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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.


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