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'Opium' No More: The Changing Relevance Of Religion In Austerity-Hit Egypt

Is religion numbing Egyptians into acquiescence amid a number of merciless austerity measures?

In Egypt, religion has become the “coffee of the masses”
In Egypt, religion has become the “coffee of the masses”
Tarek Ghanem

CAIRO Karl Marx hated organized and institutionalized religion. Of all his economic and political thoughts, his words equating religion with opium are some of the most notorious: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." He believed that religion has certain practical uses, much like a recreational, mind-numbing substance; that it has the potential to reduce the immediate suffering of those who are sick or injured, providing them with more pleasant illusions. But he also observed that it reduces their energy and willingness to confront the oppressive, heartless reality that capitalism forces upon people.

It feels like everyone in Egypt has been put through a social and psychological grinder ever since the Egyptian government began to enact the International Monetary Fund's loan policies. Catastrophic inflation rates reached as high as 30% in July 2017; another wave of price hikes in electricity, fuel, gas and water are affecting nearly all other services; and there was a recent 300% increase in metro ticket prices. More than a quarter of Egyptians barely hover above the poverty line, and another quarter is quickly sinking into destitution. Given this, what role does religion play in people's lives?

In a country with a conservative religious culture, and for a people who call themselves "naturally religious," religion cannot be the mind-numbing narcotic that Marx imagined. It is too entwined in the social fabric and the historic national identity to have any such effect. If religion were indeed a drug, Egyptians would have developed a tolerance to its mechanism of action a long time ago. Neither can it be an agent for anchoring self-blame and personal salvation, or purely restricted to charity. After all, people can't survive on prayer alone. Nor can it be used as a tool to blame the masses for their dire conditions, much to the dismay of the ruling elite.

State sermons

Surely it would take a much stronger narcotic to deny the impact of the IMF's prescription and our state's economic policies? Take, for example, the June 23 episode from famous preacher Khaled al-Gindy's show Laalahom Yafqahoon ("Perhaps They Understand"), in which he addresses the current economic situation in Egypt in a segment entitled "This​ is the only way we can eradicate inflation." Gindy says, "Our supplications to God must be creative … because God does not intervene to change wordly norms for the benefit of people who are lazy, sluggish, and worthless … It is impo​ssible to eradicate inflation, except through producing, struggling, the existence of a financial surplus, the availability of resources, and by stopping the population explosion." In his long, verbose monologue, in which he also calls Egyptians "aimless' and insinuates that they are lazy, there is no mention whatsoever of the role of government policies in the current economic quagmire, the impact of the devaluation of the pound, the absence of any substantial social benefits to mitigate for the woes of elevating subsidies, or the disappearance and deterioration of public services.

This kind of discourse has become all too common during Friday sermons in Egypt, a weekly ritual that in my experience has prompted eye-rolling and the burying of heads in hands in response to ever harsher and more defeatist pre-scripted sermons, the topics of which are clearly dictated by state institutions. In order to counter public outcry, these sermons often twist fact and fiction and use religious rhetoric to criticize the perceived deterioration of public morality, sinful behavior, greed, and so on. They usually absolve the government of all blame.

To demand patience is one thing. Egyptians know that they will have to continue to suffer; state propaganda has been drilling it into them for some time. But to blame citizens for their deteriorating living conditions takes an act of deep moral depravity.

The last thing people need is to double down on their suffering.

Asceticism — turning one's back on worldly temptations, indulgence and possessions; patience in the face of suffering; open-handedness and charity are all religious values that are worthy of discussion and adoption in good and bad times. But so are self-criticism, bravery, speaking truth to power, fairness and siding with the underdog.

It would take more than a few misguided sermons to overlook the fact that the government's current measures have taken their toll on everyone across the socio-economic spectrum. Everyone I personally know has made drastic lifestyle changes, from cutting their already low-protein family food budgets, to changing the type of shampoo they use, or not being able to upgrade their car.

Given these circumstances, how will the religious leadership attend to their constituencies? There are reports that any opposition to the state's economic policies is being censored or constrained. Several articles criticizing price hikes and the government's merciless lifting of subsidies have been censored or banned. For example, renowned author Ammar Ali Hasan's recent piece, "Prices on fire and a crumbling middle class in a state that neither protects nor has mercy," is prefaced by a note on an alleged ban in Egyptian print publications against articles that address the impact of the recent hike in fuel prices on ordinary citizens. Quranic reciter Hamdy Abdel Meguid was also suspended from the Quran Radio Station for his supplications "against the unjust ones' at dawn prayers. With whom, then, can people raise their grievances?

Egypt prayer Eid el Fitr

Egyptians take part in the prayer of Eid al-Fitr Photo: DPA/ZUMA

Even if contemporary Muslim scholars choose to continue with their uncritical, pre-nation state, orthodox position of obeying those in office for the sake of a superficial sense of stability, this does not mean that the alternative should be silence in the face of injustice and inhumane austerity. This would be nothing short of whitewashing the economic and political failures of the current regime.

Using religious discourse to manipulate people into believing that inflation and economic woes are God's punishment for our mistakes, and not the failed miscalculations of economic policies and bowing to the relentlessly neoliberal agenda of the IMF, is simply nonsensical and unethical. The last thing people need is to double down on their suffering.

With its theological, legal and spiritual contents, Islam is said to have a strong sense of both social and political justice that defines the core of its jurisprudential and ethical system. Islamic institutional and scholarly accomplishments are often credited with being relatively independent from political power in the pre-modern world, as they did not share the nostalgia for the "golden age." This was particularly the case with Islamic civil society institutions, the endowment system and educational establishments. It permitted religious leaders, judges and ulama (scholars trained in Islam) to represent the public and to side with them on many occasions.

Under a statist Islam, nationalism and patriotism become religious themes.

It is not historically uncommon for religious leaders since the dawn of Islam to side with the people and to use their religious scholarship and discourse to awaken their potential and support their aspirations. From the stance taken by Hasan al-Basri or Imam Abu Hanifa against the Ummayads, to Sufyan al-Thawri's brave position against the injustice of his Abbasid ruler, and Imam al-Dardir, who led the masses in 1786 against a staggering spike in taxes; not to mention the role of many ulama in resisting European colonialism, or even Al-Azhar's support for the 1919 revolution. There are many sobering examples of religious institutions and individuals supporting ordinary people throughout history.

One major distinction between pre-modern Islam and its contemporary iterations, especially those stemming from state-sponsored institutions and many Islamist movements, is that the latter are all painfully statist. They seek to interpret and validate their social relevance through the omnipresence of the state and its ever increasing role in people's private and public lives. Under a statist Islam, nationalism and patriotism become religious themes, and thus it is the mission of religious actors to defend and interpret events and the world for their stakeholders in a way that is favorable to the state.

More "coffee" than "opium"

Criticizing the people seems to be en vogue for Egypt's religious leadership at present. While it may be true that the social and economic woes society is experiencing are many — from substance abuse, depression and suicide, to domestic violence and the deterioration of public health and freedoms — these are all surely partially symptomatic of, or exacerbated by, the current economic turmoil people are facing.

In contrast to the numbing effect of religion suggested by Marx's metaphor, coffee — a drink known for its stimulating effect — was discovered by Muslim mystics in the highlands of Yemen. Even though it later became associated with social gatherings and a daily ritual in most Arab cultures, coffee was used by Sufis to help them to stay up late to worship and to concentrate on their invocations and acts of devotion. There are many poems that associate the brain-fueling, psychoactive drink with religious inspiration and motivation.

Given the potential consequences, it is understandable that some religious voices choose to refrain from overtly criticizing the government. But, whether it is coffee or opium that they choose to offer to the masses, Islamic religious leadership in Egypt has a choice to make. Even if they cannot be an agent working for the benefit of their constituencies and wider society, in times like these, they must refrain from blaming the victim. Otherwise, they run the risk of being addicted to their own brand of narcotic, a religion in which only they partake. Composed silence, wrong as it may be, is still much better than complacency and victim blaming.

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