Ultraconservative Islam on rise in Mideast

I found this article interesting…, I’ll bet the mall they’re talking about is Technology Mall on Makram Albeid.  It’s true that many places don’t close during prayer times, but I find it hard to see why that is such a threatening occurance in a muslim country, it not like the mall has a lot of non-muslim foreigners visiting.


CAIRO, Egypt – The Muslim call to prayer fills the halls of a Cairo computer shopping center, followed immediately by the click of locking doors as the young, bearded tech salesmen close up shop and line up in rows to pray together.

Business grinding to a halt for daily prayers is not unusual in conservative Saudi Arabia, but until recently it was rare in the Egyptian capital, especially in affluent commercial districts like Mohandiseen, where the mall is located.

But nearly the entire three-story mall is made up of computer stores run by Salafis, an ultraconservative Islamic movement that has grown dramatically across the Middle East in recent years.

“We all pray together,” said Yasser Mandi, a salesman at the Nour el-Hoda computer store. “When we know someone who is good and prays, we invite them to open a shop here in this mall.” Even the name of Mandi’s store is religious, meaning “Light of Guidance.”

The rise of Salafists has critics worried that their beliefs will crowd out the more liberal and tolerant version of Islam long practiced in some Middle East countries, particularly Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. They also warn that its doctrine is only a few shades away from that of violent groups like al-Qaida — that it effectively preaches, “Yes to jihad, just not now.”

Extreme end
In the broad spectrum of Islamic thought, Salafism is on the extreme conservative end. Saudi Arabia’s puritanical Wahhabi interpretation is considered the forerunner of modern Salafism, and Saudi preachers on satellite TV — and more recently the Internet — have been key to the spread of Salafism.

Salafist groups are gaining in numbers and influence across the Middle East. In Jordan, a Salafist was chosen as head of the old-line opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. In Kuwait, Salafists were elected to parliament and are leading the resistance to any change that would threaten traditional Islamic values.

The gains for Salafists are part of a trend of turning back to conservatism and religion after major political movements like Arab nationalism and Democratic reform failed to fulfill promises to improve the lives of average people. Egypt has been at the forefront of change in both directions, toward liberalization in the 1950s and ’60s and back to conservatism more recently.

The growth of Salafism is visible in many parts of Cairo since its adherents set themselves apart with their dress. Women wear the “niqab,” a veil which shows only the eyes — if even that — rather than the “hijab” scarf that merely covers the hair. The men grow their beards long and often shave off mustaches, a style said to imitate the Prophet Muhammad.

‘Ancestor’ emerges
The word “salafi” in Arabic means “ancestor,” hearkening back to a supposedly purer form of Islam said to have been practiced by Muhammad and his companions in the 7th century. Salafism preaches strict segregation of the sexes and resists any innovation in religion or adoption of Western ways seen as immoral.

“When you are filled with stress and uncertainty, black and white is very good, it’s very easy to manage,” said Selma Cook, an Australian convert to Islam who for more than a decade described herself as a Salafi.

“They want to make sure everything is authentic,” said Cook, who has moved away from Salafist thought but still works for a Cairo-based Salafi satellite channel Hoda.

In most of the region, Salafism has been a purely social movement calling for an ultraconservative lifestyle. Most Salafis shun politics — in fact, many argue that Islamic parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinians’ Hamas are too willing to compromise their religion for political gain.

Its preachers often glorify martyrdom and jihad — or holy war — but always with the caveat that Muslims should not launch jihad until their leaders call for it. The idea is that the decision to overturn the political order is up to God, not the average citizen.

Contrasts with Islam
But critics warn that Salafis could easily slide into more violent, jihadist forms. In North Africa, some already have — the Algerian Salafi Group for Call and Combat has allied itself with al-Qaida and has been blamed for bombings and other attacks. Small pockets of Salafis in northern Lebanon and Gaza have also taken up weapons and formed jihadi-style groups.

“I am afraid that this Salafism may be transferred to be a Jihadi Salafism, especially with the current hard socio-economic conditions in Egypt,” says Khalil El-Anani, a visiting scholar at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

The Salafi way contrasts with Islam as it’s long been practiced in Egypt, where the population is religious but with a relatively liberal slant. Traditionally, Egyptian men and women mix rather freely and Islamic doctrine has been influenced by local, traditional practices and an easygoing attitude to moral foibles.

But Salafism has proved highly adaptable, appealing to Egypt’s wealthy businessmen, the middle class and even the urban poor — cutting across class in an otherwise rigidly hierarchical society.

‘Our identity is Islamic’
In Cairo’s wealthy enclaves of Maadi and Nasr City, upper-class Salafis dressed in traditional robes can be seen driving BMWs to their engineering firms, while their wives stay inside large homes surrounded by servants and children.

Sara Soliman and her businessman husband Ahmed el-Shafei both received the best education Egypt had to offer, first at a German-run school, then at the elite American University in Cairo, but they have now chosen the Salafi path.

“We were losing our identity. Our identity is Islamic,” 27-year-old Soliman said from behind an all-covering black niqab as she sat with her husband in a Maadi restaurant.

“In our (social) class, none of us are brought up to be strongly practicing,” el-Shafei, also 27, added in American-accented English, a legacy of living in the U.S. until he was 8. Now, he and his wife said, they live Islam as “a whole way of life,” rather than just a set of obligations such as daily prayers and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

A dozen satellite TV channels — most Saudi-funded — are perhaps the most effective way Salafism has been spread. They feature conservative preachers, call-in advice shows and discussion programs on proper Islamic behavior.

Numerous Salafist mosques in Cairo are packed on Fridays, the day of weekly communal prayers. Outside downtown Cairo’s Shaeriyah mosque, a bookstall featured dozens of cassettes by Mohammed Hasaan, a prolific conservative preacher who sermonizes on the necessity of jihad and the injustices inflicted on Muslims.

Alongside the cassettes were rows of books espousing Salafi themes about sin and Western decadence. One book, “The Sinful Behaviors of Women,” displayed lipstick, playing cards, perfumes and mobile phones on the cover to make its point. Another was titled “The Excesses of American Hubris.”

Critics of Salafism say it has spread so quickly in part because of encouragement by the Egyptian and Saudi governments, which see it as an apolitical, nonviolent alternative to hard-line jihadi groups.

‘Not a good thing’
Critics warn that the governments are playing with fire, saying Salafism creates an environment that breed extremism. Al-Qaida continues to try to draw Salafists into jihad, and the terror network’s No. 2, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, praised Salafists in an Internet statement in April, urging them to take up arms.

“The Salafi line is not that jihad is not a good thing, it is just not a good thing right now,” said Richard Gauvain, a lecturer in comparative religion at the American University in Cairo.

The Salafis’ talk of eventual jihad focuses on fighting Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, not on overthrowing pro-U.S. Arab governments denounced by al-Qaida. Most Salafi clerics preach loyalty to their countries’ rulers and some sharply denounce al-Qaida.

Egypt, with Saudi help, sought to rehabilitate jailed Islamic militants, in part by providing them with Salafi books. Critics say the regime of President Hosni Mubarak sees the Salafists as a counterbalance to the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

‘Battle is not over’
The political quietism of the Salafis and their injunctions to always obey the ruler are too good an opportunity for established Arab rulers to pass up, said novelist Alaa Aswani, one of the most prominent critics of rising conservatism in Egypt.

“That was a kind of Christmas present for the dictators because now they can rule with both the army and the religion,” he said.

The new wave of conservatism is not inevitable, Aswani maintains, noting that his books — including his most popular, “The Yacoubian Building” — have risque themes and condemnations of conservatives, and yet are best-sellers in Egypt.

“The battle is not over, because Egypt is too big to be fitting in this very, very little, very small vision of a religion,” he said.


Ramadan Commercialized?


A few days before Ramadan, one of the kids teachers’ asked me if I was prepared for Ramadan.  She had been fasting voluntary fasts, reading more Quran.  I got ready to tell her about the kilos of onions I’d sliced and frozen, the samosas we’d prepared, basically all of the food prep that I’d done.  See, dh is Pakistani, and their iftar tends to be rather elaborate.  First samosas, maybe some pakora (veggie fritters), fruit salad.  After magrib, there is the full meal.  And in regard to food dh is something like this

Keep in mind that in Egypt there is a rush on food.  Going around the day before Ramadan, the stores were extremely crowded.  Lots of things were sold out.  No bottled water.  No fresh milk.  So, it is good to be prepared.  It had never occured to me to prepare for the fasting itself.       

I actually consider Ramadan to be spiritual preparation for the rest of the year.  The time to recharge if I’ve slacked up in worship.  Usually when it rolls around I am in dire need of a boost.   

So does the crowded market places and all of the extra buying and selling mean a commercialized Ramadan?  Not necessarily.  To be sure, the forces of capitalism will try to turn any opportunity into money, but it’s kind of hard to turn a month of abstinence into say Christmas.  Even in hajj, there is buying and selling, and it’s halal.  Just so we don’t lose sight of the big picture.

What a day!

My daughter is getting bigger mashallah, so we went to Ataba to shop for abayas.  Ataba is a shopping district in Cairo.  It’s like the New York shopping district on steriods.  There are sections for clothes, electrical appliances, plastics, fabrics, books, and much more.

I was too intimidated to go there alone.  Alhamdulillah my daughter’s Quran teacher offered to go with us.  She also brought along her two young daughters.  I’d had reservations about going on a Friday, but alhamdulillah it wasn’t too crowded.  We took a taxi there, and got out in an area called Central Opera.  A shoppers delight!  I don’t like shopping, but at the prices you really want to buy stuff.  We got a nice blue abaya for my daughter (they call them izdals) for 28LE (about $5).  I bought an abaya also for 58LE  ($10), the cost had been 65LE, but of course the ustadha being Egyptian, she had to bargain the price down a bit <grin>.  There were cheaper abayas, from about 40LE, but the one I bought was a new design. 

We weren’t finished shopping, but when the idhan was called, every shop begin to close.  We went to pray salat al-jumuah.  I usually don’t go to the masjid on al-jumuah.  First of all, I’m frustrated by my lack of understanding even after more than a year of study.  This is due to a variety of factors.  One, my laziness.  It’s just easier to communicate in English and I haven’t been as active in following up my study as I should.  Another reason is the sound quality in most masajid.  The khatib speakers are usually horribly unclear, to the point that if the khutbah was in English I’d miss some of it.  Plus, as I stated before, I am far from proficient in ammeyah.  But today, mashallah I understood so much!  And it was a good khutbah too.  About the importance of good iklaq.  How Islam is like a tree, and the fruit of the tree is husn al-khuluq, sidq, etc.  So I was happy that I went and was able to benefit (inshallah). 

I purchased a nice bag in addition to the abayas (12LE!), and then we were invited to the teacher’s home in Shubra for a visit.  We traveled via the Metro, the underground subway system.  This is the first time I rode on it and it was surprising clean and fast.  You would think you were in an American city.  One nice difference are the women only cars, which are great so you don’t have to bump into men.  The price was just 1LE.  They don’t yet have this system in Madinat Nasr, but according dd’s teacher, it is coming. 

Shubra is considered to be a ‘sha’by’ area.  Those are the older, poorer areas of Egypt, which have a different character than newer places like Madina Nasr, Mohandessin, and Ma’adi.  The streets are narrower, the buildings older and built with more character.  You almost feel as if you are walking thru a movie set.  It reminds me of the immigrant areas of Chicago, with their close set apartment buildings.   Families live close together, there are small shops, not larger grocery stores.

Shubra is also known for having a large number of Christians.  I did see large numbers of women without hijab, however that is not necesarily an indicator of what faith you are. One indicator I did see however while purchasing rice.  The shop keeper had a small cross tatooed on his hand.  You know the muslim shops because they are playing Quran in the background. 

The teachers mother came by while we were there.  She lived upstairs.  She gave me an example of the typical tajmeel and takreem one can expect when visiting traditional Egyptian homes.  “Ahlan, Ahlan, Ahlan.”  Kissing my cheeks.  “You light up our house, you light up all of Cairo.”  She was small, old and charming and she kept repeating her welcome the whole time she was there.

We went home on the bus, another economical way to travel.  1 LE and 10 piasters (like pennies).  I HAVE to learn the public transportation system here.  I’ve been resistant, because what I see most frequently are there crazy driving ‘microbuses’ (vans).  They go around yelling out the destinations, Ramses, Ramses!, and you jump in, liable to be crushed between male passengers.

I had some interesting conversations with the teacher.  She asked why so many foreigners move to Madinat Nasr, why not go somewhere cheaper?  She told me what I already know, the prices are higher because of the large number of foreigners.  I told her the Arabic language centers are there.  She replied that they are there because of the foreigners, if we go elsewhere they will too.  Another reason for living in Madinat Nasr is the convenience.  You have several malls, lots of grocery stores, hospitals, etc.  But it is worth checking out other areas, instead of continuing to pay these sky-high rents.   

Cool find

Finding decent clothes, especially for summer is a problem for me.  For women it’s the arab style caftan dress, or basically night gowns.  Those are usually inexpensive, but I don’t feel comfortable wearing a house dress ALL the time.  Younger women wear jeans, skirts, or long tunic set with pants.  A lot of the stuff is too trendy for my taste, looks like it’s hot to wear, and too expensive (you could pay about 200LE ($35) for an outfit, more than what I used to spend in the states.  I admit I did mostly shop at Walmart. 

Alhamdulillah, I found a place in Madina Nasr, haya thamin, called Tarzan.  It’s almost at the corner of Mustapha Al-Nahas and Makram Albeid, right across from Tauheed wa Noor.  They have really decent stuff for cheap.  Lots of capris, both jeans and sweat pants kind, tank tops and dresses, and everything 25LE ($4.30) and under!  Last night I got a pair of capris for myself and two daughters, plus 4 shirts and I spent 105 LE.