Preferred Citation: Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

Creating an Object

Cultural Production and Social Reproduction

What significance do these processes have for understanding broader anthropological questions? In writing about Islamic higher education in Morocco, Dale Eickelman has remarked that “the study of education can be to complex societies what the study of religion has been to societies variously characterized by anthropologists as “simple,” “cold” or “elementary,” ”particularly insofar as this study can reveal some of the “culturally valued cognitive style[s]” implicit in these cultures.[19] But neither “cold” ritual nor “hot” education is merely a window onto thought and ideas. Summarizing one of Emile Durkheim's lesser-known works on education, Eickelman wrote that

changes in ideas of knowledge in complex societies and the means by which such ideas are transmitted result from continual struggles among competing groups within society, each of which seeks domination or influence.… Thus the forms of knowledge shaped and conveyed in educational systems …must be considered in relation to the social distribution of power.[20]

Explorations of the institutional intersections between knowledge and power have long motivated European social theory, from Marx's discussion of “ruling ideas” to Althusser on the ideological state apparatus, Gramsci on hegemony, Foucault on disciplinary formation, and Raymond Williams on the politics of culture. With respect to formal education, it is undoubtedly true that different interests are served—and created—by particular curricula and by different definitions and technologies of useful knowledge. But class-based models are inadequate to deal fully with the political and ideological implications of modern educational systems, because these systems continuously erase and redraw the boundaries between social groups and disrupt the association between them and the “ideas about knowledge” they seek to promote.[21] New modes of thought emerging from nascent classes and social institutions not only express new modes of consciousness, but contribute in turn to the formation of new structures of interest and conflict, perpetuating the struggles that gave them birth and subverting subsequent attempts unilaterally to control the course of debate. One of the central conclusions of this book is that elites can profit from the manipulation of power/knowledge only insofar as they create competitors possessing the tools of opposition. (Such problems are increasingly familiar, for example, to the U.S. military, whose development of computer and communications systems—intended to create strategic superiority over its superpower rivals—now puts it at risk from bright teenagers with home computers and Internet connections.) Educational systems thus have a direct political role in creating the intellectual and institutional technologies that generate distinctly new social groups, not just an indirect role diagnostic of a standing distribution of power. In Egypt, religious education is only one of the school-related issues around which political conflict has crystallized. But unlike debates over the institution of literacy programs, vocational training, or examination reform, controversies surrounding religious instruction have the unique power—as we saw in Alexandria—to provoke the activity of the state's security apparatus.

So if our starting point—the anthropology of Islam—is perhaps tangential to the main body of contemporary anthropological concerns, studying the role of educational institutions in cultural production and social reproduction is near the center. With the ever-growing oeuvre of Pierre Bourdieu, and the diffusion of Paul Willis's 1977 Learning to Labour outside the relatively small circle of educational sociology, questions of cultural production and social reproduction have moved toward the forefront of anthropological theory. Willis's study of the reproduction of class stratification among British working-class youth has been built on by many others, most recently Douglas Foley in Learning Capitalist Culture, an analysis of the reproduction of ethnicity and class in south Texas, and Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart in Educated in Romance, a devastating portrait of the reproduction of gender inequality among U.S. university women. Each of these works demonstrates that, contrary to top-down models of the imposition of unequal social relations, educational institutions are one of many social sites within which specific populations actively reproduce their own subordinate status. Status negotiations within and between peer groups, conscious and unconscious strategies of resistance to institutional authority, and the realistic perception of often limited employment opportunities after leaving school life, together channel the creative interactions of students themselves toward the reproduction of standing relations of power.

The trinity of ethnicity, class, and gender inequalities has consumed nearly all the attention of critical theorists of education. Systematic critical treatments of the reproduction of religious traditions are conspicuously absent.[22] This is partly, of course, because of the immediate and overriding gravity of ethnic, class, and gender inequalities in the U.S. and Western Europe, where most educational sociologists have worked. But it is also because the sense in which there is an intriguing “inequality” at stake in religious socialization—one that cannot entirely be subsumed under the rubric of socioeconomic class or gender—is less immediately clear.[23] Despite our growing interest in how they are invented and transformed,[24] anthropologists still tend to treat “traditions” (religious or otherwise) as bounded capsules of observed behavior and recorded belief, rather than as segments of larger-scale social relationships that are constantly in the process of being created, renewed and dissolved. But—to refine Asad's use of the word tradition—it is those unequal relationships of authority and compliance that are constructed around and through specific discourses that constitute the social core of religious traditions. How these relations are transformed in the process of their reproduction, and the ways they interact with other dimensions of social inequality are important questions. But relations of orthodoxy are a peculiar kind of property relation—a relation between people with regard to texts and intellectual technologies—that are potentially more fluid than other sorts of class relations. One interesting feature of the Alexandria police raids is precisely that they were not held against striking workers, marching peasants, or armed terrorists, but against individuals quietly and privately using the social and intellectual technologies of the modern state to create an alternative to it. Their other interesting feature is that the majority of individuals caught up in the raids themselves were children, actors we hardly ever consider politically significant. So it is precisely the processes of creating relationships of orthodoxy that are at stake here, rather than the finished product.

To understand these processes without assuming a simple mechanical reproduction of class relations, we need to address the cultural significance of the choices people make in creating their own social worlds. According to Paul Willis,

We might think of this process of reproduction [of the social group, its relation to other classes and the productive process] as having two basic “moments”. In the first place, outside structures and basic class relationships are taken in as symbolic and conceptual relations at the specifically cultural level.…Structural determinations act, not by direct mechanical effect, but by mediation through the cultural level where their own relationships become subject to forms of exposure and explanation. In the second “moment” of the process, structures which have now become sources of meaning, definition and identity provide the framework and basis for decisions and choices in life…which taken systematically and in the aggregate over large numbers actually helps to reproduce the main structures and functions of society.[25]

Granting some autonomy to the realm of culture, through which larger structural determinants have to pass in order to reproduce themselves, he points out nevertheless that this model, by “ignoring important forms and forces such as the state, ideology, and various institutions,” is an oversimplification.[26]

In order to recomplicate the picture, I would like to take a step back—at the risk of losing some of the fine resolution—to reincorporate the state, ideology, and social institutions into this model of reproduction. Doing so points us in two directions somewhat different from that taken by Willis and others, who question how and why subordinate populations aid in the reproduction of their own inequality. First, as outlined in the discussion of objectification and functionalization in the last section, we can ask what changes have occurred in the cultural level itself as it has mediated the creation and reproduction of social relationships. How has cultural production changed over the last century to accomodate new technologies as well as new economic and political forces?

And second, we can reverse the question of subordination, and ask why the political and educational strategies chosen by Egypt's ruling elites over the last century have resulted in the diminution rather than the augmentation of their ability to control the public discourse on Islam. How have socialization practices established explicitly in order to provide every citizen with a uniform appreciation for the state's legitimate religious authority resulted instead in the fragmentation of that authority and the proliferation of groups challenging the moral judgment and legitimacy of official religious institutions? Why, as we saw in Alexandria, is the state forced to resort to physical violence to retain its monopoly on religious socialization?

These are the issues we will be concerned with: changes in the cultural mediation of Islamic knowledge, and the problematic results of implementing mass education as a mechanism of social control. If it seems odd to us that the powerless act in ways that reinforce their subordination (even as they seek to resist it), it should seem equally odd that the powerful act in ways that diminish their dominance (even as they seek to increase it). Willis stresses “that there are deep disjunctions and desperate tensions within social and cultural reproduction. Social agents are not passive bearers of ideology, but active appropriators who reproduce existing structures only through struggle, contestation, and partial penetration of those structures.” [27] In his own case study, he finds that the working-class student's choice of manual labor as a means of making a living is experienced not as a surrender to social subordination, but as “an assertion of…freedom and of a specific kind of power in the world”;[28] it “is felt, subjectively, as a profound process of learning: it is the organisation of the self in relation to the future.” [29]

This structuring of experience and perception operates on the social and cultural elites who frame policy and produce school curricula and educational materials, as well as on the working classes and students who are their targets. The concept of hegemony, it is too often forgotten, refers to structures of thought, feeling, and practice that are as commonsensical to cultural elites as they are to subordinates.[30] Egypt's incorporation into the modern European imperial system was one of the experiential sources of a new hegemony that relied on the modern school for its force.[31] As we will see in chapters 2 and 3, European political and cultural domination during the latter half of the nineteenth century presented both British and Egyptian elites with ambiguous and often contradictory conceptual models of social structure, change, and hierarchy. The deep tensions within the imperial project resulted, on the cultural level, in conflicting experiences of cultural process that were rationalized as being a choice between the twin dichotomies of “religious” versus “secular” government, and “traditional” versus “modern” society. Choosing the secular and modern meant, among other things, embracing the notion that mass schooling would provide an inexpensive mechanism of centralized and nearly total control over the inner lives of Egyptians. The choice to provide the nation with schooling was experienced by elites and the nascent middle classes as a drive toward national emancipation that would take place through a new means of reinforcing their own position. That this project has resulted instead in new modes of political opposition, a renewed public attachment to religious values, and finally the forced resort to the tactics of the police state indicate that the culturally mediated choice between tradition and modernity rested on false premises.

Creating an Object

Preferred Citation: Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.