Meeting Heba Ezzat

About the author
Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy Editor. She chaired the National Peace Council and Peaceworkers UK and edited New Times before joining openDemocracy in 2000. For the British Council, she has edited four volumes of Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined (2003 – 2012) and written Unbounded Freedom – a guide to Creative Commons thinking for cultural organizations (2006). Her compiled volume on the Convention on Modern Liberty was published by Imprint Academic in 2010. Her PhD was on Samuel Richardson: she has reviewed literature for the TLS and politics for Political Quarterly.

Heba Raouf Ezzat and her husband Ahmed Mohammed Abdalla were in 1999 amongst the founders of IslamOnline, whose aim – articulated by the Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi – was to give Muslims worldwide access to “the Islamic renaissance in all fields” without deviating from “the fixed principles of Islamic law”.

The website, with its rapidly proliferating services – most in Arabic, some in English – quickly and successfully targeted people far beyond the borders of Egypt. Within a year, the Cairo-based, Qatar-financed website boasted 18 million visits.

Heba teaches political science at Cairo University, writes on issues of Islam, modernity and human rights, and is the mother of three children. Her animated opinion is increasingly sought outside the world of Islam. She is a member of the C-100 initiative for Islamic-Western understanding set up by the World Economic Forum and works with Mary Kaldor on the Arabic version of the Global Civil Society Yearbook.

When we last met she had been taken aback by an encounter on London’s tube, having spent much of the journey in close proximity to an exposed female midriff. Despite knowing London well, she was disconcerted by the fashion for low-slung trousers. It had reminded her of the ways in which the capitalist marketplace can take on the aspect of a “dictatorial regime”, specialising in “freedom without liberty”. She worried about the political implications for women in society as a whole.

Also by Rosemary Bechler in openDemocracy:

“Everyone is afraid: the world according to Abou Jahjah” (April 2004)

“A bridge across fear: an interview with Tariq Ramadan” (July 2004)

“The war for Muslim minds: an interview with Gilles Kepel” (November 2004)

Why, she asked, rhetorically, does Islam favour “humility” and argue that the body should not be made the site of competition between the very beautiful few and the rest? “I would claim that the whole logic of the veil, from an Islamic perspective, is designed to minimise precisely this domineering effect of the market,” she said. “I don’t want to impose the veil on these young people at all. But I do want them to stop and ask themselves, ‘Are these my concerns? Is this my expression of freedom? Is this all – the ceiling of my aspiration in a democratic country?’”

The London Times and the gay advocacy group Outrage! have variously accused IslamOnline of allowing anti-semitic and homophobic sentiments to be voiced, as well as of an acceptance of domestic violence. But its advocates argue that to open up public debate across the Arab and Muslim world on a wide range of subjects and with an accompanying emphasis on human rights is of greater historic importance. Half the letters the team receives are from women. This is a forum, as Ahmed puts it, in which “the Arab Eve can describe her dilemma”.

Moreover, Heba resolutely rejects Gilles Kepel’s vision of a one-way, Europeanising and democratising influence of European Muslims on the Arab world. Much of her success as a new type of cultural ambassador lies in the scale and fearlessness of her appetite for other traditions and the insights they offer. She is well versed in western feminist thinking and the roots of liberalism and urges IslamOnline readers to set aside any prejudices and revisit with equal enthusiasm “anarchism”, the Marxist concern with social justice or rising religiosity in India.

Heba regards this openness as “deeply embedded in the Qu’ranic discourse”. Far from feeling indebted to the modernising influence of western democracy, she is convinced that a “trans-Islamic dialogue” has much to offer a globalising world, not least Islam’s “high respect for the virtue of difference”.

Heba Raouf Ezzat & Ahmed Mohammed Abdalla have written an essay, “Towards an Islamically democratic secularism” in the Faith and Secularism booklet of the British Council’s Birthday Counterpoints series, edited by Rosemary Bechler

What motivates Heba is a passionate commitment to a higher form of democracy. She believes the west tragically fails to understand that the danger of the “Islamic state” as pursued by Islam’s extremists lies not in their faith, but in the idea of the “state” as a powerful central authority that controls all aspects of the life of its citizens. She cites Saudi Arabia as an example of the consequences: “the over-legalisation of every aspect of life deprived that people of their own right to take moral decisions in accordance with Islam in day-to-day situations … I would claim that in this situation the public domain is rapidly deprived of individual and collective morality, and this is quite the opposite of what living according to Islam is about.”

Americans and Europeans, by this estimation, not only fail to see the potential for an Islamic democratic secularism, but directly jeopardise it through their governments’ domestic and foreign policies. It is a failure, as Heba sees it, determined by the fact that we suffer from our own version of the overweening power of the state. Renaissance man was liberated from religious authoritarianism in the west only to fall under the Leviathan state or the inhumane machine of the market.

Does Heba Ezzat have anything important to say to the woman on the London tube? I think they do have something to say to each other which goes to the heart of the democratic challenge in both societies, and that it would be a pretty equal exchange.