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

History and Typology

The dichotomies of religion/secularism and tradition/modernity are cultural concepts derived initially from social philosophy and its offspring, the professionalized social sciences. Johannes Fabian has argued, in his celebrated essay on “How Anthropology Makes Its Object,” [32] that the discipline of anthropology (and Western science in general) systematically distorts its relationship to the cultures it studies by constructing cultural typologies—hot and cold, primitive and modern, developed and developing, peasant and industrial, rural and urban—that present cultural differences as differences of time. Historical sequence, in becoming the basis of a system of analytical categories, retains its chronological connotations, so that the “traditional” and the “modern” seem separated not only by spatial but by temporal distance. And in the process of implicitly denying the “coevalness” of anthropology and its “Other,” such typologies also deny the close relationships of influence, domination, and, in fact, the mutual constitution of contemporaneous societies. “When modern anthropology began to construct its Other,” Fabian writes, “in terms of topoi implying distance, difference, and opposition, its intent was above all…to construct ordered Space and time—a cosmos—for Western society to inhabit, rather than “understanding other cultures,” its ostensible vocation.” [33]

While he omits them from his own enumeration of false typological opposites, Fabian might well have mentioned religious and secular, a pair of terms that runs through the scholarly literature on Egypt from the very beginning of the modern European presence there. When a correspondent for Public Television's McNeil-Lehrer News Hour reported, shortly after the World Trade Center bombings in 1993, that Islamic radicals were attacking the government of Husni Mubarak because he was “trying to drive Egypt further down the secular road”; or when newspapers in the U.S. claim that radical Islamic movements are threatening to topple “Egypt's secular government,” they are not only engaging in a complex strategy of distancing (the secular West versus the religious East; the (necessarily) secular allied government versus the (fanatically) religious internal threat). They are also—as we will see throughout this book—constructing an astounding fiction: that Egypt's government is a secular one. Although this fiction is useful for purposes of political convenience and Western self-definition, it makes understanding of the current political tensions in Egypt impossible.

Just as typology is always part of a larger narrative that explains its form and origin, so theories of education are always derived not merely from theories of human psychology, but from theories of history. As I will argue in the conclusion, the ideas indigenous and foreign elites hold concerning Islam and education in modern society have been central elements in contemporary public policy formation, and the state's halting and ineffective strategies for counteracting its Islamic political opposition are built partially upon a central flaw in its conception of the social effects of the school. During the 1950s and 1960s intellectuals both in the West and in the Middle East were confident that “in the contemporary Arab world Islam has simply been bypassed…the relaxing of Islam's grip on Arab society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.…resulted in an inner collapse and a withering away of its position and effective power in social and political life.” [34] With respect to education, this confidence was founded upon the political marginalization of the traditional religious hierarchy, which “by the end of the First World War…had not only lost its position as the defender and interpreter of the Law in society, but also its function as the upholder and transmitter of Islamic learning and tradition.…” [35] Even the phenomenal growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1930s and 1940s served as the exception that proved the rule of modernization in Egyptian society:

The tremendous appeal which the movement exercised served to show the extent to which Islam could still move the masses of the people. But it came too late to stem the tide of secularism, and its fate was sealed with the triumph of Abdul Nasser's secular revolution. The Muslim Brothers may well be the last serious effort of traditional Islam to regain its position in Arab society.[36]

This passage encapsulates two fallacies of modernization theory that have found their way into more recent attempts to account for the rise of Islamism—or, the term I prefer, the Islamic Trend—in Egypt. First, there is the false assumption that movements like the Muslim Brothers or the radical Jihad and al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya groups represent “traditional Islam” reasserting itself. And second, there is the false assumption that, in the case of Egypt as in the case of historical development generally, secularism will replace religion in a global and irreversible evolutionary process. On such an assumption, scholarly concern with religious education in the public school would be a misplaced effort, since the role of the nation was assumed to have eclipsed that of God as the focal point of public veneration.[37]

Consequently, the richest evocations of religious education in the contemporary Muslim world confine their attention to the socialization of religious elites,[38] and their implications cannot fruitfully be extended to popular education. There has been a good deal of research on the traditional Qur’anic school (kuttab), particularly in Morocco,[39] and some very recent work on education in postrevolutionary Iran.[40] But aside from important historical work on Czarist Central Asia[41] and a single content analysis of religious textbooks used during the Nasser period,[42] scholars have remained relatively silent about the interaction of religion and mass instruction. As preparation for our entry into the case study, let us remind ourselves again why this is important. As intellectual technologies and political institutions from the West have penetrated the Islamic world, they have helped to create new ways of conceiving of, practicing, and passing on the Islamic tradition. This sort of outcome is a common feature of colonial and postcolonial life. In East Africa, the system of “customary law” itself was a creation of British colonialism.[43] In eighteenth-and nineteenth-century India, the British Asiatic society “initiated the integration of the vast collection of myths, beliefs, rituals, and laws into a coherent religion, and shaped an amorphous heritage into the faith now known as Hinduism,” [44] and in Morocco, French understandings of tribalism became the de facto basis for tribal organization, making “[the French] view of Moroccan society a significant component of social reality.” [45] In the same way, contemporary Islam in Egypt is as much the result of the European-style school as it is of “traditional” texts and intellectual institutions. In this as in so much else—and in a sense even more direct than Fabian's critique of categories—western scholarship has quite literally made the object it now purports to study.

The rest of the book falls into three parts. The next two chapters show how educational goals and philosophies invented in Europe to quell the social unrest of the Industrial Revolution were transplanted at an increasing pace into Egypt by the British after 1882. In appropriating the indigenous Qur’anic schools as the basis for a cheap system of mass instruction, the imperial administration altered the aims and methods of religious teaching to resemble those of Christian Britain. With the subsequent professionalization of teachers and the declining role of the traditional religious elite in formal socialization, religious instruction gained by the 1930s its current function as an explicit tool for social planning.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 describe the content and context of Islamic education in contemporary Egyptian primary and secondary schools. This will not take the form of a traditional school ethnography, but will instead focus on the way schooling is viewed by different populations as an Islamizing influence in conjunction with other social institutions. Based on interviews, classroom observation, and analysis of religious studies textbooks, it will explore the way that school-based religious education is thought to fulfill national goals, including the attempt of the national government to counteract the appeal of al-tatarruf, religious “extremism” among the country's youth. I will argue that, far from counteracting the appeal of private-sector religious forces like the Muslim Brotherhood and the smaller Islamic splinter groups that call for revolt against the state, the religious studies curriculum in schools (and other programs for children and youth) both lays the government open to radical criticism and increases the hunger for religious resources that cannot be met solely by the public sector.

The resulting political challenge to the ruling party has evoked a range of responses ably summarized by the interior minister, who is in charge of domestic security. In a July 1993 speech to the official national union of journalists, he explained that “the newspapers defend democracy and the police work to secure that democracy…and because of this the relationship between the police and the newspapers is strong and profound.” [46] This dual strategy combining cultural and police operations informs chapters 7 and 8, which examine the complex ways in which the Islamic Trend has penetrated the public space created by the school, the media, and the market. On the one hand, a violent fringe of religious terrorists is used as a foil for representations of popular virtue and the masses' rejection of underground Islamist organizations. On the other hand, institutions as varied as the media themselves and the court system are turned to the service of the Islamist political opposition as civil society is penetrated by the discourses of religion. As the government simultaneously increases its investment in Islamic symbols and represses competing groups that deploy them as well, clear alternatives disappear, and the country is moved ever closer to political crisis. In the end, I bring together these tangled historical, textual, and ethnographic threads to show why educational idioms have become part of the language in which political conflict is expressed. Public discourse on the origin of the Islamic Trend is coming more and more to resemble the debates that took place during the British Occupation concerning the pernicious effects of educating the new Egyptian elites. I will argue that flawed applications of social and educational theory—by both Egyptian policymakers and Western scholars—have contributed to the consistent misunderstanding of contemporary political developments, dooming the state to weaken its own position in every attempt it makes to enhance it.

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.