Today's date:




By Gaber Asfour

Gaber Asfour, the Egyptian writer, formerly headed Egypt's Supreme Council of Culture, a writers' organization. His comments are excerpted from an interview with Leila Conners, editor-at-large for New Perspectives Quarterly.

CAIRO -- The struggle to keep our traditions open in the face of fundamentalist fervor should be seen in the West as an internal matter. This is not a clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity, but an historical clash of one interpretation of Islam versus another.

Just as it has always been, the clash we see today is between the tolerant peoples of the "Islam of the rivers,'' such as flourished in the Nile delta, and the intolerance of the "Islam of the desert'' practiced by the multimillionaire son of a Saudi Arabian construction magnate.

The desert culture is opposed to the culture of the Nile as well as to the pluralistic, haggling life of the "el haraa'' -- the urban alleyway bazaars. It is fanatic. It does not respect the diversity of ideas and opinions. It believes that people must have one creed, one idea and one interpretation of religion.

The "other'' is always hated, always an enemy. Western civilization in particular is distrusted as the modern incarnation of evil.

Equality between women and men is not respected in the desert, where women are regarded as a source of temptation and evil. The long gowns of the "galabeyya'' men and, of course, the beard are signs of the desert.

In Islam there has always been two trends: the tolerant "trend of the mind'' associated with the river cultures of Egypt, Syria and Iraq and the intolerant "trend of transmission'' associated with the harsh desert. Loosely translated, the "trend of transmission'' means literal belief in the text of the Koran as God's infallibly transmitted Word.

Historically, during periods of flourishing civilization the tolerant trend prevailed. During times of defeat the intolerant trend prevailed.

Intolerant fundamentalism began to grow in the Arab world in the humiliating aftermath of the defeat of the Egyptian army by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. The crisis of identity this caused in Egypt was paralleled by the tremendous explosion of wealth in the Arab oil-producing countries. This provided the Islam of the desert with money. And money is power. With money, it is possible to force your culture upon others. Well-financed, desert-based Islam stepped into the vacuum of Egyptian defeat.

Thus, unofficial sources of funds from the Gulf countries, especially from Osama bin Laden, have played a critical role in exporting desert-brand fundamentalism to Egypt and instigating its dangerous activities here and elsewhere. The Egyptian ministry of culture has tried to combat this effort by, among other methods, publishing a series of books called "The Books of Enlightenment.''

But we lack the kind of financial resources Bin Laden can command, which makes his books cheaper and more widely distributed than ours. When he was living in the Sudan, Bin Laden decided to supplement this activity by strengthening terrorist activities all over the world.

The strongest fundamentalist movement in Egypt today is that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded by Hassan al Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood started in the Suez Canal area during the period of upheaval against British rule. They mixed the ideas of liberation from colonialism with a return to "pure Islam.'' Hassan al Banna was deeply influenced by the ideas of one of the famous Hanbali scholars -- Bin Tanweer, a man of the desert. "Late Hanbali Islam'' emerged during the Crusades when Muslims were fighting the invasion from Europe and had to go to ideological extremes to survive. The religious ideas of Bin Tanweer are the basis upon which the Saudi creed was built. Those ideas became the pillars of the state in Saudi Arabia.

At first, the Muslim Brothers remained tolerant because of the Egyptian context. But as time went on, the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the new Arab nationalism in 1952 created a reaction from the desert. The Saudi monarchy wanted to destroy the influence of Nasser. In this we saw the beginning of Egypt's struggle with fundamentalism. With Nasser's defeat in 1967 and the destruction of Arab nationalism, the desert Muslims offered their ideology with the slogan "Islam is the Solution.'' Their great hope has been that a return to strict Islam would provide the strength for a final victory over Zionism and Israel.

Today, the Nile culture is endangered by the encroaching desert.

To reassert the Nile sensibility we are emphasizing cultural education focused on the Egyptian ideas of tolerance and respect for difference. This movement of enlightenment is driven by artists, like the late novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who was himself a target of the fundamentalists.

We will need time to turn back a tide gathering popular momentum for more than 20 years. It won't be easy. But if our long history is any guide, the Nile will nourish tolerant Islam once again.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 10/11/01)