Debate with Mohammad Fadel about Orthodoxy in Islam

I am posting here a Facebook debate with Professor Mohammad Fadel that has grown to such monstrous proportion that the time has come to switch mediums.

This debate was inspired by an Islamophobic witch hunt against one of our colleagues on the topic of slavery.  I will not discuss that here as I wish to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to said witch hunt.  Our colleagues’ comments, however, certainly have inspired debate.  Muslim intellectuals and scholars of Islam have understood the comments in question in vastly different ways.  Responses have ranged from defense of the substance of the comments to deep criticism and moral outrage.  There is general agreement that our colleagues’ academic freedom should be fought for and absolutely upheld, and there is general agreement that the interpolation of his case into the far right Islamophobia machine represents a danger for all intellectuals.

At one point in the midst of all of this (was that just yesterday?), I penned a rather sarcastic post about how touching it was to watch the “Muslim boys club” spring into action to defend one of their own.  I was frustrated on a few levels.  The first was a widespread conviction among feminist (or really, critical) scholars (which, for the record, can and does include men) that the same mobilization would not have occurred to defend their academic freedom.  But more seriously, my frustration was really located at the intersection of patriarchal privilidge and orthodoxy.  I was disturbed by the way a topic as morally repugnant as slavery and concubinage was being used as a kind of extreme example to uphold a dominant conception of Islamic orthodoxy.  I was disturbed by the the “actual women and actual descendents of enslaved people be damned” attitude of some of those who reasserted that orthodoxy.  It felt like the privileged playing word games at peoples’ (our) expense.

Later, after discussing this with Mohammad Fadel following his own sarcastic retort to that post, I realized that I very much did not mean to impugn the character of the men who lead the charge to protect our colleagues’ academic freedom.  I believe I share a concern with Mohammad that if we do not figure out how to talk about this productively, we will splinter as an academic community in ways that will will make us all much poorer on several different levels.  And so the monster facebook conversation was born.

So here is Mohammad’s post. He is MF and I am SE (you’re welcome.)

MF:  I wanted to thank Sarah Eltantawi for clarifying comments she made about the “Muslim boys club.” I have to admit that I found that post over the top, along with some other comments of people I consider friends and colleagues, leading me to make a satirical post in retaliation.

In any case, I wish to focus on what I think is the heart of the matter: what I see here is two orthodoxies at battle, with the different sides in this battle accusing their opponents of bad faith because they are, in the end, using entirely different normative vocabularies, even while they think they ought to have a shared vocabulary for resolving these moral questions.

SE:  I do not think the two normative vocabularies are totally different.  Certainly not necessarily.

MF:  To begin with, I don’t think the sincerity of the commitment to Islam of anyone publicly identifiable as a Muslim can be questioned given the fact that there is nothing to be gained by claiming to be Muslim when one actually has no meaningful level of Islamic conviction.

SE:  I certainly agree that in this climate there is nothing to be gained by identifying as a Muslim for instrumental reasons. What we mean by “Islam” in this sentence, however, is another question.

MF:  At the same time, western Muslims clearly have a different conception of what that Islamic conviction means in their public discourse.

SE:  A different conception than which Muslims? “Eastern” Muslims? Indonesians?  Uyghurs? Malays? Bangladeshis? Or is there a passive reference to the Sunni Arab Middle East at work here?

MF:  Knowing people on sides of this recent dust up, I am fairly certain that no one on the so-called “traditionalist” side endorses slavery, concubinage or rape.

SE:  I sincerely do not share this confidence.  Needless to say, this is unfortunate.  Much hinges here on what we mean by “endorses.”  I think one can make the argument that failing to condemn slavery, concubinage, and rape in no uncertain terms — especially when authoritative sources exist that justify the practice, in the case of slavery and concubinage, and negate the phenomena, in the case of rape — can easily amount to an endorsement.

MF:  Likewise, despite what seems to be the heretical consequences of certain categorical statements about these subjects when applied across space and time without historical qualification, I don’t think people actually pushing this line of reasoning think it is appropriate to apply contemporary intuitions about these questions anachronistically.

SE:  I think you are correct in perceiving an ambivalence, here.  On one hand, most Muslim scholars/scholars of Islam do not think it is methodologically sound to apply categorical statements or principles ahistorically. But here’s the problematic:  in response to calls to develop a universal Islamic ethic that condemns slavery across time and space, the traditionalist camp replies:  “It is invalid to call your 21st century ethical convictions an objective Islamic conviction.  Objective Islamic convictions are to be found in divine authoritative texts, and classical and medieval legal texts that we should dedicate the bulk of our time to studying and trying to understand.”  The progressive side says:  “We respect classical and medieval legal traditions as a historical treasure trove that teaches us how to reason, how to think with the tradition, and as precious sources of social and political history.  We believe divine authoritative texts can only be read in the present tense through a subjective lens.  We wish to be part of Islamic history, which includes shaping inevitable processes of innovation and change — remember, the Wahhabis themselves were innovators!  – and  not fool ourselves into believing we are simply and only recipients and reproducers of the tradition.”

MF:  What is left is that both sides feel insulted by the other: “traditionalists” are insulted by accusations of upholding patriarchy, etc., because from their subjective perspective, they are doing no such thing: they are sincerely deriving what they believe to be the best reading available of the evidence of the divine rule on a certain question.

SE:  See above about progressives wishing to admit that present Muslim communities actually shape history.  Inevitably — as a function of our existence in time.

MF:  Such a conclusion from their perspective does not say anything about worldly concerns because there is no necessary connection between the transcendental norm of divine revelation and its application in the realm of applied ethics.

SE:  I fear it is wishful thinking to think it’s possible that there can be no connection between “transcendental norms of divine revelation” (as reproduced by conservative Muslim scholars and authorities, claiming the mantle of objectivity) and application in reality (applied ethics).  This is because conservative Muslim authorities that uphold this version of orthodoxy are declaring those “transcendental norms” in historical time and space, subject to the rules of power.  All one can ever do is represent the so-called transcendental, they can never actually articulate it as long as that articulation is occurring in human time and space.

MF:  In other words, the statement that it is impossible, using the assumptions of usul al-fiqh, to declare slavery as such to be categorically immoral (which they translate as falling under the technical category of “haram”) does not mean, that as a matter of applied ethics, much less positive law, that it is not legitimate to outlaw slavery.

SE:  This is admirable as a legal strategy and should be endorsed as such. But perceptions of the world extend beyond the legal.  It is at a minimum morally confusing for many Muslims that foundational texts and the behavior of the Prophet does not condemn slavery. My sense is that without admitting it, necessarily, for reasons of internal and external intimidation, progressives and really many non-progressives wish for an explicit, direct engagement with these toughest of moral questions for Muslims:  reconciling the Prophet’s behavior with the moral convictions of the present (and even, perhaps, with the moral convictions of that time.) 

MF:  Conversely, “progressives” are insulted when “traditionalists” accuse them of implicitly committing kufr by reaching conclusions that “traditionalists” claim cannot be justified using Islamic premises, or lead to implications that are, from an Islamic perspective, unacceptable.

SE:  It’s not just offensive:  it’s dangerous and can lead to violence.

MF:  I suggested what some of these might be from the seemingly obvious statement that slavery is inherently immoral in my previous response to Sarah Eltantawi’s comment on my wall. But I remind my traditionalist friend: lazim al-qawl laysa bi-qawl.

There are a couple of choices here: the first is to recognize that feminist discourse and Islamic discourse are radically incommensurate. The advantage of this approach is that it simply recognizes that there is no possibility for common discourse except on issues of practical agreement. There would be no attempt to persuade one another, on the one hand, but there would be no reason to attack each other either, because each has granted the other side jurisdiction over its particular concerns. It’s unlikely that this approach will be acceptable, however, given that both currents are organically part of the Muslim community, and neither wishes to disconnect from that community.

SE:  Agreed.

MF:  The second is to discard the language of transcendental claims, in favor of arguments regarding law as a set of immanent norms rather than transcendental ones, whether rooted in divine revelation or some conception of right reason.

SE:  Or, there is (at least) another option, which is to advocate for an understanding of the Islamic tradition that is in conversation across genres:  law as disciplined by poetry, poetry as disciplined by embodied practice, embodied practice influenced by sira, and so on, so that the attempt to ascertain the divine is always a dynamic and creative one.  I would argue that this is what happens anyway, and I am thinking here of Shahab Ahmed’s vision of what Islam is.

MF:  By avoiding or deferring debate on metaphysical questions, such as the nature of good and bad, it may be possible to generate practical agreement that is principled and deep, even if it may be based on deeply conflicting metaphysical principles.

I tried to identify this as a strategy for thinking about Islamic law in a law review article I published in 2007. I made the following remarks about the abolition of slavery from the perspective of an adherent of orthodox Islam:

“Islamic law includes permissive rules, such as the right to own a slave . . . which contradict both the requirements of international human rights law and public reason. Because such permissive rules do not raise a question of conscience for a committed Muslim—as by definition he is not obliged to invoke these permissive rights—elimination of these rights would not appear to be problematic.27

SE:  You make the assumption here that a Muslim’s conscience would necessarily be assuaged because s/he is not obligated legally to invoke these permissive rights.  I think the present evidence suggests that this is not true, empirically.

MF:  [Abolition of slavery] should be particularly easy, since Islamic law has traditionally viewed. . . slavery . . . unfavorably, even if legally permissible. . . . Thus, Islamic law restricted the supply of slaves by first prohibiting the enslavement of Muslims or non-Muslims who were permanent residents of an Islamic state, even if such enslavement was pursuant to a contract and, second, by presuming that individuals in the territory of an Islamic state were free. Islamic law also encouraged manumission by imposing a duty to manumit slaves as a means for expiation of various sins. Islamic law further instituted a reduced evidentiary burden to prove acts of manumission, so that even ambiguous language—regardless of subjective intent—could be sufficient to result in the manumission of a slave. Finally, Islamic law has often manumitted slaves as a remedy for abuse of a slave by a master. The pro-liberation policy of Islamic law toward slavery was expressed in the legal principle that “the Lawgiver looks forward to freedom.”28 Accordingly, an absolute prohibition of slavery does not raise a question of conscience for Muslims and would arguably further the Islamic view of the good, even if traditional Islamic law did not consider slavery to be a categorical evil.”

SE:  All I can say here is that this is excellent scholarship and enlightening to know.

MF:  In this case, the justifications of the prohibition or the regulation would be important from the perspective of a traditionalist Muslim. Even if he could comply in good faith with the prohibition, he may not be able to accept a particular justification of that prohibition on controversial metaphysical grounds, in which case he would be forced to express opposition to the rule in question, at least to the extent that the legislation was deemed to be the manifestation of a moral doctrine that the traditionalist Muslim believes to be false.
28 For example, in a case where a plaintiff alleges that another person is her slave, but lacks direct evidence for that claim, the defendant is exempted from the otherwise applicable evidentiary obligation to swear an oath denying the plaintiff’s claim on the grounds that “the law presumes the freedom of people, so the plaintiff’s claim that the defendant is a slave is contrary to the law’s presumption of freedom and the lawgiver’s desire for freedom, thus rendering the claim very weak indeed, with the result that the defendant need not swear an oath denying it.” Al-Sawi, 4 Bulghat al-salik at 219.

SE:  Again, enlightening.  And makes the questionable assumption that the moral problem is thoroughly addressed by legal history and precedent.

MF:  Now, as a Muslim, I realize that this “minimalist” approach has its own problems, specifically as related to understanding practices of a bygone era, and how we can uphold the moral integrity of previous Muslim communities,

SE:  I would suggest upholding the moral integrity of (all) previous Muslim communities is far too great a burden for us to bear. It cannot be done.

MF:  but the question of theological justification is always the product of a long-term conversation, and it is folly to think that we will arrive at a satisfactory theological explanation for our current moral intuitions in the short-term. Much better to act, practically, on areas of common agreement rather than to sling accusations back and forth of bad faith, while pretending that we don’t understand the legitimate concerns of the other side.

SE:  Totally agreed.

MF:  Just as it is unfair for “traditionalists” to dismiss feminist or progressive concerns that hierarchical structures in historical elaborations of Islamic law can lead to the abuse of women,

SE:  Ah, but as I’ve tried to say, our problem is much deeper than that.

MF:  even if traditionalists are correct in pointing out that such abuse is not an intended product of those structures,

SE:  Traditionalists have not at all made this case, let alone convincingly.

MF:  so too progressives should not think that concerns of traditionalists about preserving the integrity of theological teachings is simply about preserving male privilege or some other kind of privilege.

SE:  I would agree that it in many cases is not all about preserving forms of privilege.  But it is often enough to have become a phenomena that has been named.  But this phenomena is not all-inclusive.  I take that point.

MF:  If you want your subjectivity to be respected, in short, you need to respect other people’s subjectivities.

SE:  I think this advice is much better directed toward traditionalists, who don’t believe their perspective is subjective at all, but rather objective.

MF:  I do think it is crucial for progressive Muslims to take the theological objections raised against their positions seriously.

SE:  I agree.  To be fair, do consider the risks progressive scholars take by tackling the most difficult and controversial theological topics head on.

MF:  If they cannot reconcile their current justifications in Islamic terms,

SE:  Again:  what are “Islamic terms”?  You effortlessly claim that mantle.  Perhaps as a legal scholar.  I would suggest that the substance of the category “Islamic terms” is really at the heart of this debate.

MF:  it will be hard to get much purchase for their views among Muslim publics.

SE:  Generally true, depending on the public, in today’s particular world, which will also inevitably change.

MF:  So too, traditionalists cannot be so self-satisfied with pat answers derived from authority: that will alienate more and more of our community from Islam, and so answers based solely on a crude versions of a divine command theory are not viable in the long-term either.

SE:  Thank you for saying that.

MF:  On the particular question of slavery, the more I read in early fiqh the more I discover the historical plausibility of grounding a general anti-slavery policy in Islamic legal texts, so I don’t know why we need to justify our past using the weakest arguments available.

SE:  I don’t know why we need to justify our past at all.  Our tradition is part of a highly imperfect human community.  No people are pure and unscathed.  I advocate for pushing for the rest of the world to grow up, use logic and silence and marginalize Islamophobes with good old fashioned refreshing intelligence. I will admit that perhaps I am being too idealistic here.  But in any case we definitely shouldn’t lose our faith in the power of an argument that makes sense.

MF:  Finally, let me make a plug for Islamic law (furu’ — not usul al-fiqh, which in many ways, I think, unnecessarily introduced a transcendental dogmatism to Muslim moral reasoning) as a discipline that always strives to reconcile universal ideals with particular, historical circumstances. If read in that fashion, rather than dogmatically as either upholding some transcendental model of life, or in an equally dogmatic fashion, as intended to create a system of gender or class privilege, there is a lot we can learn from it, including, how to live comfortably with difference.

SE:  Plug for furu’ accepted. 

Terrorist Action in Nice, France – What’s Behind the Culture of Terrorism?







Briefly, a deranged terrorist killed yet more scores of innocents yesterday, July 14, 2016, in Nice, France, on the occasion of Bastille Day.

We do not know if this attack is connected to a known terrorist outfit.  Preliminary reports point to a “lone gunman” of Tunisian-French origin.  These inconclusive facts of the investigation so far, however, did not stop Newt Gingrich — who so badly wishes to achieve what he sadly regards as a career pinnacle of being Donald Trump’s Vice Presidential pick — from echoing the latter’s racist and unconstitutional “counterterrorism” measures (a charitable phrase for these ideas).  These boil down to easily digestible media sound bites designed to whip up hysteria against Muslims en masse.  Implementing the measures Trump and Gingrich suggest would require shredding the constitution, an ironic prerequisite for such principled conservatives.  It is no wonder that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced it would be time to move to New Zealand were Trump elected.  She knows she would be out of a job according to any meaningful definition of the term.

Gingrich’s bright idea is to subject all Muslims in the United States — that’s right, without qualification — to a “sharia deportation test”, whereby anyone who expresses support for “sharia” (who knows what he means by the term) would be subject to deportation.  Would there be a questionnaire online?  Special tribunals of Muslims by county?  A Fox-News panel of experts on Islamic law to adjudicate?  He left out the details.

In any case, the latest terrorist outrage has inspired social media calls to truthfully diagnose the “real problem” here and dispense with either PC blindness on the left or the wacko fascism of the right.  I duly gave this some thought.  Here’s what I came up with.  I really believe it’s the patriarchy.

Culture of Terrorism —  Some Thoughts:

Daesh (ISIL) is a group made possible through a toxic combination of, in my opinion: 1) patriarchy – the notion that human societies should unquestioningly follow the leadership of a group of authoritarian (and often damaged) group of men; 2) it’s close cousin, misogyny, fear and hatred of women and their sexual, social, economic power; 3) colonial fracture, which emasculated the patriarchs and fomented a centuries-long process of the European world economically, politically and militarily dominating the non-European world, almost always extremely violently 4) post-colonial vengeance — a process whereby the newly “liberated” non-European Other realizes that they are still subjugated and thus tries to exert their power using the means they have; which brings us to 5) religious fanaticism, which in the Islamic case can not be separated from the mechanisms at work in all of the above points, to which we should add literalism, a desire for easy answers, a fear and hatred of critical thinking, and a toxic impulse toward social conformity, which again, serves the fundamental interests of patriarchy.

These thoughts are in part the results of my research in Nigeria, whereby a group of highly patriarchal men attempted to ignite a sharia revolution as a form of post-colonial redemption against the poverty, corruption and authoritarianism they still live under. I think many of these thoughts apply to the Arab world as well. Far from being only a problem of the west, this toxic patriarchy is a world wide phenomena.

How interesting it is, therefore, that those in the western world who want to punish all Muslims anywhere in the world, including non-patriarchal non-violent men, women and children, for the actions of insane toxic militants, are overwhelmingly themselves patriarchal, anti-woman, homophobic, conservative fettishists of social conformity who in most instances are themselves religious literalists if not fanatics in their own right. I’ve long suspected that the most fundamental problem of all is toxic masculinity anywhere it rears its ugly head. All authoritarians must be challenged and disempowered.

I eagerly await Newt’s thoughts.

Internal Brutality and the Dangerous Chess Board

sudued spring in cairo

I am always happy to land in Cairo, and perhaps I was especially so a few days ago after enduring my first full winter in the Pacific Northwest (last year I had the sense to decamp to Egypt during the Christmas break).  My new home’s constant rain and my hovering near zero levels of Vitamin D just about did my head in, a fact that seems even more clear as the contrast of Egypt’s sun and animated voices seems to have restored a good amount of my health and cheer in short order.  But beneath the surface here in Egypt lies an undercurrent of anxiety.  Youth who since 2011 would gather in cafes to expound excitedly about politics are subdued, avoiding the topic, focusing more on the ebbs and flows of their personal lives. It’s understood that you no longer discuss politics — or if you do, you revert to the coded, sarcastic language that’s been honed to a fine art over long years of military rule.  Everyone understands what everyone is saying, even when they’re saying the opposite of what they mean.  It’s the plausible deniability that keeps one safe.

I’ve always felt fortunate that the life worlds I interact with in Egypt are very diverse, and despite the chill on political speech, the polarization of these opinions seems even more hardened. I’ll recount two at different ends of the spectrum.  The first is a younger voice that is devastated by the revolution’s failure and the rise of a security state more vicious than they’ve ever seen.  It used to be that the most one feared was being roughed up in a police station for a few days then released; today one fears being disappeared or killed.  Giulio Regeni, an Italian graduate student found murdered and mutilated in a ditch outside Cairo has inspired international outrage, making up another data point in the generalized depression.  Regeni’s horrifying murder also begs the question: what about the thousands of disappeared Egyptians?  Nepotism and corruption continue unabated, prices are much higher, with increases of up to 150% or more of basic staples over night, and the future seems uncertain. 

The other end of the spectrum is the old guard military ruling class, who look at Egypt as a chess piece in an ever increasingly dangerous chess board.  They too have acute anxiety, but not about what they might call “so-called human rights”, because they believe they have bigger fish to fry:  the pound has been severely devalued and will continue to depreciate, the price of oil has plummeted, affecting the generosity and largesse of Gulf states who have been supporting the current government; Ethiopia is building a dam for the Nile which would be very dangerous for Egypt, and there is the ever present challenge of controlling the jihadist insurgency in Sinai.  And there is always the specter of Syria and Iraq and now Libya:  examples of what happens when strong arm Arab governments suddenly collapse.  No one is interested in that outcome.  One wonders why this litany of existential concerns somehow means that the state has the “right” to oppress, disappear and murder its citizens, and this means that we outside observers somehow have a duty not to comment on that oppression.  The answer to that question might hold the key to Egypt’s essential weakness; a fundamental lack of concern for the human rights, welfare and freedoms of its citizens.  This is a deep cultural problem, a moral and ethical problem, and one that I continue to believe can be solved only by Egyptians themselves.

Another point is made by the hard nosed old guard:  why does the Untied States, with all of its problems, human rights abuses around the world, support for Israel’s unmitigated oppression of Palestinians, and internal racism, focus on Egypt?  One answer is:  they don’t, as much as some here think.  The next question:  what do the intellectuals seek to gain by complaining about Egypt to the west?  And I confess that I truly do not know the answer to that question, and never have. 

Take, for example, the steady stream of calls to end all military aid to Egypt.  I won’t link to these articles, but suffice it to say that all you have to do is regularly read the Washington Post editorial page to get a flavor, though the opinion is a fairly popular one in academia as well.  Their plot lines are the same:  Egypt is a major human rights abuser (true) the main abuser is the military (mostly true, but these commentators have a habit of conflating all of the branches of Egypt’s security forces including the military and then decontextualizing the lot from a genuine Islamist insurgency in a region undergoing a campaign of systemic catastrophic destruction such as Syria to the east and Libya to the west), and therefore, the logic goes, US military aid to Egypt should end.  What goes unsaid, and what I long to understand is:  then what?  They never say — and that strikes me as extraordinary. 

Egypt’s military is currently holding the country together, however badly.  The question is:  what happens if they stop and the government collapses?  The only answer to this question that follows from rational analysis is:  no one knows, but it would probably get worse.  Possibly, much worse.   Another possibility – and I can only guess at what these commentators want from an end to military aid, since they don’t tell us — is that the Egyptian security regime changes its ways so they can continue to get aid. A shaming strategy.  (This is nothing but a thought experiment, of course, as the US will not withhold aid so long as they are interested in upholding the Camp David Accords, but it is worth considering as a possibility.)  Are the security forces capable of being shamed?  The evidence would suggest that a sense of shame is not in abundant supply.  Furthermore, they’ll just pivot to Russia, as they’ve already made clear. 

It’s dispiriting to see scholars of Egypt join this fray, if not only because their expertise is sorely needed to properly analyze realistic steps forward for Egypt.  It’s just much harder to do this then to stake a public position against human rights abuses, which is a very easy position to take (for the record, I take it too!)  But I continue to feel uncomfortable with the relentless, often poorly thought through criticism of a weak country to a hyper- powerful and rich country full of people in positions of power who in many cases simply do not respect and do not like Arabs and Muslims a priori and in any case have no respect for their sovereignty, and proved  this indisputably when they invaded Iraq. 

And on that note, by way of departure, I’ll share what both sides of the spectrum wonder with absolute astonishment:  what in the name of God is going on with America and Donald Trump?

My Lengthy Interview on KPFA about Egypt


I post this interview with KPFK on Egypt here on my blog instead of simply linking on social media because my wonderful hour long discussion on KPFK comes at a time when KPFA has possibly c0me to the end of the road (I hope not).  I grew up on Los Angeles listening to KPFK, switching between their station, NPR and AM Radio for different political perspectives.  The station has some fantastic shows, and I’ve been interviewed in their eclectic and warm Los Angeles studio many times.  I did not always agree with the perspectives of this station, but I am sure we would be the poorer and less informed in its absence.

I really enjoyed engaging in this discussion on KPFK’s Middle East in Focus.  Thank you very much to hosts Nagwa Ibrahim and Estee Chandler.  Their questions were about the most informed, earnest and out of the box of any interview I’ve done on Egypt.  They speak well of KPFK.

And here it is:

Sisi is not ISIS Backwards


   ISIS Fighters

By Sarah Eltantawi

ISIS has appeared in Sinai during President Sisi’s rule, but there is no actual evidence that Sisi’s rule is casually related to the rise of ISIS in Sinai.  Shadi Hamid, who I disagree with profoundly politically (but whose recent book I found quite useful), published a piece in Foreign Policy entitled, “Sisi’s Regime is a Gift to the  Islamic State” (August 6, 2015).  In this piece, Hamid argues that the “coup” is a gift to the Islamic State.  He justifies this claim in two ways:  first by referencing ISIS’s spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani’s speech in which he states that the “coup” “exposed” democratic rule and the Muslim Brotherhood as frauds, (and by referencing ISIS recruitment materials that make this case), and second by arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) model of “gradualism” had given them them a leg up on their al-Qaida competitors until the group came crashing down in Egypt.

Using ISIS’s propaganda as evidence, as Hamid does, is unconvincing.  Propaganda is intended to make a case for one’s point of view without much regard for fact.  That’s why we call it propaganda, not scholarship.  If Morsi were never deposed and still in office today, one could imagine ISIS’s propaganda looking something like:  “Muslim Brotherhood kuffar slow to bring sharia to Islamic land!”; “Muslim Brotherhood kuffar allow Christian and secular representatives in parliament!”; “Muslim Brotherhood kuffar allow the sale of alcohol in Cairo!” and so on.  The possibilities are endless.    

Next, the notion that  when the MB’s tactics of “gradualism” and “democracy” proved unsuccessful, al-Qaida and other groups’ arguments for violence seem more plausible.  This argument is interesting in two ways.  First, it establishes some sort of familial link between the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida and ISIS – a kind of good cop/bad cop relationship.  However, many analysts and political scientists (here* and here for example) are actually loathe to establish any such link.  Many have been arguing for decades now that there is no relationship except for the most superficial between these groups.  If this is the case, what does the end of MB rule have to do with ISIS?  What is this category of “political Islam” and what exactly is the relationship between its members? For what it’s worth, Egyptian supporters of regime change in 2013 often articulate their opposition to the MB precisely by arguing for these familial links that Hamid seems to assume. 

This argument also harbors the scent of extortion.  There is a cartoon that is often shared that reads, “Egypt:  Either we rule it, or we burn it.” 

Egypt either we rule or burn

Indeed, the notion that only MB rule could protect Egypt from ISIS is a bit like saying  you either take the MB whether you like it or not (and I would argue that  Egyptians definitely demonstrated that they did not), or you will be attacked by ISIS — and you probably deserve it.  I  actually do not understand why Egypt or any other country in the world has to choose  between one Islamist regime (the MB) that will smile for the cameras but make closed door deals with unelected supreme leaders or a group of marauding thugs, rapists, and killers for sport, all  in the name of “Islam.”  (Here I suggest that as a region we have other priorities besides the “coup”). Do we really want the region to descend into a battle of wills between one Islamist regime and another, each gesturing opportunistically to medieval texts?  This scenario doesn’t strike me as very democratic.

It must also be said that we actually have no solid proof — only conjecture — that ISIS’s rise in Sinai has anything to do with Sisi.  It is true that ISIS’s presence on Egyptian soil is one that presented itself during Sisi’s rule, but it is also true that Egypt has been battling a jihadist insurgency in Sinai well before Sisi or even Morsi took power, and that that insurgency has been growing steadily.   Accordingly, ISIS has been expanding in the region generally.  Thus there is in fact no direct causality between Sisi’s rule and ISIS’s rise.  And to state the counter arguments:  one could argue that Egypt’s porous borders during Morsi’s rule made possible an influx of weapons and fighters from Libya and Gaza, escalating the mess in Sinai today.   And one could also argue that Sisi is a bulwark against ISIS taking root in a region that has seen stunning ISIS gains in Syrian and Iraqi territory — places that replaced authoritarian rule with power vacuums that seem to magnetically attract jihadists, including and maybe especially ISIS. 

Those who oppose the rule of President Sisi have reason for their position, but the notion that his regime directly benefits ISIS does not hold up to scrutiny.


*A quote from this piece:  “To categorise the Muslim Brotherhood alongside the Islamic State under a loose definition of Islamists is a grave mistake; indeed to categorise all Islamists under the same umbrella is ludicrous. The Muslim Brotherhood and the IS are radically different. Whilst the former’s principled position is one of democracy, pluralism, reform, and integration, the latter is based on brutality, coercion, annihilation and despotism.”

Native Intelligence


slightly less horrifying traffic in cairo

Slightly less horrifying traffic in Cairo


By Sarah Eltantawi

I write to you in 46 degree heat in Cairo, sitting directly in front of an indispensable fan, so let me begin with electricity. Electricity has not been cut this summer nearly as often as it was last. There are different theories about this, including that President Sisi actually cares about regular Egyptians, that factories are paying the price, or that electricity is still cut in poorer areas. One of those areas is Faisal Street in Cairo. I think here of one of my aunts who lives on Faisal street, a street that was quiet and beautiful, next to a tir’a (a reservoir of the Nile) when she bought it forty years ago, which today it is one of the most crowded and least serviced streets in Cairo, despite the demographics of the street cutting across the class spectrum. While a few years ago I remember being caught in traffic jams so indescribable that I would turn off my car and take out a newspaper, today the streets of Faisal have been widened and such jams don’t really happen anymore.  A lot of Faisal’s residents thank Sisi for that, though his regime didn’t announce the project or take credit for it.

While I am not comfortable cheerleading the current regime of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, I do not oppose him either, and I recognize that he enjoys ardent support in Egypt today. My stance on Egypt is not about one regime or another (I supported Morsi’s as long as it seemed stable), it is fundamentally about protecting Egypt from something worse, acknowledging what is going well in the country (no matter where it comes from, including if it comes from Sisi’s regime) and maintaining analytic and historiographical nuance. This posture isn’t very inspiring, I admit, even to me. It’s not very sexy to fear something worse; it was much easier and more absolutely wonderful to cheer Tahrir in 2011. This conundrum reminds me of an adage about marriage: the worst ones are characterized by neither deeply loving nor deeply hating your spouse. It’s that soul-crushing purgatory of ‘I am not sure what can be better’ that makes one the most miserable.

Electricity is cut on Faisal street regularly, even today, as is water. My aunt and uncle fill jugs and buckets with water, and have become adept at showering and washing dishes with this water during the long daylight hours when it is shut off. And yet it is this particular aunt who becomes most strident when people criticize President Sisi. She, like many Egyptians, believes he saved Egypt from Islamist rule, which would spell the county’s ruin if it went on long enough. She is conservative, a hijab wearer, someone who prays five times a day. There are countless women exactly like her who support President Sisi with ardent passion. She is patient with water cuts and structures her day around them.  She doesn’t blame them on the person of Sisi.

Some will say this is the voice of the disempowered, but I think it is the voice of the practical. She knows how crowded the city is. She knows the country is poor. She believes some people are doing their best and other people are not.  She does not feel like a victim. She would rather be ruled by Egyptians than foreigners, even if the foreigners are more efficient. She is loyal, she is proud, she does not think of herself as “poor” relative to western countries, she feels in many ways rich. To tell her she is underprivileged, someone who doesn’t understand and who needs someone who doesn’t even live in Egypt to explain things to her, is to her unimaginable and absurd.

Today my aunt is in the hospital, battling a serious accident. She has not been doing as well as I would like, and I am deeply worried and sad. But during a recent visit when I mentioned to her how the American media found nothing positive to say about the Suez Canal expansion, she actually sat up in her bed and cursed.

The hospital my aunt is in is on Haram (Pyramid) Street, up the street from the Pyramids at Giza. It is also the same street my maternal Grandmother Bayaya Mawad Amin Mahgoub Salam (she made me memorize that) moved to from Helwan when my mother was a teenager, back when that street was nearly deserted. The family used to regularly picnic on the sands in front of the pyramids. My grandmother built a three story house near the pyramids herself with her relatives, brick by brick. As more money came in, more building would commence. That street is now named after my uncle.

My dear grandmother died in 2005 in that very home. In her final days she was in and out of the same hospital my aunt is now in, and I can tell you without any question or hesitation that that hospital is in much, much better condition today than it was back then. That is not actually saying too much – the hospital is still in pretty shabby condition – but it is cleaner and more systemized. It’s as if it got a really good scrubbing. There are various things in Egypt that seem that way; cleaner in an understated way, so that you’re not quite sure if you’re noticing improvement (after so many years of decline, it makes sense one would doubt themselves); things seem more efficient, more logical. People attribute these improvements to Sisi’s rule, but again it’s difficult to confirm that, since if his regime is making these improvements they are doing it quietly.

When my grandmother died in that house she built in 2005, I had the tremendous honor, probably the memory I most cherish, of preforming the ghusl (ritual Islamic washing) of her body before she was wrapped in the white funeral shrouds. A woman from the neighborhood whose sole function was to instruct relatives how to do this correctly handed me the soap and told me what to do. As much as Islam frustrates me, it is rituals like that one that keep me somehow in the fold. My grandmother died during Mubarak’s rule, and regarding that topic she repeated one adage: “al namus al-shab’ana ahsan min namus al ga’ana.” “A full mosquito is better than a hungry mosquito.” At the same time she loved all Egyptian presidents, in a way, from Abdel Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak, she even loved King Farouq; anyone that took up the task of leading Egypt. When she came to live with my family when I was an adolescent on the quiet suburban streets of California in her final days, she would scream, “I want to die in Egypt! This place is so quiet it is like I am already in the grave!” We sent her back and she got her wish.

A professor of mine in graduate school taught me a useful phrase: “native intelligence.” In may ways I defer to this form of intelligence more than I do to the “intelligencia”, even though I have had my fair share of “book learning.” The reason I respect native intelligence, particularly in times of crisis, is because the lives that produce this form of intelligence are lives that have had to struggle to survive, who not only see, but feelvthings as they really are, in that way that struggling to survive produces starkness; and these are people well practiced in making difficult decisions when all of the options are bad, as they are today in Egypt. There is an idea in Cairo that every single person, no matter how urbane, descends on some genealogical level from a village, which means most people, with rare exception, are acquainted at a cellular level with a very tough life.

I do not believe these qualities of starkness or acute survival instinct exists in many of our analysts who labor under particular ideologies that are historical, contextual, in their own way sometimes propagandistic. By definition, much of the intellegencia is privileged; trained in institutions to think they are uniquely qualified to comment, trained in particular modalities of “morality”, some of which emerge from French post-structuralism or American democratic theory, paradigms that may or very well may not have purchase in 21st century Egypt (I tend to think they don’t.) This intelligencia tend to create a habitus around themselves (to borrow my own phrase from German criticism) that reinforces their views. Having been in those circles and in ‘native intelligence’ circles, I don’t really think the former are smarter or better or more wise on Egypt. Not at all.

Here are some of the fruits of “native intelligence” that might surprise you:

A lot of these people instinctively oppose political Islam and believe their religion (those that are Muslim) is at the end of the day just and peaceful.  (I can’t speak for Christian communities as intimately, but they sure have every right to oppose political Islam.)

2.  A lot of these people identify with the optics, family background, religiosity, use of language and rhetoric of president Sisi, including the aspects westernized Egyptian commentators make fun of. I am reminded of one commentator who frequently makes fun of Egyptian men who wear their pants above their waists. This is virtually every man over 50 in Egypt. Many of them have valuable things to say and are great people. ( I don’t understand why this is funny.  So much critical analysis comes off to me as a bit racist in the final analysis.)

3. Many are socially conservative (but also not in ways that would surprise you) and deeply family oriented, and often extremely kind hearted, taking in orphans and worrying about the poor.

4. A lot of people can tell when someone is cheating them, or, in current parlance, “riding on the back of the revolution” to accomplish goals that are not in the best interest of Egypt. The vast majority of those who opposed Morsi’s regime on June 30, 2013 were conservative Muslims. This is frequently misunderstood.

5. A lot of these people deeply love Egypt as an entity with relatively stable borders for thousands of years and put it first above pan-fill in the blank, particularly notions of “pan-Islamism.”

6. A lot of these people love their military, and virtually every Egyptian has a relative that is in or has served in the military.

We, the intelligencia, may feel repelled by these affects, but in an extremely large percentage of Egyptians, they are deeply held. Are we not battling and fighting and writing for “them”?

What I personally most admire, trust and identify with is native intelligence political analysis, which is very to-the-point.  It goes something like this:

To Egypt’s west, we have Libya, a country being torn apart by Islamist gangs, including ISIS. To the east, we have Syria, which was better off under Asad before the uprising because the jihadists entered the country and are trying to take it over. We have Iraq, which has been invaded, occupied, sectarianized, and destroyed by outsiders on the pretense of trying to “liberate” them from a dictator (these same people also call Sisi a dictator). The the south, we have Sudan, which has already been broken up. We have Turkey and Qatar that actively lobby against their current president (a symbolic marker for their safety and security). We have an ISIS insurgency in Sinai which many believe, with some reason, is aided logistically by Hamas in Gaza. Therefore, a strong military and state is in our interest at this time.

This is thinking that focuses mainly on foreign policy, but as far as it goes, it’s difficult indeed to argue with the logic. As for domestic analysis, for most people, nothing has changed and has never changed from 2011 – present except that during Morsi’s rule security in the country was down the tubes and regular people were afraid to leave their house. That’s the domestic picture to a lot of Egyptians.

The “native intelligence” thinking continues thusly:  what happened on July 3, 2013 was not a coup, it was a response to an overwhelming demand to oust the Muslim Brotherhood that took place on June 30, 2013 (I believe that is largely true). We, the people, demanded that Sisi run for president and we voted for him overwhelmingly (that is also true).

I think the difference between my analysis and that of many of my colleagues on the left and of political scientists as a whole is that I do not dismiss native intelligence, and I think they do.  I have heard the following from some of these analysts: “Objectivity can only be found in non-Egyptian sources” “Egyptians are not educated enough to make good decisions and are ruled by their terrible media” “The only thing that counts is votes” (not bothering to do any fieldwork) “Sisi is oppressing 2/3 of Egyptians” (It depends on what you mean by ‘oppress’, but this is, I think, a huge exaggeration.)

With respect to the Suez Canal, the government was of course engaging in propaganda to promote its expansion. Most people know that, but understand why: people are badly in need of a boost in morale. As for the economic benefits of the canal, the analysis here is mixed, but I think one could definitely detect a zeal on the part of many anglo-newspapers to dismiss the venture entirely. This is deeply offensive, and a product of these journalists at newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post mainly talking to Muslim Brotherhood-sympathizers or the liberal “twitterati” who tend to rubbish anything this regime does. Those feelings may be sincere, but there is also a huge payoff in terms of getting quoted and and published in English-language publications for taking that uncompromising stance, which fits in with the narrative of “counter-revolution.” It is an uncompromisingness, a stance of sarcasm and ridicule, a lack of patience, a black and white world view, and a heavy analytic apparatus that is often imported, that offends native intelligence and inspires its distrust.

Much of the intelligencia is deeply offended by the human rights abuses that have taken place in Egypt, particularly the inexcusable massacre at Raba’a. And they should be. But native intelligence also sees itself as defending human rights. Their logic goes: if this regime falls, there is a very strong chance jihadists will flood the country, and then Egyptians will be treated to ISIS-like human rights abuses that dwarf what Egyptians are currently experiencing. The phenomena of ISIS, by the way, has been covered incredibly badly by this same intelligencia. The aplogetics among their ranks for ISIS is shocking, as are the aplogetics for the Charlie Hebdo massacre, problematic aspects of sharia, and several other thorny topics that are considered for some reason no-go areas for condemnation.

Native intelligence supports the Sisi regime in the short to medium term until the jihadi threat, one they believe is much more dangerous than military dictatorship, is under control. And to preempt: there is no current leftist or centrist voice that can realistically take power in Egypt at this time. To accomplish that, the Islamists, who had much more of an opportunity to organize during the long years of dictatorship, would have to agree not to contest elections and give others a change to organize. The Muslim Brotherhood actually promised this after the 2011 revolution, but they went back on their word.