The death of Arab secularism

Faisal Al Yafai writes: The death of Arab secularism is the story of a country that no longer exists and a world almost impossible to imagine.

That world can be glimpsed in old newsreels from the Arab cities of the 1950s and 1960s. The cities of the post-war period – Cairo, Beirut and Damascus, Baghdad and Aden – look much the same as many developing countries of the time: American-built cars, European-style suits, a certain easy mingling of men and women.

Unseen is something difficult to describe, but immediately apparent to anyone familiar with the Egypt or Yemen of today: the thick beards of men and the tightly wrapped headscarves of women – symbols of religious devotion, but also symbols of a public expression of Islam – were almost entirely absent from the new urban world then being created.

The vision of the future the men and women in those over-saturated newsreels had, how they saw their modern world unfolding, cannot easily be understood.

But it can perhaps be surmised from a joke, told by Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdel Nasser to an audience in the years after the Muslim Brotherhood was accused of attempting to assassinate him. Nasser described meeting with the Brotherhood’s leader in 1953 in an attempt to reconcile the group with his leadership. (Nasser doesn’t mention whom he met, but it was most likely Hassan Al Hudaybi, a judge who led the group for 20 years from 1951.)

“The first thing he asked me was to make the wearing of hijab mandatory in Egypt,” says Nasser, “and to force every woman walking on the street to wear a hijab.” The crowd laughs and Nasser hams it up for them, looking perplexed at such an outlandish request. “Let him wear it!” shouts an audience member, and the crowd erupts in laughter and applause.

But that’s not the punchline. Nasser tells Al Hudaybi he knows the Brotherhood’s leader has a daughter studying medicine, and his daughter doesn’t wear the hijab. “Why haven’t you made her wear the hijab?” he asks, before delivering a knockout blow: “If you cannot make one girl – who is your own daughter – wear the hijab,” he says, “how do you expect me to make 10 million women wear the hijab, all by myself?” The crowd roars its approval.

Nasser’s joke is instructive for the world view it implies. The middle and upper classes of 1950s Egypt considered it ridiculous that the wearing of the hijab could be enshrined in law. Most did not wear it; they considered the proper role of religion to be private, outside the realm of government and politics. Nasser himself explicitly declared the same thing.

Contrast that with today’s Egypt, and indeed the wider Arab world, and it is clear how much has changed in just half a century. [Continue reading…]

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