Museum Challenge: Celebrating the Year of the Rooster @ The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the Chinese calendar, it’s the Year of the Rooster. I didn’t even realize that until I saw an exhibit listed to celebrate the Rooster in the Chinese galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I tried to guess at how they could put together an entire gallery of roosters. Rows and rows of roosters, in all mediums. Oil paintings of roosters, clay statues of roosters, pottery with roosters on it. Big roosters, tiny roosters. In my imagination, it was glorious, so of course, I made it a point to go check it out.

I had to ask for help finding the exhibit because I was standing where it was marked on the museum’s map, but I only saw one lonely rooster (pictured above). Unfortunately, that one lonely rooster was almost all there was to look at. There was also one wall display box with a few pieces of art in it and a wall placard explaining the significance of the Chinese zodiac animals.

When I think of an exhibit, I think of something substantial. I honestly felt like the advertisement was a bait and switch just to get people into the museum, which feels cheap and unworthy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an institution. Or maybe I’m just sad because I was hoping for something exciting or impressive. Something more. I guess I hold the museum to a higher standard because I hold it in such high regard.

Metropolitan Museum of Art - Year of the Rooster and Asian Art Gallery (March 2017)//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsAnyway, I did see some really old artifacts from China while walking back out of the Asian galleries that caught my interest. They were objects placed in burial chambers for royalty. They looked like buildings and servants and objects for service and entertainment. It’s a lot like what Pharaohs were buried with in Egypt. It’s odd how similar ideas were popping up all around the world in roughly the same time period. I was reminded of how the pyramids were built in Egypt, but that there were also pyramids being built in Central America. There are the remains of ziggurats in the Middle East, but there are also remains of similar structures on the ocean floor near Japan. I wonder how they’re all connected?

Also, turns out I was born in the year of the Rooster. Gong xi fa cai!

Accountability and Free Will: Did Pharaoh Have a Chance?

In the book of Exodus, the stories surrounding the Hebrews’ captivity in Egypt and their subsequent release after the Egyptians are afflicted by ten plagues from God creates problems theologically and philosophically. The stories raise questions about man’s free will and why man is held accountable for actions that he has no control over. In other words, if God makes a person commit a specific act, is that person responsible for that act, either good or bad? These questions have been addressed by many Jewish theologians and philosophers who, while not being able to definitively solve the perceived problem, have presented some possible solutions.

The way most philosophers seem to approach this topic is by focusing on whether or not Pharaoh had a choice when choosing to let the Israelites leave his territory. The phrase used in the text of Exodus says that at various times, God “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart after he suffers from a plague. While under the influence of that hardened heart, he considers Moses’ demand to let the Israelites go free and, of course, denies him (Frank, et al. 46-48). Having a “hardened heart” implies that Pharaoh’s free will was affected and he was not able to make a choice about whether or not to let the Israelites leave. Instead, the choice was made for him by God. Can Pharaoh be held accountable for his actions if he was not given a choice?

Maimonides looks at the broader story of the Hebrews becoming oppressed and enslaved by Egypt in order to understand why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He understands the question to be one of predeterminism and addresses whether or not Pharaoh had the free will to make a choice based on Abraham’s earlier conversation with God, in which God tells Abraham that Egypt will oppress Israel. Maimonides argues that man retains free will and that God does not preordain or compel disobedience (49). He clarifies this position by looking at proscriptions and punishments in the Torah. Just because a law and a punishment are listed does not mean that God has compelled a person who breaks the law to commit the sin. Instead, the man who breaks a law has free will, but God saw fit to inform us in advance of what the punishment would be for breaking a particular law.

Maimonides’ argument makes sense, but not for the situation he is trying to address. He is arguing that just because something is in the Torah, that does not mean it was directed specifically at any particular person, thereby compelling that particular person to act. However, the situation in question is indeed specific. God specifically stated that Egypt would oppress and enslave Israel. If one is to understand that God cannot contradict himself, then Egypt had no choice but to oppress Israel. It was preordained specifically by God (48-49). One could argue that the specific Egyptians who did the oppressing were not named and no specific date was given, but that is merely sidestepping the fact that at some point Egyptians would have to oppress Israel in order for God’s word to not be false. In other words, even if it had been another Pharaoh that chose to oppress Israel (if we’re assuming Pharaoh was able to make the choice), then it would be that Pharaoh in the story rather than the one currently being discussed. In order for God’s word to not be false, it would not be a question of whether something happened, but when it happened. Regardless of when Egypt oppressed Israel, we can reasonably believe that God would have followed through with the rest of the scenario he had already set in motion during that conversation with Abraham.

Another argument that Maimonides presents to justify God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is to claim that Pharaoh essentially earned that punishment by deciding beforehand to “deal shrewdly” with Israel. God prevented Pharaoh from repenting in order to punish him for past wrongdoing (49). Is this really an argument that we want to want to make about God’s nature? Maimonides is essentially arguing that God will prevent a person from repenting if it suits his interests. That idea lacks the sense of justice that we attribute to God and that Maimonides himself recognized when he wrote that “…all of His ways are just” (50). It also denies man the free will to choose between good and evil that was, supposedly, obtained after consuming the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3 (9-10).

Another philosopher, David Shatz, acknowledges that in order for someone to be held accountable for an action, the action has to be performed when not impaired by an outside force. Shatz argues that free will is something that is valued in Judaism given the fact that the argument surrounding Pharaoh is brought up in the first place (51-52). Shatz states that even if we assume that free will is not as important an idea in Judaism as we would like to think, we are still left with three problems: responsibility, repentance-prevention, and the causation problem. Maimonides would say that Pharaoh was responsible because Pharaoh always had free will in the situation. Arguing that Pharaoh had free will would also solve the repentance-prevention problem, but Maimonides’ arguments on these points are unconvincing and ignore the problem of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. If Pharaoh was unable to choose, then why would he be responsible for his actions? If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then how can we know if Pharaoh would have changed his mind? Why would God prevent someone from repenting when Judaism teaches that God wants sinners to turn to him and repent?

The final problem, the causation problem, is one that Shatz does not address, but which is also the most interesting. The causation problem is the problem of God committing evil through Pharaoh. Can God commit evil? Shatz does not seem to think this question is relevant to his topic, but that is debatable because it addresses the question of responsibility that Shatz raises in his first problem. If Pharaoh is not responsible for the evil he commits, then who is? If God is in control, then does that not leave blame for the deaths caused by the plagues with God? Pharaoh was not the only one to suffer from having his heart hardened. The Egyptian people as a whole bore the brunt of God’s plagues. It is hard to believe that every Egyptian bore personal guilt or responsibility for Pharaoh’s actions.

The story seems to be framed in a way that assumes a people or tribe is one conceptual unit and bears collective responsibility for actions committed against other tribes or peoples. This could well be the case, considering the fact that later Arab tribes held this view, executing a blood debt on any member of the offending tribe, but this brings us back to the point of responsibility and accountability. If, in Jewish theology, people are responsible for repenting for their own sins, then why did God punish or kill Egyptians who were not directly responsible for Pharaoh’s choices? In addition to preventing Pharaoh from repenting and taking responsibility for his actions, God creates an evil act through Pharaoh and causes the deaths and suffering of many innocent people. So, even if one believes that a person has the free will to choose to do good, one is left with the impression that we might be left to suffer or die just so God can prove a point, and perhaps not even a point about a situation in which we are directly involved. Because our neighbor needs to learn a lesson, God may destroy us as well. Is that justice?

Shatz presents a few solutions that were proposed by Jewish philosophers in an attempt to overcome some of these obstacles. He states that some people have attempted to argue for a redefinition of “hardening.” Instead, one should understand the term to mean keeping someone alive or providing respite. Shatz notes that this tactic is rejected by most interpreters. The “modest” solution argues that even if God had not hardened Pharaoh’s heart, the plagues alone were coercive enough that had Pharaoh released Israel, it would not have been of his own volition so God did not change the outcome. Another claim is that by hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God actually made him immune to the coercion of the plagues, thereby allowing him to make a choice freely, based on his character. Yet another theory is that the hardening itself was a punishment, meaning that the loss of free will and Pharaoh’s inability to repent was his punishment for not repenting previously. The naturalistic approach supposes that when it is stated that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, what is meant is that Pharaoh’s heart is reacting naturally due to his habitually bad choices.

In the solutions proposed above, there are still problems. If God’s influence in Egypt had no impact on the outcome, then why is God a part of the story at all? If God made Pharaoh impervious to the suffering of the plagues, what was the purpose of the plagues in the first place? If Pharaoh was unable to repent, again, what was the purpose of the plagues? And finally, if Pharaoh’s heart was hardened through a natural process and God knew Pharaoh would reject setting the Israelites free, why create a situation that knowingly leads to destruction? There must be a motive of some sort to follow through with this scenario. In the text of the story in Exodus, God says he is hardening Pharaoh’s heart in order to demonstrate his power before the Egyptians (46). Is that reasonable? Even if we assume that Pharaoh somehow deserved what happened, the plagues created devastation throughout Egypt, harming people that had nothing to do with Pharaoh’s decisions. Additionally, God’s stated motive implies that he seeks fame and is willing to both suspend free will and kill the innocent to obtain it. Besides anthropomorphizing God, the reason for the plagues stated in the Torah would mean that God victimized Pharaoh and the Egyptian people simply to show that he is the most powerful god in the region.

It is difficult to harmonize the idea that God would nearly destroy a whole people just to prove a point with our modern conception of what God is. However, this opens up the possibility of another solution to the problem of Pharaoh, free will, and accountability. Stories in the Bible often have some sort of moral or lesson to teach. Perhaps the story of Pharaoh was not about free will at all, but rather about God’s glory and power and his position as Israel’s protector. The use of Pharaoh as a framework for demonstrating that power may just be a literary device and, when the story of the Exodus was first told, it made perfect sense that the personal deity of a tribe would restrict or alter an enemy ruler’s ability to reason without that having implications for the Israelites because one’s enemies were not subject to the same deity. There is some indication that God’s actions were based on a tribal rather than universal scale in the sense that the Egyptians are seen as collectively responsible for the actions of their leader.

This does not, of course, solve the question of free will raised by the philosophers who have analyzed the story. In terms of whether man has free will or not, that is hard to say. I am inclined to say that if God takes any active role in history then man does not have free will, because, from the moment God influences events, later events have become predetermined as a result of those actions. Choices man might otherwise have made are influenced, or those choices never materialize and man is left with one course where there might have been two or more. Shatz argues that a man is not responsible for his actions if his free will has been affected. If that is the case, then I am inclined to say that there is no room for God to intervene in human affairs while still positioning man as responsible for his own actions.

 

Works Cited

Frank, Daniel H, Oliver Leaman and Charles H Manekin, The Jewish Philosophy Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004. Book.

 

 

Reading Response: Modernization in Egypt, 19th Century

A reading response I wrote for a graduate class, based on four articles or selections about modernization in Egypt.


 

In “An Irrigated Empire: The View from Ottoman Fayyum,” Alan Mikhail uses agriculture in Fayyum and the maintenance of dikes and dams to make a larger argument about the balance of power in the Ottoman Empire as a whole. Mikhail is arguing against Karen Barkey’s hub and spoke model which posits that all power is in the center and all resources flow through the center. Instead, Mikhail shows that Fayyum acted as its own power center with its own peripheries. One way he demonstrates this is by explaining Fayyum’s traditional role as the grain-supplier of the Hijaz region. Istanbul never attempted to reorganize this regional dynamic and instead supported it because maintaining Fayyum’s productive power was in the best interests of the empire as a whole. More importantly, Mikhail’s article challenges the top-down power dynamic associated with empires by showing that the Fayyumis, the peasants, were able to wield power of their own by using their agricultural production and local expertise as leverage. In Fayyum, the peasants, though at the bottom of the social and power structure, were able to manipulate that structure to their advantage.

Khaled Fahmy’s article “The Nation and Its Deserters: Conscription in Mehmed Ali’s Egypt,” while not making the same argument as Mikhail, plays to the same theme. Fahmy is arguing against the modern historiographical narrative that presents Mehmed Ali’s modernization of the Army as an expression of Egyptian nationalism. He shows quite convincingly that Egyptians saw military service as an onerous burden and went to great lengths to avoid being drafted. The draftees were subject to a modern medical examination to see if they were fit for duty. Understanding this, draftees manipulated the system through self-mutilation, forcing the government to make changes to its policies. While their resistance was not effective or successful, this shows that draftees, like the Fayyumis, understood and engaged with state institutions in ways that made them political actors, rather than passive recipients of top-down power.

In the second article by Fahmy, “The Anatomy of Justice: Forensic Medicine and Criminal Law in Nineteenth-Century Egypt,” Egyptian peasants are shown to have engaged with and used the new siyasa legal system instituted by Mehmed Ali to their advantage as well. The article presents a historical narrative that is similar to the one presented by Milan Petrov in “Everyday Forms of Compliance: Subaltern Commentaries on Ottoman Reform, 1864-1868,” which discusses the way that people in the vilayet of Danube engaged with the new nizami courts. In this article, Fahmy is arguing against the prevailing teleological narrative of a steady progression from “backwards” shariah law to “modern” secular law. He argues instead that the government introduced these legal reforms not for the purpose of enlightenment or justice, but to improve state control over the population. In other words, this wasn’t European light illuminating the darkness of Arab backwardness. It was a carefully thought out plan meant to enhance the efficiency of the state. Fahmy focuses on autopsies and how they were used by the state and understood by the average person. Generally it seems that people understood the benefits of autopsies as a means of ensuring justice in areas that the shariah did not address or did not address adequately.

Brown’s article, “Who Abolished Corvee Labour in Egypt and Why?” is the only article that takes away agency from the common people, who are depicted as a formless mob who act only when ordered to act. In his article Brown is making the argument that corvee labor was not abolished for enlightened reasons, but because it became more profitable for the peasants to remain on their lands to harvest crops after year-round growing became established. The peasants were always being used to serve the greater interests of the state (or the landholders, who in turn produced revenues for the state), and even after the supposed renouncement of corvee labor, there were projects that necessitated the use of forced labor, especially in terms of the maintenance of the irrigation system.

It is interesting how great a role the irrigation system played in influencing policies in Egypt. Egypt’s agricultural output was its greatest asset when it was part of the Ottoman Empire and served as a vital part of the Empire’s infrastructure. After Egypt was separated from the Empire, agriculture was still of vital interest to the state. There were apparently conflicting interests, however. How was the irrigation system maintained when Mehmed Ali depleted the countryside of men to fill the ranks of his army?

Differing Islamist Ideologies: Violence and Government

A short essay I wrote last year for an undergraduate history course on Islamist political movements:

Modern media has tended to portray Islamist movements as a single entity with a single goal in mind: the establishment of an Islamic state. While it is true that establishing an Islamic state is the end goal, this simple categorization denies the existence of a diversity of Islamist movements, each with different opinions of how a state should be formed and what institutions should be put in place to make it Islamic. Islamists do share a core set of beliefs: the need to establish an Islamic state, the reestablishment of Islamic law as the basis for regulating life, the belief that most or all of the problems in the Muslim world are a result of the failure of the development of ‘authentic’ Islamic institutions to manage political, economic and social life, and the belief that Islam is an all-inclusive social system that could and should regulate all aspects of life.[1]

Beyond these core beliefs, Islamist groups vary widely on essential topics like what form an Islamic government should take and how it should be established. For example, some Islamists believe that Islam is wholly compatible with democracy and others denounce democracy entirely. Part of the reason for the conflict over the admissibility of democracy is a common wholesale rejection of Western ideas due to the long history of colonial exploitation of Muslim lands, or a feeling that adoption of Western ideas is tantamount to admitting defeat, since Islam couldn’t provide a model of government on its own.[2]

In terms of what constitutes proper Islamic governance, the Quran and hadith do not contain much information regarding the establishment of ‘Islamic’ politics or political structures. What Islamic religious sources do say on the topic is vague, laying down general rules rather than specific instructions. An Islamic government should be a “median community” that establishes justice, “command[s] the good and proscribe[s] evil,” and considers the public good in its decision making process.[3] However, what isn’t stated is exactly what constitutes a median community, what justice necessarily is, what institutions should be established to command the good and proscribe evil, or how to include the community in the decision making process, or to what degree the community should be included at all.

The idea of the inclusion of the community in the decision making process, established by Islamic concepts like shura[4] and ijma[5], has been used to justify the idea of democracy being compatible with Islam. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamist, wrote, “A call for democracy does not necessitate a rejection of God’s sovereignty over human beings.”[6] He also said that “Islam antedates democracy in establishing the basic principles on which the essence of democracy rests…” and “…we have the right to borrow from others whatever ideas, methods, and systems might be beneficial to us as long as they do not contradict the clear dictates of the foundational texts or established principles of the shari’a.”[7] He was clearly recalling the fact that much of Islamic philosophy, logic, mathematics, and systems of government were borrowed and adapted from civilizations as diverse as the Greeks, Byzantines, Persians, Indians (South Asian), and Chinese, refuting the idea that the importation of foreign systems and ideas is inherently wrong or contradictory to Islam by using the past as an example.

Additionally, he was arguing against the idea that placing legislative power in the hands of the people (democracy) is a violation of God’s sovereignty and therefore against Islam, an argument favored by Sayyid Qutb. Qutb would not have accepted earlier incorporations of foreign ideologies as a legitimate reason for the incorporation of democracy into Islam. Qutb argued that Muslim society had been degraded and contaminated by Western ideas that had accumulated over the centuries. He believed that these ideas, which he referred to as pathologies, led to the failures present in Egyptian society at the time he was writing.[8] He believed that through action Muslims could regain a dominant position in the world, specifically by re-embracing the ideals of the first generation of Muslims through dedication to the fundamentals of the Qur’an and by purging all vestiges of jahiliyya from their lives, including in the government.

Like Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb advocated the establishment of the Islamic state through violent jihad. Sayyid Qutb was known as the “Philosopher of Islamic Terror” and his ideology inspired the violent jihad of later Islamists.[9] This was true of Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, another Egyptian Islamist who was involved in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Faraj wrote, “Jihad for God’s cause, in spite of its extreme importance and its great significance for the future of this religion, has been neglected by the ‘ulama of this age. … There is no doubt that the idols of this world can be made to disappear only through the power of the sword.”[10] Hamas too believed that violent jihad was the answer, stating in its charter that “Jihad is [the movement’s] methodology, and / Death for the sake of Allah is its most coveted desire.”[11] What these Islamists all had in common was their focus on the near enemy. Al-Banna, Qutb and Faraj were all focused on establishing an Islamic state by defeating the secular Egyptian government. Hamas was focused on defeating the Israeli state. However, not all Islamist groups focus their energies on just the near enemey. Other groups, most notably al-Qaeda, globalized the concept of jihad by placing an emphasis on defeating the far enemy, primarily the United States and Britain. The most memorable of their global strikes was the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in September 11, 2001.

Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, led the fight against the United States because of what he saw as continued American (and general Western) intervention and interference in the affairs of Muslims. He was incensed by the fact that the Saudi government had invited American forces into the country to defend the Kingdom rather than relying on Muslims, especially when the American forces remained in the country after hostilities with Iraq ended. He accused the Saudi monarchy of being illegitimate for acting in contradiction to Islamic law, saying, “this situation is a curse Allah has laid upon them for failing to object to the oppressive and illegitimate conduct and measures of the ruling regime, chief of which are: its disregard of Islamic law, its denial of the people’s legitimate rights, the permission given to Americans to occupy the Land of the Two Holy Places, and the unjust imprisonment of righteous ‘ulema.”[12]

Bin Laden believed the American presence in Saudi Arabia was one step in a bigger plan by America and Israel to subjugate the Muslim countries. Like Faraj, he advocated violent jihad as an individual duty that should be fulfilled at any cost, but unlike Faraj, he advocated targeting the West globally, rather than striking locally, because he saw the West as the source of continued unrest in Muslim countries. This shift in the focus of violent retaliation from local to global initiated a new type of jihad which is best described as a decentralized franchise where local groups may be independent or in contact with other groups and are willing to choose targets world-wide.

The belief that all Islamist groups are the same is an oversimplified interpretation of what is really a much more complex group of beliefs and ideologies. Violent Islamists are not even able to coordinate their misappropriation of jihad into a coherent strategy, with some groups focusing on local targets and others focusing on global targets. There are uniting factors, the strongest of which is the end goal of establishing a state based on Islamic law and Islamic values, but even that goal is a point of contention among Islamists, since they are not able to come to a consensus on what type of government is appropriate. Should there be an Islamic democracy? If not, then what? Who should participate? These are just some of the questions from a specific set of issues, violence and the form of government desired, that separate Islamist ideologies, and they are by no means the only questions or the only differences. Islamists may at some point in the future agree on a unified plan to reach a unified goal, but that time is not now.

References

Euben, Roxanne L., and Muhammad Qasim Zaman. Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Management Systems International (MSI). “Exploring the Thinking of Islamists: Islamist Views Toward Government, the Economy, and Pluralism.” USAID. November 2002. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNACW875.pdf (accessed December 13, 2012).


[1] Management Systems International, “Exploring The Thinking of Islamists: Islamist Views Toward Government, the Economy, and Pluralism,” USAID, November 2002, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNACW875.pdf (accessed 13 December 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] An Arabic word meaning consultation, or a consultative council or assembly.

[5] An Arabic word referring to the consensus or agreement of the Muslim community on the rightness of a belief or practice.

[6] Roxanne Euben and Muhammad Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 238.

[7] Ibid., 236-237.

[8] Ibid., 131.

[9] Ibid., 129.

[10] Ibid., 327.

[11] Ibid., 369.

[12] Ibid., 439.

Islamism and “The Yacoubian Building”

The Yacoubian Building Book Cover
The Yacoubian Building Book Cover

The following is a short essay I wrote about The Yacoubian Building for an undergraduate history course.

In Alaa al Aswany’s book, The Yacoubian Building, Islamism and Islamists are primarily presented through the point of view of the character Taha El Shazli, the son of a doorman who lives on the roof of the Yacoubian building.  As the story progresses, the rise of Islamism in Egypt is presented as being directly related to socioeconomic background, the lack of adequate economic opportunities and corruption present in government and society.

Taha’s family was of very modest means.  Despite this, Taha was very intelligent and was able to excel at his studies because of his desire to become a police officer, which he believed would allow him to advance in life and gain the respect and dignity that he lacked while growing up in the Yacoubian building.  As the son of a doorman, he was often ridiculed and looked down on by the other residents, which he was forced to put up with because he had no other option.  Taha was sure that he would be able to succeed in his endeavor because he believed firmly in God, prayed regularly and avoided major sins (Aswany, 20).

Taha almost reached his goal, but his socioeconomic status caused his application to be rejected.  Before attending the character interview, he had spoken to officers in his district who told him that because he had no rich and influential family members he would have to pay a bribe of 20,000-pounds to guarantee his acceptance into the police academy.  Taha wasn’t financially capable of paying a bribe of that amount and given his religious devotion, he probably wouldn’t have done it anyway.  Instead, he believed firmly in his abilities and hoped that his devotion to God would enable him to overcome that obstacle.

Unfortunately, the board wasn’t interviewing for ability or the marks of a good police officer.  They were only interested in the corrupt practices of giving out government positions to family members or people with the right amount of money.  Even though they were impressed by Taha’s answers, when it was discovered that his father was a “property guard,” he was dismissed.  This was Taha’s first taste of corruption, another in a long line of blows to his dignity, and a serious threat to his chances of ever having a respectable life.

Taha’s next attempt to push past the boundaries set by his socioeconomic background was his enrollment in the Faculty of Economics at Cairo University.  In his new surroundings, however, he still felt the sting of class divisions and was drawn towards other people who, like himself, came from humble backgrounds.  These people were more religiously observant and Taha finally felt like he’d met people that would allow him the respect and dignity he was seeking.  The level of respect and the sense of belonging he finally felt with this new group of people, student Islamists, made him far more open to radicalization.  He felt that he was valued.  He was brought into an inner circle and introduced to an influential and charismatic leader, Sheikh Shakir, which validated his need for respect and purpose.

The event that crystallized Taha’s emergence as not just an Islmaist, but a jihadi Islamist, was the trauma he experienced when arrested after a demonstration protesting Egypt’s involvement in the Gulf War.  Already having spent most of his life being bullied and pushed around because of circumstances out of his control, he was bullied, tortured and raped by the very government entity that he had at one time hoped to work for.  The corruption that prevented him from serving his country as a police officer now served to facilitate his torture and radicalization.  When Taha was finally released from prison, his dignity as a man and a human being was shattered.  His faith was shaken.  Through coaxing from his Islamist mentors, however, he was convinced that he could best recover through renewed devotion and military-style training, which Taha readily agreed to out of an intense need for both healing and revenge.

In the end, Taha became a “martyr,” dying in the process of taking revenge on the man who ordered his rape.  Because of Taha’s socioeconomic background, he had limited options to start with.  Because of the corruption in the police department (and the government office that denied his claim of unfairness) he was pushed down a path that led him to associate with Islamist oriented people of a similar background.  Further government corruption in the form of sanctioned torture and degradation in prison caused Taha to pass the tipping point.  While not all Egyptians may follow the same path to Islamism, Aswany’s message is clear:  the lack of opportunities open to people of all classes and the government’s enabling of and participation in corruption helped to create violent Islamists.

Islamist Political Thought in Egypt: al-Banna to Faraj

The following is a short essay I wrote for an undergraduate college class on the history of Islamist political thought:

On June 30th, 2012, Mohammed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, assumed office as the 5th president of Egypt.  In modern politics, the Muslim Brotherhood holds the highest offices of power in the state, but it began as a small movement in the port city of Suez with a membership of seven.  Today, the Muslim Brotherhood expresses the culmination of decades of Islamist thought and is a diverse movement with members who champion women’s rights and push for greater integration with Christians and other minorities, as well as more conservative, Salafist and Qutbist members.[i]

The shape and expression of Islamist thought has changed dramatically over the years, but the ideology expressed in the Muslim Brotherhood today has its foundation in the political writings of Hasan al-Banna, the man who founded the organization.  From an early age, Hasan al-Banna took a strident stance against the British presence in Egypt, Christian missionary activity, and behavior that was deemed un-Islamic.  Rather than pursue religious studies, al-Banna became a teacher and was posted at a school in the Suez Canal Zone, where he was appalled by what he saw as the dominance of materialism, secularism, and a trading of Islamic morals for Western decadence.  He was also repulsed by the sight of Egyptians being exploited for the economic benefit of foreign powers.[ii]

The problems Egyptian society faced in confronting Westernization and colonial exploitation weighed heavy on Hasan al-Banna’s mind and the only solution he felt was appropriate was a return to Islam.  In a letter al-Banna sent to heads of state and other influential people, he said, in regards to Islam: “If we take the nation along this path, we shall be able to obtain many benefits …  For then we will construct our lives on our own principles and fundamental assumptions, taking nothing from others.  Herein lie the highest ideals of social and existential independence, after political independence.”[iii]  From this, we can see that al-Banna rejected Westernization as a system of living, opting instead for Islam as a native, natural, superior and complete way of life.[iv]

Al-Banna left it to other thinkers to flesh out his ideas and focused instead on social welfare programs and expanding the Brotherhood’s membership.  However, al-Banna did firmly establish the concept of a dichotomy of Islam versus the “West,” attributing the decline of Muslim civilization to the wholesale adoption of Western values and social norms, and argued for a return to Islamic values as a solution to the social malaise being experienced in Egypt.  He presented Islam as an opportunity for Egyptians to throw off the shackles of second-class humanity and reclaim their former glory, the former glory of their Islamic heritage.  He also established the important concept of modernity and Islam not being mutually exclusive.  A civilization does not have to be “Westernized,” or secularized, in order to be modern.  A civilization can be Islamic and modern as well:  technologically advanced, socially progressive, but still retaining the values, beliefs, and social norms that make Muslims and Islamic civilization distinct.

While some of al-Banna’s writing emphasizes the rejection of pacific forms of jihad in favor of armed conflict with unbelievers, al-Banna was pragmatic, conciliatory and willing to compromise.  For example, while he disapproved of the Egyptian political system, he participated in elections.[v]  Other Islamists that followed al-Banna were less forgiving.  For example, Sayyid Qutb was decidedly more in favor of violent jihad, earning himself the nickname “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror.”[vi]

Sayyid Qutb was born in Upper Egypt in 1906 and, like al-Banna, began his career as a teacher.  He also adhered to al-Banna’s ideology of Islam being the correct path for Egyptians to follow in order to regain their power as a civilization and joined the Muslim Brotherhood.  Where Qutb differed was in his stridency and his message of Islam being the only correct lifestyle in any part of the world where Muslims live.  He was firmly against any system that gave legislative authority to man and, unlike al-Banna, did not compromise in his ideology.  He wrote that “submission to God alone is a universal message which all mankind must either accept or be at peace with.  It [a legal framework] must not place any impediment to this message, in the form of a political system or material power.”[vii]

He also believed that establishing this legal framework required more than “verbal advocacy of Islam,” because “the problem is that the people in power who have usurped God’s authority on earth will not relinquish their power at the mere explanation and advocacy of the true faith.”[viii]  Qutb did not believe in idly sitting by and hoping that Islam would become dominant in the world of its own accord.  He believed that Muslims have an obligation to actualize proper Islamic governance through action.  He wrote, “… knowledge is for action… the Qur’an was not revealed to be a book of intellectual enjoyment, or a book of literature or art, fables or history… Rather, it was revealed to be a way of life, a pure mode of being from Allah.”[ix]  Combined with Qutb’s idea of a single, true version of Islam, this concept of bringing about God’s law on earth through action contributed to the rise of violent jihad.

Building on Sayyid Qutb’s ideology, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj advocated the jihad of the sword as the only legitimate interpretation of jihad, dismissing the greater jihad of internal struggle against sin as a fabrication meant to pacify the Muslim masses.[x]  Like Qutb, Faraj saw (Western) modernity as a condition of moral bankruptcy, and as an infection that was destroying the ummah from within.[xi]  In 1981, using his reworked definition of jihad, Faraj published a collection of justifications for violent jihad against un-Islamic rulers in a pamphlet called al-Farida al-Gha’iba (The Absent Duty).  A few months later, the militant group that Faraj belonged to, Jama’at al-Jihad, planned and executed an assassination of President Anwar Sadat, a secular leader intent on rapid modernization.

The debate over Islam and how it relates to government in Egypt continued into the 1990s, with two opposing views being presented by Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Min fiqh al-dawla fi’l-Islam and ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Rahman in The Present Rulers and Islam: Are They Muslim or Not?  Qaradawi argued that democracy is compatible with Islam and wrote that “A call for democracy does not necessitate a rejection of God’s sovereignty over human beings.”[xii]  He explains that Islam contains elements of democracy and uses role of an imam as an example.  He says that an undesirable prayer leader may be removed, which is a precedent for the removing of an undesirable governmental leader, which in turn is an expression of democracy.  The people select who will rule over them.  Qaradawi argues that democracy is the best form of government for Muslims and it shouldn’t be rejected simply because it originated outside of Islam.  It should be incorporated, with useful elements being retained and the rest being discarded.[xiii]

‘Abd al-Rahman, on the other hand, advocated the rejection of any ruler that was not in full compliance with the concept of Islamic governance as expressed by Sayyid Qutb, even to the point of causing civil war.  He wrote that fitna (civil war), though a serious issue in the Muslim ummah, is preferable to being ruled by an un-Islamic ruler, and that “We would not, in fact, consider the resulting social discord [from eliminating an un-Islamic ruler] to be fitna at all; rather we would regard it as a struggle for reform because its ultimate aim would be the elevation of the Truth, the uprooting of corruption, and the reaffirmation of Islam.”[xiv]  For al-Rahman, whether or not to use violence is not a question, but rather a necessity, against any form of rule that is not compliant with the shariah and places legislative authority in the hands of man.  The removal of the leader should be immediate, or the people will be just as guilty of shirk as the leader.

Islamist thought in Egypt has branched out into a number of different schools of thought, from extremists who advocate violent jihad and a return to the fundamentals to those who try to reconcile Islam with democracy.  The common thread that holds them all together is their belief that the future lies in the Quran and man’s obedience to Islam and God’s law as a way to reestablish the power and dignity of Muslims.  With the recent political upheaval in Egypt and the coming to power of a Muslim Brotherhood member, Islamists may finally have the opportunity to realize some of their ideals.  Mohammed Mursi’s ascension to Egypt’s presidency is a remarkable event and Hasan al-Banna’s surving brother, Gamal al-Banna, believes the election would have pleased his brother, because “it was God’s will.”[xv]


[i]. “How Muslim Brotherhood went from 7 members to Egypt’s presidency,” June 29, 2012, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/06/29/154443/how-muslim-brotherhood-went-from.html.

[ii]. Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 50.

[iii]. Euben and Zaman, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought, 58.

[iv]. Ibid.

[v]. Ibid., 52-53.

[vi]. Ibid., 129.

[vii]. Ibid., 146.

[viii]. Ibid., 147.

[ix]. Ibid., 141.

[x]. Ibid., 323.

[xi]. Ibid., 322.

[xii]. Ibid., 238.

[xiii]. Ibid., 230-245.

[xiv]. Ibid., 350.

[xv]. “How Muslim Brotherhood went from 7 members to Egypt’s presidency.”

Bibliography

Euben, Roxanne L., and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, . Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Youssef, Nancy A. “How Muslim Brotherhood went from 7 members to Egypt’s presidency.” McClatchy: Truth to Power. June 29, 2012. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/06/29/154443/how-muslim-brotherhood-went-from.html (accessed October 10, 2012).

 

Egyptian-American Muslim Girl Gets Grilled on Polygamy By Hispanic Woman

“Hey, are you Egyptian?”  I was standing at a table on the side of the post office, filling out a shipping label, when a Hispanic woman walked up and asked the girl next to me that question.  I glanced over at the girl and saw she had Middle Eastern features and she was wearing a hijab (the head scarf, if you’re not familiar with the word).  Oddly enough, the woman had guessed right.  The girl replied that she was half Egyptian and was born in the US.

“You’re a Muslim right?”  At this point, I was considering moving to another part of the post office, because I was expecting this Hispanic woman to go nuts and start haranguing this girl for being a Muslim, which she obviously was, since she was wearing a hijab.  New York City has a reputation for being filled with lunatics and you really never know if you’re talking to one until it’s too late.  The girl looked a little hesitant, but again she answered yes.

‘Here it comes,’ I thought.  But, instead of what I was expecting, the Hispanic woman asked, “What do you think about marrying more than one woman?  If you were married to a man, would you be ok with him marrying a woman in another country?”

“No, I wouldn’t be ok with that.”

“Ok, because I know Muslims believe in marrying more than one wife.”

“Well, not all Muslims do that,” the girl replied.  “That’s mostly something that happened a long time ago, because it’s too hard to handle more than one wife, since the guy has to take care of them equally.  It’s a lot of trouble, but I wouldn’t do it myself.”

“Oh, well you’re mostly American since you were born here, but do you know if Egyptians do that?”  I imagine she was trying to fish for another answer, perhaps to justify the problem she was about to lay out to this girl.

“Well, yes, but I just don’t think it’s ok and I don’t think many people would do that.”

“My husband was here, and he married me, but then he went back to Egypt and he married another woman.  If you were the other woman and you knew the man was married, would you do that?  Would you marry a man that was already married?  What kind of woman does such a thing?”

The above conversation is paraphrased, of course.  I don’t remember exactly what they said to each other, but it went along those lines.  At that point, I stopped following the conversation completely because I was just about done with filling out my shipping label and sealing the envelope, but the Hispanic woman kept pressing this girl about why her husband, who had been deported, would find a new wife in Egypt instead of being faithful to her.  The girl told her it sounds like a personal problem.  She was probably trying to separate the issue from religion, before it devolved into something ugly.  She told the woman that if she wasn’t satisfied with the situation she should divorce her husband, but the Hispanic woman told her something about losing benefits.

Then I walked away to get my postage for my envelope.

I wonder if that happens often?  I doubt that girl expected to have a conversation quite as bizarre as that when she put on her hijab that morning and left her house.