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Growing Up: Four Stories
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I Had Some Friends There

Despite the relatively tight social controls Egyptian families impose on their children, many urban shabab, like the restless young hittistes (“wall-leaners”) of Algeria,[37] find ample opportunity for social and ideological experimentation in Cairo's broad shopping avenues, its backstreet drug subculture, its movie houses, schoolyards, and mosques. The spreading demands of the school, the workshop, or the office require that many young people be away from their families for long periods each day, and for the millions of unemployed the negative freedom of time opens up all sorts of opportunities that worry parents, politicians, and intellectuals alike. The cultural experimentation of youth—sometimes fickle and transitory, sometimes life-changing—unites across as well as divides along class and geographical lines. Brecht finds his way to the provinces, and inspired provincial youth flock to university or employment in the capital. Bedouin boys grow Islamist beards and receive impossible teasing from relatives, while bedouin girls, inspired by their teachers, show off school-bred religious knowledge to their elders and yearn to wear the urbane Islamist veil, one of the symbols of sophisticated Nile Valley modernity.[38] On city buses bald civil servants hunch over tiny copies of the Qur’an while behind them smudged shabab in tattered galabiyyas squint and struggle with moving lips to read articles about official corruption in the Muslim Brotherhood's al-Sha‘b newspaper; middle-class young women hidden behind face-veils and gloves ride the Cairo subway clutching popular manuals on Islamic gender roles, while lower-class women sit in mosque courtyards before weekly religious classes, debating the meaning of traditional rituals, amulets, and scriptural passages.[39]

While this seemingly collective intellectual experimentation with religion sometimes seems to be an ineluctable and unidirectional process, there are always gaps, reversals, and complications. Sometimes people outgrow intellectual inspirations; sometimes they are frightened away from them; and sometimes their penumbra persists in altered form. Almost like a mirror image of the leftist Muhammad Sulayman, Wafa’i Isma‘il was in many ways a “typical” American University in Cairo graduate, whom I met through an American acquaintance he was dating. Handsome, bilingual, well-to-do, and worldly, he studied political science at AUC, and later worked for his father's small architectural consulting firm in Ma‘adi, a wealthy bedroom community south of Cairo. Once he asked me about my own research, and when I mentioned that I had just visited the mosque of Anas Ibn Malik in Giza, he broke into a wide, embarrassed grin. Looking down at the glass of water he was holding, he chuckled,

Yeah, I used to go to Anas all the time. They have a lot of things going on there. I used to go there with my friends all the time to pray; there and a couple of little mosques, just tiny ones like the one you saw in [the documentary videotape] “The Sword of Islam”. You wouldn't think looking at me now, but I used to be into these kinds of groups, with some friends.

Probably from the time I was sixteen until I was twenty I used to be really religious, praying, and having all these kinds of discussions and whatever. None of my family is religious at all, and my family was very concerned about me; my father used to send people to talk to me. But I used to get up every morning to go pray at the mosque; sometimes I had to go out the window, because my father was against it.

I don't know, it's kind of what one of my professors was saying, that when you don't believe in something, and then you go to a place like this, and there are people there so friendly and caring and concerned about you. And you're so smart, and your father is so stupid and everything, and he doesn't pray, and he drinks and whatever, and you start wondering about your real identity.

But you go to one of these places and they're telling you, oh, the world is really horrible, and you're like, yes, yes, and they say that people are robbing each other, and it's so terrible, and you're agreeing, and then at the end they ask you to join, and of course you say, “sure!”. But I had some friends there, and we would have all kinds of discussions about sunna, and qadar [predestination], and this kind of stuff; this was all before Sadat [was killed]; then I stopped going. Three or four of my friends were arrested in September 1981, and then I knew some people arrested afterwards. But they soon got out.

Also I saw a lot of the stuff going on at the University, and I used to be involved a little in that, calling for the prayers and clearing the areas and stuff. I was in Commerce [at Cairo University] just for a semester before going to AUC. That was in 1982.[40]

This surprising revelation (“You wouldn't think looking at me now…”) helped make sense of one of his ruling interests in 1989: applying to graduate school at Cairo University and also in the United States, where he wanted to earn a degree in Middle East Studies with research on the politics of Islamist movements. An intellectualized response to his own former involvement, this desire was coupled with an alienation from Egyptian life that led him to question me persistently about why Americans came to live in his country, when all he wanted to do was go abroad.

Youngsters beginning more and more to move within the circle of their peers and to separate themselves from the enveloping bonds of the family experience a growing awareness of social injustices, political affairs, alternate viewpoints and role models, which subject them to conflicts both at home and elsewhere. The ideological success of small private sector Islamic groups among Egyptian youth depends partly on this disaffection and the consequent search for social and intellectual alternatives. These groups seem to have the tacit support of an enormous proportion of shabab, even those who never consider joining them. According to Samia Mustafa al-Khashab's 1988 survey, three-quarters of Cairo University students felt that the official religious establishment centered around the al-Azhar mosque was either partially or wholly ineffective in meeting the religious needs of Egyptian youth. Most of these felt that the institution needed to increase its activity in grappling with social problems,[41] and improve the performance of Islamic da‘wa, or outreach.[42] Almost all students felt that mosques needed to become more active in society, holding meetings for the religious enlightenment of youth (87 percent), establishing schools for religious instruction (66 percent), creating classes to fight illiteracy (60 percent), and setting up popular clinics for those who came to prayer (58 percent).[43] Each of these activities is currently provided by high-profile private sector social service agencies, whom students suggest the government emulate.

Overwhelmingly, students taking part in the survey were hostile to Sufi orders, which are often perceived by the middle and upper classes as sha‘bi: low class, popular, primitive, and fundamentally mistaken about the requirements of a true Islam. Although almost 85 percent of the students expressed ignorance of the goals of Sufism, they felt that Sufi orders were unnecessary (66 percent), and without positive roles in the solution of social problems (75 percent), in the political sphere (84 percent), or in spreading Islamic da‘wa (60 percent).[44] All these sentiments are strongly encouraged by the rationalistic modernism of the Islamist groups (despite the fact that leaders of the movement like Hasan al-Banna—not to mention Iran's Khomeini—had Sufi roots themselves). By contrast, a large majority of these students knew some of the names and goals of the Islamist groups ( “Takfir wal-Hijra,” al-Jihad, etc.) that operated in Egypt during the 1970s and 1980s.[45] Almost three- quarters believed that these groups take the feelings and opinions of Egyptian youth into account, and thought that some or all of Egyptian youth are sympathetic to them. They did not think that these groups should be eliminated (82 percent), because they are trying to change society for the better, and because they have contributed to the Islamic Awakening (al-sahwa al-islamiyya).[46] These feelings may have changed somewhat over the past decade as the government has waged its ever more intensive propaganda campaign against the Islamists, changing its label for them from “extremists” to “terrorists” since the beginning of the violent 1992 insurgency based in southern Egypt.

But by the late 1980s the state was responding through its schools. The theme of the Islamic education curricula for shabab—students in preparatory and secondary schools—was “Islamic Society,” and lessons clustered around “the three tightly interwoven themes of Faith, Morals, and Social Solidarity.” [47] The competition between public and private sector religious organizations for status and authority in the eyes of Egypt's youth lent particular urgency to the government's religious education programs, particularly at the primary and preparatory levels, where, according to newspapers, the religious curricula were being adjusted to create study materials that “translate knowledge into practice” (yatatarjamu al-‘ilm ila al-‘amal).[48] This holds true of the secondary curriculum as well, where, along with the principles of faith and social solidarity, textbooks and syllabi emphasized the role of legitimate authority in the government of Islamic society and the enforcement of Islamic conduct.

A ninth grade commentary on three verses in the Qur’an's sura 3, ’Al ‘Imran (103–5), outlines the state's theory of religious authority. The verses remind the new Muslim community of the blessing of their unification and warn them against disputation and divisiveness, laying out the advantages of “security and fidelity and stability.” If, according to the textbook, every person adheres to the sunna and “knows the limits of his responsibility,” then society “will be a strong, solid, cohesive, loving, cooperative, active and productive one whose strength and solidity no artful plot can weaken or disturb, whose unity no malicious sedition can sunder.” [49] The lesson goes on to say that the limits of individual responsibility for the enforcement of Islamic conduct are set by the Qur’an itself: “Let there arise out of you/A band of people/Inviting to all that is good,/Enjoining what is right/And forbidding what is wrong:/They are the ones/To attain felicity” (sura 3, 104).

The word umma, translated in this verse by A. Yusuf ‘Ali as “band,” or “group,” usually denotes an entire community, such as the community of believers. (A. J. Arberry, for example, interprets the verse this way: “Let there be one nation of you, calling to good/And bidding to honour, and forbidding dishonour;/Those are the prosperers.”) The textbook writers, however, have chosen to interpret umma in the phrase “wa l-takun minkum umma,” to mean “’ayy ta’ifa tad‘u ila al-khayr” (any group or class that calls [people] to what is right).[50] Glossed like this, the verse calls for one group of people within society, rather than the society as a whole, to bear responsibility for enjoining good and forbidding evil. “Calling [people] to the good lies in the domain of the teachings of the Qur’an and sunna, and no one can engage in this da‘wa except one who is an ‘alim of the book of God and the sunna of the Prophet. And the verse has conferred success upon this group, and their success is the success and righteousness of society.” [51]

Some of the discussion questions at the end of this lesson are essentially ideological tests that prompt teachers to gauge student feelings about religious unity and the specialized role of the da‘iya (the maker of da‘wa, or Islamic outreach). Questions ask students if they would like to be da‘iyas, and then enquire, “If your answer is yes, to what [objectives] would you call your classmates, the individuals in your family, and your neighbors?” Next the student confronts a hypothetical colleague whose ideas are not sanctioned by authoritative texts or persons:

  • 3.

    You observed a classmate frequently repeating statements and concepts that you haven't heard from a teacher or read in a book. Do you:

    1. Attack him and call him names and hit him?

    2. Correct his mistaken understandings and convince him of what is right through calm discussion?

    3. Incite your classmates to argue and break off their friendship with him?

    4. Advise him and show him books from which he can derive true information?[52]

On the other side of the equation, the Ministry of Education has recently begun requesting in its teacher-education exams, an essay on “The role of the teacher in combating terrorism,” the most recent gloss of the term extremism, which was used more commonly throughout the 1980s.[53] Such devices respond to the ideological competition of Islamist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose lay members often harshly criticize state policy, both within and outside of the religious sphere. Most of the prominent and intellectually important Islamic activists in twentieth-century Egypt (and elsewhere) have been trained in fields other than Islamic studies. Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a graduate of Dar al-‘Ulum, in Arabic, and worked as a primary school teacher. Sayyid Qutb was trained as a literary critic and worked as a consultant to the Egyptian Ministry of Education. ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological leader of the group that assassinated Anwar Sadat, was an electrician. The prolific writer and religious philanthropist Mustafa Mahmud was originally a physician.[54] Their movements and the institutions they built were the result not of an appeal to traditional forms of religious authority and discourse, but of mobilizing charisma and modern forms of organization, communication, and recruitment. By restricting the range of moral authority to the circle of scholars trained by the religious faculties of al-Azhar, on the other hand, the state hopes to limit the appeal of such groups, although there are many competent ‘ulama, like Muhammad al-Ghazali for the Muslim Brotherhood, and ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman for the smaller Islamic radical groups, who can lend legitimacy to the opposition.

The state's third-party “calls to order” (to borrow a concept from Bourdieu's writings on class) with respect to interpretive authority suffuse public culture. The minister of religious endowments, in an interview published in the Ramadan 1409 issue of Egypt's official Sufi magazine, confirmed forcefully the need to leave religious matters to specialists, saying that Egypt's youth are basically good, but that they lack “direction and guidance.” When asked about the difference between “religion” (al-din) and “religiousness” (al-tadayyun), the minister replied,

Religiousness is open to everyone, to all young people—[it is] even expected of every man, woman, youngster and old person. As for religion—as it is understood as theology, applied ethics, and dogma—we need to leave these… to specialists in them, because…among them are men of distinction and scholars who studied them and specialized in them from childhood.… It's enough [for the shabab] to know the general principles in religious matters.…The shame of our youth is that they want to make judgements on everything, and as a result of this there has been killing in the name of religion and splintering in the name of religion and destruction in the name of religion and fear and alarm in the name of religion, all of which happened because they are ignorant of the essential nature of religion.[55]

The nation's youth have a right to be enlightened and instructed and corrected by people with knowledge about Islam,

a religion of reason and order and gentleness and sympathy and tolerance… our youngsters need to know the essence and greatness of Islam, a religion of kindness, even to animals, even with enemies, and in war with the armies of the enemy. In summary, our youth need to know the truth of Islam and that the truth of the Islamic religion lives within the purview of the ‘ulama.…Changing the abomination by the hand falls under the responsibility of the ruler and the [public] guardian, and on the rest of the people falls the responsibility of advice and guidance by the tongue, or to despise the abomination in the heart.[56]

As a way to help them winnow reliable from unreliable advice, advanced students receive guidelines for approaching the mass media through which so many ideological battles are fought:

Modern science has extended the scope of the influence of the word, and people have begun to read them in newspapers and hear them in broadcasts and other means of communication on an immense scale. It is the duty of the Muslim to weigh his words, to measure his speech and not to aim at slander and calumny or insults, not to reveal a secret, and not to spread indecency and not to stir up animosity, but to speak noble words that please God and his Apostle.[57]

They are reminded that God ordered mankind, “But say not—for any false thing that your tongues may put forth—`This is lawful, and this is forbidden,' so as to ascribe false things to God” (sura 16, al-Nahl, 116), and that He forbade “sins and trespasses against truth or reason; assigning/Of partners to God, for which/He hath given no authority;/And saying things about God/Of which ye have no knowledge”(sura 7, al-’A‘raf, 33). Such practices are the primary source of distortion in corrupted religions,

so no one should forbid anything for religious reasons to any servant of God, or require anything of him, except by a true text of God and his Apostle, and whoever assails that has set himself up as an equal [sharik] to God, and whoever follows him in it has made him his Lord, and God has renounced anyone who attributes any allowance or prohibition to his religion without proof.[58]

Truly obeying God necessitates not just hearkening to His instructions, but understanding who may be trusted to know what His instructions are, so “we should stay within our limits and leave independent judgement in religion to the knowledgeable scholars [al-‘ulama’al-‘arifin], who bring together the motives and the means of independent judgement [ijtihad].” [59]

Likewise, the enforcement of Islamic conduct falls to specialists. Although Islam operates largely through cooperation and mutual advice (nasiha), between the government and the governed as well as between individuals, nasiha in religious matters is, according to the textbooks, a fard kifaya (a duty not incumbent upon all the individuals in the community, as long as some one person or group of persons attends to it), which applies to the ‘ulama alone.[60] The government and the governed “cooperate together in obeying God and defending His book and tradition and Prophet,” so that if someone refuses to obey God's law, there is a graduated series of appropriate responses. First, notifying the person that he is in error; second, admonishing him to behave correctly; third, reprimanding him for his misbehavior; and finally, if he still desists from proper conduct, forcible prevention. This last remedy, however, is also a fard kifaya, entrusted only to those whose job it is to enforce the rules of society (al-qa’imin bil-’amr).[61]

Islam's commitment to human rights, according to the texts, includes freedom of belief and opinion and requires a cordial attitude toward the members of other religious communities. Precisely because of its cautious apportionment of responsibility, Egypt's experience with the religion of the Seal of the Prophets has been a special one. This is how the Ministry of Education concludes its twelfth grade book:

Islam was Egypt's choice, and the environment of Egypt—through its religious culture since the time of the monotheist Akhenaton—was prepared for Islam, and absorbed it all: doctrine and law, science, culture and conduct. Since then, Egypt's features have differed from other Islamic countries. Islam in Egypt is Islam without fanaticism, Islam without extremism, and it is remarkable that Islamic Egypt alone, through fourteen centuries, has never been linked with excess or extremism in its religious conduct.… Indeed, the Egyptian personality is moderate in its religiosity and behavior, middle-of-the-road in its thought and practice, neither excessive nor negligent, and from here were the riches of civilization.[62]

As with the work ethic, the sections on religious authority consist of statements that are neither empirical claims nor exhortations. Instead, they are performative utterances, “rituals of social magic” whose very statement alters the world, for they become true by establishing a normative background against which reality is to be judged by those setting the terms.[63] These are not abstract matters of theory, but practical matters that—as we will see in the next chapter—frame legal prosecutions, political purges, and police roundups. Despite progressive expectations to the contrary, the creation and dissemination of instructive truths by the school has not so much replaced the use of physical force, as it has provided new opportunities on which to use it.

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Growing Up: Four Stories
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