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Broken Boundaries and the Politics of Fear
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8. Broken Boundaries and the Politics of Fear

Why open the eyes of the people? They will only be more difficult to rule.

All transitions are dangerous; and the most dangerous is the transition from the restraint of the family circle to the non-restraint of the world.

We will end where we began, with the drama of summer camps in Alexandria being stormed by the Egyptian state security forces. The raids are significant for more than just their illustration of the conflict between public and private sector religious interests, or because of their titillation value for journalists and academics covering the battles between governments and “Islamic fundamentalism” in the Middle East and elsewhere. Their central importance lies in their specific message to the Egyptian public: the implication that children are at risk from “extremism.” This is a substantially new claim, representing a shift in emphasis from the reigning paradigm of recent years that attributes “Islamic extremism” to social and economic forces affecting young adults, the shabab. The fear that children can fall prey to unsanctioned religious ideas reflects a partial recognition of how deep are the cultural and institutional roots of the Islamic Trend. Recent news reports claim that groups like the Gama‘a al-Islamiyya have moved beyond the indoctrination of children in private kindergartens, to use women and young people as couriers, messengers, arms buyers, lookouts, and bomb placers.[3] A pointed recognition of this change is seen in one of the first scenes in Egyptian actor ‘Adel Imam's popular 1994 anti-Islamist movie The Terrorist, which shows an outdoor school in an Upper Egyptian village, where the fanatic Shaykh Sayf (Sword) is delivering a harangue to twenty young boys and youth, telling them that watching television or reading the newspapers of the “infidel government” are innovations and transgressions that will lead to hell, that they should never greet or shake hands with Christians, or let their mothers or sisters go out of the house without their faces covered (advice reminiscent of that given to the boys in Alexandria). Art does imitate life, whether in the northern urban flat or the palm-roofed rural southern classroom. The current minister of education, Husayn Kamal Baha’ al-Din, worries publicly that Islamists have for years recruited “operatives within educational establishments to undertake to destroy the minds of students.” [4] The recognition that normal processes of cultural transmission might be at play in the Islamization of public and political culture is important because it appears to move discussion of the Trend's social origins away from the notion of a class pathology onto more subtle ground.

Since the late 1970s the dominant explanation for the rise of militant Islamic groups, and for the general religious rebirth in Egypt, has been that the economic and political policies of Anwar Sadat's infitah, the Open Door policy initiated in 1974, have resulted in a widening disparity between the wealthy and the poor in Egypt, together with the downward mobility of educated middle classes no longer able to support lifestyles consistent with their background and aspirations. Inflation, the breakdown of public facilities and services in rapidly growing cities, the overcrowding of universities and schools, and the overburdened healthcare, transportation, housing, and sanitation systems have, on this theory, contributed to a consciousness on the part of the people that the government is not doing its part to provide the nation with the necessities of life. All of this on the tail of the political and military humiliation of the 1967 war with Israel has precipitated a crisis of legitimacy and forced secularizing Egyptians to reconsider the course of the nation. There emerged a widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling establishment as well as with the entire series of Western political ideologies that have formed the basis for Egyptian government since the 1920s. The end result of this dissatisfaction has been a return to Islam, the traditional root of Arab and Muslim greatness. Following the anti-imperialist lead of Hasan al-Banna in the 1930s, Muslim intellectuals like Sayyid Qutb had by the mid-1960s provided an explanation for the ills of the nation: Egyptian society, not ruled by the dictates of the Islamic shari‘a, is not Muslim at all, but rather, jahili, in a state of moral ignorance comparable to that of pre-Islamic Arabia (a notion borrowed from the Pakistani activist Mawlana Abul-A‘la Mawdudi). The only solution is to alter or overthrow the existing system and replace it with one based on the principles of Islam.

This is the way many Egyptian intellectuals and journalists explain the rise of activist Islam, and as a result this is the explanation most widespread among the nation's educated community who read such theories in the popular press, if not in scholarly journals and government reports, and deploy them in cocktail conversations, interviews, and public statements. I once mentioned to Muhammad Sulayman, who had found socialism through reading the plays of Bertolt Brecht, that I found it curious that there were two or three muhaggabat working in the office of his leftist publishing house.

“Oh, they're not religious,” he replied.

“How so?” I asked, surprised that this most obvious mark of religiosity might not be religious after all.

“They wear the higab for economic reasons [min bab iqtisadi], not religious reasons [mish bab at-tadayyun],” he explained.



“Are you sure?”


Some secularist intellectuals, not content to let political economy bear the entire burden, link the Islamic revival not only with economic and social stresses, but with darker psychological and social pathologies such as prostitution and mental illness. A prominent Egyptian intellectual, Hani Sharif Mahmud, explained the prevalence of the higab this way:

Now, part of it [the return to the veil] is economic: you don't have to wear makeup, or go to the coiffure, which is expensive, and you don't have to change your dress so often. And there's also an element of feeling protected, of gaining a respectability that might be more important now than other things. You know, it's a well-known fact that even prostitutes dress in these things, because it makes it easier to escape from the police. Really! So much so, that when a girl from a traditional quarter suddenly puts on the veil, people will say, oh, so now she's going to a brothel!…The new Islamic Trend is not really genuine, most of it, because it's generated from frustrations.…This is why you have the Islamists so active in a situation [of high inflation and widespread corruption] like this, stressing honesty and so forth, it's because they want their piece of the pie, and politics has been discredited. The Islamic movement is just another kind of extremism, and it just takes different forms…[Islamists and Marxists] take old authors and read them and use them as the basis on which to argue for different things. Sometimes they're the same arguments in a Marxist or an Islamic debate, just using different authors and a different language. Extremism is the expression of frustrations from one sphere in the activities of another.[5]

Other Egyptian leftists, shocked to find their daughters donning the higab, send them for psychiatric treatment,[6] and explain the defection of secularist intellectuals to the Islamic Trend as the result of “personal crisis.” In the movie The Terrorist, one of the characters, a worldly American University in Cairo student, explains to her family that extremists are “full of complexes, victims of repression,” a fine collegiate Freudianism that seems to accord with the title character's frustrated projection of lechery onto unveiled women, and to his subsequent reactionary violence. Diagnoses linking religion with personal trauma or mental illness appeared again when Hani Sharif Mahmud told me there had never been any religious activity in his own house when he was raising his two sons. His father, a landowner, had not been religious. “As for myself,” he said, “I was educated in a Lycée, a French secular school, and then received a Marxist education after that, so I learned very early the French tradition of “libre pensée.” I was very influenced, like my sons have been, by Bertrand Russell, and so on.” But then he paused and added quickly,

The only time there was anything religious with my sons was that for a time they were both having problems with manic depressive disorders, you know, and the one who had the manic stage, very suddenly took—this was at the time when his grandmother was dying—suddenly, without warning, became very religious, and took to reading from the Qur’an, just standing at the head of his grandmother's bed reading out of the Qur’an. But that was a very short time…a period of days, just days, then it was over.[7]

Religion and Social Class

These materialist explanations of the Islamic revival assume that beliefs and commitments are expressions either of psychopathology (William James's “medical materialism”) or of structural contradictions and the historical materialist dialectic that coaxes cognitive frameworks from the struggles between social classes. Religion is a translation of social dislocation, political conflict, and psychological trauma. Eric Davis, for example, has argued in one of the most sophisticated and convincing analyses of the Islamic Trend,

that ideology is a reflection of class interests in that Islamic radicals…come from a particular social class and…seek to acquire a greater share of society's material resources. Ideology can also be understood in terms of social strains as Islamic militants…seek refuge in Islam to soothe the alienation stemming from the status deprivation which they have experienced.[8]

Theoretically, this model relies both on the assumption that religion is a response to psychosocial stress, which it has the unique power to soothe, and that class background lends individuals certain cognitive predispositions more likely to be satisfied by one kind of ideological system than by another. The first idea derives of course from Marx, for whom religion was the spiritual aroma of an unjust social order, “an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” [9] Real conflicts take imaginary form as religion, alienating human powers from the terrestrial to the cosmic plane. The second idea draws on Max Weber's subtle outline of the religious tendencies of the noble, peasant, bureaucratic, bourgeois, and intellectual classes in various world religions.[10] Davis writes, for example, that most members of radical groups “are recent immigrants to urban areas…[whose] occupations and educational backgrounds belie [sic] a traditional socialization in the countryside.” [11] Furthermore, these radicals, “whose contacts with Western culture are minimal at best,” [12] use Islam as “a way of reasserting the corporate unity of Egyptian society which [they] perceived to exist from the vantage point of their early socialization in the countryside.” Islamic ideology “does this using symbols which possess strong emotive power since they are the ones with which members of the lower middle class have been acquainted since early childhood and they evoke memories of a romanticized past in which life was integrated and devoid of conflict.” [13] Clearly the urban/rural dichotomy is being used as a master symbol of transition from tradition to modernity, with tradition and religion clustered in the remote Egyptian village, while the city represents an alienated West.

The difficulty with such an argument is that there is little evidence that the sociological makeup of Islamic political groups is different from that of other activist political organizations. The social profiles of members of Islamist groups is very similar to members of socialist and communist organizations, and such groups working on Egyptian university campuses in the 1970s competed for the allegiance of—and drew their membership from—precisely the same kinds of students (just as did their Iranian counterparts, where the competition could take the form of literal tugs-of-war over new Iranian arrivals at U.S. universities).[14] There appears to be no good reason to assume that Liberal, Marxist, and Nasserist symbols, unlike Islamic ones, “are equally inadequate in performing a cognitive function for the lower middle classes.” [15] In the case of Muhammad Sulayman, we have seen that socialist symbols can be extremely attractive to young mobile Egyptians, even those with extremely religious backgrounds. Wafa’i Isma‘il, on the other hand, was drawn to Islamic symbols precisely because of their broad appeal to youth of many backgrounds.

Other work linking migration with politicization in Egypt indicates that, “with the exception of Cairo and Alexandria [urban/rural contrasts] are always overstated.” [16] The migration hypothesis does not do a very good job explaining the strength of Islamist groups in smaller cities like Asyut and Minya, along with the dozen other regional towns and villages where security forces have focused their attention. Furthermore, this model assumes that there is something like a unitary traditional socialization process and a “traditional consciousness,” [17] which are unique parts of the rural and not the urban environment. We should remember, though, that the Egyptian public school system gives both urban and rural children the opportunity for a “traditional” upbringing, presenting to growing citizens models of personal virtue, social cohesion, and political triumph that tie traditional Islamic symbols in a systematic way to the complexities of modern life. Although immense disparities remain, schooling can in fact flatten out some of the differences between the experiences of different social classes in a way that Weber—working with historical examples long predating mass schooling—could not foresee. In any case, if rural migration is part of the etiology of the Islamic Trend, it is precisely those individuals who have made use of that educational system—agronomists; university, commerce, and industrial arts students; lawyers and physicians, rather than farmers and day laborers—who are doing the migration. Their school background itself constitutes extensive contact with Western institutions, whose encounter might very well be shocking, not because of its contrast with rural life, but rather because of its internal contradictions.[18]

On another front, Davis's clear-eyed political economy perspective faults earlier approaches to the study of Islamic revival for their “emphasis on seeing change in the realm of ideas. This leads to a concentration on the thought of major Islamic thinkers and hence to an elitist bias.” [19] But with the development of mass literacy—not to mention the secondary orality of electronically mediated Islamic cultural production—matters of philosophy can hardly be considered merely elitist without making the mistake of depriving non-elites of specifically cultural concerns. One of the manifestations of Egypt's growing interest in religion is an extraordinary proliferation of widely affordable religious literature. This includes the production of low-cost editions of classic Islamic thought and reference books, like the Sahih of Muslim, one of Sunni Islam's six major hadith collections. In the late 1980s this eight- volume work was being reissued by Dar al-Ghad al-‘Arabi, under the supervision of al-Azhar. Each volume had been divided into five sections of approximately 190 pages, and every month one section, printed on newsprint with cheap paper covers, was sold at popular newsstands around Cairo at a cost of between two and three Egyptian pounds. Purchasers were informed on the back cover of each section that, once they completed their collection, the publisher would bind them at a cost of two pounds (in 1989, about eighty cents) per volume. I saw similar products awaiting attention at independent book binderies as well. Making such works available cheaply, by obviating a large initial investment, broadens the audience for theological learning and debate among nonspecialists. This is not even to mention the hundreds of “new Islamic books” (the term coined by Yves Gonzales-Quijano) that flood street markets, bookstores, and the annual Cairo Book Fair. Covering topics ranging from Israeli conspiracies to dream interpretation to the world of the jinn, from adab manuals for men, women, and children to treatises on the afterlife and the lives of the prophets, these cheap volumes muster evidence from the Qur’an, the hadiths, as well as politics, current events, history, and the sciences, to illuminate matters of popular concern. They are not necessarily—or even very often—the work of Azhari- trained religious scholars, but of physicians, professors, businessmen, activists, and professional writers.

Education and Authority

Such books, the market in intellectual goods of which they are a part, and the educational institutions that prepare people for their use are important elements of the cultural context in which ordinary educated Egyptians perceive their religious duties and fashion personal commitments. As a context, intellectual goods are important not merely in proportion to the number of people who actually consume them, but insofar as they provide a subject for talk and an opportunity for the crystallization of viewpoints within a public discourse whose boundaries are set by the kinds of products available on the market. Some time before the First World War, Weber warned specifically against focusing on cultural production as a causal agent:

[A] religious renascence [cannot] be generated by the need of authors to compose books, or by the far more effective need of clever publishers to sell such books. No matter how much the appearance of a widespread religious interest might be simulated, no new religion has ever resulted from the needs of intellectuals or from their chatter. The whirligig of fashion will presently remove this subject of conversation and journalism, which fashion has made popular.[20]

But this confidence in the limited appeal of intellectual chatter made more sense in an era before radio and television broadcasts, before the political projects of decolonization and school-based nationalist mobilization, before the market-driven successes of Scientology, est, and the New Age in the West. It makes less sense now, particularly in the Egyptian context, where both the fact and its opposition increasingly participate in what Weber called “the struggle of priests against indifference… and against the danger that the zeal of the membership would stagnate,” [21] a struggle that reaches to the heart of both the school and the market. Since Islam is not a new religion but rather an elaborate set of contexts—political and economic, historical and institutional, intellectual, social and personal—in which new discourses are apprehended, evaluated, and employed, both “proletarian intellectualism” and “the need of literary, academic, [and] cafe-society intellectuals to include religious feelings…among their topics for discussion” [22] are in fact important sources and constituents of broad-based public religious interest and activity.[23]

The standard theory of social action, in which individuals and groups respond to social stress by taking refuge in religion, implies that, were the stress relieved, they would return to the status quo ante, rather like the mercury in a barometer responding to changes in atmospheric pressure (Davis and others, in fact, use terms like pressurized to describe the crisis of the petite bourgeoisie).[24] As part of the Egyptian government's own folk theory of the etiology of Islamism, this barometric metaphor results in an enormous volume of talk about job creation, family planning, housing construction, slum clearance, and recreational opportunities for bored and idle youth, in addition to police and educational strategies. If things get better, the theory runs, people will either accept official interpretations of Islamic law, abandoning their false and mistaken ideas, or they will cease to care about religion quite so much, relieved of the need to seek refuge in its symbols of comfort or of resistance.

But in thereby treating culture as a dependent variable, the barometric approach ignores the institutional frameworks and social processes through which culture is created and transmitted. Like other institutions, religious and educational ones fill not only a social need, but a social space. They take on a very real life of their own with interests, dynamics, and potentials that are only incompletely determined by the intersection of forces that brought them about. The development of educational facilities is a prime case in point. Popular schools were first established in Europe to foster basic skills and basic piety among the working classes. And while they still fulfill similar functions on a wider scale, they have now become traditional institutions whose presence is taken for granted. It is almost impossible, now, to think about childhood without thinking of the school. It is simply what children do, and at higher levels, as we have seen in Egypt, the school has come to play an indispensable role as a status-granting institution as well. Older marks of social status such as aristocratic standing or wealth become nearly irrelevant if not coupled with long-term schooling, and in fact to “be educated” is a prime constituent of status itself, regardless of the actual skills, dispositions, or material rewards it has fostered.

Important social movements like the crusade for popular schooling or the Islamic Trend do not leave either their participants or their observers unchanged, and never leave the social environment unchanged. They either succeed in transforming various aspects of social reality in which the next generation of actors must live, or merely strew it with the litter of bygone upheavals in the form of a literature that can be rediscovered later and reinterpreted in new contexts. The barometric theory of political action does not acknowledge that, after the mercury rises, a new equilibrium point is created such that relief of the initial pressure will not result in its return to its old starting point. History may repeat itself, but such repetition is not cyclical. Underlying the oscillation of the economy and the rise and fall of political movements is a cultural, social, and infrastructural background that is cumulative rather than substitutive. New generations of Egyptians confronting the choice between ideological allegiances will always perceive the choice differently, because of the specific historical point at which they enter the system. Therefore, the explanations that we offer for their choices must also change, taking into account the new conditions in which human beings live. This most basic conundrum of human life is of course the theoretical core of both sociology and anthropology: that, in Max Weber's words, society is “an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him…as an unalterable order of things in which he must live.” [25] Or, in the more powerful imagery of Marx, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” [26]

In Egypt, the religious environment of the 1920s or the 1950s was not the same as that of the 1970s, and neither is comparable to that of the 1990s. One of the reasons for this is that compulsory formal religious education reaches so many more people than it ever has before, and that Islamic publications, broadcasts, lectures, public meetings, and other institutions are becoming an inescapable part of public culture, generating their own controversies, reactions, and imitations. The spread of literacy together with the functionalization of the religious tradition has created a new Islam, one that is defined as a necessary instrument of public policy. The part the educational system plays in this creation lies not so much in any of the specific communications it makes about the locus of authority or the character of Islamic government—which can be and are ignored as propaganda—but in the creation of the need for religious information, the tendency to look toward religion for certain things, the creation of certain compartments in a conceptual order that can only be filled by something, regardless of its specific content, labeled “Islamic.” Just as advertising in capitalist societies works not so much by building loyalty to particular products, but by reinforcing the advantages of consumption in general, so religious messages in public space largely exert general rather than specific effects.[27] This is why the state is finding it so difficult to control the movements it helped set in motion. Like its own Islamist opposition groups or Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, it has participated in a relentless “establishment of Islamized spaces” [28] and created a need for which it cannot provide sole satisfaction.

Thus, while it true that at various historical moments, anticolonial sentiment, or rural-urban migration, or military humiliation, or the relative deprivation of the lower middle classes, have contributed to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (in the 1930s) and its derivative organizations (in the 1970s), viewing these same conditions as both necessary and sufficient for the formation of the contemporary Islamic Trend is unsatisfactory. For while motivations change from generation to generation, the common thread linking these generations—a long-term change in the social relations of Islamic cultural production—has to be considered central. As we have seen, the Islamization of Egyptian public culture is not just the effect of the Islamic Trend; it is one of its sources. This fact has an important practical implication. Given the continuity of a functionalized Islamic discourse in concert with the changing motivations of different generations for joining the Trend, no single political or economic strategy can disable it.

Habeas Corpus?

What distinguishes this new Islamic culture from that which Egyptians have experienced historically? Davis and many others have argued that “Islamic radicalism should not be understood in terms of the concept of revival or resurgence but rather as the politicization of Islam.” [29] Indeed, one of the more popular glosses of the phenomenon in both the Middle East and the West is “Political Islam,” a label that both identifies the Islamic Trend with conflicts about political power, and which tends to delegitimize it by implicitly contrasting it with something else (“Social Islam”? “Personal Islam”? “Spiritual Islam?” “Real, Genuine Islam”?). The difficulty with the label is that Islam—like Christianity—has always been available as a political discourse, and has been “politicized” for most of this century insofar as it has been appropriated for self-conscious use by institutions like the Ministry of Education for the purpose of furthering state goals, whether hygienic reform or social control. In fact, the Trend is partly a reaction against that politicization, or at least against the groups that claim exclusive, state-sanctioned authority to interpret Islamic scripture. It is, in Asad's terms, a new religious tradition.

In this sense, Islamic activist groups are similar to the Christian Protestant movements of sixteenth-century Europe.[30] The central feature of both movements is that they “transferred religious authority away from officially sanctioned individuals who interpret texts to ordinary citizens.” [31] According to Ellis Goldberg,

Both early Protestantism and the Islamist movement seek to force believers to confront directly the authority of the basic texts of revelation and to read them directly, rather than through the intervening medium of received authority. Both believe that Scripture is a transparent medium for anyone who cares to confront it.[32]

As the imprisoned leader of one Islamist group argued at his 1977 trial (on charges of kidnapping and murdering a former minister of religious endowments), the Qur’an was delivered, in its own words, in clear Arabic, and therefore anyone wishing to discover its meaning need only consult a good dictionary. One need not have been trained as a religious scholar for this, and thus, “In terms of power the issue of ijtihad [the authority to reach independent conclusions about religious questions] has to do…with the kind of education needed to make valid judgements on Islamic law.” [33] The Islamic Trend results not from differential class responses to the penetration of capitalism, as a Marxist or Weberian analysis might hold, but from the building of a modern state and the consequent competition between alternative modes of socialization.[34]

Universal popular schooling simplifies, systematizes, and packages religious traditions as it does other aspects of the known world. The proclamations of the minister of religious endowments about what percentage of the shari‘a is applied in Egypt, or what portion of the nation's youth hold “moderate” opinions are only comprehensible within the cognitive framework bestowed by a “modern” education, in which Islam is considered a tangible, measurable object, a durable good in circulation amongst the populace. What is happening, in effect, is that the ‘ulama, as the nation's sole legitimate arbiters of religious judgment, are being forced by the state into a position both more powerful and more precarious than before. Their monopoly on access to sacred texts, once guaranteed by mass illiteracy, has been broken by the extension of education and the growth of publishing. While they were once the sole possessors of written knowledge, they are now referred to in a modern idiom as “specialists” in their field. Just as prestige based on exclusivity gives way to prestige based on authenticity, once formerly rare luxury commodities become widespread within a market, so religious specialists in Egypt are now having to find ways to convince the public that their versions of the truth are qualitatively superior to the look-alikes flooding public space.[35] While the ‘ulama's knowledge of Islam is open to the qualified exercise of ijtihad, it expects the public to rely on the simplified, bounded, and established version learned in school, which is meant to remain stable until altered from above.

But instead of stability, what we have witnessed throughout the Muslim world in the twentieth century is the emergence of what Olivier Roy has dubbed “the new Islamist intellectual,” and his audience, the broad “lumpenintelligentsia” of school graduates. Their books and pamphlets, cassettes and videos, represent a collage of information drawn from numerous disciplines—from biology to Prophetic biography—and united not by the transmitted tradition of a single disciplinary methodology, but by the notion that all knowledge is contained in the Qur’an. Freed from traditional processes of knowledge acquisition—apprenticeship to a man of learning—these new autodidact intellectuals stand outside of traditional authorizing institutions, instead authorizing themselves in the process of knowledge production and dissemination. A new field of knowledge is thereby generated in which “the corpus is no longer defined by a place and a specific process of acquisition: anything printed or even “said” (cassettes) is the corpus.” [36]

This genre of Islamic knowledge is neither as new nor as haphazard as Roy claims, since the very model for the integration of modern science with the Qur’an—the public school religion textbook—is such a long- established part of the educational experience. Even if the methodology behind its construction is not part of the socialization process in the religion classroom, the textbook's functionalization of the Islamic tradition stands as a model product that lay intellectuals can thereafter attempt to emulate. “Resolutely rationalist” in style, as Roy writes of Islamist productions, the official textbook and the Religious Awareness Caravan are both, just as much as the Islamist tract, instruments of mobilization in which “the corpus [of sacred literature] becomes a mere point of departure, even just a reference, ever susceptible to being transformed into rhetoric, proverbs, epigraphs, and interpolations—in short, into a reservoir of quotes.” [37]

This combination of religion and modern education has proved dangerous to the religious establishment and the government that relies on it for legitimacy, because in the world of mass literacy, mass marketing, and mass (not to mention international) communication, the exclusive interpretive authority of local, state-based ‘ulama has been permanently broken. Authority is now more a characteristic of products themselves (sermons, lessons, advice, books, magazines, cassette tapes, computer software) than productive processes (apprenticeship, certification, jurisprudential skill). Who the producer is—when that can be determined—is less important than the marketability of what he has to say.

This being the case, shutting off the specifically political threat posed by Islamists (whether through force or through reform) will not restore the power of state-subsidized religious intellectuals. Like government economists in Europe and the United States, agencies can use them to advise and justify policy decisions, but cannot force private specialists or the public at large to listen to or agree with them. In the real world, ordinary people use their own rules of thumb, practical understandings, political rhetoric, snippets of advice and learned principles skimmed from the radio, the newspaper, and that all-but-forgotten high school course to make sense of the world of religion, just as they do in the world of commerce. Attempts to enforce an orthodoxy shaped by the intersecting interests of legitimate culture producers and power elites have always been futile without the exercise of physical power through police raids, inquisitions and censorship, all of which undermine the goals of education's enlightened liberal utopia.[38]

The Realization of Distant Consequences

We are left, then, with one persistent question: Why does the Egyptian government persist in using educational tactics in its battle with the Islamic Trend, if education is one of the contributing factors to the climate of religious activism in the first place? It has been mentioned elsewhere that the government's consistent utilization of Islam for gathering mass political support “has been a crucial factor in sustaining and deepening the influence of Islam as the hard core of politics and most convenient terms of reference…[as well as in] the creation of a convenient climate for breeding Muslim fundamentalist movements.” [39] So how is a renewed and enhanced emphasis on religious education supposed to dampen popular religious activism?

The answer lies in a set of ideas that form the core of the Egyptian elite's conception of itself, a conception born in the mid-nineteenth century and nurtured through the next hundred years in a form so stable that it has seldom been seriously examined. It is a conception that Egyptians share with elites—and ordinary citizens—in America, Europe, and elsewhere, which identifies the state of “being educated” not only with the standing of particular classes within particular societies, but with the standing of whole civilizations relative to one another. Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, in their research on American perceptions of cultural Others, have shown that one of the primary explanations ordinary Americans give for the existence of cultural and economic difference around the world is one of schooling, such that “lack of education must also imply a less adequate form of society or culture.” [40] The idea of education is deployed within an evolutionary narrative that associates it with wealth, with power, with worldliness, and, above all, with modernity, the fact of living in a present state contemporaneous with and similar to the most advanced nations.

The new Egyptian elite, which began to define itself during the late nineteenth century around the idea of education on the European model saw itself as “an elite of superior men” [41] who would jolt the country out of its second-class standing on the world stage. Their consciousness of themselves as a class was woven in part from a set of interlocking positivist dichotomies drawn from nineteenth-century social theory, of which tradition and modernity, ignorance and enlightenment, and religion and secularism, were central. Indeed, these pairs of evolutionary opposites have run like twin strands through research and public policy discussions in Egypt for more than a hundred years, acting like high- voltage cables that generation after generation have used to power their worldview. Enlightenment, secularism, and modernity form a tightly bundled conceptual package opposed to that of religion and its companions, superstition and blind adherence to tradition. In the era of postmodernity, though, with its purported incredulity toward metanarratives, such bundling is increasingly hard to maintain, and the twin ideological power lines are so brittle and frayed that the theoretical circuit they sustain has all but burned out. It is no longer possible in theory, any more than it ever has been in fact, to distinguish between well- marked poles of religious and secular endeavor. If we trace these two ideological strands to their point of origin and back again, we will find that the discourse of education as the road to progress, so central to the self-image of modernity, in fact relies on precisely the same foundations as the religious discourse of salvation. This being the case, then, the institution of schooling can no more face interrogation as a possible source of social discord than could church attendance be suspected as a source of moral failure.

Considering Herbert Spencer's deep suspicion of nineteenth-century national education projects reminded us of the contingency of historical developments, the sense in which institutional trajectories are never inevitable but remain open until finally pushed in one direction or another by changing intersections of power, interest, and circumstance. In the same way, a rereading of the works of mass education's early proponents helps us see how suspicions and fears of another sort were set aside, unresolved, in the face of seemingly more pressing needs, resulting in the image of education as a political panacea. The fear of peasant mobility, both geographical and social, that so concerned the British administration of Egypt, was founded on the perception of two complementary threats. First, a rural exodus inspired by faulty educational policies would threaten the economic stability of the entire country by depriving Egypt of its most valuable export commodity, cheap cotton that was produced by a large and predictable workforce.[42] And second, this exodus would result in a crowding of the cities with rural immigrants either lacking the skills to find urban employment or lacking job opportunities suitable to their educational level. The latter possibility was more immediately frightening than the former, since the effect of a large class of educated but unemployed malcontents posed a more practical short-term political threat to the occupying power. While some education was necessary in order to prevent specific social evils, it nonetheless had the potential to create an entire class of Egyptians who could neither find employment in the civil service nor initiate enterprises of their own. This dangerously “half-educated” and unemployed potential mob elicited a great deal of soul-searching by British intellectuals and imperial bureaucrats.

William Lecky, the popular political theorist who influenced Cromer's ideas on vocational training, had identified in England the same problem administrators faced in India and Egypt. Education, he wrote,

produces desires which it cannot always sate, and it affects very considerably the disposition and relations of classes. One common result is the strong preference for town to country life. A marked and unhappy characteristic of the present age in England is the constant depletion of the country districts by the migration of multitudes of its old, healthy population to the debilitating, and often depraving, atmosphere of the great towns.[43]

Citing the “bitterly falsified” hopes and ambitions of such urban migrants whose sights had been set too high, Lecky detailed the political effects of the consequent “restlessness and discontent”:

Education nearly always promotes peaceful tastes and orderly habits in the community, but in other respects its political value is often greatly overrated. The more dangerous forms of animosity and dissension are usually undiminished, and are often stimulated by [education's] influence. An immense proportion of those who have learnt to read, never read anything but a party newspaper—very probably a newspaper specially intended to inflame or to mislead them—and the half-educated mind is peculiarly open to political Utopias and fanaticisms. Very few such men can realise distant consequences, or even consequences which are distant but one remove from the primary or direct one.[44]

In Egypt, education had similarly “awakened ambitions which were formerly dormant,” according to Cromer, such that “it can be no matter for surprise that the educated youth should begin to clamour for a greater share than heretofore in the government and administration of the country.” [45] The danger of disaffection was treated by limiting the number of individuals who could receive access to higher primary education, to prevent the creation of “déclassés” who felt they were above engaging in manual trades.[46] If frustrated in their ambitions, such men posed a threat to stability. “[I]n my opinion,” the director of the School of Medicine wrote to the consul general, exemplifying this fear, “it is hardly possible to set loose on the country a more dangerous element than the needy medical man.” [47]

The Disturbed Surface of the Public Mind

And yet, as we have seen, this fear of overeducation coexisted with a matching fear of undereducation. The 1919 report of the Egyptian Elementary Educational Commission concluded with a number of inspiring quotations among which was a line from a 10 August 1918 article in the Times of London: “If education is allowed to wait, children do not wait for it: they grow up uneducated; and if we have learned one thing from the war, it is that the uneducated are a danger to the State.” [48] It was this latter threat that was eventually to triumph, and to permanently foreclose the possibility of scaling back educational institutions. The question instead became, not whether to educate the masses, but how best to do so? The term half-educated, so often used to refer to those whose education resulted in political inconvenience, requires an image of what a complete and sufficient education should accomplish. The tension between the perceived danger and promise of schooling reveals deeper tensions both between the imperatives of economic development and those of social control, and between the intellectual categories in which Europeans, and later Egyptians, thought about the relationship between their societies. A traditional, superstitious society could be transformed into a modern, rational one, but such a transformation would take untold amounts of time. Expressing the long-term nature of such changes, Cromer resorted to the gradualist idiom of Spencer and Darwin when he wrote of the introduction of democratic processes into Egypt. By the careful cultivation of preexisting parliamentary principles, he wrote, “we may succeed in creating a vitalized and self-existent organism, instinct with evolutionary force.” [49] And such change, as Anna Tsing points out with respect to the global narrative of development, “appears as a category which, by default, brings us toward what we know.” [50]

The problem was that neither the British nor the Egyptians possessed a good model for what the transitional stages between tradition and modernity would look like. When they saw what was happening in fact, they found the results grotesque, upsetting, confounding of normal categories of thought, and counter to all predictions: it appeared that the little-educated refused to turn to manual labor even to escape poverty; while the much-educated were irrational fanatics. One writer expressed this confusion with respect to India (although it might just as well have been written of Egypt):

The English in India…sow secular education broadcast among the most religious races in the world; and they invite all kinds of free criticism, by classes totally unaccustomed to such privileges, upon the acts of a bureaucratic government. The confusion of ideas that is sometimes generated by this confounding of heterogeneous elements, by the inexperience of the people and the candour of their rulers, is hard to describe; but very curious instances can be observed every day in the native newspapers, which reflect the disturbed surface of the public mind, without representing the deeper currents of native opinion and prepossessions. The press often appeals in the same breath to the primitive prejudices of Indian religion, and to the latest notions of European civilization.[51]

This profound anxiety and sense of danger stems from the confusion of categories that occurs whenever cultural boundaries are shattered and unlikely elements come to coexist.[52] Transitional states that fall between conceptual categories occasion a sense of dread, just as “people living in the interstices of the power structure [are] felt to be a threat to those with better defined status.” [53] This is the real shortcoming of theoretical systems that contrast the initial and final states of societies moving from one to another ideal type: they cannot deal fruitfully with the transition itself, which is never entirely thorough, predictable, or bounded in time.

The passage quoted above, on the English in India, is from an 1884 article in the Edinburgh Review, by Sir Alfred Lyall, an Indian administrator who was friend and intellectual mentor to Egypt's Lord Cromer.[54] Both worked under the influence of their colleague Sir Henry Maine's trendsetting 1861 book Ancient Law, one of the first works to capitalize on Comte's comparative method as a means of tracing evolutionary sequences in society. For Maine, ancient societies as exemplified by contemporary India were collective, patriarchal despotisms in which the family was the basic unit of organization. Evolutionary change in Europe had long ago altered the very foundation of that society, so that “starting, as from one terminus of history, from a condition of society in which all the relations of Persons are summed up in the relations of Family, we seem to have steadily moved towards a phase of social order in which all these relations arise from the free agreement of Individuals.” [55] For his part, Lyall believed that the British arrival in India would free that country from its “arrested development” and set it on a similar evolutionary course. This conservative position assumed that social change would be a gradual process of organic development, with the indigenous religious system an important part of the engine driving that evolution. (Lyall's predecessor, Sir William Jones, had composed devotional poetry to the Hindu gods promising that the British would undermine a “priest-ridden Hinduism,” [56] and Lyall himself believed that Hinduism might move up the evolutionary scale of religion from “naturalism” to “supernaturalism,” in which religious concern turned inward and otherworldly. He feared, however, that higher education for Indians would lead to atheism among the Western-educated elite.[57]) In Egypt, Cromer cautioned his own Ministry of the Interior in 1895 that there was no ministry in which “the zeal of the earnest reformer is more to be deprecated. The habits and customs of an oriental people must not be trifled with lightly.” [58] Religion and culture had to remain unmolested not only to avoid popular reaction, but to allow beliefs and institutions to take their own evolutionary course.

It is hard to overstate how different this view was from that of the other European philosophical camp, that of the Utilitarian radicals led by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. For the Utilitarians, who deprecated both “customary” (e.g., indigenous Indian) law, and British Common Law as unsystematic and therefore barbarous, real social change could only take root with a revolutionary revision in legal practice, a revision that would not hesitate to trifle with the customs and habits of indigenous peoples. While common and customary legal practices exhibited a “superstitious respect for antiquity,” according to Bentham, modern legislation and the creation of written codes could prompt immediate social change in a rationally anticipated direction.[59] “Give me the words of the Koran,” Bentham boasted,

give me the ideas that belong to them; I ask no more: out of them, and them alone, I undertake to produce you a code, which shall contain a hundred times the useful matter there is in that, without any of those absurdities, the existence of which, upon comparison with the ideas of utility we have at present, you cannot but acknowledge.[60]

Although the Bentham/Mill model of social change preceded that of the conservatives, it was not discarded with the development of evolutionary social theory by Maine, Spencer, and others. Its survival into the later part of the century contributed to a subtle duel at the heart of Victorian social theory. Along with competing theories of social change, competing theories of social structure and function stumbled over each other in the pages of learned periodicals and even cohabited uneasily within the pages of single monographs. One particularly prominent tension was that between a machine model of social organization, which seemed to imply the ability freely to engineer, tinker, and reconstruct, and the organic model of the evolutionists, later bequeathed to French and British functionalism, which appeared to favor caution and patience.

Cromer himself used the machine analogy with abandon in Modern Egypt, likening both society itself and the institutions of governance to mechanical devices (although in concert with his understanding of Egyptian society as an organism “instinct with evolutionary force,” this should be enough to wean us of the idea that there is a necessary correspondence between models of structure and change, or that there is much consistency either in individual thought or in the intellectual field as a whole).[61] But while Mitchell sees a transformation of Egyptian social imagery in the 1890s, where “the body as a harmony of interacting parts has been replaced with the body as an apparatus,” in fact the two models of social order and social transformation engaged in a desultory battle for European and Egyptian minds for most of the century. Not only was there no clear winner, but the normative image of either the social machine or the evolving social body is deeply ambiguous (viz., Durkheim's use of “mechanical” for primitive, and “organic” for advanced principles of social organization, a delightful jab at German Romantic scholars who privileged the authentic simplicity of village and field over the cold alienation of city and factory). Both the machine and the evolutionary metaphors for society had as many detractors as they had proponents. And to complicate matters still further, those detractors often recognized the applicability of social models only to denounce their effects.[62]

What is significant for our purposes is this: that politicians, administrators, and intellectuals concerned with the imperial interface between Europe and the East, regardless of the social model they favored, were able to convince themselves that the creation or re-creation of social order in the colonies was less for the purposes of control for its own sake than it was for the purpose of jolting the stalled and backward societies of India and Egypt out of their evolutionary torpor. Cromer's “vitalized and self-existent organism” would regulate itself with emergent structural properties once it was set in motion. Victorian understandings of the relationship between structure and evolution, then, need to be explored further, for they show us, finally, why the distinction between the religious and the secular is such a fragile one.

The British notion that Indians, Egyptians, and the English working classes were in need of an education consisting of restraint and discipline owes its power to cultural roots far deeper than the nascent labor requirements of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, as Christopher Herbert shows in his important book Culture and Anomie, the secular Victorian theory that “natural” human indiscipline necessitated specific disciplinary training grew initially from the religious climate of Christian evangelicalism and “the Wesleyan…story of human nature as a bundle of unruly drives needing to be severely repressed.” [63] Sin, understood as a surrender to unlimited human desire, changed over the course of the nineteenth century into the secular social doctrine of “instinct,” against which all civilization was thought to be a struggle.[64]

But how does civilization restrain us and keep us from acting on our inner nature? “From the point of departure of a text like Ancient Law,” Herbert writes,

a crucial move toward the ethnographic culture concept occurs…when the theory of social control comes to frame itself chiefly not in terms of external agencies of enforcement (patriarchs, sovereigns, laws) but of internalized, unconscious controls which one does not so much obey as simply exhibit—a move rendering the concept of “control,” like that of “freedom,” philosophically ambiguous ever after.[65]

It is clear, then, that Mitchell's characterization of the historical change in Egypt as one “replacing a power concentrated in personal command, and always liable to diminish, with powers that were systematically and uniformly diffused” [66] is in fact little different in one sense from Maine's progression from status to contract, and in another sense, from the general movement in social theory itself from that which understood society as a system of external constraints to that which saw control operating through internal sanctions gained through socialization. As an advance over existing nineteenth-century theories of social dynamics, therefore, this approach, like Foucault's, is ultimately somewhat limited. Where we need to look instead is at the way the contradictions and ambiguities in these theories made education appear as the key to progress.

Accompanying the change in Europe's recipe for social control was an alteration in its evaluation of non-Western societies. In the early part of the nineteenth century, non-Western peoples were thought to suffer from an “anarchical and selfish restlessness” [67] stemming from a lack of behavioral controls that kept them from effectively structuring their wants and achieving social progress. But in mid- to late-century, this vision changes, and the European notion of “civilization” takes on an anomalous cast:

for on the one hand, “civilization” is identified…in the conventional way with a system of fixed restraints upon human drives, and is identified almost in the same breath with fluidity and progressive, expansive movement as against the stultifying fixity of “savage” society. It was apparently in order to resolve the dilemma posed by this highly unstable configuration of ideas that nineteenth-century writers initiated a long campaign to refute the myth of unbridled primitive desire, and…to replace it with something like its very opposite.…What we see…is a broad reversal of assumptions in which “savage” society is transformed from a void of institutional control where desire is rampant to a spectacle of controls exerted systematically upon the smallest details of daily life [through taboo and tradition].[68]

Of course European understandings of the primitive were partly mirror images of their self-understanding.[69] Herbert traces the change itself to the economic depression of the 1870s and the growing subversion of Victorian ideals of discipline. As the notion of institutional discipline, policing, surveillance and control began to draw public criticism,

it became a natural operation now to discover it in its most oppressive forms in primitive society, much as the previous generation of sensibility steeped in Evangelical thinking had constructed its own didactic image of primitives as figures of crazily uncontrolled passion. In contrast to the ethic of emancipated critical thought…tribal societies…were now disparagingly seen as “fettered,” “bound,” “chained down” by mindless conventionality.… Savages' exhorbitant devotion to custom and discipline…is precisely the reason for their (manifest) inferiority to progressive, developing European societies.[70]

Both of these stereotypes are prominent in writings about Egypt, which was considered implicitly primitive despite its objective status as a “high” civilization in its own right.[71] By the second quarter of the twentieth century, Egyptian educators came to believe that their country's political position was due to the chains of custom rather than to unbridled passion, but for the four decades between the British Occupation and Egypt's nominal independence in 1923, both theories coexisted in the worldview of foreign and indigenous elites. And this is precisely why, despite its recognized dangers, education was chosen as a tool of the state's expansion: because it promised simultaneously to constrain and control the irrational impulses of the populace that kept them from advancement, and also to free them of traditional social, behavioral, and intellectual constraints that kept them from advancement. In promising change, progress, and the amelioration of social problems from two opposite philosophical stances—promising all things simultaneously to all people—the school was immune to changes in the philosophy of public policy.

Schooling retains this aura in contemporary educational planning documents that speak of inculcating values representing “the Egyptian character, which has been forged in the country's history and traditions,” and at the same time of developing “the skills that are required to produce a scientifically and technologically sound individual.” [72] The school's ambiguous promises result in the bifurcation of its human product into a stabilizing repository of values, on the one hand, and a skilled engine of change and progress, on the other. In contemporary public policy discourse, the language of national security and the language of economic development, though they appear to be about different aspects of the world, in fact refer to the same thing. This highlights the fact that religious and secular political theories are of a piece, having grown together from the same roots and maintaining, with different vocabularies, the same unstable dialectics of moral responsibility and free will, of imperfection and progress. I would venture to disagree with Lecky, and suggest that the educated, far from being immune to “political Utopias and fanaticisms,” in fact bear as their central sacred image the unborn utopia to be shaped by the school, anticipated always, in nearly millennial terms, as the New Jerusalem just beyond the horizon.

The Past in the Present

Fear of the “déclassés,” and of other liminal states and individuals, is being revived in contemporary Egypt through the recapitulation of colonial population management theories in the current literature on Islamic resurgence. The image of Muslim militants as being “from [the] lower middle class of recent migrants to urban areas” [73] depicts the safe boundaries of the city being transgressed by invaders from another place and time.[74] Some Egyptian intellectuals suggest that the Islamic Trend, far from being the result of the frustration of a downwardly mobile middle class, is due instead to the growing power of upwardly mobile rural classes who take advantage of new educational opportunities by infiltrating various sectors of public culture, including the media, “allowing them to spread their habits of thought and patterns of behavior to the whole society.” [75] Radicals are denounced as “the new Kharijites” or “the new Bedouin” engaged in the latest round of a centuries-old conflict between urban civilization and the forces of social fragmentation pressing in from the countryside.[76] Political, geographical, and moral boundaries blend into one another as the contrast between countryside and city is used to symbolize a threatening relationship with a past that might overcome the modernist narrative of progress.[77]

As in the summer camp raids in Alexandria, shabab are portrayed as threats to the normal order in which the family and the state share responsibility for moral instruction. Young men who have left the confines of their own families are exiled into the wasteland of drugs, unemployment, and extremism. The “déclassés” exist in a liminal state, bright and educated but unemployed, sexually mature but unmarried, raised in the country but living in the city. And increasingly, they not only represent threats to themselves and to the adult establishment, but threaten, through their participation in Islamist institution-building, to carry the country's children along with them. The solution is to provide Egyptian youth with internal restraints that will compensate for their rootlessness once they make the transition into “the non-restraint of the world.” Just as the earl of Northbrook had claimed that “Mahomedans who are instructed in the tenets of their religion have always looked upon [the Mahdi] as an impostor,” and that religious enthusiasm was a lower-class phenomenon, so secular Egyptian intellectuals prescribe education as a cure for radicalism. Egyptians need to be taught the difference between truth and error, including a knowledge of past sects and heresies.

[It] is vital for the government to open widely the subject of the Shari‘a, to explain to the people the various forms it can take, i.e., which is Shi‘a, which is Wahhabi, Kharijite, etc. Because religious education has deteriorated and has been limited to teaching children enough of the Qur’an to perform rituals, most people in the country are not really aware that there are such differences.[78]

Traditional modes of home and mosque-based socialization are stereotyped as ignorant and backward, contributing to “the spread of extremist thinking among young people, who are ill-equipped to resist brainwashing.” [79] Cromer's desire to use education as a defense against “the hare-brained…projects…[of] the political charlatan, himself but half-educated,” is felt by a new generation that perceives the ideological positions of Islamic radicals not merely as errors, but as ancient errors that have already been refuted. Egyptians who see the Islamic Trend as a return to the past, a regression to the oppressive theocracies of ancient times, find the solution in the quintessential modernizing force of education. True culture becomes, according to Charles Hirschkind, “the realization of state power in the individual,” providing a shield against propaganda and generating enlightenment in the form of assent to moderate, modern opinions.[80] Ironically, as part of its slow reworking of religious life, the functionalization of Islam has provided a quasi back door to Sufism as an alternative notion of individual spiritual development. Assimilated to the imperative of social control, the modern ideal of spiritual growth replaces the Sufi's mystical communion with God, with Everyman's incorporation of statist ideology into his very being through the process of socialization.[81]

Religion as a Politically Constituted Defense Mechanism[82]

The overlapping series of dichotomies used to express the differences between tradition and modernity in Egypt—religion versus secular politics, memorization versus thought, rural versus urban, ignorance versus enlightenment—are primarily ideological rather than analytical devices. They are used by indigenous intellectuals and by outside analysts to imply that “tradition” (and therefore religion) is an imperfect realization of human potential. Remember how Hani Sharif Mahmud dismissed the Islamic Trend as “not genuine, most of it, because it's generated from frustrations.” [83] Religious ideas and commitments have no independent cognitive force, no power and no attraction aside from the socioeconomic correlates that predispose particular groups to adopt them. The language of secular modernity cannot consider religious ideas, by themselves, compelling. Women adopt modest dress for economic reasons, for fashion considerations, or to escape the police. Even when ennobled as “resistance” rather than explained away as a symptom of pathology or poverty, practices like veiling are often denied religious import. Valerie Hoffman's and Arlene MacLeod's insightful analyses of recent religious change in Egypt agree that “only a very small percentage of these veiling women seem to be actually turning to religion in a genuine way,” [84] and that women themselves claimed they “were not more religious after wearing the hijab than they had been before wearing it. They had simply become better educated.” [85] Resort to the language of “genuineness” is as significant here as it was when Victorians mistook the kuttab student's rocking as a sign of intellectual stultification and spiritual aridity. A century after William Robertson Smith, it would certainly be an odd anthropological interpretation of “religiousness” that required a transformation of inner state (how, after all, can we tell?) rather than public performance of a religiously meaningful action. The act of veiling, whatever its individual motivation and spiritual consequences, is a ritual act that contributes de facto to the Islamization of public space, altering the social and cultural universe in which subsequent perceptions arise and subsequent choices are made.

Similarly, government efforts at public education, such as the National Democratic Party's weekly al-Liwa’ al-islami (The Islamic Standard) are dismissed by secularist Egyptians like Hani Sharif Mahmud as

just a fake. I know the people who write it. It's more the Minister of the Interior speaking than it is the Minister of Religious Endowments. They're merely reacting to the stronger radical trends by taking the subject of religion, about which there's so much concern, and bending it around to come from their perspective. It's not a positive, genuine thing, just a reaction to outside forces.[86]

Coming from a self-described atheist, this ability to distinguish between “genuine” and “fake” religion is quite remarkable. To him, “genuine” religion is “religion that stays in the background, as it always has in Egypt.” Genuine religion is that of the masses, a religion he was able to escape through an education that brought to light the true causes of religious behavior and allowed him, like Bertrand Russell, to formulate an alternative belief system. Only the insidious effects of personal trauma and mental illness could strip that system away and force the members of his family to resort to the primitive solaces of religion. This discourse is redolent with a dated evolutionism linking together the superstitions of savages and the working classes as representatives of primitive thought. As the higher mental functions of the cultivated individual fail, the residue reverts to religion, which lies just below the surface of the rational mind like a Comtean religious phase of history lies beneath the layer of modernity, always ready to erupt if the smooth surface of progress is subjected to sufficient stress. Religion, it seems, is the human default setting.

But when it becomes more than this and spreads rapidly through the whole of public space, it appears to stand as a fundamental threat, a metastasizing cancer requiring a diagnosis and a cure. Particularly when lay intellectuals begin to intrude on the territory of traditionally sanctioned religious elites, both those elites and the corps of secularist intellectuals become caught up in a cycle of reaction. Each tries to discredit the Islamist's abilities and intentions, the former by challenging his lack of training (he is uncertified and therefore incompetent), the latter by challenging his rationality (he is either an opportunist or mad). In either case, he is neutered because his religious thought is neither true religion nor true thought. He is not worth listening to.

Critiques of Islamism that frame it in this way as a defense mechanism for the maladjusted and the relatively deprived, rather than a “genuine” religious exercise, can function themselves as politically constituted defense mechanisms for those who offer them. These explanations comfort the powerful, the fortunate, and the wise that the Islamic Trend is an incoherent movement destined to failure if treated with the right combination of economic prosperity, political reform, and the fine-tuning of the apparatus of socialization (cf. the very title of Roy's The Failure of Political Islam). That this was precisely Cromer's prescription for treating the inconvenient political proclivities of the natives should give us pause and lead us to reflect on the continuity between his worldview and our own. If we treat Islamism as a pathology, the result of the faulty operation of modern institutions rather than of the potentials and contradictions inherent within them, we can continue to believe that our own personal, religious and political convictions are, by contrast, consistent, coherent, and grounded in truth and reason, rather than desperate practical refuges always on the verge of crisis and change. And in so doing we abandon the potential relevance of the Egyptian case for understanding the role of religion and politics in our own society, believing that the wolf knocking at the palace door in Cairo is hungrier than the wolf at our own. From a liberal American president's public assurance that “religion is too important to our history and heritage to keep it out of our schools,” [87] to the growing vehemence and violence of the debate over abortion, to the more acute eruptions of barbarism in our own midst (the fatal 1993 government siege of a religious commune in Waco, Texas; the 1995 terrorist bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City; and the rash of financial crimes committed by the suddenly discovered antigovernment “militia” and “patriot” movements), our own society is facing political questions comparable to those faced by Muslims around the world.[88] Such incidents raise fundamental questions about the limits of freedom, the rationality of political ideologies, the relevance of religion in public life, and the character of the state. How, we ask, are we to deal with people who do not believe what we want them to believe?

Just as average Americans are increasingly concerned with ideologically loaded issues like abortion and school prayer, the battle between genuine and spurious, or authentic and erroneous Islam, is being joined today by more and more Egyptians from different positions in society. But the internal debates that have been conducted in many forms since the time of the Prophet are now augmented by the rhetorical strategies and research results of the modern educational and scientific establishments. This augmentation does not make the debates any more or less genuinely “about” religion, nor do the social control aspects of the religion curricula in the public schools necessarily make that teaching any more or less authentically Islamic, at least from an anthropological perspective.

What this augmentation does do is create a special danger when we attempt to interpret the forms Islam takes in the modern (some would say postmodern) world, a special responsibility not to mistake secularism for rationality, or method for authenticity. What I have written about the teaching of Islam in the modern public school should not be read as an indictment of the Egyptian government for using that teaching for its own political purposes. Nor should it be read as agreement with them that their interpretations of Islamic legitimacy are the only ones possible. The opinions of Muslims who share the prejudices of the anthropologist should not override the opinions of those who do not. For the social scientist, especially the non-Muslim one, Islam is what Muslims do (which includes, of course, the characteristic human behaviors of speaking and writing). What we need to do increasingly is not only explore the continuity between rational and symbolic processes within the constantly changing institutional constellations of complex societies,[89] but interrogate the very categories of reason and religion themselves. Linking “fundamentalism” with regression or antimodernity not only misrepresents the lives of Muslims who experience such approaches to Islam as the pinnacle of civilization, but embraces an oddly skewed vision of history. “The rise of Islamic fundamentalism,” in the words of Victoria Bernal, “is not a reaction against change, but change itself.” [90] Moreover, it is part of a process of change without end.


1. Quoted in James Williams, Education in Egypt Before British Control (Birmingham, n.p., 1939), p. 79. [BACK]

2. Spencer, “Moral Education,” pp. 112–13. [BACK]

3. El-Gawhary, “Report from a War Zone,” p. 50; al-Ahram, 26 July 1993, p. 7. [BACK]

4. Al-Ahram, 31 July 1993, p. 10. [BACK]

5. Hani Sharif Mahmud, interview, 18 April 1989, pp. 342–44. [BACK]

6. Joel Beinin, personal communication, 1989. [BACK]

7. Hani Sharif Mahmud, interview, 9 June 1989, pp. 339–40. [BACK]

8. Eric Davis, “Ideology, Social Class, and Islamic Radicalism in Modern Egypt,” in From Nationalism to Revolutionary Islam, ed. Said Amir Arjomand (London: The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1984), pp. 139–40. [BACK]

9. Karl Marx, in the introduction to his “Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 54. [BACK]

10. The section on religion in Economy and Society is published in English as The Sociology of Religion, trans. Ephraim Fischoff (1922; rpt., Boston: Beacon, 1963). Curiously, Davis does not cite Weber. [BACK]

11. Davis, “Ideology, Social Class, and Islamic Radicalism,” p. 141. [BACK]

12. Davis, “Ideology, Social Class, and Islamic Radicalism,” p. 147. [BACK]

13. Davis, “Ideology, Social Class, and Islamic Radicalism,” p. 146. [BACK]

14. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “Anatomy of Egypt's Militant Islamic Groups: Methodological Note and Preliminary Findings,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 12 (1980), pp. 423–53; Ahmad Abdalla, The Student Movement; Fischer and Abedi, Debating Muslims, p. 86. [BACK]

15. Davis, “Ideology, Social Class, and Islamic Radicalism,” p. 147. [BACK]

16. Janet Abu-Lughod, “Rural Migration and Politics in Egypt,” p. 324. [BACK]

17. “The emphasis on a unitary, holistic Islam is very compatible with the overall world-view of the rural petite-bourgeoisie. It has been argued that there is no contradiction between the fact that such a large percentage of Islamic militants have been educated in the natural sciences and still subscribe to radical interpretations of Islam. Since the natural sciences stress an absolute approach to knowledge (either something is right or it is wrong), it is erroneous to assume that a “modern” education will necessarily erode a traditional consciousness which likewise emphasizes absolute categories of thought.” Davis, “Ideology, Social Class, and Islamic Radicalism,” p. 146. It is worth noting here that the Egyptian educational system has long been criticized for teaching all subjects as if there were an absolute quality to knowledge. The difference between the teaching of literature and of engineering is thus not necessarily very great. It is also worth noting that Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Samia ‘Abd al-Rahman, and Layla al-Shamsi were all trained in literature rather than the sciences. [BACK]

18. The weakness of class analysis in this case becomes manifest in the conceptual effort it takes to squeeze together the various occupations that Davis discusses into a single class category (“bourgeoisie,” or, oxymoronically, “rural petite-bourgeoisie”) that can experience socioeconomic pressures in a consistent way. Inferring the cognitive needs or social networks of ill-defined classes is a troublesome undertaking. Even when restricted to single occupations, theoretical statements about political susceptibility are always underdetermined. For example, Davis points to the large number of high school teachers involved in the Muslim Brotherhood in rural areas, interpreting their apparent overrepresentation as an indication of kinship relations between urban radicals and rural teachers, concluding with the non sequitur that “Secondary school teacher-training entails considerable religious education which is an indicator of the traditional origin of religious radicals.” But there are simpler ways to explain the apparent abundance of teachers in these groups and movements. If data on the representation of teachers in Islamic movements is in fact correct, there are other reasonable explanations of their participation that have to do with personal and organizational strategies rather than with inferences from class background and kinship networks. The first is that Islamist organizations target teachers for recruitment because of their influence over children—and adults—in rural communities (in smaller communities, secondary school teachers are more likely than the general population to be literate and politically aware in the first place). The second is that individuals attracted to the Islamic Trend will tend to select high school teaching as a profession because of its positive social effects. As we saw in the last chapter, Layla al-Shamsi exemplifies this type of linkage, which is likely to be particularly strong in private schools. In the Islamic school where she taught, volunteers from the Islamic activist community played an active part in teaching and administration (one of the volunteers I met was a young man with an Islamic beard, a junior member of the Engineering faculty from Cairo University). [BACK]

19. Davis, “Ideology, Social Class, and Islamic Radicalism,” p. 136. [BACK]

20. Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, p. 137. [BACK]

21. Weber, Sociology of Religion, p. 71. [BACK]

22. Weber, Sociology of Religion, pp. 125, 137. [BACK]

23. Engels reacted to early vulgarizations of Marxist theory by criticizing

the fatuous notion of the ideologists that because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history we also deny them any effect upon history. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction. These gentlemen often almost deliberately forget that once a historic element has been brought into the world by other, ultimately economic causes, it reacts, can react on its environment and even on the causes that have given rise to it. (Friedrich Engels to Franz Mehring, 14 July 1893, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. Robert Tucker [New York: Norton, 1978], p. 767)


24. Davis, “Ideology, Social Class, and Islamic Radicalism,” p. 143. [BACK]

25. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), p. 54. [BACK]

26. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 595. [BACK]

27. Michael Schudson, Advertising: The Uneasy Persuasion (New York: Basic books, 1984). [BACK]

28. Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, p. 79. See also Hannah Davis's interview with Rabia Bekkar, “Taking up Space in Tlemcen: The Islamist Occupation of Urban Algeria,” Middle East Report, no. 179 (November–December 1992), pp. 11–15; and Kate Zebiri, “Islamic Revival in Algeria: An Overview,” The Muslim World 83, 3–4 (July–October 1993), pp. 203–26. [BACK]

29. Davis, “Ideology, Social Class, and Islamic Radicalism,” p. 140. [BACK]

30. Ellis Goldberg, “Smashing Idols and the State: The Protestant Ethic and Egyptian Sunni Radicalism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31 (1991), pp. 3–35. [BACK]

31. Goldberg, “Smashing Idols,” p. 3. [BACK]

32. Goldberg, “Smashing Idols,” p. 4. [BACK]

33. Goldberg, “Smashing Idols,” p. 28; see also Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt, p. 79. [BACK]

34. Goldberg, “Smashing Idols,” pp. 34–35. [BACK]

35. Brian Spooner, “Weavers and Dealers: The Authenticity of an Oriental Carpet,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 195–235. [BACK]

36. Roy, Failure of Political Islam, pp. 94–95. [BACK]

37. Roy, Failure of Political Islam, p. 103. [BACK]

38. See Carlos Ginsburg, The Cheese and the Worms (New York: Penguin, 1980). [BACK]

39. Raouf Abbas Hamed, “Factors Behind the Political Islamic Movement in Egypt,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, San Antonio, Texas, 24–26 November 1990, p. 10. Dr. Hamed also notes that the summer camps set up by the government to train young people in proper Islam have been prime recruiting grounds for Islamic radical groups. [BACK]

40. Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, Reading National Geographic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 233. [BACK]

41. Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, p. 124. [BACK]

42. “What seems to be most required for progress…is to evolve the best type of rural school, adapted to the special practical needs of agricultural districts, and when this has been done we may confidently hope to see a considerable increase in the number of boys educated. It must not be forgotten that any hasty or unthought-out development of education in rural districts, unless it is carefully adapted to rural necessities, may imperil the agricultural interests on which the prosperity of the country so largely depends. A rural exodus in Egypt would be an economic and social disaster of considerable magnitude.” Kitchener, Annual Report, Parl. Pap., 1912, vol. 121, p. 4. [BACK]

43. Lecky, Democracy and Liberty, vol. 1, p. 319. “It is by no means desirable,” he wrote one page earlier, “that the flower of the working class, or their children, should learn to despise manual labour and the simple, inexpensive habits of their parents, in order to become very commonplace doctors, attorneys, clerks, or newspaper writers.” Perhaps the flower of the working class were listening to the contemporary equivalent of Willie Nelson's sage advice, “Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” in which medicine and law are compared favorably to the simple, inexpensive habits of playing guitar and riding around in old pickup trucks. [BACK]

44. Lecky, Democracy and Liberty, vol. 1, pp. 319–20. [BACK]

45. Cromer, Annual Report, Parl. Pap., 1907, vol. 100, p. 630. [BACK]

46. Cromer, Annual Report, Parl. Pap., 1903, vol. 87, p. 1011; Annual Report, Parl. Pap., 1906, vol. 137, p. 566. Cf. Bowring,

No sooner has a boy learned to read and to write, than he is unwilling to pursue any trade, whatever prospects it may offer of reputation, usefulness, or even wealth. The boy will rather be a scribe with small, than an artisan with large, emoluments. To obtain the name of effendi is an object of higher ambition than to lay the foundation even of opulence. This defect pervades the whole of Oriental society, and is an impassable barrier to the advance of the general prosperity. (“Report on Egypt and Candia,” p. 137)


47. Cromer, Annual Report, Parl. Pap., 1906, pp. 720–21. [BACK]

48. Ministry of Education, Report of the Elementary Education Commission, p. 40. [BACK]

49. “Further Correspondences Respecting Reorganization in Egypt,” Parl. Pap., 1883, vol. 83, p. 47. [BACK]

50. Tsing, In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, p. 87. [BACK]

51. “Government of the Indian Empire,” Edinburgh Review 159 (January–April 1884), pp. 11–12. [BACK]

52. “[I]deas about separating, purifying, demarcating…have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created.” Douglas, Purity and Danger, p. 4. [BACK]

53. Douglas, Purity and Danger, pp. 96, 104. [BACK]

54. Roger Owen, “Anthropology and Imperial Administration: Sir Alfred Lyall and the Official Use of Theories of Social Change Developed in India after 1857,” in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, ed. Talal Asad (London: Ithaca Press), pp. 241–42. [BACK]

55. Sir Henry Sumner Maine, Ancient Law (n.p.: Dorset Press, 1986 [1861]), p. 140. [BACK]

56. Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings, p. 23. [BACK]

57. Owen, “Anthropology and Imperial Administration,” p. 230. [BACK]

58. Cromer, Annual Report, Parl. Pap., 1895, vol. 109, p. 12. Quoted in Owen, “Anthropology and Imperial Administration,” p. 242. [BACK]

59. Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings, p. 148. [BACK]

60. Jeremy Bentham, “Of the Influence of Time and Place in Matters of Legislation,” in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed John Bowring, p. 191. See Majeed, Ungoverned Imaginings, p. 183; for Ottoman understandings of legal reform during the Tanzimat period, see Messick, The Calligraphic State, p. 64. [BACK]

61. Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, pp. 156–60. [BACK]

62. One interesting, almost parenthetical, result of schooling's growing importance to the Egyptian economy was a new way of describing educated individuals that matched them to their function. After European training, the native was transformed metaphorically from an untamed beast into a handy tool, a commodity that could be traded on the open market. In the Annual Report of 1903 (Parl. Pap., vol. 87, p. 1034), Cromer quoted Mr. Currie, the director general of education for the Sudan, on his “heartfelt pity” for the beleaguered local administrators who had to rely on Egyptian help:

Their clerical staff is beyond description bad. Add to this the fact that it is proportionately expensive and absolutely unacclimatized, and I think the need for higher primary schools, as a matter of urgency, is made out.

In a couple of years, even without the institution of any beginning of secondary education, these schools will turn out a product infinitely better than is often found here at present, and, it is important to remember, a product at once acclimatized and comparatively cheap.

Though the mechanical analogy was not restricted to official usage, neither was it universally praised. Florence Nightingale, writing to her mother after an 1850 visit to a convent school in Alexandria, recalled with distaste “the patent improved-man-making principle at home—the machine warranted to turn out children wholesale, like pins, with patent heads,—I did not wonder at the small success of our education.” Nightingale, Letters, p. 204.

As early as 1829 Thomas Carlyle characterized his times as The Mechanical Age, both because of the booming metallic din of factory machinery and because of “the deep, almost exclusive faith we have in Mechanism…in the Politics of this time.…We term it indeed, in ordinary language, the Machine of Society, and talk of it as the grand working wheel from which all private machines must derive, or to which they must adapt, their movements.” “Signs of the Times,” in his Selected Writings, ed. Alan Shelston (New York: Penguin, 1971), p. 70. [BACK]

63. I owe this and part of the succeeding discussion to Christopher Herbert's Culture and Anomie. [BACK]

64. Herbert, Culture and Anomie, pp. 36–8. [BACK]

65. Herbert, Culture and Anomie, pp. 39–40. [BACK]

66. Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, p. 175. [BACK]

67. W. Cooke Taylor, ca. 1840, quoted in Herbert, Culture and Anomie, p. 62. [BACK]

68. Herbert, Culture and Anomie, pp. 64–65. [BACK]

69. In addition to Fabian's Time and the Other, see Adam Kuper, The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion (London: Routledge, 1988). [BACK]

70. Herbert, Culture and Anomie, pp. 65–66. [BACK]

71. In 1988 an international conference in Cairo actually contained a discussion between Arab intellectuals about whether peasants did or did not have “culture,” so such perspectives have hardly disappeared from the intellectual landscape. [BACK]

72. Educational Planning Unit, Ministry of Education, Government of Egypt, “Reform of the Educational System of Egypt: A Sector Assessment,” draft, USAID Development Information Center, 8 January 1990, pp. 14, 106. See also Dr. Ahmed Fathy Surour, Towards Education Reform in Egypt: A Strategy for Reform and Examples of Implementation, 1987–1990 (Cairo: Al-Ahram Commercial Presses, 1991). [BACK]

73. Hamed, “Factors Behind the Political Islamic Movement,” p. 1. [BACK]

74. Saadek Samaan, an Egyptian educator writing in the early years of the Nasser period, wrote that reactionaries like Hasan al-Banna “are advocating a strong theocracy modeled after that of the ninth-century society of Arabia,” Value Reconstruction and Egyptian Education (New York: Bureau of Publications, Teacher's College, Columbia University, 1955), p. 19. [BACK]

75. Galal Amin, “Migration, Inflation and Social Mobility: A Sociological Interpretation of Egypt's Current Economic and Political Crisis,” in Egypt Under Mubarak, ed. Charles Tripp and Roger Owen (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 118. [BACK]

76. ‘Abd Allah Imam, “Al-Khawarij al-judud!” Ruz al-Yusuf, 17 April 1989, pp. 30–33; Muhammad Sa‘id al-‘Ashmawi, “Al-Sira‘ al-hadari fi al-Islam,” al-Azmina, January–February 1989, pp. 18–27. Talal Asad has pointed out that this representation of Islamic society as composed of “protagonists engaged in a dramatic struggle” is widespread in the anthropology and historiography of Islam; “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Occasional Papers Series, Georgetown University, 1986, p. 8. [BACK]

77. Even the unconscious motivations that scholars like Davis impute to modern-day radicals match quite precisely the idiom of recapturing the past that Raymond Williams has traced through British “pastoral” literature in The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 290–304. [BACK]

78. Amira el-Azhary Sonbol, “Egypt,” in The Politics of Islamic Revivalism, ed. Shireen Hunter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 35. Her faulty perception of Islamic instruction in Egypt is due in part to misunderstanding the reason why different kinds of Islam are not discussed. For pedagogical purposes, there is only one kind of Islam. [BACK]

79. An editorial in al-Ahram, quoted in Charles Hirschkind, “Culture and Counterterrorism: Notes on Contemporary Public Discourse in Egypt,” paper presented at the 1993 meetings of the Middle East Studies Association, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. [BACK]

80. Charles Hirschkind, personal communication. For an outstanding survey of media depictions of education as a modernizing force, see Walter Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). James P. Young has pointed out, after Jacques Ellul, that not only is education no prophylactic against propaganda, but it “makes propaganda possible, helps propaganda accomplish its ends, and is in many ways itself a form of propaganda.” “Intimate Allies in Migration: Education and Propaganda in a Philippine Village,” Comparative Education Review 26 (1982), p. 218. [BACK]

81. Olivier Roy sees the resurrection of the Sufi ideal of the insan kamil, or “ideal man,” as a feature of Islamist thought, but in fact its resurrection can be traced to the work of modern educational elites generally; see his Failure of Political Islam, p. 101. [BACK]

82. With apologies to Melford Spiro, on whose paper title, “Religious Systems as Culturally Constituted Defense Mechanisms” (in Context and Meaning in Anthropology, ed. Melford Spiro [New York: The Free Press, 1965], pp. 100–13), this phrase is modeled. [BACK]

83. Hani Sharif Mahmud, interview, 18 April 1989, p. 342. [BACK]

84. MacLeod, Accommodating Protest, p. 110. [BACK]

85. Hoffman, “Muslim Fundamentalists: Psychosocial Profiles,” p. 221. [BACK]

86. Hani Sharif Mahmud, interview, 18 April 1989, p. 342. [BACK]

87. John Aloysius Farrel, “Clinton Calls for Religion in Schools,” Boston Globe, 13 July 1995, p. 1. [BACK]

88. For a discussion of the sources of the American government's understanding of the category “religion,” see James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). [BACK]

89. Michael Herzfeld, The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy (New York: Berg, 1992). [BACK]

90. Victoria Bernal, “Gender, Culture, and Capitalism: Women and the Remaking of Islamic “Tradition” in a Sudanese Village,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 36 (1994), p. 42. [BACK]

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