Call to Prayer at Sultan Hassan Mosque (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
One of the largest mosques in the world, the Masjid al-Sultan Hassan is just one more reason to visit Cairo:
Built between 1356 and 1363 by the Mamluk ruler Sultan Hassan, the scale of the mosque is so colossal that it nearly emptied the vast Mamluk Treasury. Historians believe that the builders of this mosque may have used stone from thepyramids at Giza.
Early in construction, some design flaws in the colossal plans became apparent. There was going to be a minaret at each corner, but this was abandoned after the one directly above the entrance collapsed, killing 300 people. Another minaret toppled in 1659, then the weakened dome collapsed.
The early history witnessed by the mosque was as unstable as its architecture: Hassan was assassinated in 1391, two years before completion, and the roof was used as an artillery platform during coups against sultans Barquq (1391) and Tumanbey (1517).
Can Turkey Inspire Egypt as a Religious Role Model?
by Mustafa Abdelhalim, guest contributor
Last week, Egyptians went to the polls to participate in the first presidential election since Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011. Going forward, the new president, who will be elected in the second phase of elections in June, should look to examples from other countries that have undergone successful democratic transitions.
When asked what leader outside their own country they most admired, a recent poll from the University of Maryland found that 63 percent of Egyptians answered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicating that Egyptians may be interested in learning from Turkey. Turkey can serve as a relevant model because it has successfully dealt with three key challenges facing Egypt — the relationship of the army to a civilian government, economic growth and fostering positive international relations.
An Islamic State in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Presidential Elections
by Barbara Zollner, guest contributor
A composite photograph of Egyptian Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail (left), Khayrat al-Shater (center), and former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Egypt’s election commission said on April 14, 2012 that the three men were among ten candidates barred from running for president. (Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
The battle over Egypt’s democratic future is at a significant crossroads. But while the fight for succession to Mubarak’s throne is fully under way, the rules of the competition seem to be constantly changing.
Only two weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) announced their decision to field a candidate for the May presidential elections. They nominated businessman and multi-millionaire Khayrat al-Shater. Fostering deep-seated fears about Islamist regimes, the Washington Post expressed concern that, should Shater win the elections, Islamic law would be enforced.
Pharaoh Has Left Town, Now the Hard Work Begins!
by Rose Aslan, guest contributor
Women hold an Egyptian flag with a sign that reads, “A Request from 80 million: Leave, Leave You Pharaoh.” (photo: Darkroom Productions/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, now the most famous square in the world, got its name after the revolution of 1919, when both Muslim and Christian Egyptians marched in the streets of Cairo to demand their freedom from the British. It didn’t officially receive its name until the revolution of 1952 that led to the fall of the Egyptian monarchy.
Aptly named, the Egyptian people freed themselves from Hosni Mubarak by standing their ground in Liberation Square. Yesterday, the news spread like wildfire throughout Egypt, and within seconds the entire world was celebrating the successful revolution and courage of the Egyptian people to free their country from Pharaoh. So, now what?
Now the hard work begins. The real revolution must start from inside Egyptians themselves. Here might be a good time to mention the oft-quoted Qur’anic verse:
“Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (Quran 13:11)
Muslim scholars constantly quote this verse to drive the point home that our external circumstances cannot change unless we purify ourselves and live wholesome and moral lives. Egyptians have taken it upon themselves to change their political condition (all on their own, no thanks to America!), and they have heroically rid their country of an evil dictator. They now must act to rid their country of the many socio-economic problems that have plagued the country for decades. I hate to be a pessimist, but whoever takes over Egypt once elections take place will have a huge task at hand and will only succeed if Egyptians are able to maintain the enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation and responsibility that we have seen in the past two weeks in Tahrir Square.
Corruption is so rampant in Egypt that people think nothing of paying a bribe to the police to avoid receiving a moving violation or sneaking a few extra pounds to a government employee to move their paperwork a bit quicker. Bribes are part of daily life in Egypt, and, in most cases, you can’t get anything done without greasing someone else’s palm. People have forgotten how to follow the rules and have gotten so used to playing the game that they don’t know what the rules are. You would be at a loss to find someone who can tell you who has the right-of-way at a stop sign (since they don’t stop at them anyway!); the only rule in driving in Cairo is there are no rules.
Ministers and other cronies of Mubarak have been pocketing the majority of Egypt’s wealth while many Egyptians scrape by on less than a dollar a day. Poverty and illiteracy are rampant throughout the country. According to UNICEF, the literacy rate in Egypt is only 72 percent, with women faring much worse than men. Forty-five percent of all women over the age of 15 are illiterate, and 85 percent of rural households run by women are illiterate.
The public school system is a mess, classrooms are overflowing, and teachers do a half-baked job teaching since they don’t make a living wage. They make their real income after school when they tutor the same students they see in the morning at their homes for excessive rates. The teachers have no other way to support their families and children need to pay for their lessons in order to pass exams that will determine their future.
Out of 18 million residents in greater Cairo, nearly a million souls — primarily migrant workers who came to the city looking for ways to support their family — inhabit al-Arafa, the “city of the dead” in Cairo. They hang their laundry from tombstones, and their homes lack running water and electricity. Cairo is overrun by other shantytowns, entire neighborhoods of unzoned residential neighborhoods that do not exist on the map, that lack basic infrastructure to support its burgeoning population.
The UNDP Human Development Index ranks Egypt 101 out of 177 countries: the gross national income per capita in 2008 is only $2,015, while 21.6 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line of $2 per day and more than 12 percent of children under than age of five suffer from malnutrition.
While there are reports of discrimination against religious minorities in Egypt, most ordinary Egyptians, no matter their religious identity, have little hope of social mobility if they are born into the wrong class. If you don’t have a wasta, someone with connections, you have little chance of finding a good job, even if you receive straight As in school and university. A successful college graduate without connections couldn’t hope for more than a low-paying and mindless job in a government office, that is, if they are lucky to get a job at all.
In the streets, women of all ages and religious preferences are constantly harassed, including those who wear the face veil. Men, both young and old, seem to think it is their God-given right to grope women’s bodies and make explicit gestures and cat-calls at them. It’s gotten so bad that a group of internet-savvy young people got together and designed an interactive map to collect data on the rate of sexual harassment in the country. People think nothing of throwing their wrappers on the sidewalk or out of the bus window. While they keep their homes immaculate, the streets of Cairo and other cities are filthy.
We have seen a glimpse of Egypt’s potential at Tahrir Square. People have been treating each other with kindness and respect, reclaiming the dignity that the regime has stolen from them. Men and women from all socio-economic backgrounds organized clean-ups to keep the area tidy, set up mobile clinics to care for the injured and sick, passed around food, and made new friends. Women were able to move freely through the crowds without being harassed. Christians and Muslims held hands and prayed together. In the early morning after Mubarak’s resignation, the youth swiftly organized groups to begin a clean-up of the entire downtown area where the protests took place. Now that’s inspiring, how many revolutionaries have you seen doing that?
Egyptians are resilient and courageous, and they could bring their beloved country to a new standard if they manage to keep up the momentum of change. Today, let’s celebrate a huge milestone in Egyptian history, but then let us prepare ourselves for the long process that lies ahead.
About the bottom image: Volunteers clean one of the iconic lion statues at the Qasr el-Nil bridge leading to Tahrir Square on February 12, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Rose Aslan is a doctoral student in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lived for more than five years in Egypt and received her MA in Arabic Studies from the American University in Cairo.
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A Fundamental Rearranging of Societies, Hopes, and Dreams
by Krista Tippett, host
I first heard him on the BBC in the middle of the night a few months ago. I wrote down his name in a kind of fog. He was talking about his book Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.
He has spent the last decade listening and conversing across a range of Muslim cultures with people implicated in suicide bombing attacks as well as political leaders and extended circles of friends and family beyond the radicalized young. The perspective he has gained is not uncontroversial, and not comfortable. But it is challenging in the best way: mind-opening and eye-opening.
And that is the kind of insight we need right now. For if there is any universal reaction I’m hearing to events on the streets of Tunisia, Yemen, and especially Egypt, it is the surprise of them. Behind that surprise, we’re aware that little of the last decade’s profusion of facts, news, and analysis about “the Middle East” and “the Arab world” prepared us to expect this very human democratic eruption. Nor do we know how to respond to it, it seems, either at the highest political levels or as citizens.
Scott Atran offers deep context for this picture of social upheaval. He came to study anthropology under the late great Margaret Mead, and spent the first part of his career studying Mayan Indians and the Druze people of the Middle East. Then a decade ago he turned his attention to the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism from Indonesia to Europe to the Middle East.
He sought to understand why some young people become radicalized, asking: Why do some of them become terrorists and suicide bombers? What makes young people in the extended circles of family and friendship around these people susceptible or immune?
What he has learned is a fascinating backdrop for hearing and seeing the young who are at the heart of the movement in Cairo and elsewhere. For their energies, anger, and dreams — fueled by the same frustrations that political analyses have labeled as breeding grounds for terrorism — are now surfacing as breeding grounds for democratic reform. They are doing so with impressive courage and civility.
Scott Atran also offers some sweeping ideas that become food for thought as we rearrange our view of how our world might unfold. Without denying the danger and devastation of terrorism, he points out that American minds, in particular, became convinced of a magnitude of terrorist threat that hasn’t been borne out beyond the 9/11 attacks.
Al Qaeda, he says with certainty, is not what it once was. More importantly, as Atran would have us see, this focus on Al Qaeda blinded us to the human and democratic possibilities alive in other cultures just as they are alive in our own. The “clash of civilizations” that so many feared, he offers, may really be a crash and potential rebirth of territorial cultures — a fundamental rearranging of societies, hopes, and dreams.
And surely one of the most galvanizing qualities of the voices from Tahrir Square is how they are echoing quintessential themes of American history. As someone who also knows the Muslim Brotherhood well, Scott Atran would have us resist catastrophizing about the unlikely possibility that they might come to power. At the same time and just as fervently, he would have us attend to the range of Muslim people and organizations that will help weave the fabric of a new democracy, if indeed a democracy emerges in Egypt — just as a whole range of fervently Christian people and organizations were integral threads in the fabric of American civil society from the very first.
About the top image: Scott Atran in Damascus to do follow-up interviews with Middle East leaders on the role of sacred values in seemingly intractable conflicts. (photo: Scott Atran)
What Does This Photo of Men and Women Praying Together in Tahrir Square Signify?
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
On February 1st, this photograph was posted on Twitter with the caption:
“In Tahrir Square in Cairo, men and women pray together just like at the Haram in Makkah, gender boundaries have been transcended and the only thing that matters is that they are Egyptians who want freedom!”
To see Muslim women and men praying next to each other in an Egyptian public square is worthy of noting. We wonder what it suggests about bigger changes afoot in Egypt? We reached out to commentators Melody Moezzi and Mona Eltahawy via Twitter for some context and perspective.
Moezzi replied: “In the time of the Prophet, men and women prayed side by side. Today in Mecca, men and women pray side by side. This should be good enough for the rest of the world then — to end segregation in mosques and in prayer. That’s what the comment is getting at.”
Eltahaway reached out to her broad sphere of followers on Twitter. One of Eltahaway’s Twitter followers added (with a smiley emoticon appended to the end: “The segregation angle comes into play only when you are inside a mosque. Believe it or not, Islam is a flexible religion.”
What do you see in the photograph that might add to our understanding? Do you have other insights that might train our eyes to see differently? Are there details to which we should pay greater attention, which, in turn, would add to its meaning and significance?
(photo: S. Habib/Twitpic)
How Do We Understand the Positions of Egypt’s Coptic Christians in All This Coverage?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“He’s the best of the worst. Whoever comes after him might want to destroy us.”
— Sameh Joseph, a Copt who works at the Patriarch of the Orthodox Christians Church in Alexandria, Egypt.
Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Times ran this article on the mixed reactions of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community. According to the report, many Copts say they dislike President Hosni Mubarak but fear the alternative even more, the political leader who might replace him. People like Samya Hammoui, a woman who lost two sisters and two nieces in the January 1st bombing of a church in Alexandria, fears the situation wouldn’t improve with Mubarak’s ouster, “If one of the Islamic extremists took over, things for us would be much worse.”
I sense my lack of understanding of the complexity of the story, especially with all the loud voices shouting freedom and democracy and calling for Mubarak’s ouster. And, since I’m in the religious journalism business, I’m trying to understand what this means for Egypt’s minority religious community, which comprises more than 10 percent of the country’s population.
As I consume a bounty of news reports and tweets from the streets about Egypt and demonstrations in Tahrir Square, I sense that alternative viewpoints like the story above are being drowned out by events occurring “inside the bubble” of Tahrir Square.
Take, for example, the photos like the ones below. These stories inundated my news feeds yesterday: Egypt’s Copts and Muslims standing side by side, crucifixes and sacred texts in hands held high, as they call for Mubarak’s removal. They are striking and hopeful and needed. But these stories may be part of the picture that overwhelms the LA Times piece above.
An Egyptian Coptic Christian and a Muslim woman pause in front of their national flag during a joint communal gathering of anti-government protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on February 06, 2011. Writing on the flag reads in Arabic, “Christian and Muslim = Egypt”. (photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
Calling for the end to President Hosni Mubarak’s government, Egypt’s Coptic Christians and Muslims raise a cross and a Qur’an on February 6, 2011 in Tahrir Square in central Cairo. (photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
Much like most other conversations on this program, I’m constantly reminded that there is no one truth in matters of identity, the heart, and the future of one’s community. The point is to keep looking and piecing together the many parts to this story, and the many other stories out there.