This is a repost of my “Maspero massacre” piece on the occasion of yesterday’s events, with a series of seven door pictures made with my iPhone 5 and a video with footage of the September 2011 events and the Coptic Church version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah Continue reading
The (un)culture of (in)difference: a family reunion
At a recent family gathering, someone happened to mention the case of Albert Saber: the 25-year-old proponent of atheism who had been tried and convicted for online “defamation of religion”.
Albert’s case had begun as an instance of Muslim zealotry “coming to the defence of Allah and His messenger” against “offending” statements from (so far, mostly, foreign or Christian) unbelievers—before being taken into custody, the young man was brutishly mobbed at his house; his mother was later physically assaulted—a tendency that long predates “the second republic” ushered in by the revolution of 25 January, 2011 but enjoys unprecedented official and legal cover under the present (pro-)Islamist regime.
Despite its sectarian roots, such populist persecution of the irreligious has the blessing of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is both extremely conservative and non-confrontational. Evidently it is no longer safe to be secular in Egypt regardless of official religious affiliation or actual degree of secularism.
So much so that many Internet-active writers—not excluding this one—are increasingly concerned about some Islamist-sympathetic party purposely misreading political, social or creative remarks of theirs on social networks and filing a complaint about their “apostasy” that results in custody, interrogation or, as in Albert’s case, a court-issued jail sentence.
Not that there was any lack of such “lawful” politicking under Mubarak, but seculars could in theory count on the regime, unlike “society”, being more or less on their side. Even that is no longer the case.
The process is neither systematic nor efficient enough to compare to the Inquisition or to well-known 20th-century witch hunts like McCarthyism—which, by “enlightened” cyber activists, it has been—but process and ongoing it remains. And what is worrying about it is society’s readiness to endorse its operation, not just through encouragement or active participation but, more importantly, through silence.
If not for that chance remark about “the young man called Albert”—uttered in a casual, mildly sympathetic tone—I might never have found out just how zealous members of my own family can be. The conversation, to which I had already decided not to contribute, was abruptly cut short when another relation retorted, “People who insult religion are no heroes; it’s a good thing there are laws being implemented in this country.”
Though she was literally shaking as she said this, said relation wasn’t looking at anybody in particular; so she can’t have seen my wide-eyed face. Since the moment I was forced to turn to her, however, disbelief has brought on all sorts questions. A week or so and a half dozen or so incidents later, the most apparently disparate things seem suddenly connected.
October evokes the only victory against Israel the Arabs have claimed since 1948—on the 6th, in 1973. It also evokes the assassination of President Anwar Sadat (who, having won the war, went on to instigate a much reviled peace process): the work of Islamist radicals in the army who made use of a commemorative parade at which he was present eight years later to the day. Fresher than any other, however, October brings back the memory of the killing of some 30 protestors at a large pro-Coptic demonstration in Maspero, by both army troops and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens”, on the 9th and 10th last year.
At the time of “the Maspero massacre”, it was not yet clear that the Islamist orientation—one of whose principal problems in Egypt is anti-Christian sectarianism—would be synonymous with power. Protests that drove Mubarak to step down on 11 February 2011 had been instigated by young seculars, and the post-25 January fight of the almost two-year-long transitional period was against a nominally secular military establishment.
One YouTube video from the aftermath of Maspero, however, highlights some rather obviously sectarian sentiments common not only to Islamists and supposedly anti-Islamist armed forces but also to the kind of civilian to whom SCAF tended to address itself, and whose best interest SCAF supposedly had at heart.
The video shows a young officer boarding a military vehicle near Maspero, in the wake of the killing spree that involved armoured vehicles literally crushing unarmed protesters’ heads, among other grotesqueries.
It is clear the officer is in a state of excitement as he turns to address a small group of people who have crowded round the vehicle. Braggingly, he explains how he killed one protester with a single shot; the “honourable” mob heartily cheers. Neither Muslim Brothers nor Salafis are anywhere near.
Honourable citizens already fed up with protests and demonstrations of every kind—partly incited to come to the defence of “their army” against “marauding Copts” by overzealous pro-SCAF state television—had gone out bearing impromptu weapons in what was truly painfully evocative of a pogrom.
Little wonder, then, that during the parliamentary elections held within weeks of the event, the sectarian underpinnings of parties like Freedom and Justice and Al Nour ensured their ascendency, partly through propaganda to the effect that “liberal” competitors were actually in the employ of sectarian Christian powers.
By the time the presidential elections took place, the picture was considerably more complex: pro-revolution forces had become obsessed with eliminating what was called “military rule”, which dated back not to Mubarak’s rise to power but to the July Revolution of 1952. In their blind keenness that “civilian governance” should finally replace the 60-year-old dictatorship, they had wittingly or unwittingly handed over what political weight they carried to the Islamists.
With greater structural/logistical resources and a clearer message (about Islam, or “honour”), the two potential presidents who finally reached the runoffs were Mubarak’s last prime minister, himself a former military man, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate; rather than endorsing the boycott campaign that had already started but would prove ineffectual, “revolutionaries” automatically opted for the latter.
Events have been escalating considerably since President Morsi took office just over 100 days ago, aided and abetted by the kind of apathy that had allowed Mubarak to stay in power for three decades, arranging for his son to succeed him, while opposition reduced to “the Islamist threat” and an increasingly Islamised society shed every last vestige of morality, competence or vision. Creative and intellectual pursuits are one thing, but conservatism, superficial religiosity and moral duress—all arguably symptoms of that same apathy—are the only qualities of mind widespread and consistent enough across society to be called “contemporary Egyptian culture”. From children charged with tearing pages out of the Quran in Upper Egypt to armed attacks on and the forced displacement of Christians in Rafah—irrespective of the increasingly silly discourse of “national unity”— sectarian persecution seems accordingly underway.
Most recently, less than a week ago in Faqous, near Zagazig, an 18-year-old Banha University student and her boyfriend—both Muslim—were arrested on charges that include “denying the existence of God”, under the same defamation-of-religion law used to prosecute Albert Saber, which was almost never invoked under Mubarak but since Morsi came to power has been very frequently (ab)used.
Identified simply as B. R. A. in the press (presumably for her own protection), the girl was officially detained after her mother—a pharmacist educated in the great post-independence universities of “the nation”—reported her to the authorities, requesting that she should undergo a virginity test in a move that recalled one of SCAF’s more notorious abuses of female demonstrators during the transitional period.
As it later transpired during questioning, said mother, with appropriately zealous help from B. R. A.’s brother and maternal uncle, had reportedly attempted to poison B. R. A. because of the girl’s outrageously unorthodox views.
The culprit herself was happy to share those views with the police (and, insane as I must be, they don’t sound very criminal to me): that there is nothing wrong with premarital sex so long as contraception is used, that hijab is a bad idea, that atheism makes sense…
Far from the Chorus of artists and intellectuals screamingly mournfully at the straight-faced lies of fanatics-turned-politicians back in Cairo, it is in a tragedy like this—with a provincial setting and non-privileged protagonists—that concepts of the modern state, the social contract and citizenship rights are put to the test.
B. R. A., I feel, deserves infinitely more respect than thousands of young women who, in the safe havens of an urban upper middle class, can afford to think of hijab (or premarital virginity, or faith) as a matter of personal choice a la Western multiculturalism, recognising neither its ubiquity and sectarian-misogynist functions nor the fact that not choosing it can totally ruin lives.
Ideally, the state must protect a young woman like B. R. A. from abuses to which she is already subject in her family home, let alone society at large; at the very least, to be called a modern state at all, it must refrain from adding a legal/official dimension to the social/cultural machinery that victimises her.
Not that the state ever did so under Mubarak, of course, but the regime’s ostensible conflict with Islamists arguably made it harder for the powers that be, however zealously Muslim, to express “honourable” sentiments against freedom of belief as such.
For me and many like me, the right and freedom of B. R. A. to live safely as she chooses were precisely what 25 January was about.
That 25 January should have legitimised and brought on greater formalistion of the objectively deplorable norms whereby B. R. A. is denied any such right or freedom on the pretext of the law or the majority, social consensus or the greater good, prompts just the kind of disbelief with which, during that fateful family gathering, I ended up looking at my female relation who was keen on Albert Saber being punished for his blasphemies.
It would be beside the point to say that individual verbal attacks—whether from Muslims or non-Muslims—cannot be reasonably said to undermine a belief system-cum-former civilisation as solid and established as Islam. It would be equally irrelevant to say that it is the Muslims’ own anachronisms and hypocrisies—not to mention their violence against non-Muslims—that have generated worldwide (including George W. Bush-style/Crusader) Islamophobia. Combined with the grassroots/populist tendency of Egyptians to deny difference and punish those who fail to conform, “Islam” (and, indeed, Coptic Christianity) in the context of contemporary Egypt tends to reduce to a young man or woman being collectively sacrificed for speaking their mind while old, unremarkable Muslim Brothers replicate the roles of Mubarak and his retinue. You would’ve thought this was enough reason for the champions of 25 January, whether “revolutionary” or “oppositional”, to be wary of the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood replacing the military godhead founded by Nasser in 1952, of which Mubarak, his two predecessors and SCAF were all avatars.
Catch 25: a situation in which, given a choice between the regime you revolted against and political Islam, you really have no choice at all.
Which brings us to the limits of democratic process in a country where mass political choices reflect quasi-tribal affiliations—and what bigger tribe to win elections and enjoy the attendant benefits, regardless of how undemocratic it may be at bottom, than the one that panders to the hysterics of that relation of mine, the barbarism of Albert Saber’s detractors or the sheer evil insanity of B. R. A.’s mother—all of which find ready justification and effective expression in the conservative religiosity of the kind of “civil state with an Islamic frame of reference” envisioned by the Brotherhood.
This is the culture to which, as an Egyptian intellectual here and now, I must be party. This is the culture that “seven thousand years of civilisation and three great pyramids” actually refers to—not the novels of Naguib Mahfouz or the songs of Om Kolthoum (neither of whom is looked on very favourably by Islamists anyway), much less the contract that is supposed to bind citizens to the society in which they live through the mediation of a benevolent or at least neutral state apparatus that allows people to believe what they will and adopt the lifestyle they choose.
It will take far more than “toppling the regime” to change that culture. It will take much more than politics to bring about an Arab Spring.
Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?
The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…
To a pro-Islamist majority of the constituency—and it is irrelevant whether or to what extent that majority confuses political Islam with the Rightful Creed—the Talaat Harb rally would have been anathema. Comparatively tiny in numbers though they remain, Intellectuals promote practices and ideas that Islam in its present-day formulations will tend to reject. So, for example, where an actress who already subscribes to the pre-Islamist censorial strictures of a seemingly forever “conservative society” may talk about a slightly skimpy outfit being necessary for the role, the post-Islamist TV viewer vindicated by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan—so much so that, clean-shaven all through the almost two year long transitional period and before, he now has the moustache-less beard prescribed by stricter schools of orthodoxy—will talk about nudity, depravity, iniquity and hellfire.
And it was exactly such discourse, taken to insolent extremes, that prompted a series of more specifically “artistic sphere” (as in actors’ and singers’) protests in the last few weeks. On a programme he presents, a supposedly respectable Salafi “Islamic scholar” named Abdalla Badr attacked the film star Ilham Shahine for her stand against the rise of political Islam on the religious satellite channel Al-Hafidh, on 20 August. He went so far as to say, addressing the actress, “How many men have mounted you?” prompting outrage in many (including Al-Azhar) circles. Events have centred variously on Shahine being subjected to such audiovisual libel (she has since taken Badr to court), on similar incidents with actresses Nabila Ebeid and Hala Fakhir, and on the legal battle being waged on comedy superstar Adel Imam for several months now. The last seminar, in solidarity with Shahine, took place at the Actors’ Syndicate on 4 September.
So far, so clear: civil society and its Intellectual vanguard, however conservative or uncultured in their own right—however ineffectively, too, all things considered—are facing up to “the Islamist threat”. The civil-Islamist (or, less euphemistically, the secular-Islamist) fight is no longer avoidable; and its media facet remains important even though it plays out more effectively in the long run in academic and literary circles. (Remember such incidents as the court case that forced the late scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zeid to leave the country, the attack on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s life, and the several legal “crises” over Ministry of Culture publications, all of which were eventually taken out of circulation. Remember that such incidents—together with the unprecedented spread of hijab and other overtly sectarian phenomena—all happened under Mubarak, at a time when Islamists were not only not in power but also subject to persecution.) Now that the political underdog of yesteryear has far more leverage to attack this year’s underdog-in-the-making, the battle lines would seem to be clearly marked; someone like Shahine looks like a victim of misguided religious extremism.
Yet to a wider pro-25 January (2011) majority—one that definitely includes some of those protesting against “the Ikhwanisation of the state” on the evening of 23 August—by now much “civil” politicising is, rightly or wrongly but perhaps more rightly than wrongly, identified with the pre-25 January political status quo. Whether because liberal and leftist forces are incompetent or because the religiosity of the constituency prevents them from building support bases, as was so painfully evident on 24 August, the only political players willing to oppose political Islam are those “remnants of the fallen regime” who had directly or indirectly benefited from the Mubarak system. (That Islamists too are “remnants”, perhaps the worst kind, is not a widely accepted idea however true.)
With a few notable exceptions, the “artistic sphere” in particular was largely against the revolution whose “legitimacy” the Ikhwan have practically inherited, aided by those “revolutionary” forces who had no support among “the people”. Adel Imam was seen insulting the Tahrir protesters on TV before Mubarak stepped down. Ilham Shahine repeatedly called for the brutal suppression of protests even as protesters were being murdered under SCAF; she openly lamented the age of freedom that the revolution put an end to. But more generally, the Intellectual fails to see the connection between the religiosity and conservatism of society at large and political Islam’s hold on that society. Such deference to the sect embraces not only the Intellectual vanguard (the phenomenon of the female film star who retires after taking hijab, or the Nasserist activist who supports “the resistance”) but also the revolution itself.
It is this issue—the Intellectual failing to represent a society susceptible to “extremism” and consequently being implicated with corrupt and autocratic (but, until Mursi was elected president, still nominally “civil”) power—that summarises the conundrum of the role of culture in Egypt. The futility of culture as a line of defence against anything at all was further illustrated on 6 August, when “a delegation” of mainstream arts figures including Imam met with Mursi at the presidential palace to discuss recent tensions with Islamists. Typically of any Egyptian official before or after the revolution, Mursi provided the requisite “reassurances”, speaking against the “satellite sheikhs” who insult artists and affirming the role of culture in “the civilisation of nations”. There is no reason on earth to believe that a president whose rise to power has entirely depended on Islamists will actually do anything to support “art” against “extremism”; and it is easy to conclude that what the delegation was doing was to actually offer a pledge of allegiance to the new powers, the better to be under their protection in the same way “artists” were under Mubarak’s.
What the delegation said to Mursi, even as it included complaints about the attacks to which female actresses in particular have been subject, would seem to support this thesis. Imam, for example, pointed up the role of “art” in dealing with “social issues”, not only denying past statements of his own but also no doubt alluding to the totally meaningless dose of moralistic preaching often included in otherwise profoundly immoral mainstream films, plays and TV serials. The actor best known for presenting the most searing attacks on Islamists under Mubarak thus implicitly offers to use what popularity he has left to polish the image of Egypt’s Islamist rulers. So much for the Intellectual…
Culture that negotiates a marginal space with power—like culture that speaks for “the people” as an undifferentiated mass, without genuine representative authority—will not promote enlightenment or choice. It will promote an increasingly repressive status quo. Defending so called freedom of creativity, for example, makes little sense in the acknowledged absence of freedom of belief. The kind of art that builds civilisation, whose audience is admittedly very small in Egypt, requires not a presidential decree but a vision of reality where slogans like “Islam is the answer” can only take up the peripheral role they deserve. But perhaps culture is less about commercial films and patriotism—less about experimental theatre, prose poetry and contemporary art—than about a perspective on reality that gradually, slowly and (in the Egyptian context) inevitably through non-official channels, reaches enough private lives to shape the public.
Perhaps the mistake we make about culture is ignoring its original meaning of a way of life and a system of values, values that—all things considered, at this historical juncture—political Islam must be seen to undermine.