Monday, May 4, 2009

the new islam

I moved to Cairo 5 years ago, and have noticed many changes over this time. One example is the niqab: 5 years ago, I barely saw any women wearing the niqab. Today, they are everywhere. Similarly, 40 years ago there weren't many veiled women in Cairo. Now, over 70% are veiled. The whole culture has become conservative, and who and what a Muslim is is now defined very narrowly. I know this term "extremism" is problematic, since many people don't think they are being extreme, but rather that they are following the "correct" Islam. However, there is no "correct" Islam. Islam is an interpretation of a variety of sources, including the Qur'an. Thus it varies according to person. "There are as many Islams as there are Muslims." I don't remember where I heard this quote, but it really struck me.
Anyway, to go back to the topic: why has Cairo become so conservative? And I don't think this is happening only in Egypt; Muslims all over the world seem to be becoming more conservative and narrow minded. Who a Muslim is is now such a narrow definition that many Muslims no longer fit into it. Apparently unless I cover myself head to toe, stay at home, obey my husband, and as long as I do not derive pleasure from anything in life, I am not a Muslim. Is this the new Islam? It certainly appears to be, from what I see in Cairo.
I have nothing against the niqab, but I think it is wrong to see it as a way of judging whether someone is a Muslim or not. Many good Muslims do not cover, while many niqabis are not practicing Muslims. Being a Muslim is more than just about what you are wearing. Sadly, the new Islam means being judged by your outward appearance. The new Islam is about making your supposedly private relationship with God public. The new Islam is about radical, literal interpretations. The new Islam ignores the SPIRIT of the Qur'an, and focuses solely on the pratical aspects, such as prayer. Why not a balance?
Coming from a liberal background, I find it sad that Islam has become to most people a strict, uncompromising set of rules. This is not the Islam I see when I read the Qur'an.
I wonder what the reasons for this growing conservatism are? Economic problems? Loss of identity? More narrow interpretations of Islam, on a global level?


Lisa said...

Exellent Post.

I think one of the biggest issues is that some are railing against democracy, by holding onto one of the last things they have which is literal Islam. None of them want to become Iraq, and are taking steps to not be the moderate people the U.S. was hoping would speak against 9-11. The people Bush Jr. focuses on at his think tank.

Additionally, Europe has a huge Muslim population who has not been curbed from growing more conservative.

I also think that many are trying to hold onto wha little identity they have left. Parents are losing their Muslim children to the Western world. Some of these kids are hlding on for those parents, and likewise the parents are becoming more conservative later in life.

In Turkey, women want to wear hijab. This simple desire has not been allowed. Therefore, they are automatically trying to wear it no matter what, and retaliate against the modernist government.

I don't see it being about the economy yet, though that too could have people turning inward to faith to get them through disaster.

What an excellent and thought-provoking post. I LOVE this blog! Love you.

Umm Omar said...

Oh, I feel like I could sit with you for hours over a pot of tea and have some great conversation. :-)

I agree and disagree with you. I agree that in the Muslim world an over-emphasis on appearances has surfaced and swallowed us. Brothers with long beards and sisters with hijab are deemed the religious, pious ones while others are assumed not as righteous. And this persists even when all of us have probably met *at least* one person in our lives who didn't meet the external criteria of what a "good Muslim" should look like and yet, we probably thought that person had a better heart than a lot of other so-called practicing, good Muslims. Even in the face of such examples, we still insist on considering what's on the outside as what matters most.

Now, you said that there is no "correct" Islam, yet you seem to be suggesting that a conservative Muslim is on the wrong path, and that conservative Islam is synonymous with narrow mindedness and extremism (I know you said you didn't want to use that word), and, too, that conservative Muslim women must fit into that old, overused sterotype of submissive and oppressed housewives. Why is "conservative Islam" an exception to this rule that there is no correct way to be a Muslim? I'm not talking about judging others (which people of all "Islams" do), but about choosing to live a conservative lifestyle, even if it means covering from head to toe, following a school of thought, taking the stricter side of an issue, etc.
And finally, I didn't think it was fair to brand this social problem "new Islam" since Islam in itself is a religion of justice and peace-I think we can all agree on that, whether we're conservative or liberal. Once we all begin unravelling and disconnecting from each other this deeply massive tangling of misguided cultural practices/beliefs and the spirit of Islam, we can then move on and discover the true meaning of Islam in our own lives.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Lisa: I definitely agree that it has something to do with holding on to identity, particularly after this identity got severely attacked post-9/11. I wonder though if Islam is meant to function as a complete identity, or as a part of one's identity? For me, it is a large part, but being a woman, being Egyptian-Dutch, etc also forms part of my identity.
I love your blog too!!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Umm Omar: I realize that sometimes I may sound like I don't like conservative Muslims, but this has nothing to do with the type of Islam they practice, but rather their attitudes towards other Muslims and other people in general. The overwhelming majority of conservative Muslims see their Islam as the ONLY Islam, and judge others accordingly. Furthermore, there are many that tend to stereotype the West in order to affirm that Islam is the best religion. This causes nothing but tension.
Here in Cairo I've come across so many of these Muslims, and they've created so much social pressure to be like them. So while I have nothing against their type of Islam, since there is no correct Islam, I do take issue with certain elements of it, such as the tendency to judge other people (they're not all like this, but many are). It's true that people from all Islams judge one another, but I have never felt a liberal Muslims pressure me to be more liberal, whereas I have repeatedly felt this from conservatives. Furthermore, a liberal has never labeled me non-Muslim just for being strict, whereas a conservative has labeled me non-Muslim because I'm not strict enough.
To be honest, I really respect women who wear the niqab, and I don't see it as something backward or oppressive at all. This is such a classic racist/orientalist viewpoint. However, I don't want to be seen as less Muslim just because I choose not to cover myself.

I hope I made sense! And I hope I didn't upset you, I didn't mean to say anything against conservative Islam - like I said in the post, there is no "correct" Islam.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Just to clarify one more thing: when I said: "Apparently unless I cover myself head to toe, stay at home, obey my husband, and as long as I do not derive pleasure from anything in life, I am not a Muslim," I didn't mean that Muslims that do these things aren't real Muslims either. I meant that these things should not be forced on all women. Some women interpret the Qur'an and decide for themselves that they want to wear the niqab and stay home - great. That's exactly what the Qur'an tells believers to do: to interpret. However, some women do not see the need, and so should not be pressured (by family etc) or forced (in countries like Saudi Arabia) to conform to segregation and veiling.

Kizzie said...

Isn't it interesting that there is such a "clash of civilizations" to borrow Huntington's term between "moderate" Muslims and "conservative" muslims? Why did I use this term? Mabye because Islam and culture are becoming so intertwined and in countries such as Egypt, "moderate"Muslims seem to have their own cultural values. Also, why the strong emphasis on relgious identities?

Mrs.S said...

I think the apparent rise of outwardly “conservative” Islam, especially in Arab countries, has to do with their inability to cope with globalization. The rise in social conservatism is a sort of “back to basics” approach to counter socio-economic unrest and the influence of the West. This especially holds true in a country like Egypt that’s revolution was based on Pan-Arabism and ridding Western influence from the Arab world. I’m too much of a cynic to think that political Islam and social conservatism in Arab countries has little to do with other than socio-economics.

In a gross over simplification of things, I had a theology professor tell me that God is a cosmic teddy bear. After first being offended I thought a little and realized he probably wasn’t too far off. All of the stories about how a poor person has an easier chance at paradise than a rich one, how God only gives what we can handle and as Muslim woman being told that my family is my jihad it made sense. We’re told to trust in God, but not always reminded that we additionally need to “tie up our camels” and engage in the world. You can see this play out in families as well as reflected on a global scale in any developing nation where religion and culture are strongly intertwined.

This is a topic that I can go on and on about, although, probably not as articulately and non-offensively as I should. Again, I love your post. Thanks for making me think!

Exquisitely Black said...

Sitting on the other side of the pond, this is a difficult thing for me to understand. One of my pet peeves is respect for an individual's religious rights - and the ability to not be condemned for what they believe...yet, the differences in treatment between men and women (with women of course on the rough end of things), is hard to condone. Are people in Cairo tolerant of others who don't practice the more strict form of Islam? Also, what is the niqab?

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Kizzie: I definitely think religion and culture are becoming too intertwined in some countries, including Egypt. This seems to be leading to a splintering in the Muslim community, e.g. between moderates and extremists, although I don't like to use those terms.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Mrs S.: your comment made me think too! Egypt is definitely unique since Nasser tried to de-emphasize Islam and focus on Arab unity, while Sadat tried to emphasize Islam and Egyptian nationalism and not Arab unity. This, added to globalization, has left many Egyptians with an identity problem. I definitely agree that Egyptians have had a problem dealing with globalization: they seem to either become extremely Westernized or extremely Islamicized.
Finally, the fatalistic attitude you mentioned is very prevalent here: people don't work as hard as they should because whatever happens is what God willed. I think while we have to trust in God, we should also work towards what we think is best for us.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Exquisite: the niqab is the full face covering, sometimes with the eyes showing or sometimes with a thin sheath covering the eyes.
From what I heard, Cairo 50 years ago was a very tolerant, multicultural society, with Jews, Christians, and Muslims (of all types) living together in harmony. This is not the Cairo I see today, at least not most of the time. The conservative Muslims that I've met are not tolerant of other more "liberal" Muslims, unfortunately, and many have a narrow definition of who a Muslim is. Not all conservatives are like this, obviously - I'm talking about the majority of the ones that I've come into contact with. What is upsetting is that Cairo used to be such a diverse city, and now has become very tense, due to a widespread tendency to judge others.

Umm Omar said...

No! I am not upset. I thrive on discussion/debate. I hope I didn't upset you, either. I enjoy reading your blog and hope that we can agree to disagree from time to time. :-)

You said, "I have never felt a liberal Muslims pressure me to be more liberal, whereas I have repeatedly felt this from conservatives." Well, sure. I could say the same. I have never felt conservative Muslims pressure me to be more conservative, but I have felt pressure from liberal Muslims to be more liberal. I feel this especially in Egypt, actually, when I am around my husbands very liberal family. And I used to feel this when I was a student at the university, interacting with all "types" of Muslims. And sometimes I was so pressured, I just gave in and compromised my own beliefs. In any case, I think most people, regardless of what path they choose to follow have lost sight of what-I think you said best-that God alone will judge.

I am sorry you've been labeled non-Muslim for not covering your hair, or whatever. Religion is such a deeply personal spiritual experience, that it's just unacceptable for others to feel like they can classify people based on anything.

Anonymous said...

its just they are coming back to their roots, dont forget that Niqab is not some thing new to Egypt. before colonial era egyptian women wore Niqaab.

conservatism is not a bad thing. not wearing Hijaab is bad, wearing Hijaab is good, and wearing Niqaab is best.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Anon: from what I know, before colonialism the niqab was something almost forced on women by the Ottomans and by Egyptian men, so we can't really see it as a voluntary national costume, as there were many women who did not want to wear it. What exactly are Egypt's roots? It used to be a Christian country, then it went through several different colonizers, and then through socialism.
Conservatism is not a bad thing, I agree. But making judgments on women for what they are wearing and exerting social pressure on them to wear the veil/niqab is a bad thing, and has no place in Islam.
In the end it should be about choice. A woman who wants to wear the niqab should feel comfortable doing so, and a woman who wants to wear a skirt and short sleeves should feel comfortable doing so. Unfortunately this is not the current atmosphere in Egypt.

Anonymous said...

Good post. With the failure of Arab unity, losing the war with Israel, economic migrants coming back from Saudi Arabia, rise of the Muslim Brotherhood,Saudi's investment of their religious doctrine in Egypt, poverty, they all contributed to Egyptians becoming conservative. Niqab is a choice but i do not agree with it, it is another form of the sexualisation of the female. It sends the message out that the female sex is awrah that needs to be hidden.

Aynur said...

"The overwhelming majority of conservative Muslims see their Islam as the ONLY Islam, and judge others accordingly. "

Yup, that's what I've seen in my experience. It's like when I was trying to explain to my MIL that in the Maliki school of thought dogs are not considered unclean (as far as I've read). She's like "well it doesn't say that in Bukhari" ... I'm like "okaaaay"....

I remember reading something about the spread of Salafism (hope I'm using that term correctly) over the globe in the later half of this century. I'm wondering if that has anything to do with the more conservative outlook?

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Hey Aynur! From what I know Salafis think their version of Islam is the only correct version, and they've been described as extremist and militant by many. I don't really know enough about them to say much but it's interesting that they've been spreading.
It would be interesting to find out why these types of Islam are more popular today, whereas half a century ago people preferred a more personal, liberal Islam and relationship with God.