothing characterises this change in the Egyptian social landscape more graphically than the re-emergence of the veil.

Some 80 years ago, about the same time the founding father of the modern Islamist revival in Egypt, Hasan Al-Banna, was recruiting the first cells of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian women staged their rebellion against the veil.

A combination of market forces and doctrinal flexibility have given birth to a new fashion: the Islamic headscarf
By the 1960s the veil was a thing of the past in Egypt. Now more and more professional and well educated women - doctors, broadcasters, engineers, lawyers - say they have donned the "veil" voluntarily.

They are not the usual suspects: poor women from society's lower classes, long thought to be traditional recruiting ground for Islamist activists. These women come from well-off families, speak foreign languages and have very clear ideas about their choices.

The Islamist march has made new inroads into social environments which had in the past remained immune to its campaign.

But the veil worn by Egyptian women today is not the austere black cover worn by their grandmothers, and is still worn by women in the Gulf.

Drowning out liberal voices

A combination of market forces and doctrinal flexibility (on the part of the Islamist ideologues) have given birth to a new fashion: the Islamic headscarf, which you see advertised on huge billboards in Cairo and is clearly very popular.

The few voices of secular and liberal opposition are to remain drowned out by the loudspeakers
Wherever you go, most of the women you are most likely to see in public places are wearing a colourful headscarf with a Western-style dress that covers the whole body.

The combination suggests that the effort to forge a compromise between the adamantly secular and Muslim values has entered a new stage.

However, in the absence of a grassroot liberal or secular political movement in Egypt, the politics of Islamist discourse - deriving legitimacy for one's own ideas and behaviour from the Koran and Islamic tradition - is set to continue to dominate the scene in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the few voices of secular and liberal opposition are to remain drowned out by the loudspeakers for some time to come.

What do you think of the author's comments? Send your responses using the form below.


The following comments reflect the balance of views we have received:

The secular voice is dead and the cultural war has been lost
Ginan Rauf, USA
The religious revival in Egypt is really quite distressing and it marks an abysmal failure to promote secular values. Nobody seems to be interested in discussing anything other than religion or the return to the traditional hijab. I for one am totally fed up with this issue and fail to understand how the religious revival can actually solve Egypt's problems. After all, the loudspeakers and head-scarves have hardly made the country less corrupt or more ethical. Complaints against dishonesty are legion. The secular voice is dead and the cultural war has been lost. A great civilization is being reduced to a narrowly defined religiosity that is gradually suffocating our greatest traditions. I for one mourn the loss. We are captives of this foolish idea that all traditions- regardless of their intrinsic worth- must be defended at all costs. Let's face it, every culture has harmful traditions that must be questioned. To question those traditions is not to lose one's identity as so many believe.
Ginan Rauf, USA

Indeed, on the surface, Egypt is tending towards a movement of Islamization. However, after living in Cairo for a year, I have concluded that the donning of the veil and other expressions of Islam are not a political response or 'ideological march', but a social reaction. Many women wear the veil in order to avoid harassment. The bottom line is the majority of the population is Muslim; there should not be unnecessary alarm when the people seek to find refuge in their religion. The danger arises when the more powerful Mubarak regime aggressively pursues oppression of religion, alienating the masses and giving extremists a reason to fight back.
Natasha, USA

Orthodox Judaism shares much of the same social concerns as Islam
Israel Dalven, Israel
If the author's concern is with the potential of Islamic zeal to turn violent, he should have mentioned this more specifically. It would seem his concern is against Islamic social tradition itself. Well, other people do have other ways of life and not all want to mimic the West, even if it means less material wealth. Orthodox Judaism shares much of the same social concerns as Islam, and I applaud the choice of Islamic women to chose a traditional and modestly-dressed path in their private life.
Israel Dalven, Israel

I agree with the author, but there is a major component to this currently delicate situation in Egypt worth mentioning, and that is of the relationship between Muslims and the country's 12-15% Coptic Orthodox Christians. The author ought to at least mention the struggle they are facing which ranges from mere discrimination in the workplace to outright persecution! This is also seen as something that has started with the growing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood.
George, USA

I hope Egypt can continue to find a balance between the secular and religious
Patty, USA
I had to smile when reading this article. I have two sisters-in-law who embody exactly what you describe. They are very independent women who wear the veil voluntarily but who choose to adapt their dress (and their hijab) to more colorful Western styles. I, too, when living in Cairo do the same. I hope Egypt can continue to find a balance between the secular and religious (as women seem to be doing with their manner of dress) so show the world that it is possible to have a country which is predominantly Muslim yet respectful of other faiths as well as other political and philosophical views.
Patty, USA

The examples of Egypt and other countries, including those in Europe and North America, show that Islamic elements like the headscarf and praying in the mosque are gaining ground not among the 'poor, uneducated and easily brainwashed' masses, but also among educated professionals who have made these decisions consciously. Liberals and secularists should welcome and facilitate this modern Muslim revival. To oppose it would be to contradict their very raison- d'etre, their values of freedom, equality and justice.
Ali Ahmed, Canada

The awareness of rights given to women by Islam is rising and as such empowering women. The headscarf ihas become for some a political symbol but for the majority it is simply a religious practice. The more the western world antagonises and demonises, the more these people become aware and curious. What is happening in Egypt is a combination of socio-economic-political and religious factors. In many ways it resembles the struggle of African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s.
John, UK

This is wonderful. Those who are against Islam should take note that it is not only the poor who are religiously observant. Hijab is not oppression, rather it is freedom. Unfortunately, however, you will have liberals who blast such movements while claiming themselves to stand for freedom. Egypt is showing the free will of the people. This fact alone confuses those who are anti-Islam.
Ibrahim, USA

Western critics always draw a picture as if these changes are pushed by a hidden evil power which will make things worse for its citizens and dangerous for Westerners!
Hegab, Japan
I am not sure if this is a news story describing a phenomenon in a country or an article written to express the author's opinion, as I see he is mixing his observations with his personal attitudes! Many of the phenomena mentioned in his comments are true but his attitude is a bit biased. His biases - unfortunately - are shared with many of the Western critics of the rise of the Islamism in Egypt. They all get irritated to see some people are making their own choice to go closer towards their religion. So, they will always draw a picture as if these changes are pushed by a hidden evil power which will definitely make things worse for its citizens and dangerous for Westerners!
Hegab, Japan

I just came back from visiting Egypt after a long nine year absence. I was astonished to witness the exponential increase of the number of women who wore the veil. I have to admit, if Egyptians were confused between Islamic and Western values, they sure have found a middle ground!
Tarek, USA

The usual Egyptian 'hello' and 'goodbye' (ahlan, ma'a al-salama)" appear to have given away to "Al Salam Aleekom" (May Peace be with you), which has Islamic roots, as the end words of all prayers. As a Muslim native Egyptian and Arabic speaker, I assure you that no salutation exists as mentioned "There is No God but Allah" (La Illah ela Allah). The author's exaggeration has diminished the factual insights and rendering on this social/religious trend.
Ashraf Moftah, Cairo, Egypt

To understand Islam and the Islamic culture, you should be more polite and civilised. Dig deeper into other religions and you will understand that Islam is not a religion, it calls on a particular mode of life, when the clergy and secular society are separated, but not at odds. That's the might of Islam and its edge over other religions (except for 'northern' Buddhism, maybe). For myself, an atheist, Islam means the only fundamental foundation for everything you are about to create.
Israfil, Azerbaijan

When I visited Egypt five years ago Islam was evident everywhere. But the thing that was also evident was the religious tolerance: there was a Christian minority, and nobody had a problem with that. On the other hand, I visited the upper Nile, around Luxor - a long way, geographically and politically from Cairo.
Simon Richardson, UK

A major factor in the revival of Islam in many countries like Egypt is the sense of arrogance against the West. It concerns a search for self identity as people feel more and more insecure with the West. And in the end they realise that showing that they are Muslims is what their identity is.
Anis Hoda, USA

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