Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Egypt, Islam, and Political Activism

Despite having some personal ties to the situation, I don't blog that much about Egypt. One reason is that the country is already so well served in the blogosphere that I would feel superfluous. Another is that I still feel like there are huge gaps in my understanding of the Egyptian situation that would make anything I said sound quite stupid, naive, or ignorant. It is with the latter in mind that I ask readers to forgive me if what I say here completely misreads the situation and shows ignorance of broad political trends that just aren't making it into blogland or the mainstream media.

One issue facing Kefaya and its protesting offshoots is that they struggled to bring out more than a few hundred people even in the most favorable conditions. The largest problem is that Egypt just doesn't seem to be ripe for revolution at the moment, perhaps because there is no credible leader or group of leaders for such a revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood could probably rally huge support if they provoked a confrontation and tried, but they show no signs of doing so. A broader context to this, however, is that despite people's best efforts the messaging just isn't connecting with enough people.

Last summer in Cairo I observed a number of anti-regime protests. One was in Imbaba. As I described here, someone began adding "Allahu akbar" to the chants, only to be hushed by his predominantly fellow demonstrators. Several months before, I had seen a talk by Mark Tessler about polling data from certain Arab countries. A gaudy 89% of Egyptians said they thought religion should have an important role in government, higher by double digits than any other country. You're not going to win many people over by banning God from your protests.

In contrast, a couple of weeks before, the Wednesday protest had been at Sayyida Zaynab, a place heavy with religious and historical symbolism that cut close to the core of the protestors' opposition to the Mubarak regime and the events of the May 25 referendum protests. I understand this was controversial among the protest organizers. This is highly unfortunate, as I think the opposition would get further if they went out of their way to appear as traditionally Egyptian as possible, including in a religious sense. They already face an uphill battle, as most seem to be well-educated, Westernized children of privilege, privileged enough to get away with marching through Shubra under a banner associated with a Western leader named Leon Trotsky whose ideas they've all studied.

What I'm suggesting isn't endorsing an Islamist platform for Egypt such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood. I'm also not suggesting the conventional Islamic liberalism, which tends to be geared more toward theological debate than street activism. I am saying that protestors should work to frame more of their demands and actions through religious rhetoric and symbolism. During the 20th century, Shi'ite leaders did this brilliantly, turning the Ashura story into a template for modern revolution. The same power exists in Islam, and this can be manifested at the levels of slogan and story, which are really the keys to the heart of any faith.

In this great post, the worthy Elijah Zarwan quoted someone as saying, "You’ll never get the people behind you telling them they need to support the judges because some guy in France called Montesquieu talked about the separation of powers." You could, however, ask if God gave humanity laws or kings, and who has the right to command the good and forbid the evil. You don't need to mention anything more expressly religious than that if secularism is something you value. Depending on how aggressive you wanted to be, you could work with the saying attributed to the Prophet, "Command the right and forbid the evil, or God will put the worst of you in charge of the best of you, and the best will supplicate God and be left unanswered."

The use of such rhetoric need not be tied to a conservative religious agenda, and in fact may help counter Islamists by portraying liberals as concerned with Islam and in touch with its values. One survey showed that only 5% of Egyptian Muslims considered the gates of ijtihad closed, so there is popular support for an Islamic politics not grounded in the classical legal schools. In the meantime, Islam has great liberal symbolic power, as seen in Muhammad's opposition to the corrupt Quraysh of Mecca, the important role of Aisha as a political force in the early caliphate, the Constitution of Medina (that that one cuts multiple ways), and many of aspects of the Islamic heritage. Given her status as Cairo's patron wali, the mosque of Sayyida Zaynab is essentially a gift to opposition groups in the present climate. In order to try and straddle Egypt's growing sectarian divide, activists can do the same with Christianity, calling for the money-changers to be throne from the temple, for example.

You can't provoke an uprising by trying to convert one person at a time in street debate. You have to move masses by appealing to them on an emotional level. That's not going to happen under a hammer and sickle, even white ones. I'm also not saying this will be an instant cure. Fear will stay until something reaches a crisis in any event. However, as Elijah indicated in comments to his post, crises are bad. Activists would do well to set things up so they can get by with the smallest crisis possible.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)


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