Long before the recent upheavals in Egypt, there were hints that change in the country was in the works.
In August 2009, Michael Slackman of The New York Times published an article entitled “Hints of Pluralism in Egyptian Religious Debates”, in which he discussed how the internet had allowed for the widespread circulation within Egyptian media of the views of Gamal al-Banna, the 88 year-old brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna. Gamal al-Banna is known for his unconventional, some would say even “liberal”—though these terms are unhelpful—views on Islam. According to Slackman, many Egyptian religious authorities, including Sheik Omar el Deeb of Al Azhar University, had rejected al-Banna’s views, describing them as “outside the scope of religion.” Analyzing the relative openings for public discussion of al-Banna’s controversial opinions, Slackman suggested that several factors had contributed to this new atmosphere of openness, including a general disillusionment amongst Egyptians towards radical ideologies, such as those of Al Qaeda, as well as President Obama’s outreach to Egypt and the Muslim world in his June 2009 speech in Cairo, which undercut accusations of a U.S. war against Islam. Citing “Egyptian political analysts”, Slackman concluded that these developments had made it “easier for liberal Muslims to promote more Western secular ideas.”
In light of recent events, what is to be made of this idea of “liberal Muslims promoting Western secular ideas”? In fact, the ideological baggage that this notion carries helps to explain why the United States failed to see the changes now happening in Egypt. Though the events of the past few weeks cannot be subsumed under this secular versus Islamist rubric, Slackman’s attempt to reduce Egyptian society to this simplistic view did just that, illuminating a mindset prevalent within the United States that prevented the government from seeing the Egyptian revolution from a mile away.
Read the full essay here.