Religious fervour rises in Egypt


 About 80 per cent of Egyptian women

wear a veil as a sign of religious devotion.

The National Nadia abou el Magd, Foreign Correspondent

CAIRO // Every day for the past five years, Ahmed Gamil has begun his morning shift as a taxi driver by tuning into a radio station that broadcasts the Quran.

“How else would I start my day?” Mr Gamil said during a recent journey downtown. “My life is so miserable, religion is the only thing that prevents me from committing suicide.”

There are increasing signs across Egypt of Islamic fervour, including devotion to the Quran and outward manifestations such as women wearing veils and men growing beards. Some analysts put this down to a lack of other outlets for personal expression.

Heba Moheb is veiled as she reads the Quran on the underground metro, in the car reserved for women. She is surrounded by her three children, including Faten, her daughter, who despite being only 11 wears a veil. It is not uncommon to see girls as young as five veiled in Egypt.

“A Muslim woman should by definition be veiled; God didn’t give us a choice in this matter,” said Ms Moheb, 30. “A woman’s body is a precious gift from God that we appreciate by covering it, not exposing to all.”

The few unveiled women in the metro were Christians.

“I look like a Copt, that’s why I’m spared, I guess,” said Mona Eissa, 28, as she was running to catch the women’s car in the metro. Another woman in a niqab was distributing flyers upon which were written slogans:

“You will be questioned about the veil in doomsday” and “The veil is a religious duty”.

The state does not encourage veiling and has tried to bar niqab-wearing women from entering university. It is working on a law to stop nurses from wearing it while at work for health reasons.

Women in the 1960s and early 1970s used to wear miniskirts on the streets of Cairo without attracting attention. Now, with millions using the underground system every day, women choose to travel in the car reserved for women to avoid harassment.

“The phenomenon of the new religiosity started during late president Anwar Sadat’s time and deepened during president Hosni Mubarak’s era [starting in 1981] as both presidents left religion as the only sphere open for expression,” said Amr Chobaki, an analyst whose doctoral dissertation is on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

“All other fields are closed or besieged and risky.” There are no real political parties, syndicates and non-governmental organisations are threatened, he said.

The rise could be also attributed to a group of young preachers who are taking their sermons outside mosques and homes and reaching a new generation of Muslims on Islamic websites and satellite channels. These preachers include Amr Khaled and Yemeni Habib el Jaafry.

Many Egyptians have downloaded the call for prayers in to their mobile phones to remind them of the prayer times and use Islamic songs or a recitation of God’s names as ring tones. Islamic books are best sellers at the annual Cairo book fair.

“Religion is an effective means of asserting identity,” said Emad Shahin, a political scientist. “Religion is increasingly playing an important role in the region and will continue to play a role for quite some time.”

The religious phenomenon is not rooted in politics, Mr Chobaki said. “It’s rather a superficial and apparent Islamisation and religiosity, an unprecedented close conservative culture that is not only not tolerant of other religions but of secular and less religious Muslims. It is causing real suffering.”

The phenomenon is not only Islamic. There is a similar parallel among Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the population, but its expression is private. Many Christians now tattoo crosses on their arms.

“The Christians withdrew behind their church walls, and the Church became their guardian in all aspects of life,” Mr Chobaki said.

“It replaced the state for them, and its discourse is also fanatic sometimes. The whole atmosphere in Egyptian society is tense.

“If real opportunities emerged in Egypt to be able to express oneself without dangers, like political parties and civil society, this would start to reduce the tension and gradually defuse this superficial religiosity phenomenon. But this will take time, as the current regime has no political project [to coax people to leave] this religious sphere, which people have played havoc with it like everything else in Egypt.”

Not all of Egypt’s population of 78 million are this devoted. Only about 80 per cent of Egyptian women are veiled. Nightclubs and bars remain popular and restaurants and hotels serve alcohol.

The rise in religious devotion also crosses class. The rich wear brand name scarves as veils, and have their own spas for women and children.

Some complain that intolerance has grown alongside the trend toward religiosity. “Sometimes I’m harassed and insulted at the street because I’m wearing the cross,” said Heba, 35, a secretary, who would only give her first name.

At Sabaya, a new hairdresser and cafe for “veiled women only”, Hanan Turk, the owner and a famous actress who donned the veil last year, said she does not have non-veiled women as customers.

Secularists are frustrated with what they see as an overdose of Islamisation at the expense of the more cosmopolitan Egypt they grew up in.

“Now we have Islamic banks, Islamic fashion, Islamic TV channels, Islamic hairdressers, Islamic swimsuits, Islamic writers, Islamic everything,” protested Mona Helmi, a feminist writer. “This is too much.”

Nada Mahmoud, 40, said she is the only one among her college friends at the American University in Cairo and among the mothers of her son’s friends who is not veiled.

“They keep trying to convert me,” she said. “Somehow it’s beyond their comprehension that you could be a good Muslim and don’t want to take the veil.

There is no talk about other spiritual or moral aspects of Islam; they are more concerned about the veil.”

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