x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Egypt debates true meaning of faith

Some say the nation's religiosity is superficial and claim it is responsible for the decline of moral values in society.

A man reads the Quran at Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo.
A man reads the Quran at Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo.

CAIRO // Egyptians of all faiths take pride in their religiosity and according to a recent Gallup poll are the world's most religious people. But critics in Egypt - secular and religious - believe today's love of religion is superficial and is in fact responsible for a decline in values throughout Egyptian society. "I tried a lot to prevent myself from writing about this thorny issue because I know what it means to criticise the widespread apparent and superficial religiosity among us Egyptians," Emad Sayed, a blogger, recently wrote on a website called Masriyoun, or Egyptians.

"We all know the weak points that we and our society are suffering from, but we severely attack anyone who talks about them and try to cover up and deny they exist." According to the Gallup poll, 100 per cent of respondents said religion plays "an important role in their daily life". Since the report was issued in February, many here have been trying to explain the meaning of religiosity and how it can exist in a society so riven with corruption.

"We are the most religious nation in the world, that's what the Gallup poll says," Egyptian TV presenter Khairy Ramadan said on The House is Yours, the prime talk show on Egypt's state TV. "Our religiosity is evident: just listen to us when we talk, all our sentences are preceded by 'God willing' and 'Thank God', while reality says that we are among the nations who work least, while bribes, nepotism, hypocrisy and corruption are abundant."

Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the opposition daily Al Destour, agreed, but he put the blame on the rise in religious observance in recent decades. "In the 1950s and the 1960s, when Egypt was not veiled and was not claiming to be religious and people were not greeting each other with religious greetings, people were more merciful and compassionate with each other," he wrote recently. "Now all Egypt is claiming to be religious, and cosmetic religiosity is everywhere, and more than 80 per cent of Egyptian women are veiled, at the time when illegitimate street children number one million across Egypt."

An estimated 10 per cent of Egypt's 80m population is Christian, mostly Coptic. "Muslims and Christians are worship addicts," said Rev Ikram Lami, from the Evangelical Church. "Churches and mosques are full with worshippers ? But they don't know the true meaning of religiosity. The chaos of Egyptian streets is proof that Egyptians are not religious at all. Newspapers are full of crimes of incest, murder, and theft.

"Egyptians resort to religion in order to escape from the problems and their inability to cope with modern civilisation," he said. The symbols of religion are everywhere in Egypt. There are tens of thousands of mosques and churches across the country, most Muslim women are veiled - and there is a growing number wearing the niqab, or the veil that covers the face except the eyes - and many men are growing beards long in order to emulate the Prophet Mohammed.

"I don't believe in the results of the poll or the apparent religiosity and double standards around us," said Amany Haidar, 25, a marketing executive. "The poll should have tried to make sure of the sincerity not appearances of religiosity." "We are lacking good role models, even many preachers are not sincere, and using religion as a profession, which is misleading many youth, and spreading an inauthentic religiosity," said Mohammed Taha, 54, a training manager at a private company.

"I don't agree that 100 per cent of Egyptian society is religious, but I also disagree with those who are denying that there is sincere religiosity among many in the society, young and old, rich and poor, regardless of the negative aspects in our lives," said Dina Hamed, 35, a veiled housewife. "There is no society of angels, even during the Prophet's time." Analysts and religious figures have struggled to explain the current phenomenon of religiosity.

"We didn't need the Gallup poll to discover that we are the most religious in the world," said Samer Soliman, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. "That is what we have been witnessing since the late 1960s. The problem is that the leaders of the religiosity process in Egypt based their prescription that Egypt and Egyptians were lacking religiosity to reform their morals.

"I guess they are, like us, suffering from the results of their intensive remedy: more moral deterioration, lying, selfishness, sexual harassment, prostitution etc ? The question is when are they going to admit that they were wrong?" Hoda Zakariya, a sociologist at Zagazig University north-east of Cairo, attributes the apparent religiosity to the waves of Egyptians who went to work in the more conservative Gulf states in the 1970s and returned with a stricter brand of Islam.

"This kind of religiosity is not being translated into a constructive force or better morals, because this version of religiosity is fake and destructive to the mind and religion at the same time," Ms Zakariya said. "Egyptian society has no choice but to escape this dilemma or die." nmagd@thenational.ae