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The liberal age

Reader comment on item: Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900-1930

Submitted by dhimmi no more (United States), Dec 27, 2008 at 16:15

Thank you Dr. Pipes at last i just finished reading this great work.

I also suggest that readers interested in the history of modern Egypt to read Albert Hourani's study of the Arab world during what he called "the liberal age" (Arabic thought in the liberal age 1798-1939) the age of the likes of Mohamed Abdo and Sheikh Tahtawi. This age started with the French invasion of Egypt followed by the British invasion and then Mohamed Ali coming to power as the King of Egypt.

When the Arabs invaded Egypt in 642CE the population of Egypt was estimated to be about 4-5M and it was the bread basket of Southern Europe and the Levants and by 1797 the population was down to about 2M with great poverty and poor education. Mohamed Ali's first act was to abolish the jizya paid by Copts and he regarded the Copts as equal citizens in Egypt something that the Copts did not enjoy since the Greek invasion of Egypt by Alexnader the Great

Mohamed Ali was indeed the dynamo that pulled Egypt out of the middle ages through educating the masses and considering the kuttabs (Quranic schools) as less than desired education. And through what became known as al-bi3that or the sendings ( from the root B3Th or to send) he was able to send many Egyptians to Europe for more advanced education and the likes of Tahtawi ended by going for more eduaction in Paris as well as the great Taha Husein who dared enough to write his "Fi al-shi3r al-gahili" where he claimed that much of the pre-islamic poetry is fraudulent . There is an interesting and funny story where members of al-ikhwan al-muslimeen (Muslim brotherhood) at Cairo University protested publishing such book and shouted "down with the blind Taha" and his response was: "I thank Allah that I'm blind so i do not have to see your ugly faces." And indeed he was blind from trachoma which is an eye infection that can lead to blindness

The most significant outcome of such infitah (opening) was the rejection of such islamic symbols as the Turkish burqas and niqabs and more interest in education, human rights and the rule of women in society and Egypt had the likes of the great Huda Sh3rawi that rejected the submission of women to men.

Also in 1919 Copts and Egyptians Muslims proclaimed that they are indeed one people and that al-deen lel lah wa al-watan lel gamee3 or religion is for God and the nation is for all and we had the rise of al-Wafd party that represented all Egyptians

Egypt was open for business again and it was indeed the liberal age but also the age of great arts including the Egyptian cinema and theater industries where the Egyptian movie and theater became great art with many of the stars from all sorts of nationalities and backgrouds (eg: the great Layla Murad was an Egyptian Jew, Naguib al-Rihani was a Copt, Anwar Wagdi was of Lebanese origin, Farid al-Atrash was a Druze and off course there were great Egyptian Muslim actors the likes of Faten Hamama and the great Abd al-Halim Hafiz) and in the process Egyptian Arabic became the lingua franca of the Arabs. And let us not forget the great writers the likes of Naguib Mahfooz who won the Nobel prize in literature for his great literary work and al-Ahram the news paper that was established by Syrian immigrants

But lurking in the shadows was the likes of Hasan al-Bana the grandfather of Tariq Ramadan who was very intereted in emulating the fascists in Europe at the time and also was interested in an islamic revival. And in the process he founded al-ikhwan al-muslmeen or the Muslim brotherhood. He was so impressed by Hitler that we are told that he even had his plan for a final solution for the Copts of Egypt.

I do believe that Egyptian nationalism with a help from liberal education led to the revolution in 1952 and for the first time in more than 2000 years Egypt was ruled by an Egyptian. Nasser believed in al-3ulmaniya (secularism) and there is plenty of historical evidence that he wanted peace with israel as early as 1954 but the so called Gaza attack on his troops by Israel led to him to realize that, and with the Lavon affair, Israel was not interested (rightly or wrongly) in real peace. Nasser had no like for islamists not becuase he was not a good Muslim but becuase he realized that they are a force that could de-stabilize his rule a fact that I understand (and i stand corrected here) he shared with Israel and made it very clear to who ever was listening that Islam and al-ikhwan al-muslimeen are a real threat. He was the one who excuted Sayyid Qutb and had no regrets about it

And indeed Nasser was correct that sooner or later radical islam will be a problem in Egypt

Now let us turn to 2008 and indeed the liberal age of Albert Hourani is a thing of the past and the great communities of Jews and Syrians and Greeks and Italians that added great flavor to Cairo and Alexandria are a thing of the past and even Copts and many Muslims are leaving to safer shores. And as was pointed out by Sawiras, who is a very rich Copt, that Cairo now looks like Tehran with all these women wearing the hijab and the niqab and there a mosque at every corner - in comparison with the Cairo he has known back in the 1960's and 1970's

What is really interesting is that Egyptians that used to love their movies are now more interested in religious debates and TV shows about religion and debating what Father Zakaria Botros have just said on al-Hayat channel; but against all this there is a great and very healthy debate about human rights and the rights of minorites including al-Baha'een, women rights (and there is even a debate about rape in marriage) and the human rights of the Egyptian Shi`a and the Copts and even in great literary work like The Yaqobian building about homosexuality the ultimate taboo in Egypt

Good education in Egypt? It just vanished = unless parents can pay the huge fees to send their children to the likes of the American University in Cairo

I do believe that what goes up must come down and in such cosmopolitan place like Cairo we are bound to see the liberal age again and may be even sooner than we can imagine. Wishful thinking? Maybe.


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Daniel Pipes replies:

Agreed. I offer similar thoughts in "'Cairo and the Age of the Hedonists'."

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