Books Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

The Best Advice on Engaging Muslims, from Arab Evangelical Scholars

Image: iStock / Getty Images Plus

American evangelicals often find themselves frustrated in their approach to Islam.

Two options are consistently placed before them: a polemical argument few are educated enough to engage in, or an awkward dialogue urging friendship but emptied of theological significance.

Help, therefore, may come from abroad—where evangelicals interact with Muslims everyday.

A new book, The Religious Other: Toward a Biblical Understanding of Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad, answers both concerns. An anthology of recent academic contributions to Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), located in Beirut, Lebanon, the publication delves into the details of the debate over how evangelicals should view the rival religion.

But it also promotes a “kerygmatic method,” based on the New Testament Greek word for proclamation and connoting among biblical scholars the core message of early church gospel preaching. The book applies the term to seek a middle ground between polemics and apologetics on the one hand, and syncretistic and common ground approaches on the other.

Built on a foundation of academic rigor, this method aims for a tone of love within a spirit of Jesus-centered proclamation.

CT interviewed Martin Accad, editor of the anthology and associate professor of Islamic studies at ABTS. Though he remains on faculty, he recently resigned from his leadership positions at the seminary to found Action Research Associates, seeking holistic application of the kerygmatic method within the troubles of sectarian Lebanese society.

Accad described the value of the book for evangelical engagement with Islam, but also how its principles can guide interaction with “the religious other” in both Lebanon and the United States:

Out of the 30 contributors to this book, only 9 are from the West, while 16 are Arab voices. What is the impact of this diversity?

Having so many Arabs is unusual for this type of book, especially those who are not of a polemical bent. Much of the agenda of missions and dialogue has been driven by Western questions, girded by the theology of the provider.

The contributions, therefore, de-objectify the conversation. We do not claim to be authoritative, but I hope that our voices will come with some authority, as we highlight our primary concerns in this part of the world.

“Toward” a biblical understanding suggests you have no definitive Christian conclusion about Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad. What message does the book want to give?

The primary goal of the book is theological, and is the crowning of years of work at ABTS. The Religious Other wants to explore what Islam really is. But I have come to the realization that a lot of what drives evangelical approaches to ministry among Muslims is polemical, rather than conciliatory and collaborative.

One of the book’s central hypotheses is that Islam cannot be oversimplified. Essentializing the “other” leads to conflict, because it fails to see them in their entirety, or as they perceive themselves.

There can be no definitive biblical understanding of Islam, because…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 9, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

Books Personal

The Christmas Rabbits of C.S. Lewis

Watership Down

Creation is alive with the spark of God, often witnessed in the innocence of children. For those made curious by the title, it is actually an amalgam of two oddly related God moments recently experienced through the pen of two celebrated English writers.

The first came through reading Watership Down to my children. The classic Richard Adams epic is the adventure of several rabbits who break away from their warren. A note of foreboding by the youngest of the herd has not been heeded, but his history of keen perception convinces his colleagues among the rabble.

At a resting place along the way, Dandelion comforts the tired rabbits with the tale of Frith, their god.

It is a “How the Elephant got his Trunk” story, for rabbits. Their chief ancestor engaged in friendly witticism with Frith, and eventually found himself in conversation with the deity while bottom-up stuck in hole.

Earlier in the story, Frith multiplied the rabbit’s enemies as the ancestor thumbed his nose at the request to curb his prodigious copulation.

Impressed by the ancestor’s pluck while still vulnerable, Frith blessed the rabbit’s bottom with quickness and speed, with which it can ever evade them—but must run.

It is a delightful creation account, but my oldest daughter remarked Frith isn’t a real god. He is too much akin to his creatures, and too involved in playful banter with his creation.

I explained that the stories of many gods are similar. They live with humans and interact with them.

My younger daughter then piped in, “That’s kinda like our story, too.”

I was struck by her use of the word “story.” To my daughter the Christian story is the implicitly true account of the universe, but her instinctive description of it is as narrative. Unlike her elder sibling, she didn’t mind the resemblance.

A few hours later I was reading a Christianity Today article about a recently discovered article of C.S. Lewis, called “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” originally published in a forgotten issue of the once popular The Strand magazine, but nowhere listed within Lewis’ extensive bibliography.

The article notes Lewis’ observation that despite post-Christian peoples sometimes being called “pagans,” they are nothing of the sort. True pagans inhabited a world full of mystery, magic, and wondrous creatures.

Comparing the two, Lewis wrote, is:

like thinking … a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. … Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead.

The enchantment of pagan reality is superior to a dreary modernity, Lewis thought. He found danger in modern man’s machine-like approach to nature, even to humanity itself.

But Christianity is an interesting middle-ground:

It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure.

It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying.

It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.

In some sense, coming back to my youngest daughter, Christianity is the fulfillment of Frith.

[To note for those truly interested: G.K. Chesterton explored very similar themes in his The Everlasting Man.]

Islam, a post-Christian religion held by most Egyptians we live among, takes great offense at the Christian claim of incarnation. While Allah intervenes in human affairs and may extend his great mercy, it is not fitting that he would become a man, sleep, snore, and defecate.

Frith, meanwhile, created the universe from his droppings. The Muslim impulse is very similar to that of my daughter, where a real god should not be so intimately involved with his creation.

It took the younger child to see it right.

“Every evening, when Frith has done his day’s work and lies calm and easy in the red sky,” wrote Adams, “[the ancestor and his descendants] come out of their holes and feed and play in his sight, for they are his friends, and he has promised them that they can never be destroyed.”

The magic of our ancestors fed the stories of our childhood. Modern man has grown too sophisticated to believe them, and Christianity played a significant role. We are not to fear the world.

The pagans did. Post-pagans, with much Christian help, shook their fear and enslaved their former enchanter. What will set the world—and us—free again?

Christmas is coming.

In one corner there may be snark at notions of traveling stars and virgin birth amid inebriation and the best of consumerism.

In another corner there may be snark at the right number of wise men and the seasonal location of a manger, amid legalism and the best of consumerism.

This year, around the Christmas tree appropriated from our pre-Christian ancestors, be rightfully pagan. Feast. Revel. Sing.

Be also rightfully Christian. Share. Serve. Marvel.

As Lewis wrote to the pseudo-pagans of his day, this may be our “way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too.”

It is a lesson far more easily grasped by children. Perhaps also, by rabbits.


Wisdom and Foolishness in Abrahamic Faith

Wisdom Abraham

“Knowledge is power,” is an oft-repeated saying. In an information economy this makes perfect sense, and our educational system is geared to develop know-how.

Wisdom, on the other hand, sometimes seems a neglected virtue. It is the realm of philosophers, maybe, who have little to do with practical life. Or religion, often considered a private domain.

The Abrahamic religions, however, esteem the cultivation of wisdom over and above simple knowledge. Baghdad built the famed “House of Wisdom” when Islam represented the pinnacle of human civilization, translating classical texts that eventually reached the West.

Jewish writings nearly deified “Sophia” as a personification of wisdom. Along with Christianity, these traditions have produced philosophical minds among the greatest the world has ever known.

Which may make it surprising to hear St. Paul esteem being a fool for Christ. In view of the Greek tradition of his day, he said, Christianity is foolishness.

Paul is not subverting this tradition by any means, only highlighting how the wisdom of God in Christ is nonsense in the estimation of the world. Not non-rational, it simply reflects how God’s thoughts are higher than man’s.

Nonetheless, one of the tasks of faith is demonstrating its plausibility to the world. The effort is nobly undertaken by Richard Shumack, in one of the most contested of fields. His book, The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, was shortlisted as the Australian Christian book of the year in 2014.

A philosopher by training, Shumack is a professor at Melbourne School of Theology and part of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministry team. It can be said at the outset: he finds Christianity superior to Islam. Not surprising – he is a Christian.

Two things are noteworthy about his book, however. First, the absolute respect his gives the Islamic tradition, interacting in friendship with men he considers to be among the Muslim world’s top philosophical minds. There is great wisdom in their faith, he agrees.

And second, the difference in paradigm that makes all the difference. Islam conceives a legislative model between God and man; Christianity, a relational. Wisdom follows from both, he says, but the latter is preferable and better accords with the world.

Shumack does not presume to prove the truth of Christianity’s claims. Similar to Islam, the challenge of monotheism is dealt with elsewhere. But finding his Muslim scholar friends assert the philosophical superiority of Islam over an incoherent Christianity, Shumack was compelled to pick up the gauntlet. He fully admits, of course, that key Christian concepts appear to place Muslims at an advantage.

But in each chapter he builds his case sequentially. Certainty. God’s Hiddenness. Sin. Trinity. Incarnation. Cross. Revelation. Divine Ethics. Politics. Each is a problem to tackle in the Muslim-Christian conversation. On some points monotheists share similar challenges. On others, the Christian is on the defensive.

With deference and respect, at times Shumack tries to turn the tables. But for the most part he simply returns to his central thesis:

Islam makes sense if one sees God as creator, legislator, and master. But Christianity makes sense if God is in addition, father.

To many Muslims this is foolishness. God has no son; he is utterly different from his creation. But it is the central point of Christianity: God’s word made flesh, crucified, and resurrected.

Perhaps both are fools to the atheist or modern secularist, so let Muslims and Christians be friends. Shumack’s book is polemical but warm, inviting response from his Muslim philosopher-friend.

There is no reason religious debate cannot be so. The world is much in need of wisdom, and the Abrahamic faiths possess it in abundance.

Unfortunately, their mutual conversation often demonstrates the opposite, showing that living out wisdom is another question entirely.

If we be fools, let it be for the right reason, in the right spirit. Abraham left the security of his land and family, and nearly sacrificed his son. Today he is honored by over half of humanity, a blessing to the whole world.

May this be true of his descendants, Muslims, Christians, and Jews altogether.

Wisdom of Islam Foolishness of Christianity

Books Global South (Anglican) Middle East Published Articles

Global South Anglicans Learn How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind

Credit: Michael Adel, Bridges Cultural Center

Many in the world view Christianity as a Western religion. But even as its center of gravity shifts to the African continent, few are aware the degree to which Africa shaped the Christian mind.

Even in Africa this lesson can be missed, but the Anglican Global South made sure its delegates return home to their provinces with a proper perspective.

“Our stories shape us and how we see the world,” said Dr. Michael Glerup of Yale University and executive director of the Center for Early African Christianity. “The Global South is not new, it was the first reality of the early church.”

Glerup opened with the emphasis Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna has been trying to drive home to Europe: Christianity provides the legacy of civilization to a Western culture that has largely forgotten its roots. But Glerup demonstrated to delegates that these roots stretch back even further to Africa.

There were five early centers of African Christianity, he said, in Egypt, Carthage, Libya, Ethiopia, and Nubia. And in three particular principles, he demonstrated their sons were the first to teach Europe its eventual values.

Maurice of Luxor served in the Roman Theban Legion, fighting near Geneva. Martyred for refusing to sacrifice to the gods, he and his Christian unit also defied the command to kill innocent civilians. “Our oath to you will be of no value, if we deny our first oath to God,” Maurice told his commander, and with his words and example he taught Europe the principle of moral integrity. It was not until the 16th century that his popular portraits were changed from dark to white skin.

St. Pachomius, also from Luxor, was a pagan when visited in prison by local Christians who came to his aid. Upon his release he became a Christian, and eventually founded community-based monasticism providing compassionate service to all. Cyprian of Carthage would further cement the principle of a universal human family, teaching Christians suffering plague to tend even to the sick of their former persecutors.

The Berber Tertullian is well known among theologians as the first to coin the term ‘Trinity’ and was ahead of his time in teaching what would eventually become formulated as Orthodox Christianity. Less known was his teaching, “It is not part of religion, to compel religion; it is an act of free will.” He and fellow Berber Lactantius, the tutor of Constantine’s children, helped teach Europe the oft-neglected but esteemed principle of freedom of conscience.

Glerup’s lectures were sandwiched between two Bible studies led by senior leaders in the Global South. Archbishop Ng Moon Hing of Southeast Asia spoke on the church and the challenge of unity, while Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of Uganda spoke on the church and the challenge of false teaching.

Disunity has been a hallmark of both human and church history, Hing said, and neither theocracy nor democracy has a good track record in overcoming it. Paul’s ethic in Ephesians 2, however, establishes a new pattern in which a Christian is to be simultaneously a responsible citizen of God’s kingdom, and a faithful member of God’s household.

“Pray we can still be a family,” Hing said, “even if a diseased member must be quarantined for a time.”

The disease is connected to false teaching, said Ntagali, but like the corruption rampant in many parts of the Global South, this is a symptom rather than the disease itself.

It is secularism that has become the dominant philosophy of the world, he said, with God no longer at the center. This allows some to claim the Christian name while not following Christ, while others claim the grace of God as a license to do what they want.

Unfortunately, those who follow such false teachings disconnect themselves from the will of God in heaven. What is necessary is discernment in the patterns of the world, being transformed by the renewing of the mind. In this, Ntagali urged delegates, the Global South must be united.

If it is, if the early African heritage is recovered, perhaps again they can help shape the Christian mind, worldwide.


Mama Maggie, by Makary and Vaughn: A Review

Mama Maggie

How much good can one person do? Why do anything when the need is so great? One woman’s mission to love the forgotten children of Egypt’s garbage slums offers a glimpse into answers for these questions.

A rich Egyptian girl who grew up in a doctor’s family and continued her affluent lifestyle into her 30s, Maggie Gobran could have easily overlooked the smelly garbage district of Moqattam. After all, thousands of poor people lived here suffering from poverty, illiteracy, abuse, and hopelessness. What could one wealthy Egyptian woman do?

This story paints a picture of Maggie’s life—her background, service, dependence on God, and love for the forgotten children. It describes the beginnings of the garbage cities in and around Cairo, as well as their many inherent and ongoing problems. But it also interweaves the political workings of Egypt and the turmoil of the past few years.

The book was especially interesting for me to read since I live in Egypt and have visited Garbage City. Its short, interesting chapters paint a realistic picture: Piles upon piles of garbage, animals wandering in and out of houses, and the social dynamics of ordinary people maintaining their dignity amid everyday filth.

But it also highlighted a surprising reality: Clean clothes for children, fun summer camps, new kindergartens and schools, and a chance for kids to dream. Throughout all the obstacles, Maggie perseveres through her faith in God and stubbornness to see these children given a fair chance at life.

It is a rewarding look into the life of a woman nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.


For more information about Mama Maggie, please use this link to view it at BookLook: 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Pursuing Justice, by Ken Wytsma: A Review

pursuing justice

Subtitled, ‘the call to live and die for bigger things,’ Pursuing Justice hits the notes many Christians are beginning to hear, however faintly. Justice, argues Wytsma, is not an optional concern for those who follow God. It is his heartbeat, the expression of his desire to see his world put right – both for individuals and the systems in which they live.

Christians neglected a concern for justice in recent American history, though the Biblical testimony is ample. Whether consumed by culture wars or dismissed in favor of afterlife-focused evangelism, they have missed the clear message of Jesus’ foundational prayer. ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Pursuing Justice seeks to stimulate the Christian conscience, trapped in a world of unrecognized and privileged consumerism, to experience the joy of a life sacrificed to a greater cause.

If there is one fault, it is that there is little of a practical curriculum to follow. Wytsma gives reference to the need for purposeful education, noting the college he founded helps tailor studies to the justice passion of its individual students. This is a novel idea, for there is no one-size-fits all answer to entrenched issues of injustice.

Instead, Wtysma provides verse after challenging verse, and example after inspiring example, to enliven the imagination of the reader. Neither is he shy in providing a litany of heart-wrenching problems we all too often prefer to ignore. We do so, though, to our spiritual peril.

Fair enough, but what can the average Christian with a job and a family do to make a difference? This is where the lack of a curriculum is most wise. It is not for everyone to radically redesign their life, and even if they did, how could they choose between so many worthy causes? But when God opens our ideas toward his ideal of justice and we see our fallen world, ugly and distorted, through this lens, we cannot remain unchanged. It must convict us at the least to put right our own small circles of influence, that in all our relationships they function as God intended.

Let Christians argue about the details, Wytsma allows. But let their hearts be united in the pursuit of justice. This book purposefully avoids the former, so as to kickstart the latter. It is recommended; let the fun begin.


For more information about Pursuing Justice, please use this link to view it at BookLook:

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Egypt, the Army, and the Early Christian Ethic of Life

by Ron Sider
by Ron Sider

From Christianity Today, an interview with Ron Sider, who compiled every early church writing on the subject of killing:

It’s not just just-war theory versus pacifism. The book covers war, capital punishment, gladiatorial games, infanticide, abortion, and so forth. Did the early Christian writers tie those together, or did they treat them as separate ethical issues?

They definitely tied them together. A number of times different authors—like Lactantius writing at the time of the Diocletian persecution, and earlier writers—are very clear. They explicitly say we don’t kill, and that means we don’t go to gladiatorial games, we’re opposed to abortion, capital punishment is not acceptable, and we don’t kill in war.

Did the early Christians oppose capital punishment as a social institution? Or did they just say that a Christian couldn’t be an executioner or a magistrate who might give someone a death sentence?

For early church fathers, a Christian could not have a political or judicial office where he would have the authority to pronounce a judgment of capital punishment.

They clearly stated the latter. They said Christians cannot participate in capital punishment. For them, a Christian could not have a political or judicial office where he would have the authority to pronounce a judgment of capital punishment.

Similarly, in the unanimous testimony of early Christian writers, this means Christians should not join the army:

Let’s talk about the reasons early Christians abstained from bloodshed: They talked about Jesus’ command to love our enemies, about the Mosaic command not to kill, and about the prophecy of messianic peace. Is any one of those reasons foundational to the rest?

Their most frequent statement is that killing is wrong. Killing a human being is simply something that Christians don’t do, and they’ll cite the Micah passage or Jesus’ “love your enemies” to support that. But the clear statement that Christians don’t kill is the foundation.

The most frequently stated reason that Christians didn’t join the army and go to war is that they didn’t kill. But it’s also true that in Tertullian, for example, idolatry in the Roman army is a second reason for not joining the military. But it’s not true that idolatry is the primary or exclusive reason that the early Christians refused to join the military. More often they just say killing is wrong.

But here is the rub for Egypt. The Coptic Orthodox Church honors the early church fathers, and I have not interacted with this issue to know how they treat this testimony. I would imagine that as the Catholic Church in the Roman Empire eventually came close enough to the centers of power, the Copts also developed a just war doctrine. Certainly they have a number of ‘soldier saints’ among their martyrs.

But for modern day Copts, the fact of participation in the army is often touted by political Islamists as the chief justification why the Islamic jizia tax is no longer required.

Sharia law required ‘People of the Book’ to submit to their Muslim rulers and exempted them from participation in the military in exchange for this tax. Within this system they were given the promise of domestic protection and freedom of worship within the status of second-class citizenship.

But those wars were for the benefit of the Muslim caliphate. The modern state of Egypt has a national army for defense of the borders. Two hundred years ago jizia was abolished and Copts served alongside their Muslim neighbors in the army.

But if per Sider’s testimony that proper Biblical understanding, as evidenced by the early church fathers, forbids a Christian from killing, this ‘arrangement’ is undone. If Copts sense they should abstain from war, does this open the door for the radical Islamist argument of restored jizia?

No Copt that I know of argues for conscientious objection, which does not exist in Egypt anyway, as best I know. Of course, like most Egyptians, like most humans, Copts are very reticent to kill. But they do not forbid it in the context of national duty.

But for any Christian pacifists outside of Egypt, which would you choose? You are only a pacifist out of conviction, of course, so I suspect it is unlikely you would balk at the imposition of a special tax for your refusal to fight. But would you accept the ‘second-class citizen’ part? Would you accept to be ruled by sharia law?

Even in the early days Christians faced the pragmatic question on pacifism. Here is the less than pragmatic answer:

It’s significant that Origen in the middle of the third century, 248–250, responds to the pagan critic Celsus. Celsus said, If everybody was like you Christians, the Roman Empire would collapse. Origen responded, if everybody was like us, the Roman Empire would be safe, and we wouldn’t need to kill people. So in the middle of the third century, the most prominent Christian author writing at the time responded in a way that only makes sense if Christians by and large didn’t join the military.

But the idea ‘if everyone was like us’ is woefully unrealistic. It is as if they say, please, join our movement and usher in the fall of our Empire.

Would an imagined pacifist Copt similarly argue to usher in the fall of our citizenship?

I am curious to know how church leaders today would interact with this issue.

Arab West Report Books Published Articles

What’s Right with Islam

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a public lecture given in Cairo, featuring Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Sally Khan in a gathering sponsored by the US Embassy. Though not necessarily a household name, he has been in the news recently for efforts to build a mosque and community center near Ground Zero in New York City (see story here). Imam Faisal is the son of Egyptian Azhar scholars, but was born in Kuwait and raised in the United States. He is the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative which is an independent effort to engage both governmental and non-governmental entities in promoting a new vision of Islam for the modern age as well as breaking down barriers which exist between Muslim majority nations and the West. The initiative also sponsors programs to foster youth and women’s empowerment, in twin initiatives entitled Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow and Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality. He is also the author of a book — What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West — of which an Arabic translation was presented free of charge to all in attendance. His book deals with explaining the basic message of Islam to a Western audience steeped in misunderstandings and suspicions. Yet it also speaks of the necessary modern translation of Islam into Western culture, many aspects of which will challenge the traditional interpretations held by so many in the Arab and Islamic worlds. The bringing together of all these diverse groups and ideas is a principle cherished by Imam Faisal, as well as the Sawy Culture Wheel, and the interview conducted between the imam and Mohamed Sawy, founder of the center, provided details about this vision.

Imam Faisal acknowledged that there were substantial forces opposing a broader rapprochement between the Islamic world and the West, but that even though the problems facing this goal are deep, he holds hope that there is no problem that cannot be solved if proper resources are dedicated to it. The scientific knowledge necessary for sending a man to the moon, he mentioned, existed over 200 years ago, but it took the vision, commitment, and resource allocation of President Kennedy to make it a reality. Imam Faisal hopes that he may play a similar role in creating a reality of peace between these two mutually misunderstood civilizations. Solutions are never easy, but history has shown they can sometimes appear out of nowhere, even from the unlikeliest of sources. If we do not commit our best thinkers to this goal, from every diverse ideology and interest group, we may find, somewhere, the ‘science’ to the solution, but the commitment to create the new reality will be missing. As in a soccer game, however, the closer a team comes to scoring a goal, the more resolute the defense becomes.

Imam Faisal has hope for this solution. He recognizes that the West already understands that Islam is not the enemy, as President Bush declared in a mosque shortly after September 11, 2001. On the contrary, whenever he speaks in churches, synagogues, universities, or think tanks, he is always impressed by the intellectual curiosity of Americans. They want not only to know what Islam is, but also what it ‘feels like’ to be a Muslim. Even those who have critical questions always do their best to understand and get to the root of the issues. This quality has also led some in the West to find spiritual peace in Islam. Having been disappointed by the material message preached in the West, they find the answer to their heart’s hunger for the face of God in the Muslim religion. Inevitably, through these but more so through the Muslim immigrants and their descendents in the West, Islam will become Western, in thought, culture, and values, all the while holding on to its Islamic essentials.

The obstacle to this mostly lies with Muslims themselves. Though 99% of the world’s Muslims, he claims, are peaceful people who only want a decent life for themselves and their families, the political movements in the Islamic world have increasingly borne a religious character. This frightens the West; though they understand political liberation movements of all varieties, this religious element leads many to believe such violent struggle is a necessary feature of the religion. This fear is amplified by the increasing demographic expansion of Islam in Western societies, especially Europe. Many believe they will be overrun by a foreign culture that is at odds with their own. These are legitimate fears, Imam Faisal believes, and Muslims must work hard to correct them.

This issue is seen in a nutshell over the controversy of building minarets in Switzerland. The government has decreed that minarets, though not mosques, may not be constructed, causing an uproar in many parts of the Islamic world. Rather than criticizing the Swiss for supposed intolerance—criticism in any sense only creates enemies and decreasing the chance for your message to be heard—he calls on Swiss Muslims to build Swiss mosques. What this should look like is unknown, but the challenge is not. In every country in which Islam took root the features of the religion adopted the culture, architecture, and ethos of the society. Yet in Western countries the features of Islam remain Eastern, as immigrant people transfer their culture abroad. Instead, they must strive to translate Islam to a new society, so that it can be acceptable and trusted among the majority people. This is the way Islam has always behaved, but modern Muslims are failing in this regard.

Towards the end of the presentation Imam Faisal and his wife spoke of their various initiatives, recruiting Egyptians to join their efforts. They spoke of their great desire to unite Muslims of all varieties, liberal and conservative, modern and traditional, Sufi and Salafi, so that their interactions would first produce understanding and acceptance, even amidst difference, and secondly spark a creativity which might locate solutions to problems faced by all, without demanding that one solution fit for all involved. Egyptians were invited to participate in this network, and many submitted their names for further information.

Imam Faisal spoke, however, to an Egyptian concern about himself. He stated unequivocally that he was not an agent of the US government. In fact, he has turned down a position offered him so that he may stay independent. Governments cannot take the lead in this cause, he said, because governments have their own interests which they must represent and protect. Nevertheless, he cooperates closely with government, since in finding resources for the cause these can aid substantially. He wishes to find friends wherever possible, and governments are among his friends, because they pursue together the cause of peace. Without peace there is no security and no development; increased peace in the world, especially between the Islamic world and the West, is a cause that everyone can rally around.

In a closing remark he illustrated the power of ideas within a collaborative network. In his book, What’s Right with Islam, he included a chapter on ideal American foreign policy, given the struggles which exist between the two civilizations, and the reaction which results in the defamation of America around the world. These ideas, he claimed, featured prominently in informing the speech of President Obama delivered in Cairo shortly after his election. While the American government will always follow its own interests—as it should—he was pleased that his ideas helped guide the current administration in determining these interests, and the manner in which they should be pursued.

In summary, Imam Faisal presented a picture of Islam translated into the Western world. While familiar to American ears, it prompted much thought and a bit of controversy among the mostly Egyptian audience. This, it is believed, was his very purpose. Time will illustrate if the gains he seeks will be realized, in whose interests these may be, and if from them further good may come to the world.

Books Personal

Life as Politics

Not too long ago Prof. Asef Bayat, presented a lecture at the American University of Cairo on the topic “Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East”, taken from his recently published book of the same name. Prof. Bayat is a professor of sociology and Middle Eastern studies and holds the Chair of Society and Culture of the Modern Middle East at Leiden University, the Netherlands. The summary below presents a very interesting look at how Middle Eastern society is evolving, without direction or organization from the powers-that-be, either from inside or outside the region.

Many theorists around the world wonder when change will finally come to the Middle East. They see the monumental political and economic developments in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and look with resignation at the Arab world which seems stagnated in autocracy and conservatism. Likewise, Arab activists themselves find the pace of change too slow, working to implement democracy and civil society but are increasingly frustrated by governments more intent on holding on to power. What spells the correct answer?

A closer consideration would note that much change has already transformed the Middle East. Over the past several decades the phenomena of globalization, Islamization, and urbanization have impacted the region, and historically Arabs have been involved in nationalist movements against colonizing influences. Even so, both regional and international scholars have identified three general positions concerning change.

The first is not widely held to popularly in the Middle East, but there are those who state that if change is to come it must originate from outside the region. Since people are not seen as effectual actors, influences must begin abroad; President Bush’s doctrine of regime change is witnessed here. The second position is that one must wait for change to happen. They hope for, think about, and educate for change, but are limited in what they can actually do to bring it about. After all, revolutions cannot be planned, but what should one do while waiting, especially if some potential outcomes of revolution might be worse than the status quo?

The third position is that of the activists who strive to make change. While social and governmental restrictions exist, there has been much progress on the part of some movements like those of women’s rights and labor unions. Still, progress has been slow overall, which has led many social scientists, though not activists, to look elsewhere in the region for examples of change. Prof. Bayat identifies these in what he calls a ‘non-movement’.

While traditional movements tend to be the activities of leisure, however passionate, of those with at least some social standing, and is a result of a planned activity coordinated with others, a non-movement is fragmented, disperse, and chaotic. Instead, it is the collective representation of individual actions on a massive scale. Specifically, Prof. Bayat highlights three: the urban migration into the cities, the activity of women, and youth identity.

The capital cities of the Middle East are a magnet attracting the rural poor in search of some economic benefit. Their arrival, however, causes disruption of property rights and legitimate commerce as shanty towns are erected and sidewalk shops sell knock-off brands and ignore copyright protection. Yet the numbers are so large that governments are impotent to do anything about it other than small scale intervention, and thus these new émigrés settle into the landscape of the city, prompting the question, who really owns it? They are a threat, to be sure, but they also represent a profound change in the makeup of society, but as a non-movement are traditionally overlooked as agents of change.

Women are more commonly seen as agents of change, but they better qualify as a non-movement alongside more traditional avenues of women’s activism. Yet the pattern of their individual actions dictates that diverse outcomes result from their participation in life. On the one hand the increasing use of a hijab or niqab signals a religious protest against a perceived un-Islamic, authoritarian regime. Yet on the other hand women are increasingly participating in life, even in the mundane activities of going to the bank, mechanic, or university. Over time the increased opportunity for reflection on life outside of domestic isolation causes women to ask the questions of necessity and curiosity – why is my inheritance limited, why are child custody laws in favor of men? Be it seen in increasing religiosity or liberation, these actions are planned by no one, yet have dramatically affected the social relations of Middle Eastern society.

Youth activity is similar. Increasing population rates have created a burgeoning youth demographic which is corralled and controlled through education. Wary of the power of unencumbered youth the government has attempted to co-opt their participation in its favor by celebrating their role in the formation of the state, at the same time using all available resources and pressures to keep them in check. Yet the public space provided in the schools and the universities allows for the congregation and self-consciousness of youth, who in different ways express their identity through dress, hairstyle, and hobby. While kept from a politics of protest, they nonetheless express a politics of presence and practice that has left a distinctive mark on the region, yet because it is not a traditional movement in the manner of engagement often seen in youth, it is generally unobserved.

The distinguishing characteristic of these non-movements is that they reflect the ordinary activity of ordinary people leading an ordinary life. There is no leader, no collaboration, and no grand strategy. As such, an authoritarian government has nothing to fight. The vast co-incidence of common activity overwhelms its ability to respond, and positive change develops from the bottom up. Though an activist would be left unsatisfied with the scope of change, social advancement occurs for the poor, liberation for the woman, and identity for the youth. In a region marked by oppressive and restrictive social controls, these developments are not insignificant.

These observations demonstrate the platitude that there is always a way to express a will for change. The subtitle of the book, however, is a bit misleading. The impression is given that the text will describe activity and thought—how is it possible for ordinary people to change their society? Instead the book is written as sociology—how is change occurring as ordinary people live, without acting or thinking? The study is noteworthy, but not proscriptive. There is much to analyze as one views the region from a bird’s-eye view, but little to communicate to the people of the Middle East. In fact when questioned about how an activist might utilize or mobilize a non-movement on behalf of a cause, Prof. Bayat warned this could undo all progress. Activism would bring the non-movement to the attention of the government, and provide a target for repression. By becoming self-conscious the strength is lost.

Unfortunately, this seems to leave the local actor in the dilemma posed above. Should change be initiated from outside, be waited upon inside, or be created by joint action? Each of these positions comes fraught with danger and difficulty, but the study of non-movements offers no solution. If anything it proposes that the option to wait is the only recourse. While surely Prof. Bayat would not endorse this conclusion, it seems the result for the Middle East is that change happens, but it cannot be made to happen. So while a theoretician may be thankful for more data to study in the process of change in the region, the activist is left unsatisfied. Is this not the natural state for an activist, however, facing the question of how to create change from nothing? Life as politics leaves no room for politics, only sociology. Change occurs for the ordinary person, but the ordinary activist longs for a movement, not a non-movement. He or she must look elsewhere for the answers.

To purchase this book from Amazon, click here: Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East


Launching “Books” with Libyan Poetry

If you look to the column on the right hand side of this page you will notice a new link – “Books” – which looks to chronicle what we read. A few times in this blog we have been able to write a book review of recent reading which has aided in understanding Egyptian society. Other times we have referenced a book which we have not read, but perhaps have interviewed the author or just remembered its general usefulness. The “Books” link is an effort to congregate all this information in one place, so that you can read along with us, if you care to.

The lead item in “Books” is not of this nature, however, but rather focuses on books we have had a hand in producing. Before moving to Egypt we lived in Tunisia, where among other activities I worked with a local author and publisher to translate books from Arabic into English. The first of these has come to print, which, oddly enough, is a selection of poetry from a Libyan author, entitled “The Journey of the Blind”.

I enjoyed making the translation, and though it might seem counterintuitive, translating poetry was actually a little easier than translating prose. This might not be true with classical poetry, but this author uses a modern style, which left me free to arrange meanings keeping with his style, but without the burden of having to worry about meter or rhyme.

Below is a selection from his works, selected because it is my favorite, dealing with issues of travel, home, and belonging.



I saw in the road

My old horse

Which my grandfather gave to me

Before he died,

And after he informed me

Of the dangers of travel,

Of night, of beautiful women, and of sailing,

And after he informed me

Of the dangers of the road, and thieves.

Do not let the beautiful women

Steal your little heart in the morning.

The road is before you, my dear little boy,

The road is before you,

He informed me and then closed his eyes.


In the early morning

I saw him praying,

In the paths of my homesickness,

In the forest of names and languages,

In the very cells of my body.

And I heard him say:

The best of all homelands is my home,

And the most beautiful of seas.

You see it in the sand,

In the high palm tree,

And in the mirage.

My grandfather told me

In the language of the elderly:

Do not go away,

For the people on the other side of our sea

Walk towards a distant gloom.

Do not go away, do not go away.


Beware of the distance of the road.

Of this he informed me

               Before he fell asleep,

                           Before he fell


Benghazi 1968

You can see an image of the book by clicking here: Cover – Journey of the Blind

The collection is available for purchase; my parents have been kind enough to agree to mail a copy to anyone interested. Full information is found under the “Books: Translations” link. Other titles referenced there can be purchased through Amazon, which if bought through this site provides us with a small percentage of the price. Not enough to persuade you not to borrow the book from the library, but on the off chance a summary catches your fancy and you would like to see the binding on your bookshelf, if you are kind enough to consider us, we appreciate it. Thanks.

Arab West Report Books Middle East Published Articles

Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity

Two thousand years of Coptic Christianity is the title of a book by Otto Meinardus, a renowned scholar on the history, practice, and theology of the Coptic Orthodox Church. His work is widely accepted as the standard reference book for all inquiries into the development of this particular expression of faith. Upon reading it, I could only agree.

My strongest agreement, however, is expressed in its description as a reference book. When I asked a well read friend to recommend me a book with which to understand the Coptic Church, he immediately thought of Meinardus. While gladly loaning me his copy, though, he added, but this is a book you must eventually buy for yourself. I didn’t understand this at the time; like with most books I wished to read it, profit from it, and then give it back to its owner. Rarely if ever does a book get read twice – why should anyone ever purchase?

Upon my reading I discovered why, though the jury is still out if I will eventually buy it for myself. The first half of the book is a comprehensive survey of Coptic history, beginning not even with Mark—believed to be the founder of Christianity in Egypt—but with Jesus. The Gospels tell the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt to escape the sword of King Herod. While the Gospel details are few, Coptic legend-slash-history thoroughly establishes their itinerary, proceeding even to sites hundreds of kilometers from Palestine in Upper Egypt. At each significant place of their travel there is a church dedicated to the event. These churches have an ancient history, lending credibility to antiquity of the tradition.

Meinardus does not judge. Though he comments often on this progression, he generally presents the details and leaves the historical queries to other works. His treatment of subsequent Christian development is similar. He tells the tales that surround the preaching and martyrdom of Mark, and of the first communities of Christians that began the transformation of the Pharaohnic character of Egypt. Elements of this story involve the miraculous, which does not stop with the end of the apostolic age. Meinardus continues to list the traditions surrounding the acts of prominent bishops and monks, and especially the martyrs from the eras of persecution. Monasteries and martyrdom are among the pillars of Coptic Christianity, and Meinardus provides a window into the worldview of the church.

He also delves into the development of theology, which is easier to document. Treatment is given to the great Christological debates which divided the early church, but proceeds into the production of Coptic canon law. The great figures who wrote these documents and the ancient liturgies, so obscure to Western readers, are given their names and accomplishments in print. Meinardus has respect to the cloud of witnesses which has gone before, and honors their legacy.

Yet not all the names are obscure. Athanasius, the great champion of orthodoxy against the Arian heresy and compiler of the Biblical canon of Scripture, was the pope of the Coptic Church. Cyril and Gregorius are not as well known, but are still familiar names to students of church history. St. Anthony, the founder of monasticism, was Egyptian, as was the Thebian Legion whose memory is enshrined in many European cities for their refusal to deny their Lord and subsequent martyrdom. Coptic Christianity, in fact, lies behind much of the history of Christianity in Europe, as their monks and missionaries carried the Gospel throughout the continent, and to Ireland especially. Many people are aware of the vital role played by the Irish in the Christianization of Europe; less known is that the origin is Coptic. Meinardus supplies the names and stories of the Egyptian contributors.

Meinardus continues the story into the middle and modern ages, describing the interactions of the church with Islam, during both its tolerant and repressive epochs. Less detail than I desired was given to the question of why the church declined over time, but this is a difficult issue to address; histories are written of triumph and progression—who records the record of loss? Nevertheless, Meinardus provides a window into this near-unknown era, and understanding of the history will take many readings simply to establish familiarity. This becomes easier as modernity approaches, and Meinardus describes Coptic dealings with successive Turkish, French, and British empires. Special attention is given to the deep revival of the church during the 20th Century, which continues to this day. A blog post all its own is necessary, however, to do justice to this phenomenon.

All that is listed above was both interesting and worthy of owning as a personal record, though the story in its broad strokes may be told elsewhere. The second half of Meinardus’ book, though, both establishes and possibly condemns it to serve as a reference book. From here on Meinardus becomes a list-maker, as nearly every monastery, church, and saint’s shrine is given a place in his text, complete with details of the relics therein. I read the majority of the book while I was staying at Makarius Monastery in Wadi Natrun, which is home also to additional historic monasteries established as early as the 4th Century. It was fascinating to read the history of where I was. The other chapters were a chore to read, however, simply because I have no context to appreciate them. If I anticipate a future visit to such-and-such village in Upper Egypt I will open Meinardus and read of the churches there, but otherwise, what good does this information do me?

I hope, however, to visit such-and-such village. I imagine that our work will take me throughout Egypt to discover the many different facets of Egyptian life, Christian and otherwise. To view the foundational facts will require reference to Meinardus, and for this his book seems essential to own. I would recommend the first half of the book to anyone interested in Coptic Christianity, but I will likely in time find better, or at least equal, books to recommend. As a reference book, however, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity will likely stand alone. It is recommended to anyone desiring to study Coptic Christianity, and for long term life in Egypt, if there is a desire to honor its Christian heritage, it is a must.

Click here to purchase from Amazon: Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity

Books Personal

A Grief Suppressed?

A few days ago I started writing a blog post about our doorman’s wife, Aaza, a woman I mentioned in a blog post before (click here).  The idea for the post came because she has been in the hospital for at least three weeks awaiting an operation for a second brain tumor.  Her first tumor was removed in mid-August.  After that, she seemed to have some ups and downs.  Some days I would see her hanging laundry, walking around her yard, drinking tea, talking with her girls … slowly and sometimes in pain, but recovering nicely.  And then other days she couldn’t talk, her tongue seemed numb.  She couldn’t move her hands; she walked only very slowly and with great help from her husband who seemed desperate to help her regain her full strength.  She took lots of medicine and stayed in bed most of the day, and then we heard, her brain tumor was back and she would go for another operation—this time at a better hospital with a better doctor.  Yet, the next news I got was she went to the hospital, and then the operation was postponed one week as the doctor went to a conference?!  It sounds crazy to my western ears.  Each time I asked a family member, it was the same story.  “No, she hasn’t had an operation yet.  They keep postponing it.  I don’t know why.” 

She died on Sunday, December 20, and that made me wonder if they postponed it because the doctors knew she didn’t have a chance, or if it was because she was in a government hospital getting free medical care and perhaps she had to “wait her turn,” which, unfortunately, didn’t come soon enough.

That same day, before the news came, her two youngest children, Wilaa (age 10) and Omar (age 4) were here visiting.  You may remember Omar from an earlier post (click here).  Ever since their mom has been in the hospital, the three school-aged girls have basically missed a lot of school.  It seems the oldest, Yasmine (age 16), has attended fairly regularly.  She is older and missing school makes it difficult for her.  The next youngest, Hibba, seems to have spent most of her days at the hospital with her mom.  I am happy for her in that.  Usually Hibba is the one who works very hard in our building … two times a day coming to our door to run errands for us or take our trash out … and this for everyone in our building … probably about 12 apartments.  So I am glad she got to spend these last days with her mom.  I have seen the two older sisters with their mom … it seems their bond was very strong.  I don’t know how they will handle this loss.  The youngest daughter, Wilaa, told me she has only been going to school for tests.  She has basically taken over the job of her sister running errands for everyone in the building, taking her 4 year-old brother along with her.  Anyway, I think the two youngest have been bored around home and yesterday they finally came here to play.  As far as I know, they didn’t know of their mother’s death at the time, and perhaps she was still alive at that hour.  But they had a good time and maybe they will come again.  I hope so.  Jayson and I want to help this family any way we can, and maybe giving the younger kids a place to play will be a help to them.  Time will tell.

I learned of her death on Sunday afternoon.  Hibba came to the door dressed in black, and I definitely noticed she was dressed differently, but it didn’t register with me exactly.  She asked if we needed anything, and I said “No,” then asked “How is your mom?” 

At that point, she told me she died … however, she used a word I didn’t know, so I didn’t understand. 

I asked, “Did she have her operation yet?” 

Again, she told me she died, but I didn’t understand. 

“Did they postpone it again?  Do you know when?” 

This time, she used a word I knew, and it all sunk in. 

“Oh Hibba, I am so sorry. When?” 

 I was ready to cry and hug her, but she said, “Today. Oh, it’s normal.  Praise God.” 

“It’s not normal … she’s your mom.  I am so sorry.” Then I added, as is customary, “May God have mercy on her.”

She left and I closed the door and felt so stupid.  I should have noticed the black.  The poor girl had to tell me three times that her mother died.  Sometimes it is very hard to be in another culture and I feel the language barrier keenly in a situation like this.  I want to tell her how very sorry I am that she has lost the most important person in her life.  I want to tell her to cry, cry, cry and if she needs a place to cry or a person to be sad with, I can be that person.  I have seen her cry before one of the times her mom couldn’t talk or walk, and I saw one of her uncles reprimand her and tell her to be strong.  I want her to be free to grieve.  Still, I am not of this culture, so there is so much I don’t understand.  There are things I want to say, and yet I either don’t know quite how to say it or I stumble over it, and someone who is grieving doesn’t need to expend extra energy to try to understand a foreigner.  So, I pray for wisdom and for God to give me the right words for this situation.  We pray that God would show us ways we can help this family.  We are the foreigners who barely knew their mom, and yet, we’ve connected somewhat with the kids.  I hope we can help in some way.

I have so many questions about what happened and what will happen.  I don’t know if the younger kids will be sent to the village with relatives to be raised there.  I am guessing the two older girls will stay here with their father, and continue to study and work and run the house.  I have no idea how Muhammad, the husband, will grieve.  I worry about Omar.  He is such a difficult child already.  How much does he understand that his mommy is never coming back?  And the burial/funeral procedures are very different here.  They buried their mom the same day she died, and then spent that evening and the next morning preparing their house and yard for the visitors who will come for the next three days to offer their condolences.  God help them through this time.  And God help us to do what we can.

On Monday I attended the first night of the condolence giving, and what I learned bothered me deeply.  I went downstairs and entered the yard of the family and was directed to the women’s section.  Yasmine, the oldest daughter was there looking very sad.  I greeted her and said, as per custom, “May what remained of her life be added to yours.”

And she replied, as expected, with, “May it be to yours.”

Hibba was inside but came out to greet me.  I guess I feel the closest to her just because I see her the most.  I felt so sad for her and gave her a big hug and was near tears as she was.  I repeated the customary phrase, then added that I was so sorry for her loss and if she needs anything, or a place to cry just come up to our apartment.  Her little sister, Wilaa, was nearby, and Hibba said something to me along the lines of … “because Wilaa.” 

I am not sure what that meant, but at first I thought she meant to greet her as she was nearby.  So I did.  I said some of the same things … please come up anytime you want.  Then it seemed Hibba was encouraging Wilaa, who was near tears, not to cry.  I kind of stepped in and said, “No, cry, cry.  This is sad. This is hard.  Cry.  I’m so sorry for you.” 

All the while, Hibba was saying something to me that I didn’t understand.  What I did catch was, “No, don’t be sorry.  This is normal.” 

Ugh.  More of that “normal” stuff.  It’s not “normal” to lose your mother at age 10 or 14.  I kind of argued the point, “No, it’s not normal.  She was the closest person to you.” 

Then Hibba said something which I thought meant that her mother was in heaven so praise God for that, meaning, we shouldn’t be sad. 

Again, I had a rebuttal, “Okay, but the problem is she’s not HERE with YOU.  This is why you can be sad.  Yes, praise God she is out of pain, but cry because she’s not with you any longer.”

At this point, we kind of all sat down, and a few minutes later, as I was sitting feeling very sad for this family … these girls especially, Hibba once again tried to explain to me why they won’t cry.  And this is where I felt the language gap because there is so much I don’t understand, but from what I gathered, she believed that for every tear they cry for their dead mother, a drop of fire will fall on her skin.  Now, understand that I may not have heard that right.  But I think the principle was there, that if they cry because she died, she will suffer more in the grave.

Whoa.  That blew me away.  It made me angry.  What!  Before, I thought maybe they were just trying to be strong and somehow culturally it’s not okay to cry.  But, to be forbidden!  To be told that IF you cry, you will cause your mom more pain!  So what do they do with that?!  They need to cry, they want to cry, but if they do, they have hurt their mom.  Did you ever try to keep yourself from crying when you really need to cry?  It physically hurts!  Wow.  I was even more sad for them now.  What could I do?  I wanted to be there to cry with them, but now, if I cried, it was actually going to harm them!  I sat there for another 15-20 minutes listening to the conversation around me, watching young Omar repeatedly hit his brand new car toy with a stick, and just thinking about how I could get around this “rule.”

When one of the relatives came and sat with me, I tried to ask her about what Hibba just told me.  Again, I wasn’t sure if I understood correctly.  In answering me, at first it seemed this relative said it was okay to have tears, but not to make sound when crying.  But then it did seem, she basically summed it up with, “It’s forbidden to cry.”

So I would love to hear from some Egyptians who know this culture and this language.  Did I hear and understand correctly?  Can you explain the ideas behind this?    I believe that all cultures have harmful ideas of what to do with grief.  A few years ago, Jayson and I received training in coping with grief (The Grief Recovery Handbook), and we began our course with learning many of the wrong ideas that we have adopted in American culture regarding grief.  I could totally see those things when we studied it.  And now I know that it’s so important to feel your loss strongly.  To cry.  To grieve.  To wail.  To sit in silence.  To be with people.  To be alone at times.  To remember.  To laugh.  To cry some more.  To pray.  To rejoice.  To mourn.  I don’t mean to be judgmental of Egyptian culture, but I want to understand it better and better, and especially now as I see my neighbor girls hurting, and it seems they aren’t able or allowed to express their deep grief.  Must they suppress it?

Books Personal

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

Arab West Report Books Middle East Published Articles

My First Report

One of the primary activities of my organization here in Egypt is the translation of articles from the Arabic press into English. We select between twenty to forty articles every week, with an emphasis on religious issues, but not to the exclusion of other factors which also affect Arab-West relations. We also publish our own reports within the weekly selection, which can be analysis of the news, critique of media reporting, or simply a selection of interesting voices which lend toward a broader understanding of the Arab World in general, and of Egypt in particular.

 I am not involved in this process on a regular basis. We have a team of native speaking Arabs who provide the translation, and English speaking foreigners who work on the editing. We also have a variety of interns from around the world, including Egypt, who can write reports such as those described above. Although my work lies elsewhere, on occasion I also will have opportunity to contribute.

 I have provided here a link to my first report. The work I do will not always be put on display, but when it is appropriate I will also provide reference here in the blog. I am glad that some of my work will also help readers here get a better glimpse of Egyptian society, as well as our small participation in it.

 My report summarizes a lecture given by Jihan Sadat, the wife of the former president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Muslim extremists, in no small part due to his signature on the Camp David Accords establishing peace with Israel. Here is the text below:

On October 11, 2009 Her Excellency Dr. Mrs. Jehan Sadat presented a lecture to the Women’s Association of Cairo at the Oriental Hall of the American University of Cairo. Mrs. Sadat served as First Lady of Egypt from 1970 until her husband’s assassination at the hands of Muslim extremists on October 6, 1981. Mrs. Sadat began her lecture by noting the incongruity of this day as paying honor to two disparate concepts:  a celebration of her husband as a man of peace, and a celebration of war as the means to liberate Sinai from Israeli occupation. Though a principled man of peace his whole life, Mrs. Sadat spoke of the October War, launched on October 6, 1973 by her husband, as a necessary step in achieving peace by demonstrating the strength of Egypt. Having won popular acclaim in Egypt and throughout the Arab World, however, Sadat returned to his peaceful constitution, pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Israel in effort to secure peace in the region. In 1978 Sadat visited Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset, fully aware of the implications of his decision. Furthermore, Mrs. Sadat states, he knew upon signing the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1979 that he could pay for this initiative with his life. Nevertheless, he pressed forward, and though his ideas were rejected entirely by his Arab brothers at the time, leading to Egyptian isolation from the Arab League, today his views are accepted by many, and imitated by some. Mrs. Sadat declares that her husband’s methods are not the only way to achieve peace, but they are the only ways which have worked. 

Mrs. Sadat spoke also of her own struggle, stating that she could have fallen into despair and brokenness following her husband’s assassination. She described him as a good husband and father; they traveled everywhere together and considered one another as partners. Yet despite her state, she knew that her husband would be disappointed if she surrendered to her grief, so she has decided to embrace life, looking forward to the day they will be together again, but yet laboring to keep his legacy alive. This she achieves through involvement as a Senior Fellow at the University of Maryland through an endowment for the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development. She also has written a new book, My Hope for Peace, published in March of this year, to promote her and her husband’s efforts for a better world, focusing on principles for peace, and also on the subject of women’s rights. 

From the Belfour Declaration in 1917 to the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, continuing through the 1973 October War and its aftermath, Mrs. Sadat declared that her husband recognized the bloodshed, displacement, and hatred which characterized Arab-Israeli relations, resulting in no clear winning side. Though he had achieved success in the war, his faith pushed him to desire more, believing peace was more important than military victory. In pursuit of this goal he developed five principles which guided his conduct during negotiations and the pursuit of peace.

  • All people desire to live in peace
  • Realistic and pragmatic admission of the animosity between conflicting sides
  • Direct and continual involvement of leadership to drive the engine of peacemaking
  • The necessity of forgiveness
  • The brotherhood of Arabs and Jews

 In commenting on the current possibility for peace, Mrs. Sadat expressed hope. Jordan has followed Egypt in signing a peace accord with Israel, and though recent Israeli policy toward the Palestinians has been belligerent, she believes that Palestinians should be able to coexist with Israel. They should have their own state as well, with Israeli assurances of being able to live in peace. Finally, she praised President Mubarak for his continuation of her husband’s policies, working tirelessly to keep the two sides in negotiation. 

Mrs. Sadat also spoke passionately on the subject of women’s rights, highlighting the visit of President Obama to Cairo and his statement that our daughters can contribute to society as much as our sons. She believed that President Obama and her husband would have been good friends. Though her husband shared her convictions on women’s rights, Mrs. Sadat laughed that she continually nagged him about it. “Yes, yes,” he replied, “but I have also to build schools and hospitals; I will get to it eventually.” He did, and the ‘Jehan Laws’, as they are known, helped women achieve greater rights in terms of alimony and child custody following a divorce. Mrs. Sadat declared that women’s rights are not an issue for Islam, rather, it is an issue concerning how certain people practice Islam, and that this is true for any religion. A recent survey conducted by John Esposito of Georgetown University interviewed over forty thousand Muslims in over forty countries, and highlighted that Muslim women around the world want the right to work, to vote, and to serve in government, but are concerned far more about extremism and corruption than they are about issues of dress code. Mrs. Sadat said that religion and rights are not mutually exclusive, and praised the history of feminism in Egypt, urging the current generation to keep their story alive, but noting that their message has been woven into the tapestry of Egyptian culture. She also issued special praise for Mrs. Mubarak for her devotion to the cause of women’s rights, noting that more than ever before Egyptian women are going to school and becoming doctors, ministers, and professionals of all varieties. 

Mrs. Sadat closed her remarks by expressing her personal hope that she has made a difference with her life. She hopes that women get their rights, not because they struggle for them, but because they deserve them. She prays for peace everywhere, not just in Egypt, but also in Sudan, in the Middle East, and wherever there is violent conflict. She hopes to leave behind a better world for her three daughters, eight granddaughters, and four great granddaughters. She has lived a full and worthy life, and though she looks forward to standing again side by side with her husband, she will not retire while so many issues, including her husband’s legacy, stand in need of promotion.

Concerning a direct question about the pursuit of peace and reconciliation in the local context, Mrs. Sadat acknowledged that it is not beneficial to go to a village woman and tell her to change her behavior, giving the example of family planning. It is in the interest of the woman and her family to have many children, since they will be put to work to gain income, though underage labor is against Egyptian law. If instead she can be given a job, this will reduce the necessity for her children to work, creating strides in children’s rights, and will encourage her to have less children, thus achieving the desired change. She also commented that mothers, in addition to the educational system, play a vital role in educating children about peace, helping others, and proper human interaction. For the local context especially, economic projects and education are vital in the dissemination of the message of peace. 

Extrapolating, then, from the principles of President Sadat, Mrs. Sadat’s lecture provided guidance on the pursuit of local peace. In areas of sectarian conflict, first, it is important to remember that at base, all parties wish ultimately to live in peace. The conflict may have been started by misunderstanding or common affront, but as the complications escalate, it is easy to forget this principle. Second, it requires the realistic understanding that each side has hardened against the other, and the pragmatic planning to overcome mutual antagonism. This is where Mrs. Sadat’s comments about a project are especially poignant; a well designed project will bring people together, starting from the recognition they have not begun that way. 

Third, peace and reconciliation is best achieved through the active participation of recognized leadership. Chances of success are few unless local leaders can be convinced to partake, for they have the clout to maintain momentum when individual incidents threaten to derail the process. Outside leadership may be even more powerful. Fourth, forgiveness is absolutely necessary, though this is a message that can only be preached, not enforced. Proponents of peace outside the process must keep forgiveness at the center of their discourse, lest anyone slip into the ease of its neglect in the details of negotiation. Finally, in a similar way, all must hold on to the centrality of the concept of Muslims and Christians as brothers, that this be maintained as an article of faith. Keeping these principles in mind will help guide local peace efforts in the manner they guided President Sadat’s efforts in the international arena. If realized in her own country, it will fulfill Mrs. Sadat’s hopes to have made a difference, to keep her husband’s legacy alive, and to see resolution of her own prayers for peace.

 (click here to read on AWR)

click here to purchase from Amazon: My Hope for Peace