Azza Karam is the Senior Culture Advisor at the United Nations Population Fund, where she has pioneered efforts to make human development work more attentive to religion. Karam was born in Egypt and grew up, as the daughter of an Egyptian diplomat, in countries around the world, eventually earning a doctorate in international relations from the University of Amsterdam. Her several books include Transnational Political Islam (2004) and Islamisms, Women and the State (1998). Prior to joining UNFPA, she worked for the World Conference of Religions for Peace, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and the United Nations Development Program, among other organizations.

This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC project on Religion and International Affairs. Karam here speaks only for herself, not for any institution, organization, or board.—ed.

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NS: Before we get to your work at the United Nations, let’s start with recent events in Egypt, your home country. How, in your view, is the Egyptian revolution of a few months ago proceeding? Has it been betrayed yet?

AK: It sounds as though you’re waiting for it to be “betrayed”!

NS: No, not at all. I’m wondering what exactly it would mean for the revolution to be betrayed. It seems to be assumed that, somewhere along the way, all revolutions are.

AK: The revolution is proceeding with the hiccups associated with any comprehensive transformation entailing the political, social, economic, and legal overhaul of an entire country. Is the revolution over? On the contrary, we have but begun. Are there disappointments en route? Definitely. But is there a sense that no change is taking place? Not at all. Are we going backwards? Impossible, given the enormity of what has transpired in the consciousness, not only of Egyptians, but of all Arab people. This revolution is, first and foremost, about crossing the Rubicon of fear, about reclaiming dignity, and about the youth being engines of political and social transformation on an unprecedented scale. None of these dynamics are reversible. We are living through the enactment of a new collective consciousness.

NS: Maybe in that sense it can’t be betrayed. But the enactment won’t be easy.

AK: Well, there are the grimy realities of entrenched, interest-based politics; an economy struggling to recover from being on hold while the revolution was taking place, in a global financial environment that is itself struggling to stand on its feet; and a legal system that needs to be overhauled—all while maintaining security and stability in a region being christened, by fire, into freedom.

NS: What was going through your head during the uprising? Were you afraid of what might happen?

AK: I was afraid for the safety of the youth demonstrating so courageously, creatively, and with so much passion. I was afraid for the millions left in the clutches of a government that deliberately instigated instability for the first four days of demonstrations.

NS: And then?

AK: My fear was gradually replaced by several other emotions, starting on January 29, when a series of events began to take place: I allowed myself the first thin line in the crescent of hope when I heard the rumblings of discontent within the Egyptian army itself—rumblings that were articulate and deliberate, and that echoed the people’s demands for both dignity and systemic change. I began to allow myself to smile—and then to grin—when, at the very same time, an Egyptian sense of humor asserted itself in the various venues where demonstrations were taking place—in slogans, attire, and much more. I shook my head in utter disbelief at the camels and horses that were brought in—and felt sorry for them, because of the five-hour journey from the pyramids to Tahrir Square that they had had to endure under whips and ill-treatment. But I wept like an orphan for the people who were dying. I clenched my fists and invoked hell upon those who were deliberately causing the loss of life. I stayed awake night after night, with Egypt’s time defining that of my own life, calling friends and family in Egypt and everywhere else in the world, exchanging information about events, analyzing, hoping, and arguing. Above all, and throughout, I—and every single Egyptian I know, Muslim and Christian—prayed and prayed and prayed. On February 10, when we all expected Mubarak to announce he was stepping down, I literally cursed him—and threw my shoe at his image on my computer screen—as did most Egyptians listening to him across Egypt.

NS: What was it like for you when he finally stepped down?

AK: On February 11, 2011, I was born again as a proud Masriyya—Egyptian—deeply humbled by those ten or twenty years younger than I, but a thousand years more courageous. I kissed my computer screen—the very same one that had just suffered the indignity of having a shoe hurled at it—when Al Jazeera aired the announcement and displayed the unadulterated joy of Egyptians at Mubarak’s resignation. I was amazed, beyond words, at the images of people cleaning up in Tahrir Square. There and then, I prostrated myself in thanks to the Almighty for the beauty of the spirits of the people whom He had enabled. And on the streets of New York City, I held my head up and greeted the Egyptian coffee vendors, hot dog vendors, and commuters loudly, in Arabic, and joked and laughed and shook their hands—for the first and only time in the ten years that I have lived here.

NS: Have you been to Egypt since then?

AK: No, but the enormity of the transformation does not require one’s physical presence within the national boundaries to be appreciated. The Arab awakening in the neighboring countries is itself an indication that the change that has taken place is very much ongoing, and that it is reshaping the identity of the entire region.

NS: Some observers heralded the apparently secular quality of the Egyptian revolution. Do you think that religion will be less on the lips of leaders in the Arab world now than it has been in recent decades?

AK: Secularism comes in many shades and varieties, but it has never manifested—not even here in the United States—in the manner of a total repudiation of religion. A famous Egyptian nationalist leader in the early twentieth century, describing his nationalist aspirations and the struggle against British colonialism, once said: “I am a Copt by religion, a Muslim by culture, and an Egyptian by both and much else.” This multitude of identities, which includes different religious-cum-cultural contexts, has and shall always characterize Egyptians and, indeed, all Arabs. Are we likely to hear less religious talk in Egypt today? I doubt it. After all, why should religion not continue to feature in a country that believes itself to have invented religion in the time of the pharaohs?

NS: How is religion being talked about and thought about at the United Nations? Are there ways in which it is, perhaps conspicuously, not being talked and thought about?

AK: Religion, as an ingredient of culture, has always been part of the business of human development. In the last decade or so, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent reconfiguration of geopolitical dynamics, discussions about religion have begun to occupy a more prominent role in the discourse within and among the various UN agencies. The last two Secretaries-General have referred specifically to the role of faith in several of their speeches, in terms of both culture and faith-based service organizations. More and more UN agencies, beginning with UNFPA, have started to identify faith-based partners in social development, on issues of health, education, child care, nutrition, and the environment. The United Nations system today is more aware of the fact that religious communities, and their affiliated organizational entities, are some of the oldest, most deeply rooted, and furthest reaching social welfare networks and providers known to humanity. They are increasingly recognized as part of the partnerships for development at the United Nations.

NS: How do you help others at the UN to become better attuned to the importance of religion in development work?

AK: What I do is provide technical support to my colleagues at UNFPA, so that they are able to discern the appropriate faith-based partners for our reproductive health, gender equality, and population and development work. My job, then, is to facilitate strategic engagement with the world of religion, as part of the broader culture, in order to further the realization of our human rights mandate. In 2008, many of UNFPA’s faith-based partners were convened to launch the Interfaith Network for Population and Development, a unique human rights-oriented initiative within the United Nations. Several of our UN colleagues joined the deliberations and attended the launch, which took place in Istanbul. Today, there are over 500 member organizations, with a legacy of partnering not only with UNFPA but also with several of its UN sister agencies on a range of development issues. The UNFPA also currently chairs an Inter-Agency Task Force on partnerships with faith-based organizations around the Millennium Development Goals. We come together to share information, coordinate activities, and share experiences and lessons learned.

NS: What lessons has this process taught you?

AK: One thing I’ve learned over time is that these FBOs (faith-based organizations) and “religion” are not one and the same thing. The world of religion is vast and difficult for us to quantify and categorize into neatly distinct entities. Religion and faith do not lend themselves to the usual normative frameworks of development praxis, which means that engagement with religious communities has to be sustainable, built upon common goals, and mainstreamed into broader civil society and government partnerships. This is critical to establishing and maintaining the trust that is required for any such engagement, and for facilitating the co-ownership of national development processes among all the different partners involved.

NS: How do you choose those partners?

AK: The United Nations cannot afford to—nor should it—work with only one faith tradition, or with only one FBO, or with the same religious leaders on all issues. We are obliged to work with varied representatives of different religious organizations and communities on addressing a multiplicity of human development needs. And we have to maintain the same respect and appreciation for the respective strengths and modus operandi of each partner, as long as there is agreement on the basic goals of human development, that is, human rights, peace, and security for all. But we have also learned that the responsibility for cultivating and maintaining these partnerships lies on all sides. Just as we hold ourselves accountable to our intergovernmental boards, mandates, and civil society partners, we expect our FBO partners to do the same with each other, and with us.

NS: Religion seems especially relevant—as a source of controversy, I mean—to the issues of gender, reproductive health, and population that the UNFPA deals with. Do you find the organization’s work to be constrained by religious concerns?

AK: It is not really possible to speak of religious constraints as such. Religious concerns, positions, and services vary significantly according to the religion itself, as well as per country, region, and situation. Issues of reproductive health vary enormously, too. What I can say, almost unequivocally, is that it is virtually impossible to embark on any issue relating to sexuality, women’s rights, and gender relations without coming across particular cultural dynamics. But it would be wrong to assume that particular cultures are unchanging obstacles. If there is one lesson we keep learning from history, and that has been highlighted of late by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, is that people change their own cultures from within all the time.


NS: Do you think the revolution represents a sea change in the role of women in Egyptian society?

AK: In my opinion, and contrary to popular (and largely ethnocentric) beliefs, the revolution could happen only because women’s roles in Egyptian society—and Arab societies as a whole—have already been undergoing a sea change. Anyone who has studied Arab societies in the last thirty years will attest to how socially active, politically informed, and economically engaged women have been. The magnitude, scope, and diversity of their participation in the revolution is itself a testament to how intrinsic to the social, economic, legal, and political fabric they already areand have been. What is now transpiring with women’s rights in Egypt—and elsewhere in the Arab region—is a continuation of the struggle for gender equality within the emerging political framework, which is part and parcel of the larger effort to safeguard all human rights in the new polity that is now being collectively fashioned.

NS: What can people in the West do to help advance the cause of women in the Middle East? Or would it be better to butt out?

AK: Arab women have made it clear they are perfectly capable of activism and of articulating their own needs and aspirations. If and when these women need the assistance of “people in the West,” they will let that be known in no uncertain terms. After listening, the “people in the West” can then decide whether and how best to respond. And it would be wise to do so in consultation with the same women who made the request.

NS: Many have expressed concern that conservative groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will gain power in Egypt—one assumption being that that would be deleterious to the cause of women’s rights. Is there a chance, then, that things could become worse for women?

AK: It is seriously myopic to assume that the Muslim Brotherhood is “anti-women.” I first started studying the Brotherhood, as part of a range of Islamist formations around the world, back in the late 1980s. Even within the organization itself, there are diverse perspectives on women’s rights: there are extremely active, very well-educated, cultured, and articulate women members of the Brotherhood, just as there are some members who are deeply conservative when it comes to women’s roles in public. Bear in mind that revolutions are happening within almost every group, party, and institution in Egypt today: the army, political parties, universities, professional associations, media, NGOs—you name it. So, even within the Muslim Brotherhood, a revolution continues to unfold among its diverse members—young and old, men and women, and so forth. The journey of these different revolutions is, for everyone concerned, a process of acquiring wisdom, and I believe strongly that we have little to lose and a great deal to gain.

NS: What do you think is the cause of all this upheaval? Why now?

AK: We are living in the context of a generation of youth—which is over 60% of our populations—that has grown up as part of a global youth culture equipped with mass communication technologies and amid huge challenges to established powers. I mean, who would have thought the Soviet Union would collapse; or that religion would re-emerge so strongly after decades of attempts to keep it out of politics; or that a woman and former guerilla fighter would be elected president of the largest Latin American country, and a black man would be elected as president of a country that once went to war with itself over racism? This generation is growing up at a time when even what it is to be a man or a woman is being radically redefined.