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Egypt and the Triumph of Islam

Egypt and the Triumph of Islam is the subtitle of “No God but God”, written by Geneive Abdo, chronicling the ascendancy of the Islamic spirit in the land of the Nile. The Islamic creed declares, “There is no god but God,” uniting all of Egypt’s believers, but continues, “and Muhammad is his prophet,” isolating Egypt’s non-Muslim community. For centuries Egypt has existed in between these two statements of the creed, reflecting a society which is united in the primacy of religion, providing space for the monotheistic general, yet leaning toward the Islamic particular. Yet in scaling down the creed even further, “No God but God” highlights the transformation that is taking place in Egypt. No god, no philosophy, no political system, no economic theory – may take the rightful place of God as master of human existence.

Islam has always declared God’s ultimate authority, as has Christianity of course, but Egypt until recently has always accommodated a less than perfect Islamic ideal. Since the Islamic period began, and in fact since Alexander the Great, Egypt has been governed by foreigners. Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, French, and finally British have occupied the throne for 2,000 years. The majority of these two millenniums have been under at least tacit Islamic governance. The first Egyptian to rule since the Pharaohs, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, came to power in a military coup in 1952, but like the rulers before him moderated between the Islamic identity of the masses and his own political agenda. He preached secular socialism and Arab nationalism, seeking to modernize Egypt while balancing between the Cold War East and West. His successor, Sadat, tried to welcome Islamic sentiment while economically titling Egypt into the capitalist orbit. While both for long periods enjoyed great public popularity, there was a lingering discontent that existed beneath the surface.

There is within Islam an understanding that God’s favor implies civilizational superiority. This is natural to explain from history, as following the death of Muhammad within 100 years his political successors established an empire which stretched from Spain to India. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the end of World War I the Islamic Empire, though suffering sporadic periods of decline, was constituted the dominant power on earth. Then, all of a sudden, Europe was king. Muslims asked internally, what happened to God’s favor? The answer tended in one of two directions. First, it was said that Muslims had neglected their religion. As such, God withdrew his favor. Second, it was said that Muslims had become too religious. Instead of pursuing the technological creativity which had characterized them for centuries, they entered instead into divisive theological controversies, and neglected the developments going on in the rest of the world. So while some urged religious revival, others urged imitation of the West. Most, of course, sought a balance.

This time of questioning coincided with, or rather was engendered by, the period of French and British colonization. This chafed at the Egyptian psyche, for while they had always been ruled by foreigners, at least they were ruled by Muslim foreigners. France’s colonial age in Egypt was very short, but the British, though seen as seeking the modernization of Egypt, were also seen as completely self-serving. The foreign Islamic powers simply demanded the payment of a yearly tax, which, though at times oppressive, generally did not disturb the regular patterns of traditional life. In addition, if anyone cared, it was in the service of Islam and the predominance of its order. The British, however, upset everything. While the elite learned to play along, and profited exorbitantly, their modernization efforts touched the soul of society. Furthermore, the best of the profits were pocketed by the foreign carpetbaggers and their international companies, with their upper-class lackeys in tow. When World War II ended and colonialism collapsed in the wake of United States preaching about the right of each people to self-determination, enshrined in membership in the United Nations, the former colonial powers assisted their elitist allies in accession to power, ensuring their continued economic dominance, if not exactly their political.

Gamal Abd al-Nasser was the one to finally succeed in throwing off this yoke, but inherited the same condition. As a Muslim, as an Egyptian, and aided by the fact of being a very charismatic leader, he was celebrated by his people, and in fact by many Arabs around the region. Egyptians, like all people at the time, were awash in a newly celebrated nationalism. Nasser did not emphasize religion; he, of course, ruled over both Muslims and Christians, and the latter had played a substantial part in the long struggle for independence (though not in the coup). It seemed based on his initial successes that Egypt was entering a new and successful age. The religious question of God’s favor was muted, though never jettisoned by all. For his part, Nasser answered it implicitly by continuing Egypt’s modernization. He crafted a modern military. He built the Aswan dam, touching the lives of the Egyptian peasants far more than any Brit had ever done, by ending the eternal cycle of Nile flooding. The effect, though, sent a boom through Egypt’s economy, and Nasser’s socialist impulses made effort to see that all would benefit. God’s favor had returned; Egypt was a major player on the international scene, in the forefront of leadership among the Cold War non-aligned states. All this, furthermore, was done without the banner of religion, let alone Islam.

The favor, should it be so called, would not last. The revamped Egyptian army was routed by Israel in the 1967 war. The socialist economy went flat. Nasser floundered though his sheer force of personality kept most Egyptians rallied around him. The voices that began calling for a deeper return to religion became more strident, only to be silenced by crackdown. The tide was starting to turn.

Nasser’s successor, however, reversed course and kept the Islamist voice at bay. Sadat took over the state and turned Egypt both toward a resurgent religiosity and then toward the capitalist West. In the first he waged the 1973 war against Israel under the cry of ‘Allahu Akbar’, the Muslim chant, and great gains were won as he broke through to reclaim Sinai. In the second he propped up the faltering economy by encouraging private ownership and opening the country to significant foreign investment. Like his predecessor, Sadat also enjoyed great popularity.

The successes, however, were superficial, and soon faded. Careful analysis would show that though far more capable than previous military exploits, the gains in Sinai were tenuous, and the ‘no peace, no war’ situation that followed was a constant reminder of the lingering Israeli presence. The religious element originally welcomed by Sadat was shown to be only for political expediency. It helped rally the nation—though not the Christians—for the war, and was a foil to the leftist politics of Nasser from which Sadat needed to escape. The economic gains were also only partial; the upper class benefited far more than the common Egyptian, and the middle class seemed pressed at both ends. Though still enjoying the support of the people, Sadat realized he was teetering. This led him to take his boldest move yet, for which he would be both praised and vilified, the implications of which are still felt in Egypt today.

The motivations of Sadat are hotly debated today. Was he a champion of peace or a Machiavellian politico? Regardless of the answer the outcome is the same. In 1978 Sadat visited Jerusalem, and in 1979 he signed the Camp David Accords with the Israeli Prime Minister through the brokerage of the American President Jimmy Carter. The advantages were enormous. The economically and psychologically draining policy of ‘no war no peace’ with Israel could be put to an end. Egypt recovered unequivocally all land previously lost in Sinai during the 1967 war. Sadat was hailed as a visionary in the Western press, resulting in increasing confidence in the soundness and stability of the Egyptian economy. The peace accord also was encouraged by millions of dollars in foreign aid, received year after year.

The disadvantages, however, were disastrous on the regional and domestic front. The Arab League broke with Egypt which resulted in complete political and economic isolation. The Egyptian population also roundly condemned the pact, for Israel was the sworn enemy, the oppressor of the Palestinians. While ordinary Egyptians could see the benefits of the peace with Israel, and the more affluent could profit from the ensuing calm, even those in favor could only interpret it as a deal with the devil, so no popularity emerged from his historic risk.

The religious element in Egypt was horrified. Already frustrated with Sadat for not following through on his initial openings for an increased role for Islam in society, this drove them over the edge. Like Nasser before him, Sadat responded harshly, jailing many in large sweeps taking in those with Islamist sympathies, examining later if they were truly guilty of any crimes. By this time Islamist voices were fully in division with their identity. While some urged jihadist aggression to violently overthrow an infidel government, many others were eschewing violence for preaching, hoping to win over the masses for a gradual transformation of society. Again the question of motivation can be asked: Was this sincere or pragmatic, idealistic or calculating? The resulting split, however, became clear in the months which followed.

In 1981 Sadat was gunned down during a military parade by elements of the militarist faction within the Islamists. Though there was little mourning for the fallen leader, there was also round condemnation of the assassination. The jihadist ideas fell increasingly out of favor with the Egyptian people, though they were never popular to begin with, but the moderate Islamist voice emerged victorious. As those with religious leanings were often grouped in one lump with the criminals, society began to see them as martyrs. At the least they were perceived as sincere believers who were being punished by the government for their beliefs. A persecuted idealism is always attractive.

This sums up the background for the ‘triumph of Islam’ as proclaimed by “No God but God.” In answering the question of where was God’s favor, society leaned toward the latter religious answer. For two centuries the political leaders tried to recapture old glory by imitation of the West. Certainly to a great degree their policies were successful; Egypt was transformed into a modern nation. Yet the promise of civilizational superiority was never fulfilled; Egypt and the Arab World together lagged behind the United States, Europe, and even emerging economies in Asia. They played by the rules established for nation-states, why at least were they not as successful as Japan, Korea, China, and the like? The only wealthy Arab nations were Gulf States, and they were religiously conservative in orientation. Pre-revolution Egypt was run by the heirs of colonialist puppets, Nasser led the nation in Arab nationalism and socialism, Sadat pushed his people into Western-leaning capitalism—all failed. Muslims of all stripes began asking, “Why such imitation of foreign ideologies, why not give Islam a try?”

“No God but God” continues this story, showing how the Islamist voice has become so influential in Egypt today. Abdo is careful to insist that the Islamist voice is moderate, not militant, but all the same it is unceasing in its demand that all of life, including politics, economics, and dress code, be governed by the commands of God. She highlights Islamist gains on the street, in al-Azhar seminary, in the unions, in the universities, in the courts, and among women. Though not claiming Islamists have captured the hearts and minds of the majority, she does highlight how much better primed for success is the Islamic experiment in Egypt than in Iran. In Iran the revolution was imposed from the top down. Though welcomed by many, it was achieved politically. In Egypt the vision of the moderate Islamists is bearing true; by transforming individuals, families, and neighborhoods first the political victory can come later. Let God rule in the heart, and then in the hearts of others. Only then can he rule properly in the heart of society.

Click here to purchase from Amazon: No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam

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