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“I Saw God in Tahrir”

We welcome a third post by guest blogger Yasmin Moll. Yasmin shares additional insight from Cairo, Egypt. Thank you Yasmin!

Many commentators both inside and outside Egypt have focused on the anticipated role of the Muslim Brotherhood in a post-Mubarak Egypt. In many of these analyses, the Brotherhood is used as a metonym for the projected role of Islam in the public sphere. However, while the Brotherhood will certainly play a formative role in post-revolutionary politics and governance in Egypt, it does not have a monopoly on Islamic discourse in the country. 

Other important Islamic actors are Islamic televangelists, the most famous being Amr Khaled. Banned from preaching in Egypt in 2002, Amr Khaled has over the past decade utilized private Islamic satellite channels and cyberspace as platforms to connect with millions of Muslim youth in Egypt and beyond. According to the BBC  “his television shows get more viewers than Oprah Winfrey, his videos have racked up 26m hits on YouTube, and he boasts two million fans on Facebook.”

Indeed, self-described moderate Islamic televangelists (al-duaa al-mutawasitoon) like Amr Khaled, Mustafa Hosni and Moez Masoud enjoy a popularity and credibility with ordinary Muslim youth in Egypt that is hard to match.  While the official religious establishment of Al-Azhar shied away from supporting protesters in Tahrir and elsewhere on the eve of the January 25th Revolution, many of Egypt’s most prominent televangelists were vocal in their support of thawrat al-shabab (the youth revolution). And throughout the uprising and after, their catchwords have been tolerance (tasamuh) and co-existence (ta’ayush).

In Mubarak’s Egypt, these televangelists’ credibility and authority with their primarily youthful publics derived not from a mastery of the authoritative textual canon of the Islamic tradition a la Azharite scholars, but rather from their projected status as an “ordinary Muslims” struggling to lead an Islamically-correct life in a world where it is manifestly difficult to do so. They had authority not because they were different from the youth they preached to, but because they were just like them.

Islamic televangelists capitalized on this source of authority in the weeks leading up to the crumbling of Mubarak’s regime to reach out and lend their support to revolutionary youth. Indeed, many Islamic televangelists were eager to publicize their physical presence in Tahrir along-side protestors, a presence which was amplified a thousand-fold through its mediation on a variety of platforms – interviews on news channels, appearance on talk-shows, videos on Youtube, Facebook posts and press conferences. 

Appearing on Egyptian state television on February 13th  for the first time in his career, Amr Khaled told the program host that he “saw God in Tahrir.”

“I saw God in Tahrir…When you entered Tahrir Square you immediately noticed a different spirit,” he said. “It is as if God was with the people there – Muslim and Christian, young and old, men and women, the people and the army.”

Along with other televangelists, he framed Tahrir Square as an exemplar of a “New Egypt,” a utopian space of tolerant faith and positive action. 

Following the success of the revolution, televangelists, again utilizing a diverse array of media platforms, called on youth to “build Egypt” (ibniy masr) with the ethos of Tahrir as a template.  So far, such calls have not acquired a specifically Islamic content, but rather revolve around nationalist notions of good citizenship and neo-liberal notions of economic productivity.

At the same time, the call to “build Egypt” articulates with the televangelical stress over the past decade on Muslim youth as agents of societal change (taghyeer igtimia’ii) and positive energy (taqaa mugeeba), characteristics enjoined, according to Islamic televangelists, by an Islam “correctly understood.” Within this understanding of what it means to be a good Muslim, moderate Islamic televangelists view their task as instilling in Muslim youth not only faith (iman), but also ethics (akhlaaq). 

Although for televangelists these ethics spring from a specifically Islamic referent – with the Prophet Muhammed and his Companions hailed as timeless moral exemplars – they are universalistic in their scope. In other words, to be a good Muslim it is not sufficient to fulfill the ritual obligations of the faith – it is also necessary to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a good son or daughter and a good citizen. 

Such an understanding of Islam is by no means the only one in Egypt. Indeed, moderate Islamic televangelists have been attacked by their more conservative counterparts for allegedly prioritizing ethics over creed (aqeeda). For their part, moderate Islamic televangelists counter that sound ethics spring from sound belief.

In an interview late last year, I asked a prominent televangelist for his thoughts on the label “multazim” (Islamically-committed, pious) often attached to the youth who follow him.  He said that he actually doesn’t like this label because it is divisive and judgmental.

“It has become applied to outward appearances of religiosity, ignoring the inner dimension of ethics. The definition of multazim should be a person who loves God and tries,” he said.

For this televangelist, the space of tolerance extends not only to Muslims of differing levels of piety, but to non-Muslims as well. And such tolerance is fast becoming an important cornerstone of what Amr Khaled called, in the interview mentioned above, “akhlaaq al-thawra” (the ethics of the revolution). When the host pressed Khaled to elaborate on the task of religious discourse in the future of Egypt, Khaled replied: “to build Egypt, secure its national unity, as well as push us to accept the Other and a plurality of discourses.”

Whereas Islamic televangelists invoked such ethics prior to the revolution towards apolitical goals, they are now harnessed towards democratic political change. This direct commentary on, and participation in, political issues and events marks a dramatic shift in televangelical discourse. And with millions of Egyptians tuning in, this discourse will no doubt be an important force in shaping the role of Islam in Egypt’s public sphere.

One Response

  1. [...] “I Saw God in Tahrir” « American Anthropological Association while the Brotherhood will certainly play a formative role in post-revolutionary politics and [...]

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