In recent days, in Egypt, an Oscar-nominated film was referred to Al-Azhar, a crowd of Muslim worshippers attacked a church, and an actress became the focus of insults on social media for her comments regarding how Muezzins sound. These three incidents in Egypt over a span of weeks may seem unconnected, but they are linked. They all are alarming outcomes of a social Islamism that has infested Egypt and is increasingly bursting out in boils.
Egypt’s general prosecutor initiated an investigation against Amr Salama’s movie Sheikh Jackson after a “member of the public,” a Giza-based solicitor, submitted a complaint accusing the movie and its director of “contempt of religion.” This was put forth despite the movie being previously cleared and authorized by Egypt’s censorship committee. Rather than dismissing the complaint as nonsense and discharging the accuser of wasting valuable time in the Egyptian legal system, the prosecutor opted to interrogate the movie director Salama and refer the film to Al-Azhar to provide a verdict on the charges. When film critic Tarek El-Shenawy defended the film, many Facebook readers responded with ugly insults and replies against him, the film, and even art in general.
A few days later, 100 kilometres outside Cairo, hundreds gathered outside a church in Atfih, Giza, chanting hostile slogans and calling for the church’s demolition. Incitement against the church was allegedly coordinated via a social media campaign led by some youth, who were angry after rumours circulated that the church will hang “a bell.” The rumours was enough to spread rage and initiate an assault on the church, which led to four injuries and destruction of church property and artefacts before the police managed to bring the situation under control. Such attacks against Christians are not being conducted by terror groups, and in fact are a manifestation of wider social animosity against minorities.
In the third incident, actress Sherine Reda was attacked after she expressed on a TV interview her discontent about the unpleasant sounding and loud voices of some Muzzins (callers of prayers) of mosques in Cairo. Her interview was posted on Facebook and garnered more than twenty-one thousand comments replies, bombarding her with ugly insults and accusations of contempt of religion. Such comments blurred the difference between what is sacred in Islam, like call for prayers, with what is not sacred like the voices of those who call for prayers. Scornful abuse has become noticeably socially acceptable as long it is done in the name of defending something sacred.
Those three episodes, albeit different in content and relevance, share the same root cause __ social Islamism. For decades, Islamists has long realised that in order to dominate politically, they must first create a ripe social climate that favours their ideas. Therefore, they have focused heavily on spreading a social doctrine that encourages religious coercion, and hostility against anyone that opposes their agenda, particularly Christians, liberals, and artists.
Inevitably, this Islamist doctrine has nurtured a perturbed competitiveness among various informal Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, with formal institutions like Al-Azhar, on who is the ultimate defender of the faith. Such one-upmanship has created a climate that expands to mandating what is socially forbidden and shrinkage of what is allowed and accepted. Things like adding a bell to a church, naming a Sheikh in a fictional movie as did Jackson, and openly criticizing grating voices that occasionally call for prayers have become grave sins and an insult of Islam.
The sacredness of the faith has extended to include anyone talking about the faith, or offended in the name of the faith. This kind of allegiance even supports almost anyone attacking others under the premise of defending the faith. Even in cases that seem completely unwarranted, such vigorous outrage turn one into a hero, which is how many view the solicitor who brought the complaint against Sheikh Jackson.
Ultimately, social Islamism has transformed the once tolerant Egyptian religious scene into a wild arms-flailing octopus with poisonous venom that paralyzes minds and blocks rational thinking. The result is intense angry social irrationality that creates a fear of minorities, fails to see context in a fictional cinema scene, or even rises up in a tantrum against an opinion that the voices of some muezzins aren’t exactly pleasant to hear.
Social Islamism is Egypt’s silent killer. It garners fear, breeds intolerance, hinders creativity, and ultimately leads to radicalism. Despite the decline in the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence, other Islamist forces are still influential and are unwilling to abandon their coercive social doctrine.
It is about time for the Egyptian state to stand up against such unhealthy coercion, instead of backpedalling, tolerating and encouraging it. Egypt is not a theocracy. There is no place for theocrats to be the country’s social referees. Islam is not a weak faith that will be harmed by an imaginary bell of a church, an imaginative scene in a movie or by the opinion of an actress on what sounds good.
Egypt aspires to fight radicalism and regain its soft power in the region. To further such a goal, it is vital to support minority freedoms, the arts, creativity, and freedom of expression. A society that allows bullying under the name of religion, and allows such emotions to dominate above logic and rationality will not defeat radicals, nor facilitate the growth of its soft power.
Written by Nervana Mahmoud