Commodifying Islam in Egypt

Tahrir Square has recently been taken over by the Salafists to demand Islamic rule in the constitution and hence in Egyptian society at large.

Tahrir Square has recently been taken over by the Salafists to demand Islamic rule in the constitution and hence in Egyptian society at large. The major fear of Salafists that the Quran and the Sharia will not be “properly” implemented is echoed on the liberal side by their fear of having their freedoms constrained. Both being fearful, immediate reactions taken from both sides are extreme. While the socialists and liberals still try to develop their political parties and their public outreach, the Salafis are taking to the streets to assure their presence and demands in Egyptian society through Tahrir Sqaure.

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Friday, November 9, Tahrir Square was full of bearded men and almost no women. But walking around Tahrir Square as an unveiled woman is still a very pleasant thing to do. No one stares. Many signs were being held up by the Salafis.

Some signs were as uninformative as this one, simply stating that the Quran should be the constitution. Talking to some of these Salafis it soon becomes clear that they understand that Islam cannot be radically implemented and that they are not asking for the implementation of the hedoud, the Islamic rule on dealing with public cases of stealing, sexual intercourse, and the like on the spot. However, they are after while changing Article 2 in the constitution which says that the rule of Islam should provide the main guidelines for all other laws and regulations.

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Yet mobilization in the square is far more important for them than any demands for constitutional change.

What they are most keen on is building support for Islamic ideology. Hence all the campaigning around different forms of control. The square has become an important place in which to sell Islam to your fellow-Egyptians. And the simplest message to get across is the one that governs everyday behaviour – above all, the control of one major sector of society, women. So instead of focusing on the constitution and raising awareness about their demands, the main flyer being handed out on my walk is the one encouraging women to wear the Niqab, covering their hair and face. In bullet points the flyer guides women on how to wear the niqab – so that it is long and loose, not transparent. They should not wear trousers like men, and most important of all, they must not focus on the design of the dress and on their personal beauty.

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Instead of raising awareness and distributing flyers on the most important issues in the constitution for Egyptians - the high unemployment rate in Egypt, the bad urban planning, disastrous public transport, or the weak educational system, the focus is on veiling women. It is indeed much easier to talk about how women should be controlled, giving them simple guidelines on how to behave, than dealing with any of these real challenges.

Additionally, it makes it easy to commodify Islam and reduce it to a simple list of straightforward dos and don’ts. Showing religiosity and piety in this way has been taken up by the street sellers. Different commodities from T-shirts, flags, and tags that can be worn around one’s neck carry Islamic slogans. Commodities that carried Egyptian slogans were widely sold during the days of the uprising. But now it is  Islam that is being commodified, to build up a religious identity. Some foodsellers plaster Islamic slogans over their food stands, to assure us that they are observant Islamic foodsellers.

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This reached new heights when President Mohamed Morsi suddenly decide to back a new law that is going through the legislation process, which proposes to close all shops by 10pm. After the Friday prayers on November 9, 2012, President Morsi stated that it was better for people to retire early to be able to wake up early for morning prayers; instead of wandering around on the streets and in the cafes so late at night. Exactly the same debates about feckless young people who are lazy good-for-nothings that prevailed under the Mubarak regime are now being deployed by President Morsi, except now they are given a  religious twist. So, while the really big problems are left unaddressed, religion  - specifically Islam – is being used to silence the general public.

About the author

Dina El Sharnouby is an Adjunct Instructor in Sociology/Anthropology at the American University in Cairo who does research on issues related to youth and the revolution.

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