Sisi Pulls the Plug on the Religious Debate

Photo: Emil Myrsell

Over the past two weeks, Egyptians were not occupied with the daily terrorist attacks in Cairo, Sinai and elsewhere in which dozens were killed, or with regional wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Instead, the heated debate on the airwaves and in newspapers was over a call by a prominent journalist for Egyptian women to publicly remove their veils. This move, he said, was a sign of protest against oppression by men, and decades of propaganda by political Islamic groups.

Cherif Choubachy, who spent years working as Al-Ahram’s correspondent in Paris and also served a ministry of culture official, put out his call in a recorded message, stating that he was not asking all Egyptian women to take off the veil. Instead, his call to remove the veil in Tahrir Square on May 1 was directed at only those forced to don it by their parents or husbands. He noted that girls as young as 3 and 4 years old were being forced to put on the veil at several schools. He also criticized the basic argument Islamists and conservative groups use to back up their call for women to put on headscarves and cover up their bodies—that this is the way to ensure a moral and chaste society.

 “If hijab is a sign of chastity and honor, how can we explain that all women serving time in prisons are wearing the veil?” Choubachy asked. Adding insult to injury, he provided ammunition to his many critics, saying, “99 percent of Egypt’s prostitutes are also veiled. This confirms that the veil is only a reflection of conservative, dominant mentality among men towards women, and had nothing to do with morality.”

The unsubstantiated claim about the percentage of “veiled prostitutes” weakened Choubachy’s cause, especially after popular newspaper, al-Youm al-Saba’a, twisted his statement and quoted him as saying that “99 percent of Egypt’s veiled women are prostitutes,” and not that “99 percent of prostitutes are veiled.” In the age of Twitter of Facebook, the inaccurate headline spread like wildfire, turning Choubachy into public enemy number one for many Egyptians.

Choubachy also used an argument common among secular opponents of the religious and conservative groups in Egypt. He theorized that the veil in Egypt and other Arab countries is used for political purposes. The veil, Choubachy argued, is used to give the impression that Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, enjoy massive popularity, as do their desires to establish an Islamic state. He also noted that the spread of veil in Egypt was clearly influenced by the dominant conservative culture in oil-rich Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where millions of Egyptians worked over the recent decades.

Former president and Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi’s ouster has been described by supporters of political Islamic groups as not only a “military coup,” but also as an attempt to end their project to establish an Islamic state in Egypt, and in the Arab world. They also charged that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s repeated calls for “reforming Islamic thinking” opened the door to Choubachy’s call, which they described as a “war against religion.”

Support for identifying Egypt as a conservative Islamic state is, however, not limited to the Brotherhood alone. In fact, groups who supported Morsi’s ouster and Sisi’s election as president, were outraged by Choubachy’s statements. Salafist groups, such as the Nour Party, and even religious establishment Al-Azhar, seen as a representative of ‘moderate, tolerant’ Islam, argued that Sisi’s call for reform had been manipulated. They said, Sisi’s call for a reform of Islamic thinking and a rejection extremist ideas that tolerate terrorism, were used by hardcore secular intellectuals to attack the key tenants of Islamic religion itself. Among these tenants, they said, is the veil.

In addition to Choubachy, they pointed to television presenter Islam al-Beheiri who, prior to its suspension, devoted his talk show to attacking well known Islamic scholars who lived in the early centuries of Islam. While these scholars are seen as an authority, Beheiri alleged their views were archaic and did not suit modern times. Beheiri also attacked Al-Azhar, saying that it continues to teach from these books at its university, and alleging that the religious establishment itself was dominated by extremists.

Another incident the Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist groups use to claim Islam is under attack involve senior Ministry of Education official Buthaina Kishk. The Deputy Minister of Education in Giza independently took the initiative to burn dozens of Islamic books at a school that was previously owned by a Muslim Brotherhood businessman, and is now under government control. Kishk claimed that her move was part of the effort to confront extremist ideas. The books, she added, were not on the official list of Ministry of Education sanctioned titles.

The scene of books burning in front of students against a backdrop of national songs, as Kishk, the school’s headmaster, and other teachers waved the Egyptian flag, however, was criticized by secular writers and supporters of Sisi more so than political Islamic groups, considering that the burned books included titles that had no relation whatsoever with extremist groups. Most commentators agreed that Kishk was probably seeking to show support for the state’s effort to fight extremism, but in the most absurd manner that only caused the state more harm, especially among its Islamist critics.

Amid the growing discontent provoked by Choubachy and Beheiri, Sisi delivered a speech on April 17, which appears to be an attempt to intervene. In the speech, Sisi said when he called for reform of Islamic thinking, he meant that this should be undertaken by “enlightened, respected scholars,” alone. He added, “The manner in which this issue was tackled by some media outlets did not serve this cause. Religious thinking will not be reformed overnight, and it needs the effort of enlightened scholars because the issue is complex and has been ignored for many years.”

Sisi, who since taking power has been depicted as a devout leader, asked those who deal with the issue of religious reform to be cautious. “Do not pressure public opinion and scare people in their homes, because there is nothing more dear to these people than their religion. This issue should be dealt with carefully, delicately, and responsibly,” he said.

Two days after Sisi made his comments, the channel that aired Beheiri’s show, al-Qahira Wal Nas, issued a statement saying it decided to pull it off the air. Almost quoting Sisi’s statement, the channel said that it wanted to avoid “creating more tension and splits at a time the nation should head towards unity and development. We believe we the task of reform of Islamic thinking should be left to enlightened, respected scholars, away from television which, by its nature, depends on sensationalism and debate.”  

Ibrahim Eissa, a journalist and presenter of a popular television talk show who has been very critical of the Brotherhood, Al-Azhar, and Salafists, said that Sisi’s statements could only be interpreted as pulling the plug on the ongoing debate on religious reform. He theorized that conservative religious establishments and groups were able to influence Sisi, warning him that the ongoing discussion on the role of religion in Egypt, and its strong influence over the past decades, could harm his popularity.

Many Sisi supporters also criticized Choubachy’s call for women to protest forcing them to take off the veil, saying that he had handed the Brotherhood a gift on a silver platter. “Modernity doesn’t mean that we clash with religion,” said Suleiman Gouda, a columnist who supports the president. “Such calls will not benefit the ongoing debate on the role of religion, and only provided ammunitions for the enemies of the state and those who support terror,” he added. Many women also rejected the call on the grounds not only of religion, but for the complete absence of a dialogue that includes any women when considering their own personal choice in the matter.

Sisi’s intervention to calm down the debate on religious reform implies that his understanding of the issue is limited to confronting extremist groups that use violence and call for Jihad, while avoiding more thorny and divisive aspects such women’s rights and freedom of expression in Islam. Considering that the majority of Egyptians identify themselves as religious, Sisi probably felt that the heated debate on religion could backfire and opted, like his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, to side with the conservative interpretations of Islam as represented by Al-Azhar and others.

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.