A licence to speak ill?

Azza Radwan Sedky
Thursday 3 Sep 2020

A recent article in the US magazine Foreign Affairs unfairly treats Egypt while betraying much of the habitual arrogance of the Western media

The Western media remains adamant about speaking ill of Egypt. A recent headline in the American magazine Foreign Affairs reads, “The Pandemic Tips the Balance Between Mosque and State,” for example, with the article below considering Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s measures against the spread of the Covid-19 to be a “licence” to crack down on religious dissent,” while, possibly, also granting itself a “licence” to encourage hypothetical dissent.  

When Covid-19 came on the scene, countries around the world prohibited large gatherings, religious or otherwise. Many places of worship modified or scaled back their schedules or even shuttered their premises to guard against the spread of the pandemic. 

The Vatican closed its churches and St Peter’s Square in Rome, for example, while Easter was observed “without the physical presence of the faithful.” In Bethlehem, all churches and mosques were closed during Easter and the Eid Al-Adha, respectively. Iran, Indonesia, Turkey and other Muslim countries cancelled prayers in mosques, while others set up live-streaming to broadcast prayers.

To protect their people, Egypt and Saudi Arabia followed suit. Saudi Arabia suspended the umrah (the lesser pilgrimage) to Mecca and Medina, and it scaled back the major hajj pilgrimage to 1,000 attendees instead of the usual two million. Egypt suspended Friday prayers and shut down mosques and churches across the country. Had Egypt and Saudi Arabia done otherwise, the world would have criticised them for not protecting their citizens. 

Even so, around the world many clergymen and devout followers begrudged the closures of the houses of worship and were bent on keeping them open. The authorities reacted. In Wisconsin in the US, for example, the police had to shut down a church in the middle of a service. In Florida, a pastor was arrested for not complying with shutdown orders and charged on the counts of “unlawful assembly and a violation of health emergency rules.” 

The Israeli police clashed with Palestinian Muslims in Jerusalem during Eid Al-Adha prayers. According to the UK newspaper the Guardian, the “officers fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.” Police also clashed with worshippers in Pakistan and India. 

The aim behind the regulations was to avoid a surge in Covid-19 cases, yet only Foreign Affairs has twisted these actions and turned them into a case of government authoritarianism versus religious freedom or considered them to be a licence to “crack down on religious dissent,” using them to reflect negatively on Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s conduct. 

According to the article, a number of imams in Egypt believed that their right of free expression “allowed them to hold private religious gatherings in their homes despite the state injunctions” and were prohibited from doing so. One imam was punished for not adhering to the closures and had his licence revoked. Despite the US magazine’s criticisms, the authorities’ actions in both cases would of course be deemed justifiable elsewhere. 

Maybe Foreign Affairs is suggesting that Egyptians should listen to “religious dissent,” but the right to “religious dissent” does not entail carte blanche to infiltrate a society with hatred. Where else in the world would the judgement of militants clad in the apparel of fake religious reform override that of the state, especially during a pandemic? 

One case in point is that of Muslim Brotherhood member Bahjat Saber who used a social-network video to invite anyone infected with the coronavirus to “enter police departments, military and government institutions, and the Media Production City [in Cairo], and mingle with others to spread the infection,” for example. This is the kind of “religious dissent” that Foreign Affairs wants Egypt to allow.

According to the article, the Egyptian and Saudi governments called on official Islamic institutions and independent Islamists “to mobilise support and legitimacy for the public-health restrictions,” considering such pleas to be “state-mandated restrictions.” Even if Foreign Affairs was somehow in the know about what went on between the authorities and religious leaders, which is far-fetched, it is a given that during times of crisis, influential individuals, be they religious figures or celebrities, are often drawn upon to influence the wider public, for they can indeed have a captive audience in their followers. 

“For example, Ali Mohamed Al-Azhari, a faculty member at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, stressed that preventing a person who is infected with the coronavirus from performing Friday prayers in the mosque is a legal and religious duty.” Yet, for Foreign Affairs, this is simply imposed obedience.  

Around the world, every effort is being made to safeguard people against Covid-19. Britain now utilises heat-sensitive cameras to discover house parties and put a stop to them, for example. In a public plea, the premier of British Columbia in Canada asked local celebrities to spread the message of how dangerous Covid-19 is, and a hefty $2,000 fine is now imposed on anyone who hosts big events. Just about every Hollywood celebrity, from singers Madonna to Jennifer Lopez, and from actors Robert De Niro to Tom Hanks, have made public-service announcements to flatten the pandemic curve. 

According to the article in Foreign Affairs, the Saudi government used the pandemic “to crack down on the country’s restive Shiite minority in the Qatif Province.” This is a distortion of the truth. In fact, a lockdown on the Qatif Province, from where Shiite pilgrims go to Iran, was implemented since most earlier Covid-19 cases in Saudi Arabia were “linked to pilgrims who had been in Iran… the early epidemic hot spot.”

In addition, Foreign Affairs ignored the total shutdown that many cities and provinces around the world suffered in order to halt the surge in Covid-19 cases, with no one considering these moves to be a method of cracking down on citizen dissent. To name only a few of these places, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Manila in the Philippines and Hubei Province in China were in total lockdown for one period or another in order to halt the spread of the virus.  

“The pandemic has offered Al-Sisi an opportunity to exercise a heavier hand,” the article in Foreign Affairs said, as he has “amended the country’s emergency law to grant himself the authority to ban or limit public gatherings.” Foreign Affairs, give us a break; where is the heavy hand in this? Just in case you choose to forget, in 2015 President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi spoke against religious extremism and recommended changes, but he has never interfered in Al-Azhar’s jurisdiction or authorised revisions. 

Egypt, and this time Saudi Arabia too, continues to be prey for the Western media to tarnish. There is nothing new in this: the Western media is used to flaunting its arrogance and ignorance while incessantly distorting the truth.

*The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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