Egypt’s future in Western eyes
By Nayrouz Talaat – The Egyptian Gazette
Tuesday, July 19, 2011 03:04:50 PM
CAIRO – When a friend recently told me that Professor Jonathan Brown was visiting Cairo, I was determined to arrange an interview. My aim was to learn from the experiences of an American citizen-cum-Islamic researcher.
It is high time to learn from Western scholars like Jonathan Brown about the political turning points in Egypt and the Middle East.
Could you tell me a little about your background?
I was raised in Washington DC but went to a boarding school called Thacher in California. I then attended Georgetown University [in Washington DC] and majored in History, with Russian as my second subject.
Then I studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo from 2000 to 2001. I did the CASA [Centre for Arabic Study Abroad] programme. I also had lessons at Al-Azhar, mainly from Sheikh Ali Gomma.
At the University of Chicago, I did my PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations and specialised in Islamic Thought. I graduated in 2006 with my dissertation on ‘The Canonisation of al-Bukhari and Muslim’.
Is Islam your original religion or did you convert to Islam for certain reasons?
I was not born into a Muslim family and I raised as an Episcopalian Protestant. This was mostly cultural- religion was not part of our home. We did go to church on Sunday, however.
At high school, I thought a lot about mortality, and in retrospect I was clearly longing for a sense of meaning. I always believed in God, but did not know how to express my belief. When I went to university I took a class on Islam and started reading the biography of the famous Austrian Muslim Muhammad Asad [The Road to Mecca].
I can’t remember, the details are fuzzy now, but at some point I felt that Islam was the religion in which I had always believed in my younger years. At the age of 19, I gradually started practising Islam.
How long have you spent in Egypt?
This is certainly not my first visit. I have been coming here almost every year for at least a month since 2000. I consider this country my second home, if it will accept me!
My impression after the revolution is that there is pride in unseating a corrupt despot, but also a great deal of anxiety over the present economic conditions and real political reform. Mature voices at all levels understand that the process of moving the country out of the Mubarak era will take time.
Others are understandably very worried about the present economic downturn, which stems from factors like the sudden decrease in tourism, and just want things to return to some form of normality.
But looming over all this is the concern of the politically aware that the old regime could return in a new guise and the revolution would have been in vain. Of course, strong and effective leadership is needed to avoid this, as well as patience and fortitude on behalf of the people. Egyptian people understand this, I think.
What do you think of the Islamists’ political role in Egypt? Will they win the elections and how will Western countries react?
I think that all Islamist parties have accepted the fact that the Egyptian State will be a civil state that draws its core constitutional and legislative principles from the Sharia [Islamic Law]. That’s actually how the country is already constitutionally structured.
I do not think life in Egypt will dramatically change if the president or ruling party are self-proclaimed ‘Islamists’. Egypt is already a very Islamic society: no-one drinks in the street, people dress conservatively, even the financial system has to justify its operations in terms of Islam.
No-one is going to implement hudud [Islamic rules] haphazardly any time soon. The reaction of Western countries is much harder to predict. I think that, unlike in the case of Iran, which has become a pariah state in Western eyes, an Islamist-ruled Egypt would remain an important and accepted player in world politics.
The country is too important to write off and this is not 1979. The ‘Islamic threat’ so often touted by Western pundits has been undermined by factors like AK Party rule in Turkey, and it will be less frightening when people see that Egypt is not much different from before.
Why did you decide to do your Masters’ degree on Sahih al-Bukhari?
My dissertation and first book were about how the Sahihayn achieved preeminence in Sunni Islam and their function in the Islamic civilisation, and how their position was challenged.
This is obviously too much for one interview, but I can summarise the most important findings as follows.
Criticising the Sahihayn, and whether they were allowed or not, was not really an issue until the 1700s. Before then, Muslim scholars advanced minor critiques of the two books (the Sahihayn) with no real reaction. Since the 1700s and until today, however, criticising the two books has become very contentious and controversial, because the books have become symbols of the tradition of Sunni learning.
Groups like the Salafist revivalists, emerging in the 1700s, and Islamic modernists who criticised the two books [the first group because they believed no book was perfect except the Holy Qur’an and insisted on that, the second group because they considered the two books to exemplify many supposedly backward ideas of medieval Islam], threatened the historical continuity of the Sunni tradition.
Defenders of that tradition therefore chose to raise the Sahihayn as a symbol of the authority of Sunni religious heritage. The two books became a representation of ideas contended over by various factions within Islamic thought in the early modern and modern periods. So, in short, debates over the Sahihayn were really about what the books stood for and not about the books themselves.
Do you think Al-Azhar is playing a crucial role in spreading the right image of Islam all over the world?
I think Al-Azhar has some of the best Muslim scholars in the world today, and they have done an admirable job in helping Muslims understand their religion better. Al-Azhar has of course faced many challenges since 1960, particularly since it was co-opted by the State during the Mubarak years. It will have to demonstrate its independence.
What should the Islamic countries do to deliver the right image?
Muslims should make sure their behavior, both as individuals in daily life and as a community of nations, truly reflects the teachings of Islam.
Are you able to preach with total freedom in the US? And how do you deal with Islamophobia?
In general, Americans enjoy constitutional protection to practise their religion. Muslims in America wear the hijab freely wherever they want. They can start their own schools, open mosques, pray at work and university and take time off to attend religious services like Friday prayers. There are two Muslim members of Congress.
However, since the 1990s, there has been an increasingly powerful lobbying effort by individuals and organisations that hate Islam virulently, like Steven Emerson, and even members of Congress like Peter King and former Senator [now presidential candidate] Rick Santorum, to convince Americans that any Muslim that practises his or her religion is a secret extremist bent on destroying America.
The chief culprit, they say, is the Muslim Brotherhood, which they consider a terrorist organisation. This has led to two states in the US, Tennessee and Oklahoma, passing laws banning the Sharia. Any Muslim who follows the Sharia in those states [which could mean anything from praying to paying zakat] can be charged with a crime.
This gives prosecutors in these two states the right, potentially, to investigate, charge and convict any Muslim they want. In addition, the US Federal Government has used the broad reaching powers granted by the Patriot Act Laws [passed after 11/9, 2001] to prosecute a number of prominent Muslim charities.
In the case of the Holy Land Foundation, the US Government sentenced the heads of this Muslim charity to 65 years in prison for sending money to zakat committees in the Palestinian territories.
Although the US prosecutors admitted that none of this money was used for any violent ends, and that the zakat committees to which it was given were also given money by the US Government and the United Nations, these prosecutors argued that the Holy Land Foundation was nonetheless aiding Hamas, which the US Government has designated a terrorist organisation.
In 2010, the United States Supreme Court declared that even speaking to a designated terrorist organisation, even if you tell them not to use violence, can be considered an act of material support for terrorism, for which you can be punished severely. You can see the effect of this legislation on Muslims in the US. It makes them feel alienated and targeted.
Tell us more about the role of the centre you are working in. Do you think that the preaching centres in the US are correctly portraying Islam?
I work as a professor in the Alwaleed bin Talal Centre for Muslim Christian Understanding, which is part of Georgetown University’s famous School of Foreign Service.
Like other university departments, we are an academic centre, not a preaching centre.
We offer university courses on subjects ranging from Islamic History to Islam & the West to Islamic Art. We also organise a range of academic and public outreach programmes designed to build bridges of understanding between the US and the Muslim world and improve academic discourse in the West on Islam and Muslims.
For example, this year we are having a conference on Morality and Scripture in Islam and Judaism, as well as many educational workshops for American schoolteachers on Islam and Muslims, and a variety of interfaith academic forums.
How did you in the US deal with the burning of the Qur’an?
I think almost all educated Americans rejected the burning of the Qur’an and saw it for exactly what it was: the desperate, ignorant and bigoted act of a marginal preacher with few supporters who was trying to gain some sort of notoriety.
The real problem is not the act of the man who burned the Qur’an, but the fact that the American media and public actually saw this as a subject that merited so much attention.
This act would not have received any attention if the American public weren’t so obsessed with Islamophobia, which is mostly due to a small number of bigoted politicians and pseudo-scholars committed to vilifying Islam and Muslims at any price.
Do you think that Arab Spring will change the Western attitude towards Islam?
I think the Western countries will no longer have the luxury of dealing with handpicked dictators whose main concern was placating their Western sponsors.
Western countries will have to deal with governments that will most likely represent the will of their people much more than before. That means an increased acknowledgment of the political, religious and cultural sensibilities and priorities of majority Muslim countries.