Sometimes I have to go through excruciating pain to try and write in English about the basic rationale of Egyptian folk wisdom. While I always manage to convey the basic points behind such statements, there is a specific sense conveyed by these statements in Arabic. I say this because the amount of debate that took place the past week regarding whether Muslims should or should not congratulate Copts at Easter is absurd. This whole debate reminds me of a famous story in Egyptian folk wisdom. This little boy goes to his father and asks him “Father, teach me how to be stupid” and the father looks at the boy and tells him: “Always make a case out of the most silly of things.” There are no more accurate words to describe this whole situation; it’s silly and stupid from all possible angles.
I started noticing the magnitude of the problem last week when I heard a recording of some Sheikh preaching how much of a sin it is to wish Copts a happy Easter. What was said by the Sheikh, although incredibly disturbing and full of intolerance, was not as surprising as all the head-nodding the taxi driver did in agreement with the nonsense that came out of his car speakers; and of course, neither was as surprising as all his violent sentiments that started to surface as soon as he sensed a tone of sarcasm (which I just failed to hide) in my voice.
The reason that I pay close attention to revolves around the position of Christ in Islam- how Islam does not acknowledge the crucifying of Jesus Christ and therefore celebrating Easter with Copts would entail acknowledging something which Islam denies. I was in for another surprise with a much more detailed statement by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mufti Abdel Rahman Al-Barr saying that it is “illegitimate” to celebrate with Copts something that clearly defies the Islamic faith.
Yes, this is what religious scholars are concerned with at the moment: the extreme trivialities of religion. But it is not about religious scholars. Throughout the history of the Islamic state, whether under the Umayyads or the Abbasids, religious scholars or Ulama were always a category that was easily corrupt and often politicised. One day we need to revise all their contributions that were politically motivated. What is more surprising is the people themselves, average individuals, the taxi driver I met last week and all the audience who sit in awe listening to men of religion as they state what they think is right and wrong. We have reached a stage where practicing your most basic duty as a citizen in society requires you to seek a fatwa. And this absurdity is nothing but a very early taste of what two years of confusing civil matters with religious matters can do.
The real problem is in the disappearance of the line that clearly divided between both realms. Honesty would require us to admit that this is one of the battles we lost, we being those who were for clear separation between the two realms. The battle of the civil and the religious is one of the very early manipulative efforts by Islamists. Separating religion and state was taken by the Islamists to mean less religion, less morality and more Western influence! It was a battle where we did not have sufficient resources to counter the Islamists’ argument. But now the real problem resurfaces; the intrusion of religion in issues that were never a question of religion. There is an old Bob Dylan song that says, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. In the very same sense, you don’t need a fatwa from some Sheikh to decide to be a human being.
But if you at any point in time think that what you read in Islamic newspapers and what you watch on Islamic media is as bad as it gets, then you are absolutely in for a huge surprise. There is an underground Islamic media that is much more aggressive, much more intolerant and much more radical. Easter is an example of a series of questions that we will soon face in Egyptian society trying to synchronise our habits and traditions with religion. And not “Islam” as we rationally conceive of it, very soon we will have different brands of faith in Egypt.
Ironically, the biggest threat Islamists are facing today comes from within their own ranks. Very soon there will be new groups that will radicalise to a level that the Brotherhood will not be able to match, making the Brotherhood look un-revolutionary and irreligious. What the Brotherhood doesn’t seem to understand is how, unfortunately, all of us will pay the price of its mistakes, one after the other.
At the risk of upsetting Dr. Al-Barr, Happy Easter to all my Coptic friends.