Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Downtown bar scene

This is a critique of an article on the demise of the downtown Cairo bar scene The article in question seems to have more or less lifted the essence of an earlier article. They’re all tagged on my delicious under Cairo and probably beer or bar. too busy to look them up at the moment.

Anyway, read the comment thread. Pretty interesting.

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Radio program segment on religious freedom in Egypt.

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Morality Police

Thanks to the Arabist for this link.

Self-appointed enforcers of Islamic law are becoming more common in Egypt, a Sunni Muslim nation with a population well above 70 million. Unlike the state-sanctioned morality police of conservative theocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, Egypt’s enforcers are ordinary people who take it upon themselves to offer religious “advice,” often to strangers.

Unveiled women are the primary targets, but the enforcers also chastise Muslim men for dating, not observing prayer times or allowing their wives or sisters to wear revealing clothes.

Television preachers, Saudi religious literature and religious instruction in mosques all are encouraging practicing Muslims to offer such advice to others, even if unsolicited.


Egyptian officials have expressed alarm at the conservative Islamist reformation that’s spreading across the Middle East and posing a challenge to the secular, authoritarian government of President Hosni Mubarak, one of the United States’ closest Arab allies.

While Egyptian security forces regularly round up dozens of Islamist activists from organized movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, they’re all but powerless to stop the street preaching that’s now an everyday occurrence on the subway, at the airport, in the workplace and at sidewalk cafes.

The Azhar position:

Government-backed clerics fear that their relatively moderate brand of Islam is being replaced by a more militant version fueled by widespread political discontent at home and fury over what’s seen as Western meddling in the Muslim world. To add insult to injury, sheiks who’ve devoted their lives to studying Islam’s intricacies are finding themselves upstaged by religious vigilantes with no formal training.

“Preaching has its professionals who know religion and understand how to do their job,” said Sheik Omar el Deeb, a senior cleric at Al Azhar, a venerable Cairo religious institute that’s struggling to remain a touchstone for the Islamic world. “But for someone to appoint himself as a preacher, on public transportation or on the streets, and then order people to follow religion, could make people shun religion.”

More like, they fear being upstaged.

Several other Muslim countries are locked in internal struggles over the role of morality squads in public life. The difference is that enforcers in the other countries have full state support.

They mention Iran and Hamas but, not surprisingly, fail to mention the motawe3een of Saudia (officially Hay2et al Amr bel Ma3roof wan Nahye 3an al monkar or the Society for Commanding the Good and Denouncing the Abominable).

Anyway, this whole preaching does get very annoying. But it’s to be expected when a society that is all about socially restraining behavior that suddenly gets taken over by a wave of religiosity. It does(nt) help that da3wa (preaching) is highly thought of in Islam. Contrary to Azharite claims, there’s nothing wrong with lay preaching. Islam isnt the catholic church: there’s no formal centralized authority.

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Of Veils and Segregation

I posted this ages ago when a monaqqaba won a case against AUC because they were barring entry with a face veil. To the comments there i would like to add that the reason i am sorry AUC lost the battle is because AUC is a private institution. It’s not a public park, street or mall. And therefore, the so called moral issue aside, i think they have the right to ban whomever they like. It just so happens that this discrimination is on my side. Just like i was ecstatic the first time i called up mojitos for a reservation when they pointed out that veils and children werent allowed.

The reason i bring this up is the obvious recent revival of the women-only cafes issue thanks, primarily, to forsoothsayer recently receiving an email advertising the place. It should be noted that this email looks to me like some fan of the place emailing her friends. It is most certainly not the kind of message that is likely to have originated from the owners or managers and so everything on their should be taken with a grain of salt.

Kudos to Sandmonkey and co for the phone calls they made. The weird thing, however, is that i actually know a bunch of unveiled women that have been in there. If that’s the case, i would imagine that unless the girl was wearing some large-ass-in-your-friggin-face-CROSS as Copts in Egypt tend to do, she would probably have little trouble getting in.

Personally, I dont see why she would want to. I can understand a person wanting to get into AUC to use facillities such as the library, but not just another probably run of the mill salon/lounge for women. So fucking what if you cant get in?!

I write this post to differentiate between several issues. First and foremost, i continue to maintain that they, like AUC, are a private establishment which is entitled to decide who is and isnt allowed inside. It’s not a public good.

Second, i recognize that this may seem a little racist/religionist to Western (esp American) folk who had to deal with “no blacks no dogs” just a few decades ago. But not every nation has a nazi-like, racist, slave-driving past on its conscience. I have argued countlessly about this issue. While it is technically discrimination, in the sense of differentiation, i find it very lame to fight this as a religious issue. Everyone feels more comfortable with people that are more like them. Just like i want to be able to see people’s faces, these women want to be able to let their hair down.

Third: With that said, i do think that it is indeed a frightening phenomenon from where i stand. I dont like the idea of people (whether official policy or not) thinking in terms of Muslim vs Copt. It’s a sad truth of every day life in Egypt. This is but one more manifestation of the trend in Egypt over the last 50 years. To my grandfather, the fact that copts are disdained by Muslims is so inconceivable that he yelled at me and ended the conversation. My father recalls playing in the streets with a a copt and a jew in the 40s and early 50s. It wasnt until years later that he apparently registered their different identities. Now, people are always asking your name. And if you have a neutral name, you can be sure they’ll ask for more names in an attempt to discretely identify your allegiance. We live in scary times.

Shit, i’m late for an appointment.

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I found this unposted piece of writing from last year. I’ve done the editing but havent bothered to change much. Though it’s a little dated to my mind, i think all of the meaning is still there. It’s quite different from the general direction of this blog and i hope it will not offend too many. Without further ado:

Ramadan rant;

Or, reflections on repeatedly recurring reasons for revulsion regarding a religious ritual retrogressed to ridiculous righteous rites that reek of ramifications of repressive, regimented religiosity.

The reason I hate Ramadan in Egypt is because it is precisely the opposite of what Ramadan should be. I wont dwell for too long on the obvious paradoxes of Ramadan such as: the fact that almost everyone gains weight during a month of fasting; tempoveils; how it is ok to drink all year but not in Ramadan; the infinitely stupid but increasingly visible act of reading out of a Qur’an WHILE DRIVING!!!!

Why fast?

Ramadan, in my mind, has always been about all those things that it’s supposed to be. It’s a time to worship and become closer to God. It’s a time to learn patience and self-control by resisting such urges as hunger and anger.

With some people, i dont really get why they fast. It’s the only religious rite of any sort that they “perform”. I’ve asked. And have gotten varyingly satisfactory responses. For example, that all of man’s deeds are for himself except for fasting which is for God – though what He could possible need with short-tempered, foul-breathed, deprived and depraved sycophants i cant possibly fathom – which is fair enough in principle. But it’s hardly convincing in practice.

Fasting license

A couple of friends and I were comparing Ramadan office hours. I stated that I thought going home so early was a little silly and that people were lucky this year since everyone seemed to be finishing long before iftar. See, in my mind, you go home early so you can get home in time. My friend boldly proclaimed that this was an extremely stupid way of looking at it. Apparently, the real reason we are let off early was so that we dont have to work as hard while fasting. When people think like that, it’s no wonder nothing ever gets done in Ramadan. See, it’s okay to slack off in Ramadan since you are fasting and are thus expected to perform at sub-par standards. I suppose it’s understandable when you make mistakes, but it sure as hell is not a license to be lazy.

The thing is, work isn’t the only area where Egyptians (or at least Cairenes), use Ramadan as an excuse to get away with more. People’s fuses seem to be infinitely shorter during Ramadan. And, again, while this is understandable if it’s 4pm and you’ve had a long day and are getting screwed over by the traffic, it sure as hell is not an excuse. And there is most definitely no reason to be yelling at each other first thing in the morning, which seems to happen very frequently. Besides, wasn’t Ramadan supposed to be all about self-discipline? It’s a little disconcerting that most of the people I’ve seen jump out of their cars in vulgar and violent fits of rage are very pious-looking, raisin-stamped and long-bearded. Unless of course, this is a phenomenon akin to the tempoveils. But see, it’s always ok, because they have a license called fasting.

Which brings me to the next point. Egyptians like to throw blame around. It’s always somebody or something else’s fault. The zionists, amreeka, the communists, nasser, sadat, the president, the cabinet, the economy, islamists, the military, the neighbor, the other car, the guy sitting next to me and, of course, women.

Temptations of the Flesh

I first came up against this several years ago when my much older (around 50 now) cousin was working downtown. It was Ramadan, and he complained about how, on his way home, he had to be very careful where he looked while passing by AUC because the girls there broke his fast. This immediately struck me as odd. First of all, broke his fast? Personally, I didnt exactly get a hard-on every time i saw a girl’s hair or arms. Second, how is it her fault?

Obviously, this has been a recurring theme. Every Ramadan I have to hear from my female friends about how much shit they get for walking around in what is usually as modest as you can get without wearing a tent. And every Ramadan I have to hear misogynistic Egyptian men, bitch about how unveiled girls break their fast. I think this is absolutely absurd.

It seems to stem from a widely accepted, by even the most liberal and secular of people, Egyptian belief that God created man with hormones and that he has no control over this and that is the duty of women to make sure that they don’t get men’s thoughts going (on a side note, this is, unfortunately, so institutionalized that until recently rapists could get off of charges by proposing to the girl and if a couple is caught having extramarital sex, guess who goes to jail? Yep! the woman for prostitution!). Absurd!

God created man (and woman) with a multitude of fleshly, earthly desires and urges. These include the need for food and drink, the urge for sexual satisfaction (both sexes, believe it or not), tendencies towards anger, greed, glutton, sloth and a weakness for temptations of alcohol and drugs. And on top of all this, he made it all available to man (and woman, of course) to test their mettle.

Some of this is obviously unacceptable (ie, a sin) regardless of context. Others, are a matter of regulation. God expects you to eat and drink, but not to be a glutton; to have sex, but not out of marriage, etc…

And in order for Muslims to learn to control their urges, we, thankfully, have Ramadan. A time of piety when one is expected to control all urges from food and drink to sex and anger. You’re supposed to develop self-discipline and patience. What does this have to do with sex? If you cant stop yourself from thinking sexual thoughts, it’s YOUR FAULT. No one else can take the blame for you. Seeing flesh is not what breaks your fast, it’s the unbridled lust that does.

Now, whether or not you think that women should be veiled is completely and utterly besides the point. Why? I’m not even going to bother with the argument about foreign or christian women, who aren’t bound by Islamic tradition. It’s a moot point when you consider this: Let’s say you’re standing around and Morkos (your coptic friend) is eating a sandwich or Sara (yes, she’s veiled. don’t worry) is smoking today because shhh-you-know-what. It’s so ingrained in our understanding of Ramadan that even a third grader can tell you that you will be further rewarded for your perseverance. So the next time you see a half-naked (and by that i mean that her forearms, face and hair are showing), stop thinking about jumping her. Think about god, lower your gaze and keep on moving. If you don’t stare at her long enough to cuss her out, you could just stand a chance of keeping those thoughts out of your mind.

I’ll stop here.

In essence, I think Egyptians really need to revisit the reasons they do things for. If and when they embark on this, they’re going to need a lot of common sense, a little logic and, ultimately, the willingness to take responsibility.

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Saudi divorce over face?!

i found this to be absolutely hilarious.

Since it’s in Arabic, briefly: Woman got fuming mad, left her husband’s house because he purportedly tried to sneak a glance at her face while she was asleep. Funnily enough, they;’ve been married for some 30 years and have children. Now, i know that Khamees (e)Msheit is one of the most conservative Saudi regions, but this custom is just… heh. At least they’re not pawning it off as Islam.

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UPDATE: oops! forgot the link.

I just read a pretty interesting article in the National Geographic that takes a look at Islam in Pakistan and its relationship to both fundamentalist Islam and violent Islamists, entitled “Struggle for the Soul of Pakistan”. I have always, since my insect-observing science-obsessed nerdy childhood had a certain affection for NG and continue to consider it one of the best magazines, full stop. I suppose in nature you dont need to worry about the author’s slant so much.

Which is why I got so excited about their covering Islam in Pakistan just when the world (or the policy shapers, at least) is finally taking notice of the fuck-up that is Pakistan. (It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.) And I feel like I wasnt disappointed. Some excerpts:

This is also where two conflicting forms of Islam meet: the relatively relaxed and tolerant Islam of India, versus the rigid fundamentalism of the Afghan frontier. Beneath the surface of Pakistan, these opposing forces grind against each other like two vast geologic plates, rattling teacups from Lahore to London, Karachi to New York. The clash between moderates and extremists in Pakistan today reflects this rift, and can be seen as a microcosm for a larger struggle among Muslims everywhere. So when the earth trembles in Pakistan, the world pays attention.

It’s a little flowery. And the moderates/extremists polarity rings alarm bells in my head. But looking beyond the recent usurpation of the words, for someone who knows so little about south asia, the contrast of the schools of Islam is quite interesting and goes towards explaining a lot.


From the start, the founders of Pakistan intended their nation to be a refuge for Muslims, not an Islamic state. Pakistan was created when India, a British colony for nearly a hundred years, gained its independence and was partitioned into two countries along a hastily drawn border. Pakistan’s first leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and his brain trust of secular intellectuals created a fledgling democracy that gave Islam a cultural, rather than political, role in national life. Their Pakistan was to be a model of how Islam, merged with democratic ideals, could embrace the modern world. “Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense,” Jinnah said in his inaugural address, but “as citizens of the state.”

Sixty years later, having been educated in schools that teach mainly the Koran, the young women in the library are stunned when I mention Jinnah’s secular vision for Pakistan. “That is a lie,” Ayman says, her voice shaking with fury.


More than anyone, it was General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq who created Pakistan’s current generation of Islamic radicals, and the climate in which they thrive. A Punjabi general with a pencil-thin mustache and raccoon circles under his eyes, Zia seized power in a coup in 1977, had the democratically elected prime minister tried and hanged, and promptly pressed for the Islamization of Pakistan, calling for more religion in the classroom and the use of punishments such as flogging and amputations for crimes against Islam. To Zia, Pakistan’s secular founders, with their emphasis on Muslim culture, had it exactly backward. “We were created on the basis of Islam,” Zia said, and he set out to remake democratic Pakistan as a strict Islamic state—despite the fact that a large majority of Pakistanis were, and remain, moderates.

Whether by temperament or tradition, most Pakistani Muslims are more comfortable with the mystical and ecstatic rituals of Barelvi Islam, a colorful blend of Indian Islamic practice and Sufism. For a Punjabi farmer whose crop has just come in, it has always been more satisfying to hang out at a Sufi shrine listening to qawwali music and watching dervishes whirl than reciting the Koran in a fundamentalist mosque. Most Pakistanis, though powerless to resist, were lukewarm to Zia’s Islamization program, as was much of the outside world.

Naturally, what comes next is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and consequent aligning of CIA’s interests with those of Zia. And then, as we all know, by the 80s the madrassas were swelling with the “Zia Generation”. Coupled with the autonomy of tribal mountain regions, the rest is history.

But what of now?

In modern Pakistan, that’s [“I’m a Muslim,” says Edhi, “but my true religion is human rights.”] an increasingly lonely position. There are many thousands of dedicated doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, and humanitarians—including some in government—who, like Edhi, are working to move their country forward, but the space in which they operate is shrinking. Recently, at Musharraf’s bidding, parliament passed a bill to restrict the activities of NGOs and human rights groups. Even as he promotes “enlightened moderation,” Musharraf accuses such groups of humiliating Pakistan by publicizing abuses, and declares them a threat to the national interest.

Such rhetoric only emboldens the Islamists, whose influence is growing across Pakistan.

Sounds familiar. And so does:

He explains what emboldens these young women to risk their lives for Islam: “This government has lost all credibility,” he says. “People look at Musharraf and they see a U.S. puppet who’s willing to declare war on fellow Muslims to satisfy America. They also see his generals getting rich, while they’re getting poorer every day. People are losing hope. Pakistan and its government are becoming two different things. This will have to change, and soon.”

So familiar, in fact, that all you have to do is change a few letters and it sounds like home.

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