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The disgusted sheikh: The rise of sectarian discourse in Egypt

Published in Ahram Online on April 30, 2013

Is Egypt about to see a turn to fascism? If recent statements by self-proclaimed religious figures are an indication, the prospect isn’t entirely out of the question

This is what a group of friends and I debated in a heated discussion last week. One of them was a British friend who teaches history and politics at a major US university, and who reminded us that a key feature of European fascism of the 1930s was a strong alliance between industrialists and the state, whereby the latter was willing to pass draconian anti-labour laws for the benefit of the former.

Fortunately, today, we do not see such an alliance between big industrialists and the Muslim Brotherhood.

For my part, I added that a vital feature that distinguishes the Brotherhood from the Nazis is that the Brotherhood does not control the tools of violence, that is, the army and police; whereas the Nazis had a firm grip on these two crucial institutions even before their electoral victory in 1933. And if we add the fact that the Brotherhood lacks control over the judiciary and media, then the differences between them and the Nazis become even sharper.

At the same time, the Nazis were by far the most radical political group in Germany, while in Egypt the Salafis compete with the Brotherhood over this coveted spot.

Most notably, what separates the two experiments is the much milder racist rhetoric in Egypt compared to Nazi Germany.

The Nazi racist discourse, which paved the way for the Nazis’ takeover, is unmatched in its crudeness and gravity, and can be traced back for many decades before 1933. It was possible, for example, to read articles in popular and reputable German newspapers calling for the purification of the Aryan race. One could also buy postcards of hotels that boasted of not allowing Jews.

I returned home reassured and convinced that we are not seeing the rise of fascism in Egypt. But within a few days, events made me question my comforting conclusion. The Brotherhood president was courting the army and awarding senior brass with promotions and decorations, while on his desk sits a report by a committee he himself had formed implicating the army in instances of forced disappearance and torture.

Meanwhile, the general secretariat of the ruling party in Kafr Al-Sheikh is sponsoring a competition titled ‘The Role of the Media in Misleading Public Opinion.’ Day after day the Brotherhood is calling for a crackdown on the media. And when one female journalist questioned the Minister of Information’s claim that there is freedom of opinion under Brotherhood rule, he responded with a lewd remark which showed his contempt for both women and the press.

Furthermore, in a scene that reminds us of how thousands of Nazi students burnt books ‘contaminating German history’ at Berlin University on 10 May 1933, tens of thousands of Brotherhood supporters took to the streets to demand ‘purging the judiciary.’ Even the Minister of Justice could not stand it any longer, although he had spent his entire tenure defending the Brotherhood and finally submitted his resignation.

What disturbed me the most and alerted me to the fact that we may, in fact, be witnessing the rise of a fascist regime, is a video on YouTube (at 42:40) of a sheikh explaining Chapter 5 of the Quran. Verse five of that Chapter says, The food of those who were given the Scripture is lawful for you and your food is lawful for them.

The sheikh explained this verse in a way that allows a Muslim to eat the food of a Christian. So far, so good. But then he volunteered to explain in some detail why he himself does not eat with his Coptic neighbours or acquaintances. It has nothing to do with piety, he shamelessly explained, but with disgust: I get disgusted, man, what can I say? Oh, and their smell… Man, I just don’t like them. It’s my free opinion; I am disgusted by them, their smell, their form, everything. Then he picked up a glass of water in front of him and said, Even if he holds a glass of water like this, I would not drink from it.

This sheikh then tells us two stories to explain his opinion about the difference between piety and disgust. The first story is how he went to a pastry shop to buy some sweets for his children. After he had put in his order he turned around and was stunned by what he saw: You know, those pictures of theirs; their priest, another holding a serpent in his hand. Everyone in the shop had [wrist tattoos of] crosses, crosses, crosses.

The sheikh quickly left the shop and got rid of the sweets he had just bought. He added the following explanation: I get disgusted, man. I’m not going to say my position is informed by piety. No, it’s not piety, it’s disgust.

The second story is about his Coptic neighbour who complained to him about a water leak that ruined his bathroom ceiling. Despite his disgust at his Coptic neighbour, our esteemed sheikh forced himself to go to his neighbour’s apartment to see the damage himself. As soon as he inspected it, he promised to pay for the repairs.

Two days later, the two men met on the street and his Coptic neighbour thanked him for responding so quickly. He told me, ‘You prevented harm from befalling me’ and I responded, ‘My religion taught me to do so.’ He said, ‘Of course, we are neighbours and brothers.’ I said, ‘No, we are not brothers; brothers is a term you people use, as for me, no. You got what is your right, but don’t ask me to love you… You will only take your right from us, despite how much I hate you.

And thus, the good sheikh taught us two lessons. First, he wants us to believe that his disgust towards Christians is a natural sentiment, meaning it is triggered by their nature (their smell, their form) and that this sentiment, disgust, is not socially construed. Accordingly, he believes that disgust is more akin to hunger, thirst or lust than it is to remorse, anger or jealousy. And since it is an instinctive feeling, it is to be sanctioned if not actually supported and amplified.

And so, although the Prophet had eaten from the food of the People of the Book, this sheikh prefers not to mix with them, not out of piety but out of disgust (linguistically in Arabic, qaraf, Arabic for ‘disgust,’ means contact with disease.)

The second lesson is that there is no room for love or affinity between Muslims and Copts; their relationship is ruled by justice, not by love. Sharia guarantees the rights of the People of the Book, so don’t tell me to love him or ‘We are brothers,’ and those stupid things. No, we are not brothers and I don’t love him.

The discourse of the esteemed sheikh is not only sectarian but also flagrantly racist. It is a discourse befitting of a fascist political system.

So how can this dangerous discourse be countered? I don’t believe the solution is to prevent the sheikh from expressing his opinions based on the fact that it is hate speech. I personally have written here before defending Al-Hafez television channel where this sheikh is a regular guest.

I also don’t believe the solution is countering the verses this sheikh cites with others, since he already admits his opinion is built on disgust, not piety.

While I was busy pondering this question, two students came to my office researching a paper on the rise of sectarian rhetoric under Brotherhood rule. I showed them the video and after we were done, one of them said: This man has no taste.

It was then that I realised I found my answer. The solution is to stick to good taste, since taste is the opposite of disgust; the former implies incorporation of food, while disgust stirs an urge to vomit.

At the same time, in both English and Arabic, taste (dhouq) carries the added meaning of refinement and implies an elevation of the debased animal instinct which our esteemed good sheikh takes as a given.

And finally, at the risk of sounding chauvinistic, having good taste and good manners is a quintessentially Egyptian virtue. The people of Egypt have good manners, while this sheikh – and the many others who have taken to TV stations lately – has none.

Our esteemed sheikh, forget piety and disgust. How about having some manners?

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