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To marry a Buddhist

Fed a TV diet of trivial issues, the Egyptian public is not asking — neither itself nor others — what really is freedom, what is dignity, and what is justice

Abdel Moneim Said , Saturday 18 Jun 2011
Views: 2579
Views: 2579

I had my sights on the future when I wrote the series on “Why we failed”. The series features several articles examining our history for the constitutional laws that contributed to our failure as a nation to realise in the course of more than two centuries of modernisation what other nations have achieved. They have become modern, in the sense of enlightened and prosperous, economically, culturally and academically, and they have a place in today’s world, to which they give as much as they take, and in which other nations take them into account as much as they take international balances into account.

In the course of my study, I did not shirk my responsibility as a writer and scholar to apply my critical intellect for the sake of this country, to the best of my ability and with the same ardour with which I have fought for this country. Throughout I was motivated by the belief that this “self-criticism” was an essential prelude to a subsequent process of intellectual application that may not be perfect but that I hope will invite readers, politicians and the public at large to interact with its substance and voice their points of agreement or disagreement.

My starting point, here, may appear quite marginal to the discussions that are taking place among political and intellectual elites and in society as a whole. It concerns the nature of the language that we are using in our discussions, a language that is generally sharp, wounding and personal, and that turns intellectual intercourse into duelling matches that in other ages would have been settled through the clashing of swords.

Sadly, since the referendum on the constitutional amendments that was held on 19 March, there seems to be a free-for-all in speechifying and posturing, whereas what we should be doing, as the clock of this transitional period ticks down, is to take the time to think clearly about the difficult decisions that lie before us. As a result, what we hear is a lot of frustration, disappointment and an incredible amount of contradictions that leave us befuddled as to whether, for example, the Egyptian economy is on the brink of bankruptcy or well on its way to a robust recovery.

In an article entitled, “The democratic course: a shift not a delay,” appearing in Al-Ahramon 8 June 2011, Amr Moussa does not offer a very positive assessment of the state of the Egyptian citizen: “The closing account of years or decades of autocratic or democratic rule [in Egypt] is very negative.

I am not referring here to Egypt’s status, which has plummeted, or to its influence, which has ebbed. Rather, I am speaking of the condition of Egypt, of urban Egypt and its cities and of rural Egypt with its villages and hamlets, of its educational and healthcare systems, of the state of local government and, last but not least, of the state of its people —the citizens of Egypt whose education has been neglected, who have been left intellectually unformed and unequipped for modern life, and most generations of whom, therefore, have been cast back to another time. That government brought out the worst in Egypt.

It smothered the spirit of serving the nation as it reduced the citizen to the lowest rungs of the hypocritical order and its instruments and advanced the interests of the regime over the welfare of the nation.”

Curiously, only a few paragraphs later, that citizen who had been hurled backwards and who had undergone a surgical intervention that brought out the worst in him, becomes another creature entirely: “It is important to state that the Egyptian voter, be he a farmer or from another sector of society, is eagerly looking forward to comparing between what the various candidates tell him. The Egyptian citizen is not lacking in perspicacity, regardless of his cultural state.”

The Egyptian presidential candidate hit upon this new discovery in the course of his many campaign tours in Egypt and abroad. The Egyptian from another time was now very much a part of the present. The citizen who had no sense of public responsibility now felt it deeply and his powers of discernment and analysis were as strong as his counterparts in developed nations.

But Moussa, himself, is not to blame. He is a very capable patriotic figure who has been outspoken in his criticism when criticism was necessary and equally outspoken in his praise and support when that was necessary too. He is merely acting in keeping with the prevailing norms that pervade our political life, because we do not want to honestly and truthfully confront the Egyptian condition as it really is, as it has been shaped by the cumulative effects of successive generations and eras, and diverse political and social orders. Yet this reality is precisely what we must deal with now, in a genuine “social dialogue,” in order to build Egypt and a future that we hope will be very different from the past.

If we want to take Egypt and the Egyptian people forward from where they actually are at present, then we have to address the crucial issues. We can not afford to dance around some petty marginal issues just because —to put it briefly and frankly —they are easy, exciting and offer sufficient fodder for numerous talk shows and infinite gab.

A case in point is that endless commotion over the remark by Sobhi Saleh, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Council, to the effect that he would prefer Muslim Brotherhood men to marry Muslim Brotherhood women so that they could beget a virtuous strain of pure and pious future Brotherhood members. I personally have no great objections to this remark, or more accurately, I do not think it is an issue that merits all those television interviews and discussions, let alone that plethora of commentaries in the press. Actually, Saleh’s attitude is common to all ideological and religious groups, probably since antiquity. In fact, when I was a university student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a “fad” in leftist circles promoting marriage between leftists because that would bolster “progressiveness” and furnish models for full equality between men and women.

Regardless of the fact that, judging from personal observation, most of those marriages proved utter failures, the underlying idea was plain. It is to be found in stricter versions in all the divinely revealed religions and even in other religions. Christians are only supposed to marry Christians and, most often, Christians from the same denomination. While I was in the US, Buddhists would marry Buddhists, in spite of America’s famously open and mixed society. The Buddhist temple was one of the few places that a Buddhist man could find the ideal spouse who would produce for him gentle, wise and hopefully wealthy Buddhist offspring.

So the phenomenon is pretty universal and Saleh can hardly be said to have committed a crime just because he applied the principle more narrowly to Muslim Brotherhood members. However, by homing in on this detail, a great opportunity was lost. All the fuss bypassed the crucial part of his discussion in which he said that “Islam” contains everything that proponents of other ideological outlooks are looking for: liberals will find freedom, socialists will find justice and Arab nationalists will find the sources for strengthening the “nation”. The creed is thus comprehensive, he said. Surely nothing more expresses the spirit of freedom than the injunction, “There can be no coercion in faith.” What could better epitomise justice than the prohibition against sleeping at night with the knowledge that a neighbour is hungry? What more could foster dedication to the nation than the command to defend dignity and honour? These are the remarks that should have been the subject of questions, commentaries and debates. Not because they are wrong, but because they are perfectly correct. If “freedom,” “dignity,” and “justice” were the banners of the 25 January Revolution, Islam in its all-encompassing breadth and magnanimity, embraces all these principles.

The problem is that so does every other religion, divinely revealed or otherwise, as does every humanitarian philosophy. In fact, if you solicited the opinions of proponents of Nazi, fascist or reactionary ideologies you would find them citing examples of how their doctrinal systems embrace freedom, dignity, justice, equality and other such humanitarian values that pave mankind’s way to good in this world and in the world beyond.

What Sobhi Saleh did was to point to the beginning of the right road, not only towards identifying the higher principles of the revolution but also towards knowing their boundaries, applications and, above all, their history from their germination until they became institutions and political movements. In other words, no people can create a new constitution and a foundation for a new state, which is what we hope for and aspire to, until they first know the ideals they want to strive towards. It was probably no coincidence that the American Declaration of Independence set “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as goals for the nascent American society, and that from these principles emerged the Bill of Rights. The idea is that if freedom is a sense of necessity, then realisation of its lofty intent can only occur through an understanding of its boundaries in terms of responsibility and matters of right and wrong, with regard to which the concrete course of history, as opposed to vague blather, holds many answers.

Bearing this in mind, here are the questions that should have been put to Saleh and that need to be put to all other political groups, coalitions and wings: What exactly do you mean by freedom, dignity and justice? How precisely do these meanings shape your programme for the reform, protection and advancement of society?

Freedom is an inherent human quality. When people are born they have the right to choose between numerous options, but they quickly learn that this right is not absolute. It is this limitation that brings “freedom” into the political ambit. Dignity is a quality connected to relations with others, especially others who differ in ideas, abilities, skills and the desire to dominate. It is also connected to the relationship with the group or the state, with respect to which an individual’s sense of self, wherein resides one’s sense of dignity, fluctuates between a sense of being unique and a feeling of being part of a group whose control he may sometimes accept and at other times resent. Justice is a concept that embraces the whole of human relations throughout history. In one scale are reward and punishment, discrimination and equality, efficiency and mercy, work and production; in another are the rights of society and the whole.

The details on all the foregoing are innumerable. For the time being, though, I will register two points. The first is that, as is our wont, we skirted around the essential part of Sobhi Saleh’s remarks in order to hone in on the more titillating but least useful aspect. Secondly, here is the starting point on the road to success after a long history of failure: What do we really mean by freedom, dignity and justice?


A version of this article also appears in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper

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