Fiddling amid the flames

In the wake of the controversy generated by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni’s suggestion that the increasing number of veiled women in Egypt was a sign of “regression”, Al-Ahram Weekly asked two leading cultural commentators how they interpreted the subsequent furore

Once again, and not for the last time, a battle has erupted over an instance of assumed contempt of Islam. The controversy this time involves statements made by Farouk Hosni, the minister of culture, to Al-Masri Al-Yom, an independent newspaper that has emerged as a major competitor to the state-owned press. The paper quoted Hosni as making statements to the effect that the hijab is unbecoming and represents a regression in the freedom of dress, behaviour and work that Egyptian women gained startling from the first third of the 20th century.

There were three aspects to the furore that ensued. The first was the attack on Hosni, by the Muslim Brotherhood and others, in newspapers, and a defence of the minister, by intellectuals who issued several statements, and by members of civil society institutions, most of whom can be considered secular, even though the initiative was taken by activists employed in Ministry of Culture departments and organisations. The second involved a virulent attack by 130 members of the People’s Assembly, the Muslim Brotherhood bloc having been supplemented by some 50 representatives of the National Democratic Party, including former ministers. The attacks on Hosni were made with the blessing of the People’s Assembly speaker, and were fanned, rather than calmed, by the intervention of the Minister of State for Parliamentary and Legal Affairs Moufid Shehab. The controversy then moved to the crime pages of newspapers where it was announced that three lawyers had petitioned the public prosecutor, accusing Hosni of offending veiled women and men of religion, defaming Islam and departing from the basic tenets of Islam.

The minister accused his attackers of self- interest, deliberately pouring oil on the fire, and the Muslim Brotherhood of misrepresenting his statements to make political capital. The interpretation of events that gave me reason to pause for thought, though, were suggestions that the whole controversy was in reality a game being played between the government and the opposition, the government having approved Hosni’s statements in advance, knowing that they would provoke the Brotherhood, parliament’s largest opposition bloc, and distract it from far more important issues, including the amendments to the constitution, while the contrasting positions taken by the opposition — Islamist and secularist — on the veil would divide it at a time of growing rapprochement and when unity is essential if government policy is to be countered.

Given the past history of Hosni and other ministers, such suggestions are perfectly plausible though the participation of so many NDP MPs in the attack against Hosni may appear to undermine such an argument, though it has also been suggested that the NDP dissidents may be acting under orders from the party’s leadership. It is the way the crisis ends that will determine which interpretation of events was right. If Hosni remains as minister the latter interpretation will prove valid. If he leaves office, it will be a victory for the Brotherhood who announced before the last parliamentary elections that their aim in the coming phase is not to govern but to make their interpretation of Islam the central frame of reference for governance.

However the crisis ends others will take place, and will continue to do so for as long as the root causes remain in place, by which I mean the circumstances that have made it possible for the Brotherhood and other regressive forces, including the self-designated promoters of “enlightenment”, to dominate Egypt’s political and cultural life.

In terms of discourse analysis Hosni did not affront Islam. He made no comments about whether the hijab is halal, permissible, or haram, prohibited. What he said was that the styles of hijab widespread in Egypt are unattractive and that we need an Egyptian style, one not imposed from other parts of the world. He meant, of course, the Arabian Peninsula. Even if he had rejected the hijab outright this does not constitute a defamation of Islam given that opinions vary as to whether it is a religious obligation; certainly it is not one of the five pillars of Islam (the shahadah, prayer, fasting, zakat and hajj ). Why, in any case, is it that the Brotherhood — and they are not alone — have fixated on this obligation while overlooking others, which include some of the five pillars of Islam, as well as the “forgotten”, or “neglected” religious obligation, as some term jihad, which would certainly seem to be deserving of emphasis given the murder, destruction and persecution to which Muslims and Arabs are subjected, and in the wake of a revitalised philosophy of resistance based on enlightened Islamic tenets in Lebanon.

The current battle does not mean that Hosni’s opponents want Islam to prevail. What they want is for their understanding of Islam — a Sunni, Wahabi one — to be triumphant. But there are dozens of conceptions of Islam, within Sunni Islam and within other schools. We are forced to return, then, to the political frame of reference within which the Muslim Brotherhood, a regional and international force, operates, meaning the local, regional and international conditions that have nurtured a group that will continue to thrive as long as these conditions are in place.

The Muslim Brotherhood, though it receded under Nasser like all forces that did not come under his aegis, spread in other parts of the Arab and Islamic world, especially in Algeria and Saudi Arabia, which gave refuge to the group’s leaders and established strong financial and ideological ties with them. Then came the defeat in the June 1967 War which provided the Brotherhood with a window of opportunity, its ideology suddenly appearing attractive in the light of the despair that followed the defeat. Sadat’s regime, which struck up an alliance with the Brotherhood in order to combat leftist trends, augmented the diffusion of the group’s thought. When it reached the level of extremism that led, as is said, to the assassination of the president, confrontation became inevitable. But confrontation led exclusively by the security apparatus proved unsuccessful; realising this the state, through Hosni, opened a cultural front to the battle, spearheaded by the Supreme Council of Culture (SCC).

The SCC’s slogan in its battle against extremism has long been tanwir (enlightenment). It is a banner under which hundreds of intellectuals — some subscribing to this discourse of enlightenment, others from the ranks of the left which the security apparatus had succeeded in infiltrating and undermining — were enlisted. Millions of dollars were lavished on selected artists, spent on publishing selected books and holding receptions and festivals with selected guests while constructive, serious, genuine culture was neglected. Hosni took to boasting that Egypt’s intellectuals were all to be found within the ministry’s pen. It was a ministry whose philosophy had been reduced to the cultural jamboree.

Now, 20 years into the reign of his excellency the minister, we see only cultural devastation. Egypt’s once pioneering film industry has been ruined and its theatre all but destroyed. Intellectual production has completely receded. Creative writing, finding no space in state publishing houses, resorts to the private sector. The Mass Culture project has been laid to waste, and Egypt’s antiquities have been smuggled out of the country without check. The only thing that can be said in favour of the minister is that he has presided over the conservation of a number of monuments, though how efficient those restorations have been is difficult to assess. We do know, too, that the Ministry of Culture has erected buildings of its own; but a spark is capable of destroying these. Think only of the fire in the theatre of the Beni Sweif Cultural Palace, in which so many lost their lives.

The greatest achievement of the Ministry of Culture, with its various affiliated organisations, contrary to its slogan, is that it has destroyed the values of enlightenment, rationality, knowledge, tolerance and citizenship, while extremism and permissiveness — two facets of the same coin — have grown.

People in Egypt have lost all hope for the future, just as they have lost faith in the regime, in all the political elite, including the opposition and Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s industry and agriculture are being ruined, great swathes of the population are denied access to employment, housing, medical treatment, transportation, even to sufficient food and water to meet the minimum requirements for human dignity. Nor do they have the freedom to form parties or organisations, to freely vote in unrigged elections whether for a village mayor, dean of faculty, a member of a local council, of parliament or the president.

There is nothing more indicative of Egypt’s current condition than the voter turnout figures in the most recent parliamentary elections. Despite all parties, whether governmental or opposition, resorting to whatever means possible to rally support — issuing propaganda by the truckload, using untold funds, having recourse to unchecked violence, vote rigging, etc. — only five million people turned up at the polls.

The Ministry of Culture, responsible for propagating culture, awareness and values, has failed resoundingly, has accomplished, in fact, the opposite. In fairness, though, one should point out that this is no exception in a country where no ministry has fulfilled its mandate, a country collapsing in absence of any holistic developmental project and that has failed to provide its citizens with even the most basic rights.

So we turn to the issue of the hijab, and all the controversy the minister’s words have provoked. But where do the players in this conflict — his excellency the minister, the Muslim Brotherhood, the secular opposition — stand on problems that it should be obvious to all lie at the root of extremism, permissiveness and wretchedness? That causes can be ignored in favour of symptoms is indicative of just how isolated the political elite have become from the people and their concerns; they are indulging in a game that could not be further removed from the all too real problems that, if left, will explode and destroy the country, sweeping everything and everyone away.

* The writer is a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University. His publications include Al-’Urud wa Iqa’ Al-Shi’r Al-’Arabi (Prosody and Rhythm in Arabic Poetry ); Muhtawa Al-Shakl fi’l-Riwaya Al-’Arabiyya ( The Content of the Form of the Arabic Novel ); Al-Hadatha Al-Tabi’a fi-l-Thaqafa Al-Misriyya ( Derivative Modernism in Egyptian Culture ) ; and Layl Madrid ( Madrid Night ).

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