Verbal Bullets

by Tarek Heggy

1) Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year old Pakistani pupil at a girls' high school in Mingora, the largest town in Pakistan's northwestern Swat
Valley, was the target of a failed assassination attempt as she rode the school bus home. According to local police officials, two Taliban gunmen stopped and boarded the bus where they asked for Malala by name. One of them shot her twice in the head and then both fled the scene. The Pakistani Taliban movement, Tehrik-e-Taliban, claimed responsibility for the shooting, which they said was to stop her and others like her from campaigning for girls' education.

This appalling and cowardly crime provoked outrage throughout the world and was met with near universal condemnation – with some notable exceptions. No condemnation was forthcoming from the organizations of political Islam, whether Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi, in Egypt and elsewhere (in Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan) or from Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Equally – and shamefully – silent was the all-powerful religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. The resounding silence of Islamist organizations proves that, as I have always maintained, the difference between the movements of political Islam that describe themselves as 'moderate' and the rest of the Salafi and jihadist movements is over tactics, not strategy.

2) I find it very strange that the Islamists in Egypt want the expression 'Islamic Shari'a' in the new Egyptian Constitution to mean
Islamic Shari'a according to only one of the four Sunni schools. With one stroke of the pen they also want to cancel all the Shiite schools, including the schools of Jaafar al-Saddiq which has always been recognized by Al Azhar, as well as all the Khawarij (Seceders) sects (especially the Abadeya sect, whose provisions are applied in the Sultanate of Oman) not to mention the Alawites, the Druze, the Ismailies, etc.

Again, this only confirms the truth of what I have repeatedly stated, namely, that the movements of political Islam are incapable of accepting the notions of pluralism and acceptance of the Other, which are among the most important values of our time.

3) A dear friend of mine, M.F., is a British professor at Queen Mary London University, a branch of the venerable University of London. I believe that of all the British, American and Canadian professors I know, he is the top expert on the history of Islam, Islamic sects and the projects of contemporary political Islam. I also think he is the best informed among them on the literature of Wahabbism, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movements. In September 2012, my friend was in Cairo, where he was received by the British ambassador to Egypt. At their meeting, the two men discussed the Muslim Brotherhood, specifically, whether they had
become moderate or not. My friend compared the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood as set down in their early writings with those propounded in their contemporary literature, using specific criteria which he called "progressive contemporary humanistic values."

The conclusion he drew from the comparison was that any one who claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood were moderate was ignorant of their strategic aims. At that, the British ambassador objected, telling my friend he was mistaken and that the Brotherhood had become extremely moderate. As proof of their new-found 'moderation', he noted that when their representatives called on him they were "properly dressed in suits and ties!" My friend could not believe his ears and when he recounted this amazing story to me said that for an instant he thought he was talking to the American, not the British, ambassador. In his experience, such superficial assessments were indicative of the cultural myopia usually associated with some American diplomats.

4) Blasphemy, heresy, sacrilege, contempt of religion, the denigration of sacred books – do these notions belong to the twenty-first century or to the eleventh century in Europe?

5) Some people are pushing for the enactment of international laws prohibiting any criticism of what they hold sacred. Although insulting the sacred beliefs of any human group is reprehensible from both the moral and humanistic points of view, it is interesting to speculate how such international laws would deal with those who denigrate the beliefs of hundreds of millions of Indians as well as many of the beliefs of Shi'a Muslims and Jews. How would these laws deal with the way some people talk of the Holy Trinity, a concept at the heart of the Christian faith, or their description of Christians as 'idolaters of the Cross'? Or with what
some say (and do) against the Baha'is? Those clamouring for an international law to protect their sacred beliefs from any criticism would do well to remember that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. For, should the international community, through the United Nations, ever adopt such a law, many Muslims would be the first to suffer under its provisions.

6) The movements of political Islam cannot be defeated with
demonstrations, million–man rallies, newspaper articles or television
debates. Moreover, their defeat cannot and must not come about at the
hands of the army as some people would have it. The only way they can be
politically defeated is through political action by a task force working
diligently to shake the thirty million Egyptian men and women who did not
vote out of their apathy and spur them into playing an active role in
their country's future by going to the polls. But this cannot come about
unless all the political forces that believe in a civil state come
together to form two parties, one believing in a free economy and one in a
command economy.

7) A postgraduate student at Queen Mary London University asked me if I
had lost hope in the possibility of a change for the better in the current
lamentable state of affairs in Egypt. I told her that I had not lost hope
but that as a student of history I realized that Egyptian society would
have to go through an unavoidable historical process. It might emerge from
the experience on a platform of democracy which is, by definition, secular
in nature. However, we must not jump to the conclusion that we are bound
to repeat the exact same experience of the European nations. By this I
mean their success in shaking off the stranglehold of systems of
government ruling by divine commission in the name of religion
(theocracies). For the structure and texts of Islam are less amenable to
secularization than those of Christianity. Moreover, it is an unfortunate
fact that despite the cultural, cognitive and moral decline we are
witnessing in the leaders of political Islam in Egypt today, their
mentalities, though mired in the Dark Ages, are on average still better
than the prevailing mindset of the Egyptian people today.

8) In the areas of medicine, pharmaceuticals, engineering, space,
aviation, telecommunications, agronomics and military industries the
contribution of the inhabitants of 'Sarakhstan' [screeching-stan, or land
of the screechers) is quite simply nil. But instead of acknowledging their
own responsibility for the sorry state in which they now find themselves,
they blame the 'Other'! The Other bears full responsibility for the fact
that they have become parasites living off the accomplishments of the rest
of humanity in all domains [except religious studies!]. When asked whether
they are not ashamed that the annual lists of Nobel prize nominees in
medicine, physics, chemistry and biology do not include a single name from
their part of the world, they are quick to accuse the venerable
institution that awards the Nobel prizes of bias, and dismiss the prize
itself as a sham.

9) In my writings, I have defended the Nubians in Egypt, the Kurds in
Syria, the Shiites in Saudi Arabia, women in Islamic societies and the
Copts in Egypt. I would have thought any educated person would realize
that my defense in each of these cases was basically a defense of human
rights. But this is apparently not clear to many in our Arabic-speaking
societies. One of the more bizarre reactions to my writings was posted on
a Saudi electronic site, which accused me of having converted to
Christianity! Whoever had come up with this preposterous claim clearly
knew nothing about me: a writer and thinker whose world view owes much to
the writings of Emmanuel Kant, Auguste Comte, Bertrand Russell, Soren
Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger cannot possible convert to Christianity.
The idea that one can defend those whose views he does not share is
obviously incomprehensible to some people in our society. Another bizarre
incident is worth recounting in this connection. Following a talk I gave
at St Mark's Cathedral in Cairo a few months ago, a Copt came up to me and
said "You were baptized, weren't you?" The tragedy is that some Copts
cannot see any connection between my defense of their rights on the one
hand and human rights on the other, convinced that I would not defend
their rights unless I myself was a Copt. That day I asked myself if we
deserved rulers better than the ones our societies are now saddled with,
who are, despite their poor cognitive, cultural and intellectual
formation, still a great improvement over the general average in the
societies they are governing, which have sunk to abysmal levels of
regression and backwardness.

10) On the first day of eid el adha (27 October 2012) the front page of
the Saudi daily Al Sharq al Awsat carried a picture of the king of Saudi
Arabia surrounded by a number of princes. The king sat at the centre of
the group, with the Mufti of the kingdom sitting on his right. The
significance of the picture is clear: In the hierarchical structure of the
country, the Mufti ranks higher than all the princes of the land,
including the heir to the throne. Many meanings and inferences can be
drawn from this picture, which was taken in the twenty-first century, not
on a day in 1744 when the grandfather of the current king forged an
alliance with the grandfather of the Mufti sitting on the king's right
whereby the former would rule according to the doctrine preached by the
latter. That day, the two men, Mohamed ibn-Saud and Mohamed ibn-Abdul
Wahab, made a pact that is embodied in the picture taken two hundred and
sixty-eight years after the deal struck in Al-Dir'iyah, whose essence can
be summarized in the chilling words spoken by the two men on that fateful
day: "Blood, blood, destruction, destruction."

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